Gaming Reviews 2

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha Review

After six years of waiting, it’s finally here. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha is the latest and greatest game in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise. Like the others, Lost Alpha is a PC exclusive sandbox survival shooter, with light RPG elements. It was developed by dez0wave group, a mod team who made Priboi Story mod for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl. They worked alongside GSC, the developers of the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. trilogy, to make the ultimate S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game.

Here’s a history lesson: the first game in the series, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl by GSC, released in 2007. It was first announced in 2001, and underwent many conceptual changes between 2001 and 2007. When first shown in 2001, it wasn’t even called S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl: instead it was referred to as Oblivion Lost. It was also a completely different game; instead it was a team-based, fast-paced Sci-Fi time-travelling FPS that resembled Quake with a hint of Serious Sam.

In 2002, Oblivion Lost became something totally different. They previewed a multiplayer demo, which took place in a location that would actually appear in the final release.

GSC is a Ukrainian developer, and they realized that they’d rather make a game closer to home. Oblivion Lost went from that aforementioned Sci-Fi FPS to a totally new concept: an atmospheric, story-driven survival shooter with light RPG elements. It became known as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Oblivion Lost (later renamed to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl), and took place in the Exclusion Zone around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. This site is known for the explosion and disaster that occurred there on April 26, 1986.

This is the concept that stuck. This is what was teased in 2002, 2003, and 2004. It was highly anticipated by PC gamers, but unfortunately, it didn’t materialize during the expected time frame. It became known as vaporware for years, until it reappeared in 2006-2007. New trailers were popping up, and although excitement was revived, the trailers revealed what looked like vastly scaled down areas and less ambition. The game was released in 2007 and gained a cult following, but those suspicions of the game being rushed with lots of removed content turned out to be true.

It would eventually become known that loads of the script, which was amazingly written, didn’t make it into S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl. In addition, levels were redesigned to be much smaller and less atmospheric due to time constraints. Tons of gameplay features were removed too. Although Shadow of Chernobyl turned out to be a very good game, it was only a small fragment of what was intended.

Now comes dez0wave group, who made a popular total conversion mod for Shadow of Chernobyl known as Priboi story. This was a small project; shortly after they moved onto a new one. What they really wanted to do with their next project was bring Shadow of Chernobyl to its full glory and restore all of this cut content. Their goal was to remake most of the cut content, and release it as the ultimate mod for Shadow of Chernobyl. But due to their contacts, their growing relationship with GSC (at the time), their talent, and their growing ambition, one thing led to another. This mod instead turned into a full fledged standalone re-imagining of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl, based on the aforementioned cut content but with tons of new content in addition. This project became known as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha, which is what we’re reviewing today.

Announced in 2008, Lost Alpha had its first release on April 27, 2014, the day after the 28th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Quite poetic. Unfortunately a leak harmed their plans and forced them to release it for free in an early access stage, so it doesn’t have all features enabled. Nonetheless, we couldn’t wait to review this game. Six years in the making, nearly as long as the development for Shadow of Chernobyl itself.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha is a free standalone game that’s available on moddb.com as well as other mirrors. It ranked #1 on our list of most anticipated mod of all time. Don’t let the term “mod” fool you though, Lost Alpha is a standalone game that had more effort put into it than 99% of all games. It was mostly scratch made, using an SDK that dez0wave themselves upgraded. It uses X-Ray engine just like the others, but it was updated to be the best and most modern version of X-Ray engine. After all, dez0wave and GSC planned to sell Lost Alpha as the next official S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game, until the leak made these plans fall through. Nonetheless, it’s here now, in our hands, and we’re going to bring you the best review possible.

We’ve chosen to release the review now, since patches have come out and most major bugs have been addressed by now.

Closer Look

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha is not your average shooter. It’s a huge scale sandbox shooter, that can actually be compared to region-locked open world, though it has loading screens. In addition, it’s one of the more hardcore survival games out there, and also has strong story focus and some light RPG elements. It’s a very multidimensional game.

Thankfully, it’s also a true PC game. Not only is it PC exclusive, it is designed for actual PC gamers. Lost Alpha provides a ton of options including expansive HUD customization, as you can see here.

There are three different HUD types, and you even get the option to fully disable the HUD via console command. You can also change FOV in the console, and it has a screenshot mode similar to tfc in gamebryo games. Just the things you’d want from a PC game. In addition, the game is not dumbed down for casual gamers like just about everything else these days.

You can see the scale in the above image of the global map. There’s no less than 27 locations. For those of you who’ve played the previous S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, which are probably the largest sandbox games around (that aren’t true open world), Lost Alpha is much greater in scale.

Like the other S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, Lost Alpha takes place in the Chernobyl exclusion Zone. Some of you may recall the disaster that took place in 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. This is where the series takes place. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R. lore, a second, inexplicable disaster occurred in the Chernobyl zone in 2006. This was nothing at all like the original disaster; the sky lit up so much that it was nearly blinding, enormous earthquakes occurred, the weather was highly unstable. After this, the area became changed; almost like a detached world. A new Zone appeared.

Lost Alpha as well as the other S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games take place in the Zone following the fictional 2006 incident. The Zone is like hell on earth; strange, deadly anomalies dot the land. Dangerous mutated creatures roam the world, people disappear every day. The military cordons off the Zone, though many adventurers, mercenaries, fanatics, thugs, and others sneak into the Zone illegally. Why, you might ask? They seek artifacts, which are the prized creations of the aforementioned anomalies. Artifacts are worth more than their weight in gold, and grant special powers to those that carry them.

Those who enter the Zone illegally are known as stalkers (which is short for Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers, Robbers), though over time many factions arise in the Zone. Duty, who represents order, is full of ex-military personnel who wish to eradicate mutants and destroy the Zone. Freedom, who represents chaos, want to make the Zone open for all so that we can co-exist with it and share the wondrous artifacts. The Monolith faction are a religious cult who believe that in the center of the Zone lies a great monolith; the Wish Granter. As the name suggests, they believe that the Wish Granter can grant any wish, though supposedly doing so has unforeseen consequences and causes the Zone to grow. Lost Alpha has plenty of other factions too, such as Bandits, Mercenaries, and others that you’ll meet in-game.

Lots of legends appear in the Zone, some proven to be fact and others are just unknown. One of the legends that proved to be factual was that of the Brain Scorcher, which refers to the area around the Red Forest. This area cannot be traversed; all who attempt end up with their brains being melted and are left a mindless, walking zombie. Curiously and inconveniently enough, the Brain Scorcher blocks all access to the center of the Zone, which is the Power Plant itself.

That’s the intro movie for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl (one of the best intro movies in video game history, I might add), which really set the feel for the franchise to come. It’s also fitting to post it in this review of Lost Alpha, since Lost Alpha is a remake of Shadow of Chernobyl, plus this way LA’s intro won’t be spoiled.

Shown in that video is another legend, that of the Death Trucks. These are mysterious trucks driven by unknown people that come from the center of the Zone, and are loaded with incapacitated bodies. Where they’re taking them and what they’re planning to do with them is unknown. It is common for them to end up in wreckage due to anomalies, but almost every time there are no survivors. The protagonist is one of the only known survivors from a Death Truck.

In Lost Alpha, you take on the role of Marked One, one of the only known Death Truck survivors as shown in the video. Like other bodies that come from Death Trucks, you’re marked with a mysterious S.T.A.L.K.E.R. tattoo. You’re taken in to the local trader, Sidorovich, to recover, and you awake with no memories of yourself or anything of the past. So you’re an amnesiac protagonist in Lost Alpha… it’s funny how some of the best stories in video game history have an amnesiac protagonist, e.g. Planescape: Torment, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer (though it’s not full amnesia), and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl. Can Lost Alpha join this small list of elites? It should, since after all it’s a remake of Shadow of Chernobyl.

You’re given the title “Marked One” due to the tattoo on your forearm, and you awake with only a PDA which reads “Kill the Strelok”. What does this mean? Why did this happen? The first thing you’ll do is talk to the trader, Sidorovich, to get some information. He’s an influential figure in the Zone, and promises to help you find and kill Strelok and recover your memories if you do some missions for him. And just like that, the game takes off. No wasted time, not much hand holding, you’re now on your own in hell on earth while the game plays out. You’re off to try and recover your past, and in so doing, unraveling the true nature of the Zone itself.

Not only does Lost Alpha tell a remade version of Shadow of Chernobyl’s story, it also goes into detail on important events that occurred prior to SoC. This is what S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky’s story was supposed to focus on, but it failed to deliver and ended up having almost no story at all. Lost Alpha acts as a better prequel than Clear Sky. But despite this, and to answer my question from before, Lost Alpha does not join that list of great stories. Unfortunately, its story is a very big disappointment.

Without spoiling LA and SoC too much, the former just takes a less imaginative, more straightforward, more typical, and more childish approach to unsuccessfully deliver the same message that SoC told so well. In addition, SoC asks questions that can be phrased like, “Is modern science going too far? Are there things that humans aren’t meant to know? What are the consequences of trying to pass all boundaries?”. Rather than asking these questions, LA just answers “Yes” to the first two in a very straightforward, unoriginal way.

Seriously, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Better yet, if the original game had such a great story, don’t change it around too much. Learn from the Black Mesa crew, who stuck to the source material very well. It’s as if a bunch of inexperienced children took the original, brilliant script for SoC, and played around with it to make c00L things happen. They even used an emoticon (smiley face) in a dialogue, for crying out loud. No sense of professionalism in the writing whatsoever. Nobody on dez0wave team can honestly claim to be a writer. This isn’t a hateful statement, just a truthful one. There’s certainly no hate between dezowave and I: I only have respect for them. But they need writing talent, badly.

Of course, dez0wave refuses to accept that they might not have done a professional job with the writing. They even claim their story is more deep than that of Shadow of Chernobyl. Oh, the laughs…

LA was actually doing quite well from a story standpoint, showing a more complete plot than SoC. Though I was very disappointed in seeing Baldy’s story, which was in the original SoC script (which LA was supposed to follow to some extent), omitted from the game. I was also disappointed to see the underground lab in Yantar, as well as the Miracle Machine located here, go unused and wasted (if you played SoC or even CS then you know what I’m talking about).

Lost Alpha was supposed to include what was cut from the original script for Shadow of Chernobyl. It did, to some extent, but still missed out on a number of things, and they changed around some of the endings far too much, leading to a much worse story that doesn’t deserve much attention.

Yes, most of these negative comments are directed toward the ending. But as with SoC, Lost Alpha relies on two of those endings, or else the story is still a big mystery and you’re rightfully treated as a failure if you get any of the other five endings. SoC came together wonderfully, Lost Alpha does not. Besides, the writing as a whole is just less impressive than that of SoC.

Closer Look, Part 2

The moment you walk out of Sidorovich’s bunker is something special: your first taste of the Zone and its atmosphere. A breath of fresh air, if you will. Lost Alpha looks to make a first impression, much like Fallout 3 did. You step out into the light, into a seemingly abandoned village inhabited by rookie stalkers. To anyone who played the other S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, it is evident in this very early moment how much better the atmosphere of Lost Alpha is. You see, the Zone was abandoned for over two decades, and Lost Alpha actually strives to make the world look like such. When you first step out into the rookie village in Shadow of Chernobyl, you see that it looks well maintained… aside from the ruined buildings of course. Looks like a nice farmstead, with abnormally large fences.

Rookie camp in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl.

While in Lost Alpha, there’s barely even a village left. Over the 2+ decades of abandonment, nature has reclaimed the exclusion Zone just like it did in real life. In terms of scale, everything is more accurate too. No more gigantic picket fences that are taller than you are, no longer is every road enormous and seemingly designed for two lanes or more. This is just the start of things to come, Lost Alpha is all about delivering unique, memorable, and creepy atmosphere, and does a fantastic job at it.

Rookie camp in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha. More accurate scale, properly overgrown, and much more detailed.

More level design comparisons shown in the spoiler tags below. No actual spoilers are shown, it is simply because there are many screenshots in them. On the left are Clear Sky maps (via Call of Chernobyl mod for Call of Pripyat), and Lost Alpha’s are on the right.

Cordon

Spoiler Inside SelectShow

Garbage

Spoiler Inside SelectShow

The big difference between Lost Alpha’s level design and other games (including the other S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games) is the level of detail shown. In Lost Alpha, houses and other buildings aren’t empty like in the other games. Lost Alpha reminds you that people actually make or used to make a living there, by means of impeccable set detail, closer to what’s seen in Bethesda games opposed to the previous S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games.

There were so many empty places in the other S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, but Lost Alpha does a much better job not wasting space. Pictured below is an area that’s seemingly out of the way, on the edge of one of the maps, yet there’s still something to be found.

Though it’s not just detail you’ll come across. Some of the places in the images above also contained lots of useful items, namely food and water, but sometimes you’ll find ammo, weapons, and who knows what else. You’ll also find more significant things hidden on maps, like occasional side quests, alternate routes, or creepy hidden locations…

Attention to detail is just marvelous. The terrain is not as flat and generic as in the other S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, there’s so much terrain variety and every place seems unique. You’ll find explorable areas that are ripped apart by earthquakes, you’ll find deep forests, thick swamps, industrial areas, countrysides, secret cities, the list goes on. It’s one of the most diverse game worlds.

Let’s not forget the extremely creepy, seemingly haunted underground locations, which often have eerie inexplicable events. These locations are so well done, they seem to do a better job freaking people out than most other games. This especially applies to the secret laboratories, which are very important locations. There’s about as many secret labs as there are vaults in Fallout 3 or New Vegas.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games have always had some amazing set pieces, and Lost Alpha beats them all in this regard, thanks to some crazy anomaly fields, distinct terrain, and iconic places like the city of Pripyat and the Chernobyl NPP, both replicated with impressive authenticity.

You can do whatever you want when exploring this world, such as interacting with NPCs or hunting mutants. You can find various stashes loaded with goodies, from simple food items to hidden weapon/ammo/armor caches inside usable objects such as backpacks. Unfortunately, Lost Alpha uses the same stash system as Shadow of Chernobyl and Clear Sky: all stashes are empty until you find stash coordinates, which are looted off of dead bodies. Finding coordinates marks a stash and spawns items inside of it. If you find a stash before finding coordinates, it will be empty.

Beware of the anomalies! Anomalies dot the land, and are deadly if you make physical contact with them. There are anomalies of all kinds, and combined with radiation hotspots they make it so you can’t blindly run around the levels. Unlike Call of Pripyat, anomalies aren’t in specific and obvious anomaly zones; they’re everywhere.

You also have to be mindful of emissions (also known as blowouts) and psi-storms. These are a local weather phenomenon in the Zone; emissions are the release of powerful energy across the Zone. Being outdoors when one hits will kill you. During Psi-storms, the weather will change and then beams of telepathic energy will strike down from the sky, killing or zombifying anyone they hit. Don’t worry; you can see these storms coming. You’ll be warned via PDA, sirens will sound, mutants will go crazy, people will start panicking, and the weather will gradually change. You’ll usually have around 30 seconds to get to shelter before it’s too late.

You’ll probably find yourself searching through these anomaly fields for artifacts, since artifacts are very valuable. They have special properties and are worth decent sums of cash. Again, there are artifacts of all different kinds. To search anomaly fields for artifacts, you’ll want an anomaly detector (there are three different kinds) which beeps when approaching anomalies. Better detectors have more range and recognize a wider array of anomalies. You’ll also want bolts, which you’d throw in front of you to make sure the path is safe. If the bolt sets off some kind of deadly energy trap, you just threw the bolt into an anomaly making it obvious that you have to look for another way forward.

Lost Alpha provides an enormous world, so you’ll find yourself traveling a lot in order to complete objectives, but remember that traveling is supposed to be a major part of the game. Bethesda games do this best, due to the amount of content/side quests they have, as well as their dynamic/random encounters and populated worlds (especially Skyrim and Fallout 3). Lost Alpha on the other hand, while not lacking in detail, is lacking in ambient life. Maps are basically dull and lifeless in terms of creatures and NPCs, and there are almost no side quests prior to finishing the game. But the A-Life… huge disappointment, seeing as how alpha builds of SoC (which Lost Alpha is based on, hence the name) had far better and more active/random A-Life.

From an atmospheric standpoint, Lost Alpha is excellent, and certainly the best in the series by far. You can enter most buildings, never knowing what to expect. Some of the locations seem haunted and are vaguely reminiscent of places you’d find in the Metro games. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games were known for their atmosphere, and Lost Alpha seriously takes this aspect to a much higher level. They call it a man-made hell, and that truly seems to be the case. It just needs vastly improved A-Life and more side quests to take advantage of these amazing maps.

Granted, A-Life is a bit better than the other S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, though this isn’t saying much. If you do find some kind of monster lair or group of people, after wiping it out eventually you’ll see mutants lurking around, eating the remains and dragging corpses. This is all dynamic. You won’t, however, find people come upon the remains scavenging.

 

Gameplay

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha is primarily a hardcore sandbox survival shooter. Some of the gameplay mechanics will be rather familiar, and others will be new (even to those who’ve played the other games). Lost Alpha is enormous in scale, as you can see by the global map provided earlier in this review. But it’s not true open world; not only are there loading screens separating each major location, you can’t access most levels without doing certain missions first. So it’s region-locked open world, kind of like the older GTA titles and Dark Souls. Once you beat the main campaign, you can travel anywhere in the game world, since you will have met all the requirements for every location. Lost Alpha does feature freeplay, which starts after finishing the campaign, and it has many of its own unique quests that aren’t available prior to beating the campaign.

Like RPGs, Lost Alpha provides the player with an inventory system, a journal, and much more. Let’s start with the PDA, or Personal Digital Assistant.

The PDA contains an abundance of features. It acts as a quest journal, a map which tracks the player, a personal diary, an encyclopedia, and even a communications device. These are separated into various different tabs at the bottom of the PDA screen, which you can cycle through. The one all the way on the left is a quest journal with a map screen, while the one next to it is a full sized map.

The next section is the Diary tab, which shows the player’s personal diary which is supposed to automatically update as the game progresses. But, being in early access stage, some features aren’t complete. The diary only updates 2 or 3 times, all of which are early in the game, so this feature would appear unfinished. You’ll also find a message log, showing previous dialogue, as well as entries from other PDA’s you find in the game world.

After this is the Contacts tab, which lists all nearby people, whether hostile or friendly. Here, you can see the status of these people (like Recovering or Do Not Disturb), a brief biography, and you can even attempt to talk to people through this method. You can arrange for a meeting to trade items, or even pick up quests.

The next tab in your PDA is the Rankings tab, which lists the top 20 stalkers based on their points. You get points from killing things and advancing the game, which also levels up your experience rank. You start off as a Rookie, and will hopefully progress to Experienced, Veteran, and then Expert. A biography for each person is listed here once again. This all serves no real purpose though.

After this is the faction relations tab, which is pretty self explanatory. There are many factions in the game, and this section shows your alignment with them.

The third to last tab is the Information tab, which contains an encyclopedia on Zone lore, anomalies, creatures, locations, factions, everything.

The last two sections in the PDA aren’t unlocked by default, you’ll need flash drives containing appropriate software to unlock them. The second to last one shows the skill system which has yet to be implemented, and the last one is the Downloads section which will show information related to things you download from computers.

Now here’s a look at the inventory system. It’s based on the inventory seen in alpha builds of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl: think S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s inventory plus a hint of ArmA 2 or ArmA 3 mixed in. You can see a portrait of your character here, which displays the armor that you’re wearing. To equip or remove armor, just drag it to or from the portrait. For everything else, right clicking it in the inventory will give you the option to drop it (unless it’s a quest item), or use it in some way. Clicking it also gives you a description in the box right above the items compartment. Sadly, all inventory items are just scattered about randomly. There’s no sorting or separate sections, so there’s room for improvement.

You can also see suit properties and your overall protection values right beneath the portrait, as well as three meters to the left and right of your portrait. From left to right, we have the bleeding meter, armor condition meter, stamina bar, radiation poisoning meter, hunger, and thirst. Above the portrait are some specific slots: one for a primary weapon (anything that’s not a pistol), one for a pistol, one for the knife, and one for the headlamp. Finally, at the very top spanning the entire inventory menu is your belt. Lost Alpha has a unique system in which ammo can only be loaded into your guns if the ammo is equipped on your belt, as seen above. In addition, anomaly detectors only work when equipped to your belt. The same applies to artifacts.

As you can see in the image above, Lost Alpha is not only a first person game, it has fully functional third person too. By default, F1 toggles first person and F2 toggles third person. Another new addition to Lost Alpha is vehicle gameplay; you can drive cars and even tractors and APCs. They all require gasoline too. Vehicles can be found around the world although they’re very rare. If you’re wealthy enough, you can buy a vehicle from certain traders. You can indeed access the trunks of cars, and store items inside. Vehicles are destroyed rather easily.

In terms of combat, Lost Alpha is a semi-realistic shooter. There are all sorts of weapons, from small caliber pistols to magnum caliber pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles, and sniper rifles. The game has expected features from a modern shooter like iron sights, but it also has actual aim sway, recoil, and a realistic ballistic system in which your guns fire actual projectiles that drop over long distances (vs hitscan in games like CoD). So you have to compensate for distance, and guns aren’t perfectly accurate either like they are in Battlefield. Though there’s no built-in feature for distance compensation, you just guess (scope reticles aren’t accurate enough for this purpose either). This isn’t Red Orchestra or ArmA.

Various attachments can be added to guns, namely scopes, silencers, and grenade launchers. It doesn’t have the most expansive weapon customization, but it’s better than nothing. A nice touch is the bullet decals on bodies; shooting them actually leaves holes in them. Likewise, the knife leaves visible damage marks too.

You can get a glimpse of the HUD in the above screenshot, using “New Style #2”. Normally, the minimap would be at the top left, but I removed it since I want a less intrusive HUD. Sadly there’s no in-game option for the minimap, so in order to remove it you have to mod the game or use a mod that does it for you. The optional 24 hour clock would be at the top left corner too. The bottom right has your basic information, such as an ammo count (reading only off of your belt and in your magazine), ammo type, fire mode, and two bars normally. The red bar represents health, and the green represents stamina. The yellow one represents flashlight battery life remaining; it only shows up when the flashlight is on. To the right of all of this are icons that represent things like hunger, thirst, how tired you are, radiation, weapon condition, and telepathy. If any of these are glowing, that means you should check on it. If the hunger icon is glowing for example, then you’re hungry (green means mildly hungry, yellow means moderate hunger, red means very hungry). If it’s not glowing then you’re not hungry.

Guns degrade over time, and they can even jam. Your armor degrades over time too. Weapons and armor can be repaired by means of a repair kit which you can carry in your inventory, but you can also pay a technician to repair things for you. Technicians can also upgrade weapons and armor.

When it comes to survival gameplay, you have to monitor the condition of your weapons and armor as I mentioned earlier, plus the flashlight batteries and car’s gasoline if you’ve actually managed to find a car. Not only this, you have to beware of radiation which is everywhere. Too much radiation will drain your health rapidly. There’s also a bleeding effect, in which being wounded usually results in you losing blood and therefore losing health (you actually see your blood loss visually on the ground too, as a nice touch). Bandages stop bleeding, while medkits increase your health. Antirad removes radiation. There are three different kinds of medkits; normal ones, army ones which stop bleeding fully and improve health more, and scientific ones which also remove radiation.

Lost Alpha has some other cool gameplay features, like using computers. They have more advanced functionality than in the Fallout games, since you can actually browse around the desktop.

Computers may hold valuable information, which can be downloaded to your PDA if you have the appropriate software installed on your PDA (you can buy it in the form of a flash drive, though a main quest provides you with it anyway). You can find other, less vital information on computers as well as images and sound files.

You can even play games on them.

Lost Alpha also features usable safes, though they seem to mostly be related to main quests. It would be cool to have stashes found in random ones, with codes looted off bodies.

When it comes to AI, Lost Alpha is one of the most advanced games, like the other S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are but with even more improvements. What made Shadow of Chernobyl very innovative for its time was the A-Life system, which all other S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games use and added on. A-Life is the system responsible for controlling dynamic AI behavior. Lost Alpha’s A-Life has some new AI behavior features such as NPCs being able to heal themselves. A-Life is also the reason why all creatures go out hunting and scavenging; you’ll commonly find mutants roaming around, finding dead bodies, and dragging them away. Every spawned creature and NPC has their own schedule, and these creatures/NPCs live out their lives even if you’re not around to witness it.

When properly unrestricted, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s A-Life system allows NPCs to do pretty much anything the player is capable of doing. This includes eating food and drinking water at regular intervals (which they do), sleeping at regular intervals (also enabled), going hunting, healing themselves (which they do), healing others, going artifact hunting, and even completing quests which was never implemented in any S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game or mod.

Sadly Lost Alpha’s A-Life isn’t as unlocked and dynamic as it should be. Creatures and especially NPCs are far too static. There are very few wandering NPC patrols, they just seem so scripted even though various mods for Shadow of Chernobyl have shown vastly superior and less restricted A-Life. Spawns are also more predictable: for the most part, every location has only a small selection of creatures and NPCs that spawn there. For example, you will only ever find Mercenaries in a few scripted locations, you’ll never see them wandering around freely in Rostok or Pripyat Outskirts or anywhere but their set spawn locations. This is a very outdated feel for an open world game.

When it comes to creatures and NPCs, every map is just too empty. Countryside and Forest are the biggest maps in Lost Alpha, but they feel totally empty since there’s almost no AI spawned. Forest only has some boars, flesh, dwarves, chimeras, and bandits. Countryside just has a few scripted soldiers, boars, flesh, and maybe dogs. Pseudogiants, one of the deadliest foes in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. universe, are once again only scripted encounters (there’s only a few in the entire game). Shadow of Chernobyl and Clear Sky were the same way. Call of Pripyat on the other hand has both scripted Pseudogiant encounters, and random ones since Pseudogiants spawn randomly after reaching a certain part of the game.

I really don’t understand why dez0wave didn’t make big improvements upon A-Life, and it was a very silly idea to make maps empty and have only predictable spawns. The developers must have been intent on forcing boredom onto the player. Lost Alpha is supposed to bring back the awesome cut features seen in alpha builds of SoC, hence the name. One of these features was the very advanced, unpredictable, and unrestricted A-Life. Why did they not include this; why did they go with a more locked down archaic design that we had to suffer through in SoC, CS, and CoP? They simply did not live up to their word.

What’s even worse is that the developers refuse to see this as a problem; walking around a 10+ km^2 map that’s almost completely empty with absolutely nothing to do but walk is not a problem. There’s no getting through to dez0wave; even though Lost Alpha is an early access product, they only want to hear bug reports, not feedback on game design. Perhaps they think they know it all, despite Lost Alpha being their first product that amounts to a game. So don’t expect significant A-Life improvements in official patches, folks. Patch 1.3002 (the most recent one as of this review) brought upon some improvement… barely. Modders will definitely fix it sooner or later.

AI behavior in combat is slightly above average. I always point out that no game has good AI; some are terrible and some are slightly better. Lost Alpha fits into that “slightly better” category. Human AI will look to flank, they actually take cover, they throw grenades, they will bash others with their rifle up close, but like most games they seem intent on getting as close as possible to you. Long range engagements don’t happen much since AI don’t have the ability to successfully engage in combat at distances longer than 100m or so (I forget the exact value but it’s roughly this). There are some “snipers” that actually do remain stationary and at longer distances, but again, as long as you’re more than 100m away then you’re safe from them.

So that pretty much covers the gameplay of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha. Overall it shows improvements over the previous games, particularly in its gameplay mechanics. Lost Alpha provides above average shooting mechanics with excellent survival mechanics, the PDA is great, the inventory is improved, the added vehicles are cool.

Unfortunately, A-Life isn’t really improved and the maps are just too empty and lifeless. One of the most brilliant things about recent Bethesda games is the travelling, because their worlds are populated, unpredictable, impeccably detailed, and have an endless amount of content. Lost Alpha has awesome scenery and excellent attention to detail, but the maps are just empty and have nothing to do except for main missions (and rarely there are some menial side quests to do).

Keep in mind that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are only survival-shooters, not full fledged RPGs, so at the very least A-Life and spawns must be improved in order to get a thumbs up from me.

Audio and Visuals

Lost Alpha uses a newly updated version of X-Ray engine. It still holds its ground today overall, as you can see in various screenshots above. The lighting system is above average, it includes three different ambient occlusion forms which are decent (SSAO, HDAO, and HBAO). Texture quality is a mixed bag; most large, important textures such as terrain are 2048 x 2048 which is fantastic. But there are still the occasional low-res textures here and there, but they’re less common. Lost Alpha has some of the best bump mapping you’ll ever see. Parallax mapping stands out too.

The skies and weather are amazing… dry weather at least. You’ll even notice the sun passing through clouds dynamically, causing the world to become a bit more dark, though when the sky opens up again everything will brighten up again. This is very rare in games.

On DX10 mode, there’s a dynamic wet surface effect from rain which is very nice (but not as nice as Clear Sky or Call of Pripyat), though as usual rain doesn’t look very good. The only way rain is going to look authentic is to make each drop an actual water physics entity, with good texture and dynamic reflections, in addition to actual dynamic rain splashes and wetting effect. You will need something comparable to PhysX to do this. Lost Alpha’s physics engine is still decent though, above average even by today’s standards.

They’ve added glare effects to Lost Alpha, and it also has dynamic sunshafts. Almost every light source is dynamic when running one of the dynamic renders (DX9 or DX10), and it has full dynamic shadows as well unlike most games old or new, really demonstrating PC gaming superiority. The shadows are vastly improved over older versions of X-Ray engine, most actually look acceptable. Mutants have been rendered with excellent bump mapping and attention to detail.

Lost Alpha uses a ton of new animations, but none of them are noteworthy. More than a few animations still look very dated and low-budget.

Vegetation quality is a mixed bag. Some of the trees look acceptable, but many other trees and bushes/shrubs are horrible and clearly lacking in polygons. Grass looks good, and Lost Alpha’s grass shadows will probably spoil you… if you can run them. This brings up another issue; its horrible optimization. Lost Alpha may very well have the worst optimization of all games. At least it doesn’t crash when running out of VRAM, like Battlefield 4 does. But Lost Alpha just runs far worse than it should. Below are my system specs listed for you.

  • Windows 7 Professional 64-bit
  • ASRock Z77M
  • Intel Core i7 2600 – with turbo mode maxed out (it can go up to 4.2 GHz, usually stays around 4.0 – 4.2 GHz in games)
  • Mushkin Enhanced Radioactive 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3 1600 CL9 – Perfectly fitting for S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
  • EVGA GTX 680 FTW LE
  • Antec TruePower New 750W PSU
  • 2x Intel 330 series 180GB SSD in RAID 0, WD Caviar Blue 1TB for storage – My OS and Lost Alpha are installed on the SSDs
  • LG Flatron IPS235 23″ 1080p IPS Monitor

This system should be able to max out any currently released game with ease. I get 50-60 FPS on most levels in Metro: Last Light (40 FPS on the laggiest levels), with everything on max detail except for anti-aliasing for various reasons (hint: supersampling). I get 40-60 FPS in ArmA 3, maxing out everything except for view distance and sampling/3D resolution. You know what? I run all of the best looking games on max detail (minus outrageous things like extreme view distance, downsampling/supersampling, and global illumination) with much smoother frame rates than Lost Alpha. I get 60 FPS in most of them, with my frame rate cap set to 60.

Lost Alpha on the other hand is a pig. Granted, it’s early access and may improve. All of my lovely screenshots in this review were taken on DX9 renderer in order to benefit from forced supersampling. Even then, I have to disable grass shadows since they lag far too much. I still only get 40-60 FPS. DX10 and DX10.1 have MSAA along with AA-tested objects; the latter runs better than in Clear Sky, and the MSAA is very effective.

DX9 renderer doesn’t have native anti-aliasing. You can try using the r2_aa on console command, which just adds a slight blur filter to edges like FXAA and SMAA, except it’s even less effective and hardly helps. DX9 mode at least works with forced MSAA, CSAA, OGSSAA, HSAA, and SGSSAA via NVIDIA Inspector or Control Panel (the latter has less options). Use whichever bits work best for you.

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Most screenshots here were taken with SGSSAA and grass shadows enabled, even though I can’t run either of them. Remember: Forced AA cannot be used with in-game motion blur, since this causes the edges of the screen to turn white.

Lost Alpha has much better sound effects than the previous S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, including very good ambient sounds. Some of the gunshots don’t sound really good though. It uses some of the same soundtrack songs as the other games, as well as cut ones that were seen in early builds of SoC. The soundtrack is great, and blends in well with the game.

It uses OpenAL and allows for true hardware accelerated sound with an X-Fi sound card. I highly suggest it as the result is mesmerizing. Spatial/directional sound is outstanding as 3D HRTF is used, creating a binaural effect for stereo/headphone users and improved surround panning for surround sound users. EAX enables dynamic reverb in a few areas, but this feature is incomplete. The use of bass is incredible; thunderstorms are truly thundering, not to mention with hardware acceleration you can really hear the direction from every thunder strike. Gravitational anomalies will shake your home if you use a subwoofer, although not quite as much as Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat.

Voice acting is another story. I’m sure many of you have played S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat, and seen the hilariously-bad voice acting it has to offer. For the most part, Lost Alpha is just as bad. There are some pleasant exceptions like Sidorovich though. But unfortunately, the main antagonist (who was voiced very well in SoC) sounds like some punk kid telling a horror story by a campfire on Halloween. What a way to ruin immersion at the climax of the game. This is what you get when a game is made on no budget.

Again, we have a mixed bag here. The DX10 renderer is a waste of space and time; it has too much aliasing and no way to get rid of it, so it’s totally pointless. Stick with DX9 renderer, it looks better and all you lose are dynamic wet surface effects (which can be enabled on DX9, dez0wave team just has to actually do it). If you can actually run the game with grass shadows and forced anti-aliasing, then you’re in for a treat (save for some of the awful tree/shrub models, which is the majority of them). But due to the terrible optimization, you won’t be running it like this. I’ve seen reports from people with much better hardware than I, who still struggle. But remember, this is an early access release. It might improve.

Sound effects are good, soundtrack is great, voice acting is mostly terrible. It’s a tragedy when you get a good story with poor voice acting, but Lost Alpha fails on both regards so I don’t know what to call it.

Conclusion

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha is one of the most ambitious games made on no budget, along with Underhell. Lost Alpha and all its ambition comes in with many flaws and some strange, controversial, and contradictory design choices. They tried to explain the story more, but ended up deviating from the original script too much and writing a terrible conclusion. They improved the gameplay mechanics and the amount of detail on each and every level, but decided to make the levels empty and have nothing to do. As with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl, which Lost Alpha is a remake of, LA shows tremendous potential, but doesn’t fully reach it.

Is it better than Shadow of Chernobyl? Let’s be clear that SoC (along with CS and CoP) also suffers from most of these flaws we’ve pointed out, and more. Lost Alpha is indeed better than SoC in every way except one: the writing. Shadow of Chernobyl’s story is written by professionals, Lost Alpha’s has bits written by novices (including the ending). Shadow of Chernobyl’s writing is much better, and it avoids painful and atrocious voice acting which Lost Alpha is full of.

For this reason, we recommend playing both. Start with Shadow of Chernobyl (perhaps with mods such as Mod Pack 2013, which is the best overhaul mod available for it), then move on to Clear Sky with Mod Pack 2012, followed by Call of Pripyat with Misery 2 which is the best overhaul mod for any S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game. Last but not least, play Lost Alpha to witness all of the gameplay and level design improvements, and just use your imagination to substitute SoC’s story/ending in place of LA’s disgraceful one.

Remember that Lost Alpha is still in an early access stage. It will continue to improve, and this review will probably be updated in the future to compensate for updates to the game.

Time for the final scoring. This should be interesting, seeing as how Lost Alpha is such a mixed bag… much like all the other S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are.

  • Presentation: We’ve waited until the major bugs were fixed, which rescues Lost Alpha for this section. At launch, it was a bugfest, but these were ironed out relatively quickly. The end result here is a PC game with all of the options and customization I like to see, with a very approachable interface, no horrible software requirements like Uplay or Battlelog, and no intrusive pop-ups or anything of the sort. No complaints here… anymore. 20/20
  • Story: I was really looking forward to Lost Alpha’s story, seeing as how it’s a remake of Shadow of Chernobyl which has one of the best stories in the industry. Lost Alpha did indeed provide a more detailed plot which was cool, but its revealing endings are so bad that it really ruins the rest of the story and keeps it from going anywhere. Amateur-level work in the writing department, and that’s being kind. Rather than changing around the story so much, they should have stayed true to SoC. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If it’s already great, why try to change it so much? This is what happens when unpaid modders write an ending and try to fill in the blanks. Is Underhell the only large scale mod that isn’t full of garbage in the writing department? But remember that the disappointment of LA’s story sets in at the ending, it’s not awful the entire way through. The main plot is pretty good and it will redeem the score a bit. 10/20
  • Gameplay: Solid shooter mechanics, great survival mechanics, and lots of cool features work in Lost Alpha’s favor. But the maps… although beautiful and extremely detailed, they’re also lifeless and have almost nothing to do, making exploring almost worthless. A-Life needs a serious overhaul, AI can be further improved beyond this too. Wait for mods before playing Lost Alpha… not to say LA has bad gameplay since it doesn’t, but modders will improve it tremendously. 17/20
  • Audio/Visuals: Very good sound effects combined with overall good graphics quality are nice to see. It supports hardware accelerated sound and to some degree EAX; enabling them gives Lost Alpha superior sound effects/processing compared to any game not using OpenAL/DirectSound3D (which includes all modern games). In terms of graphics, the only things that standout as horrible are most of the trees and shrubs, though forced anti-aliasing can mask this at moderate distances. The soundtrack is excellent, but the voice acting is mostly terrible, so again we have a mix of good and bad. Optimization is also some of the worst in the industry. 17/20
  • Lasting Appeal: Lost Alpha is enormous in scale and has so many locations, as well as a campaign that took me at least 70 hours to finish. You’re pretty much forced to go through the campaign right off the bat, due to the region-locked world with somewhat linear progression, and the lack of side quests. But once you finish the campaign, many more side quests open up. If the A-Life was better, it would score better both in this section and in the gameplay section. 15/20.
  • Overall: 79/100 (Flawed and Amazing at the same time)

To see how this less biased review system works, read here.

With upcoming updates, can Lost Alpha be cleaned up and achieve greatness by scoring a 90 or higher? Stay in touch to find out.

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[…] fills it which takes it, Skyrim, and Fallout 3 to higher levels than other beautiful open worlds. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha is a great example; its maps were extremely detailed, nearly as detailed as Fallout 3 even, but […]

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[…] Total conversion mods aren’t built for games, they’re essentially full standalone games. Some of them do require a game to be owned, but our winner does not. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha wins this award with ease. It is currently the largest scale mod ever made, being a massive sandbox survival shooter with RPG elements, that is much larger than every other S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game. Check out our review of it here. […]