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S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 – What We’d Like to See

Following the recent announcement of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 currently slated for a 2021 release (20 years after development began for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl), we figured we would share our wishlist for the game. Many of us here at GND-Tech are long time fans of the franchise to say the least, having followed S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl since its alpha stages of development and having released mods for the series to critical acclaim.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is an open world survival FPS franchise with several RPG inspired elements to encourage interactivity and player agency. No, it is not post-apocalyptic. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 will be the fourth game in the series. As with any good sequel, it ought to learn from its mistakes. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat each demonstrated that GSC did learn from some mistakes of the past, but new mistakes were made with each, hence why Shadow of Chernobyl is often viewed as the best game in the franchise (at least in an unmodded state). We would like to see universal improvement with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. 2, no stepping back, something incredibly rare with any game sequel.

But where to begin? Let’s break this article down into sections so that it will be easier to read.

 

A-Life

A-Life was one of the most revolutionary features of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl, if not the most. That is the name GSC Game World gave to their dynamic AI simulation system. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s A-Life system has the least compromise of any in the gaming industry, especially when modded. Essentially, A-Life tracks and determines the behavior for all AI in the game world at all times; no outright unloading and loading of AI. Highly unlike most other open world games. To save on resources, AI will switch between a simpler “offline” and “online” state depending on the player’s distance.

A-Life gives every AI their own daily schedules, so that they have needs and something to do at all times, so that they have a life. As a result, both mutant and human AI are seen eating at regular intervals, sleeping, traveling, hunting, and humans spend quality time with one another dynamically. It also indirectly governs the faction relation system, which Clear Sky took to the next level. In most open world games, if you just observe AI you merely see them standing around and otherwise not really doing much. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., you can catch a glimpse at a mutant dragging a dead body away to eat it, unscripted and dynamic. And much more.

But that’s not all, since other games do have this now. You see, A-Life was originally designed to allow AI to be so advanced that they can interact with the world in as many ways as the player can, if not more. When Shadow of Chernobyl was in its alpha stages in the mid 2000s (and we’re talking before 2005), A-Life was so advanced and unrestricted that human NPCs were completing quests before the players could! To the point where some random but highly skilled NPC in the world could finish the MAIN quest, unraveling the mystery of the Zone, before the player. Therefore, it had to be toned down in the final product.


An NPC healing another. For seasoned S.T.A.L.K.E.R. players, yes that’s a Duty member healing a Freedom member. This is Call of Chernobyl.

Mods re-enable many A-Life features, but not all (namely the quest solving has yet to be seen). But with the most impressive mods (Call of Chernobyl being number one right now), AI characters will travel the world on their own more than in any other open world game, they can use the terrain to their advantage better than any other open world game (dynamic pathfinding, you can find NPCs using the sewer system to their advantage to launch surprise attacks/flanks in Call of Chernobyl’s Dead City map, all unscripted), they have a greater range of dynamic idle activities than any other game I’ve seen from trading with other NPCs, announcing over the radio good deals they’ve come across with traders, announcing things they see in the world over the radio, dynamically starting and putting out campfires and cooking food, along with the usual conversations and jokes and playing music and sleeping and everything else. Call of Chernobyl with DoctorX Dynamic Faction Relations has, as the name implies, unrestricted dynamic faction relations leading to unpredictable faction wars, peace treaties, and alliances (hence the screenshot above). Remember, all of this is unscripted.

In short, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s A-Life system in 2004 was decades ahead of what we have in today’s open world games. Yes, this is objective truth. The A-Life system is currently best on display in the Call of Chernobyl mod for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat, with the following addons: DoctorX Dynamic Faction Relations and Living Zone.

So that’s the past and present. What do we want for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2’s A-Life? We want it to build on the best examples of A-Life, namely the alpha builds of Shadow of Chernobyl from the mid 2000s, and Call of Chernobyl mod (present and upcoming versions).

All of the features we just described, we want. Everything from Call of Chernobyl, and also the ability for NPCs to take on and complete (or fail) quests. That’s right. Limit them to unimportant side quests if need be, that won’t piss off players TOO much to the point where it hurts sales.

Interesting new A-Life features were revealed for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 before its development was halted, such as certain mutants being more strictly territorial or nocturnal. Let’s see that, make the mutants even more unique (though these distinct behavioral attributes are on display in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games already).

AI can only dynamically travel over “smart terrains” on X-Ray engine. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 probably will not be made on X-Ray engine, as it has been revealed that GSC has an Unreal Engine 4 license. Either way, we want the equivalent of the entire game world being smart terrain. Again, alpha builds of Shadow of Chernobyl were like this, allowing the player to find AI absolutely anywhere.

Also, the player should be allowed to have followers, almost at will. Many mods, such as Call of Chernobyl, allow for this. From one follower to an entire squad of at least eight, if the player’s reputation allows it.

 

Remove the Loading Screens


Call of Chernobyl’s map.

A small but common request, make the open world mostly seamless (or fully). In all three S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games thus far, a loading screen separates each main location, something we no longer see in open world games. These days, loading screens only separate the outside world from indoor locations and the like. The less loading screens for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, the better. Zero loading screens would be ideal.

 

Learn From Lost Alpha’s Level Design… Which Learned From Alpha Builds of Shadow of Chernobyl

This is a funny, perhaps lesser known fact about the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. Alpha builds of Shadow of Chernobyl had much larger, more natural and authentic maps than the final release. More detailed even, for some of them at least. Also far more maps which ended up being removed.

The existing maps you see in Shadow of Chernobyl (and thus Clear Sky) are greatly watered down, dumbed down, less authentic and more gamey versions of the original, with the exceptions being very few. We’re not sure why the maps were remade in such a way, one can guess AI limitations are partially responsible but that can’t explain all of it. Not to mention, AI in the current version of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha – Developer’s Cut (a standalone mod) handles the original map style just fine (compared to the unmodded game).

Lost Alpha took the alpha map design and made it significantly better and more detailed, learning from Bethesda games as well. The screenshots below show the difference between the official/final product map design (left), and Lost Alpha’s maps (right).


The Cordon, the first map of Shadow of Chernobyl. Substantially bigger in Lost Alpha, much more detailed as well, with far more authentic structures as you will see below.
The Cordon’s Rookie Village, where Shadow of Chernobyl begins. Looks too maintained in t he official game, as if it has gardeners treating the vegetation. While in Lost Alpha it is properly overgrown (also smaller).
A tunnel leading under a road in the Cordon. Unrealistically small in Shadow of Chernobyl/Clear Sky, properly sized in Lost Alpha with its own maintenance tunnels which the player can explore.
A desolate factory in the Cordon. Looks much more like a factory in Lost Alpha, with proper machinery and props in the buildings (more below).
Same as above.
Same as above.
The area surrounding the bridge, and the bridge itself as you will soon see, seems a tad undersized for the type of bridge it is (railroad bridge). I also much prefer Lost Alpha’s road texture with the painted road lines.
Laughably anorexic bridge in Shadow of Chernobyl/Clear Sky on the left, versus the realistic size seen in Lost Alpha on the right, with a door leading to underground maintenance tunnels which are fully explorable. A level of realism exclusive to Lost Alpha within this series.
The Garbage is substantially larger and more diverse in Lost Alpha, also filled with much more… garbage, looking more authentic and fulfilling its name and description better.


Vehicle roads in Shadow of Chernobyl/Clear Sky are often undersized like this. Not in Lost Alpha/GSC’s original design.


The hangar in the Garbage has unique terrain around it in Lost Alpha, with a sewage system and also a bunker behind it.

More of Lost Alpha can be seen here.

Those are just the first two maps of Shadow of Chernobyl. More substantial level design improvements can be found all throughout the famous Build 1935 of Shadow of Chernobyl (2004) and Lost Alpha, perhaps the most drastic change being “Yantar” (also known as Lake Yantar, though it’s not a lake in the retail games but a pathetically tiny pond with no room anywhere on the map for a lake).

So, please GSC, go all out on level design again, like you did in the early 2000s and like dez0wave did with Lost Alpha. Also, please do not go for the excessively gamey level design of Call of Pripyat, which isolates anomalies into cordoned off anomaly zones so that new players cannot accidentally stumble into anomalies. That essentially defeats the entire purpose of the Zone and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series to begin with… no more of that.

 

Emissions Need Greater Presence

Emissions, aka Blowouts, are mysterious and deadly “storms” featured within the Zone. They are highly destructive and greatly affect one’s brain, although its impact seems to vary a bit from person to person. According to the lore, powerful emissions can create “Zombified Stalkers” (humans whose higher brain functions have been destroyed). They also move anomalies around, greatly changing the layout of the Zone effectively… all three S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games mention this, but none demonstrate it for some reason. Some mods demonstrate it, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 certainly should.

Blowouts should relentlessly shift anomalies in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, and they should be far more devastating as seen in Clear Sky’s intro above. AI reacts well to them, especially with mods, but this factor can be improved a bit as well. We need to see more FEAR from AI when an emission is starting. Emissions are not straightforward storms, they are weird… some people can sense them in unique ways that vary from person to person, perhaps this should be incorporated?

 

Make Labs, Mutants, and Anomalies Truly Terrifying

Without spoiling any story details, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games all feature secret Soviet underground laboratories (except for Clear Sky sadly, and this was unplanned) where cutting edge and horrifying experiments were held during the Cold War. In these labs, you are introduced to new mutants and horror scenarios. The games borrow from horror movies like Poltergeist, just slightly in some of these labs.

Let’s take the existing lab design and turbocharge it. Lost Alpha did an interesting job making them spookier and more weird, but not enough. Let’s take the player COMPLETELY out of their comfort zone in labs. I know, I know, games are afraid to take the player out of their comfort zone, but sorry a game like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is boring if it fails to do that. The fact that Shadow of Chernobyl takes the player out of their comfort zone at the very beginning, and keeps doing this throughout, is what made it stand out. But I digress.

One lab in Shadow of Chernobyl lets the player find something horrifying, and Call of Pripyat has one creepy moment involving the sounds of a baby crying nearby. Good stuff, now let’s amplify it. The player should find truly horrifying, disgusting things in labs, not only to show the horrific nature of some of the experiments, but not all of it has to be clearly real. These labs often contain lots of psi-emission (mind altering airborne substance so to speak) or telepathic enemies. These things, especially telepathic enemies, are held back too much. Their design and implementation can be greatly improved.

Let’s make these mutants (called Controllers) make the player see all sorts of weird visions, perhaps just enemies around them that aren’t really there, or as the lore says they should be able to manipulate both the player and NPC’s senses so that they see each other as monsters, leading to friendly fire or just pure terror. Let’s make telepathic mutants found in the labs more powerful, capable of making the player see terrifying yet symbolic scenarios that may even include foreshadowing, make the player seem as if he/she teleports to a new location such as some paradise that then sets on fire and turns into hell before their eyes, let’s allow the player to see a bit of what happened in these labs (like Lost Alpha, but much better/more natural). The player needs to witness true horror in at least some of these labs, they need to be made uncomfortable perhaps to the point where they want to quit. Cross the line. Perhaps make the player not only see horrible things, but do horrible things in these labs.

I suggest GSC take a look at horror games made by Frictional Games, also the classic Silent Hill games and Anna: Extended Edition for some inspiration here. I like how the Poltergeist mutants are loosely inspired by poltergeist stories, but this should be increased as well; Poltergeists (and Pyrogeists) should be typically invisible, super hard to track, and behave like ghosts in movies like PoltergeistThe Shining, etc. A lot more can be done to increase immersion in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2’s labs, and we want to see it all and be taken away and horrified. We don’t want to feel comfortable anywhere in the Zone.

Likewise, anomalies are cool and dangerous in Shadow of Chernobyl and Clear Sky, but let’s make them even more unpredictable, terrifying, and deadly. Clear Sky does this with its space bubble anomalies, let’s indeed make these space bubble anomalies more common towards the center of the Zone and not always in the same position. Let’s also include all of the cut anomalies from Shadow of Chernobyl, such as the Time anomaly; an area in which time is either faster or slower. Time anomalies should range from significantly different to mere slight changes, even bringing the player back or forward into different eras which could be a nice homage to Oblivion Lost, the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Rusty Hair anomaly sounds awful and will really make the player think twice about what objects they come into physical contact with, so let’s include that. Anomalies like these, and other new wild ones, can play an important role in the story too, as they do in Clear Sky.

Furthermore, anomalies don’t have to ALL be death traps. Either way, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. created anomalies and artifacts, the next game should leverage them more for storytelling. In reality, a place like the Zone would create an endless amount of interesting stories, from international conflicts to personal ones. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 should explore it all. We want to see more alien, inexplicable mysteries like the Zone is known for. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 should take more inspiration from its source material, Roadside Picnic and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker film.

 

Update the Survival Mechanics

Survival games have become much more popular over the last few years, perhaps starting with DayZ. The current S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games have a very basic healing system, in which you heal yourself with medkits (healing is near instantaneous) and stop bleeding with bandages. The bleeding effect is nice, a rare thing in games still. Radiation poisoning just drains your health, and syringes of antirad just reduces your radiation buildup almost completely (vodka reduces it a bit). Overall, this is a bit too simple.

I want a healing system similar to the one in Metal Gear Solid 3, for long term healing. Which means, the player is capable of suffering bone fractures like in the Fallout games, burns, puncture wounds, cuts, and much more, and all of these different types of wounds require different treatment.

Not the best example, but quality videos of this are hard to find.

As for radiation poisoning, we like how Fallout 4 does it on survival mode; radiation poisoning reduces the player’s maximum health. It should also reduce the player’s physical performance in most areas, such as stamina and strength (carrying capacity) and aim sway.

Which brings up several other points, like stamina. We really like Underhell’s stamina system, which essentially has a short term cardio system, and long term endurance. The short term stamina refers to when you run out of breath from doing something very exerting in a short amount of time, such as lifting heavy weights or sprinting. This recovers quickly, similar to how one only does a short rest between sets when lifting. But the long term endurance drains slowly over time, the more you deplete your short term stamina, the more your long term endurance drops, and long term endurance should only be replenished by food/drink and sleep. Low endurance should also mean slower healing. This video explains it all, starting at about 2:12:

We also just mentioned food, drink, and sleep. All three should be required.

Last but not least for this section is inventory. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s inventory is only weight based, not realistic enough I think. Personally, Arma 3’s inventory system seems ideal for this game; it is limited by both weight and, first and foremost, space. A large backpack can hold more items than a small one, just like in real life. The same for bulletproof vests and clothing, separate slots for each and also separate weapon slots (but no weapon attachment slots, no need to limit those via the inventory). Also, rather than just being outright unable to move when overencumbered like in the current S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, you should still be able to move but much more slowly and less agile with a quicker fatigue rate.


Arma 3’s inventory. The left section is for what you’re looting, with a drop down menu to choose between say looting a dead body or the ground below him. On the middle and right is your inventory, notice the separate slots for everything. The middle section lists items (in this screenshot, the First Aid Kit, Signal whistle, etc) for the currently selected gear (can choose from the clothes, vest, and backpack just above this). On the right is what the player has equipped. On the bottom is an encumbrance gauge. Realism perfected, this is what S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 needs.
Update the Shooting Mechanics

The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games have one of the best, most realistic, and most flexible ballistics systems of any game. Separate parameters for ammunition and guns, a muzzle velocity parameter in meters per second, accuracy parameters, rate of fire and firing mode parameters, parameters for sound suppressor penalties, weapon attachment parameters, many recoil parameters, aim sway, and more. Also separate parameters for different types of damage protection for armor. Brilliant stuff.

Since S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 will likely be moving to a new engine, we ask that the customizable weapon and armor parameters in the game’s script files remain as customizable/flexible. Don’t remove any parameters! This lets modders easily rebalance the game in their mods, useful since the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games have highly inaccurate gun and bullet parameters set by default.

Based on the above, it’s clear that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was going for realism in its shooting mechanics. Nothing insane like the simulation levels that Arma pursues, but let’s take this to the next level. The Red Orchestra/Rising Storm franchise essentially perfected FPS mechanics, with the aiming deadzone implementation, adjustable iron sights (which would translate to optics), realistic recoil and sounds and reloading, bi-pod deployment, copy all of it. Also go for full simulation when it comes to bullet penetration; S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has some, but it’s simple and statically coded. For shooting mechanics, everyone must see the GUNSLINGER mod for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat, which is sure to be one of the best FPS experiences ever.

We need the animation quality of those games (preferably animations recorded at 200+ FPS like Killing Floor 2), mechanics, and the customization of the GUNSLINGER mod linked above. See this video for example:

If modders can do it, GSC Game World can. The game (not mod) that comes closest to that right now is Escape from Tarkov, a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. inspired game. On that note, greater armor simulation would be nice; what S.T.A.L.K.E.R. currently has, as mentioned above, is great, but let’s make armor far more customizable like say Arma 3 and Escape from Tarkov where you can customize what pouches and containers are on your vest and clothes, and lets add a bit more realism like deflections. Let’s also improve melee combat, make knives much more fun to use and also let the player use anything as a weapon within reason, like in Bethesda’s Fallout games and also Crysis.

A common wish we have for action games in general is greater, more realistic mobility. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 should allow the player to climb any ledge, like in the classic Thief games and the Dishonored series. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 should also have prone position, perhaps a modular stance system just like Arma 3. The world should also be FAR more interactive; almost all of it should be physics enabled, not just for destruction like a Battlefield game but for interactivity. The player should be able to interact with doors, move around more objects, like the Deus Ex games, titles from Frictional Games, and F.E.A.R. but even more. Imagine a Pseudogiant tearing down a building to get to you… yes please!

 

Include Alternate Game Modes Like Call of Chernobyl

One of the most awesome things about Call of Chernobyl mod is that it has more than one game mode. The unmodded S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games only have one single player game mode, the campaign. Call of Chernobyl on the other hand has Story mode (akin to the unmodded campaign mode), free play mode (no main story because you do not play as the protagonist, you can instead create your character as someone from ANY of the game’s factions) which is not an explicit mode but rather what you play when Story mode is unchecked as per the screenshot above, and Azazel mode in which if the player dies, he/she automatically takes control of another NPC in the game world. In Call of Chernobyl’s Azazel mode, once the player dies, the first priority goes to the player’s squad members if he/she has any: the player will automatically take control of a squad member first, playing as them now. The player’s original character is dead, gone forever, and can be looted as if he was just another NPC killed in the Zone. Once depleted of squad members, Azazel becomes randomized, automatically giving the player control of a random NPC anywhere in the game mode upon death. Azazel mode is best used in tandem with Ironman Mode, which deletes all saves once you die!

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 should include a free play mode with optional Azazel mode and Ironman mode like Call of Chernobyl. It is wicked fun.

 

Retain the Brilliant Sound Design of the Originals

When we say the originals, emphasis on Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat, but all three S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games have superior sound processing to all games today. They utilize the OpenAL audio API, the best in the industry, and support hardware accelerated sound (using Creative X-Fi audio processors) and EAX (which would translate to the open alternative EFX in this day and age). The result of all of this is far better spatial audio than any game today, you really need to use OpenAL and hardware acceleration to achieve this it seems, as no other game comes close. The sound of rain and thunderstorms in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is utterly unrivaled, the bass from thunder and the sound of rain all around you, nothing else like it exists. To truly understand this, you must play Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat with a Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD sound card feeding an optical TOSLINK signal to an A/V receiver, powering at least a 5.1 surround system. Then you will see what I mean.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 needs to continue with this forgotten tradition of actually giving a damn about sound reproduction. Use OpenAL, support hardware acceleration and also software acceleration like OpenAL Soft. Since OpenAL Soft is free and open source, just include that directly. Also make use of all of the latest and greatest EFX features, described here. Sound is hugely important to immersion, and modern games tend to disappoint here as sound processing was objectively greatly superior in the 2000s in games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat.

 

Retain Full Moddability

One of the primary reasons S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has lived for over a decade is due to mods. Mods are all that keeps S.T.A.L.K.E.R. alive today. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is endlessly moddable, each game having a full SDK and the source code is available for at least the first game. People have made everything from small tweaks to total conversions taking place in newly designed worlds, and modders have even created their own SDKs for the game (namely dez0wave group, creators of Lost Alpha). This must not change. Even if S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 ends up being a flawless game (near impossible for any game), we need this moddability just to add more content, not necessarily to change content. Though chances are we’ll need to do both!

 

Do NOT Become a Full Fledged RPG

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are not RPGs, but do borrow slightly from them to allow some player agency within the story. That is great, but let’s stop there. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was never meant to be an RPG, let’s hope GSC has not forgotten that since (weak) RPGs are all the rage these days. Stick to what you know best, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is an FPS first and foremost. An RPG with a leveling system and what not would ruin the game, as the FPS/survival mechanics revolve around a level of realism that is not possible with common RPG systems. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, that certainly applies to the game genre of a popular franchise such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

These are our thoughts and wishes for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2. Share yours below!

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