The mid-day sun bears down on the Clear Sky greenhorn as he makes his way towards the old church. He received news that his target, the despicable bandit Egor Busybody and his crew, had set up camp in the ruins of the old church in the Great Swamp. The old man in Cordon had put a bounty on Egor for killing his courier and the greenhorn was set on picking up the tab.
As he inched closer to the church, the greenhorn hoped the rustling of the dried reeds won’t stir up the suspicions of the bandits or draw any attention from the mutated faunas that roam the area. “At least, I’m not doing this at night,” he thought to himself. He was warned by veterans not to roam around at night as that is when the more dangerous mutants come out to play.
Still hidden by the reeds, a few feet away from where the once glorious main gates of the church stood, he pulls out the SKS rifle handed down to him by his grandfather, peers down the scope and marks his target. His quarry was accompanied by two other bandits and they were going through the spoils of their latest heist around a campfire in the hall of the church.
The greenhorn stills his breath and places his finger on the trigger and prayed that the old rifle doesn’t jam. Just as he lines up his shot, the increasingly loud blare of a siren breaks the silence. “Crap,” he mutters to himself. A psi-storm was about to hit and he had to find shelter fast but the closest shelter he had, was the church with the bandits inside.
Welcome to Anomaly
The scenario above is incredibly common in GSC Game World’s open-world first-person shooter trilogy of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, Shadow of Chernobyl (2007), Clear Sky (2008), Call of Pripyat (2009) and also the ambitious fan-made mod, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Anomaly, which will be the main focus of this article.
For those who have never heard of or played the series, the games take place in the Zone, which is based on the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, after the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster. In this fictionalised post-apocalyptic setting, the Zone becomes a goldmine for adventurers and treasure hunters as it has started producing artefacts that aren’t just worth a pretty penny to researchers but can also enhance an individual’s ability. The dangerous levels of radiation have also made this the perfect place for shady organisations to conduct diabolical experiments.
Unlike the original trilogy that has players taking on the role of three legendary Stalkers, Anomaly takes place after the events of the previous games and you play as a newbie Stalker who joins up with one of the 12 factions and tries to make a name for themselves. You will hunt for artefacts, deadly mutants and other stalkers. By following the game’s main storyline, you will even get to meet some of the main players in the events of the original games.
Getting in the zone
The Anomaly mod essentially combines all three of the previous games into one free package and is available for download on Moddb. The Anomaly dev team have also updated the engine, and textures and added various quality of life features that should satisfy what most gamers would expect today.
However, they have also retained the difficulty, learning curve and unpredictability that fans of the series love. If Anomaly happens to be your first foray into the series, you will either have a fun or frustrating experience as the game leaves a lot of mechanics up to you to figure out for yourself.
This open-world first-person shooter has survival mechanics where food, water and sleep are essential to your survival. It also has a smattering of horror elements thrown into the mix as creatures and enemies wandering the Zone are unpredictable and can ambush you if you aren’t paying attention. Death comes easily and fast especially during the early game when you don’t have the best gear and will usually be outnumbered.
But it is this unpredictability that makes Anomaly feel unique and its open world alive. I know a lot of games in the same genre boast about this but I have never experienced anything quite like GSC Game World’s A-Life AI. With A-Life, your treks in the Zone will rarely be the same as creatures and enemies are proactive. They roam the Zone and get into conflicts of their own. Events are unscripted and can have various outcomes, with or without your intervention. Even psi-storms or other emissions happen without warning.
Going back to the scenario I wrote for the opening, that scenario alone can play out in at least four ways. One, you kill the bandits and gain safe haven from the psi-storm; two, you run into the church but your gun jams and you are killed; three, you are killed by a pack of wild dogs sent into a frenzy by the looming psi-storm or four, a group of friendly stalkers seeking shelter run into the church, kill the bandits, essentially completing your task for you and providing you with free loot.
After spending the first few hours in Anomaly, you will learn that taking things slow and assessing your situation and surroundings will always be the best course of action. This is because other than the rival stalkers and mutant creatures, the Zone also has various anomalies, that act as traps scattered throughout the map. Many of these are hard to spot and can insta-kill you if you unwittingly step into one. With all these unpredictable elements though, more often than not you can use them to your advantage if you play your cards right. You can lead opposing members of a faction to fight with each other while you wait to pick off the stragglers.
It isn’t a picnic but it is fun
So what do you do in between all this looting, shooting and surviving? The main storyline will have you retrace the footsteps of the previous protagonists and the missions are somewhat similar with slightly retooled dialogues. As each faction has its own agenda in the Zone, depending on which you choose at the start, you will also have side missions to complete. These aren’t really anything to write home about but usually, they do give you a reason to explore other parts of the zone.
On top of that, there are also plenty of tasks that you can pick up from traders and other stalkers around the map. These are usually more rudimentary and made up of tasks like culling mutants, hunting down a bounty, delivering an item, rescuing prisoners and more. The reason why you would take on these tasks is that sometimes, the task giver will award you with coordinates to a special stash that usually has very good loot. The other reason would be just to see how it plays out. The task may be the same but the challenge and outcome will always be different.
Exploration is incredibly fun though as locations and atmospheres are very different from each other. For example, when you start off in Cordon’s Rookie Village, it is serene with is lush greenery and rolling knolls. As you move to the west, you arrive at the Great Swamps, this is a huge map filled with swaying reeds and radioactive bodies of water. Once you get further north, you eventually arrive in Pripyat where there are rows of abandoned and decaying apartments and office buildings.
The atmosphere is further amplified by the noises and sounds around you. In the Great Swamps, you will hear the croaking of frogs and chirps of crickets but also in a distance you could hear gunfire, the howling of mutated wolves or the bloodcurdling call of a Bloodsucker. For the brave soul who decides to go towards the noises, you are bound to find what made those noises.
Finally and on a very personal note, it is also the gunplay that got me hooked on the game. Anomaly has a huge roster of firearms (which can be expanded further using mods) and it’s just amazing how each one feels slightly different. Shooting isn’t just a run-and-gun affair, instead, you have to take into account bullet drop and also a bullet’s penetrating capabilities. Shotgun buckshot is great for taking out mutants but won’t do anything to an armoured enemy. Sniper rifles will take down most enemies with a single headshot but ammo is usually hard to find and expensive to buy. You could use older ammunition, but that would damage your gun and might even cause it to jam.
As mentioned, I have probably spent more than 60 hours in Anomaly and I have yet to finish a single run. Even if I do, I doubt I would stop playing the game entirely as I do with so many other games. This is because the Anomaly modding community is a very active one and there are huge mod packs that you can download which will change the game quite a fair bit. So far, the ones of note are GAMMA and Escape from Pripyat. The former makes the game more crafting and survival-focused, while the latter is inspired by Escape from Tarkov and changes the gunplay to be more militaristic. Both use more than 200 mods to change things up so if you want a fresh new take on the Zone, these are two of the best mod packs available today.
This will also likely help those who want to experience what the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are about before GSC Game World releases S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl next year.
So until my next article, I hope to see you in the Zone, Stalker.
Disclaimer: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Anomaly and the GAMMA and Escape from Pripyat modpacks mentioned in this article are all fan-made mods that are free to download. These are also still very much work-in-progress so do expect bugs and glitches.