From Fallout to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

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With the success of Fallout 3, a sequel is sure to be in the works, and hopefully announced at this year’s E3.

In less than a month, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, more commonly known as E3, will descend upon Los Angeles, and with it will come loud, obnoxious, but informative press conferences from the big three – Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony. Many other publishers will also hold their own shows, but this year, for the first time ever, developer Bethesda will have their own E3 presentation to throw into the mix.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as Bethesda is expected to announce both DOOM and Fallout 4. While both are popular and eagerly anticipated by legions of fans, there’s no denying that people are going (and have been going) crazy for Bethesda’s latest take on the Fallout universe. From hoax websites to headlines about casting calls (and even LinkedIn profiles), Fallout 4 might be the most anticipated game at this year’s E3. And for good reason. Fallout 3 was both critically and commercially successful, making any sequel a must-own for fans. However, it was also the first time Bethesda produced a Fallout game, and after briefly handing the franchise off to developer Obsidian Entertainment for Fallout: New Vegas, gamers have been curious to see how Bethesda evolves the franchise. Will they stick to the formula they used for Fallout 3, or will they implement some of the new gameplay features Obsidian added to their entry?

While I am sure everyone has an opinion on this topic, I can’t help but think that Bethesda should look beyond Fallout: New Vegas, as there is another game they can draw from that would elevate Fallout 4 into new territory. The catch is that, outside of dedicated PC gaming circles, this franchise isn’t widely known, and the last time a game was released in the franchise, Bethesda was still putting out downloadable content for Fallout 3. But that’s beside the point – Bethesda, or any developer currently producing a post-apocalyptic open-world game, should be looking at a little franchise by the name of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

What is S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

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It may not look like much is going on in this screen shot of S.TA.L.K.E.R., but the player character is very close to death at all times, even here.

For the uninitiated, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a semi-open-world, post-apocalyptic, first-person-shooter, survival-horror hybrid. All three games in the franchise were created by Ukrainian developer GSC Game World on miniscule budgets (when compared to Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto), yet all three titles are ambitious, and the ideas found within still hold up some eight years later.

Players enter a world called the Zone, which is composed of the land surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The history of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. mirrors our own to a point – there was a nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, and the area surrounding it became radioactive. The history branches off some years after that incident – in this world, people tried to move back into the area and rebuild. However, a second, more devastating nuclear disaster hit, and the area became a twisted landscape full of mutants and strange anomalies. However, an unintended consequence of this is that the Zone began to produce strange and valuable artifacts, creating a sort of radioactive-gold rush of people illegally entering the Zone, hoping to find immense wealth. Alongside these scavengers, commonly known as STALKERs (Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers and Robbers), are military personnel looking to take control of the territory, and scientists hoping to study and understand the mysterious Zone.

The world of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is bleak and depressing, and survival is never guaranteed, no matter how good the player’s gear is or how skilled they become at the game. The gameplay is punishing, but is also satisfying, weaving together a number of distinct genres together seamlessly. Considering how little of a budget the games were developed on, it’s amazing to see how ambitious its ideas are, and how successful GSC was at implementing most of them. So well, in fact, that these ideas and gameplay mechanics should not be overlooked or forgotten, and even a developer such as Bethesda could learn a couple tricks from these games.

A Unique Take On Increased Difficulty

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Obliterating enemies with starting weapons should never be a feature in a post-apocalyptic game.

For research, I of course needed to load up an old Fallout 3 save, to remind myself how the game played. I dropped into my apartment in Megaton, realizing that I had no context for this character, no idea what type of build it was, or how far I was into the game. I stepped outside and within minutes I was gunning down enemies, including one of the infamous Deathclaws. I checked the settings, and I had already set the difficulty to hard, and after a bit more menu surfing I concluded that I was rampaging across the Capital Wasteland as a stealth character.

The ability to construct a character that the player can utilize however they see fit, consequences be damned, works great for Bethesda’s other franchise, The Elder Scrolls, thanks to its fantasy setting. However, Fallout demands a higher difficulty, a cause and effect, because of its setting. A post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland is not a place one expects to be God-like – everyone should be scavenging for every last bullet, searching high and low for healing devices and shelter. But in Fallout 3, difficulty is an after thought, taking players out of the moment, removing them so far from this dire setting that it can actually be pleasant to wander out into the wasteland.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. isn’t an RPG, but it does allow for a variety of playstyles – do players want to travel light and fast, and get up close and personal with a shotgun? Or would they rather fight at range, popping in and out of cover with an assault rifle? Or how about taking time to line up the perfect shot, the enemy completely unaware of their presence, and picking each enemy off one at a time? Just like Fallout 3, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. allows for these varied playstyles, but the key difference is that, at any moment, no matter how great the player’s gear is or how powerful their weapons, it can all come to an abrupt end with just a couple well-placed shots. There certainly is a desire to obtain more resources and better gear – doing so allows the player to venture into much more dangerous territory. However, all this better gear does is allow the player to make medical kits stretch just a bit further, and maybe dispatch a couple extra enemies with that small pile of ammo. With a constant threat of death around every corner, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. carries a sense of dread that permeates every square inch of the Zone – there is no such thing as a simple task, and the player must prepare and strategize a plan of attack, as well as gathering enough resources to not only complete an objective, but to make it back to home base alive.

After hitting level ten in Fallout 3, there is little reason to plan an attack or worry about resources – with a few, rare exceptions, it is a pretty simple game, and a post-apocalyptic game should never feel calming and comforting. If Bethesda really wants gamers to feel like they are scraping the bottom of the barrel just to survive, then the difficulty needs to be increased, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. certainly lays out a great blueprint for that increased difficulty. Preparation should take precedence over having the most powerful or explosive guns.

Pistols, Flamethrowers and Mini-Nukes

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Bethesda has always struggled with gameplay balance, as evident by the bandit in high level gear, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R. manages to solve this problem.

In my brief time reacquainting myself with Fallout 3, I noticed that every gun I had was fully capable of taking out the majority of enemies, even though many of them were starting weapons I acquired within the first five levels. Although the starting weapons are basic, such as pistols and hunting rifles, it takes little time to repair them to maximum condition, which allows them to take out most low to mid-level enemies with ease, and if the player runs into a group of Talon Company mercenaries, a combat shotgun will come in handy, a gun that can be obtained very early on and most likely will stick with the player for the majority of their run. By that point, the player isn’t really searching for a new weapon, so much as they are constantly repairing their starting weapons and relying heavily on them.

This balance has always been a problem with Bethesda games, and to their credit they have tried a number of ways to solve this riddle. In The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the game world and the enemies in it have a pre-determined level, meaning that the player at level two could stumble upon a level thirty enemy. While players claimed to prefer this, it had one critical downside – since items did not scale to the player’s level, a savvy player could figure out how to get a powerful item very early on, throwing the balance of the game off, and removing surprise and spontaneity. Every playthrough would be the same, something that can cripple an open-world RPG that places an emphasis on customization. When The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was released, everything in the world – enemies, weapons and gear, leveled up alongside the player, allowing for items to be randomly generated and for each playthrough to, in theory, play out differently. However, it quickly became jarring to be ambushed by a lowly bandit, who somehow acquired a full set of high-end glass armor, one of the best in the entire game. Fallout 3 tries to find a balance in the middle, but misses this mark thanks to starting weapons that are too powerful for their own good.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. doesn’t feature a world or resources that level up alongside the player, taking the Morrowind route. Additionally, the starting weapons are just that – starting weapons, and are meant to be replaced as soon as possible. There’s just one catch – replacing them is in itself a difficult task. Early on, all enemies are on the same level as the player, because the best anyone can afford are starting weapons. Their aim is atrocious, they constantly jam and they do next to no damage. Getting a kill seems more like a stroke of luck than it does skill and cunning. Eventually, the player might pick up an assault rifle that allows them to somewhat protect themselves, but eventually they will run up against well-equipped enemies. If the player wants that great gear, all they have to do is take it for themselves, something that is far easier said than done. Every advancement in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is earned through hard work, planning, resource management and taking gigantic risks. Those new, more powerful weapons sure are nice, but obtaining them comes with a price, and ultimately the player has a stronger attachment to them then they do a combat shotgun or rocket launcher in Fallout 3. By avoiding the issue of weapon progression being tied to leveling, and by limiting the usefulness of starting weapons, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. feels rewarding in ways that Fallout 3 could never achieve.

Managing the Loot of the Wasteland

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A screenshot of the inventory in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – this one screen contains all of the player’s gear and even provides basic information, such as armor condition and current health.

Bethesda games seem to encourage the hoarder in all of us – no other game compels me to collect piles upon piles of seemingly random junk, just to store it back at my house for use, maybe, at a later time. Looting is a crucial aspect of any game focusing on survival, but the approach utilized in Fallout 3 is, frankly, bland and boring. Players have a certain weight limit (which, to be honest, is already too high), and once they surpass that limit, they can no longer jump and they move very slowly. Fast travel is disabled, meaning if a player wants to take all of their loot back home, they have to make the long, very slow walk. Additionally, the menus the player has to navigate to sort through their loot is a mess – for everything great Fallout 3 does, it seems impossible that the item menus are handled so poorly. So what can be done? S.T.A.L.K.E.R. manages to find an answer, from a genre many would not associate with the first-person shooter.

In my initial description, I attached numerous labels to S.T.A.L.K.E.R., but the one that has the single biggest impact on gameplay balance is survival horror. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. draws inspiration from this genre in a number of ways – the game is very atmospheric, and with some levels taking place underground in tight corridors with little light and plenty of mutants ready to devour the player hole, it can certainly feel like a horror game. But S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is also a survival horror game when it comes to inventory management. Every item in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has a weight, and the player, much like in Fallout 3, can only carry so much. The difference is in how much – S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is very limiting in the amount of items the player can carry, which solves a couple issues. First, navigating the inventory is easy – there is only one screen, and all items are laid out before the player. It’s easy to find bandages to heal a wound, or anti-radiation medicine – there’s no need to sift through multiple menus, searching for the one item the player needs. And since the player can only carry so much, it prevents the hoarder mentality, meaning that any item the player picks up must offer a significant amount of value, either monetary value or value in terms of survival.

It’s time that Fallout embrace the survival horror genre, and put severe limits on what players can carry with them while traversing the wastes. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. uses this mechanic to achieve two distinct goals, and that one of them is superior inventory management is astounding, since Bethesda has had years to perfect this aspect of their games. Hopefully Fallout 4 has a streamlined menu, and forces players to carefully select what they take with them and what they are forced to leave behind.

War… War Always Changes

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The civil war story in Skyrim was a neat idea, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R. laid out a blueprint for how it can be even better.

One area where both Fallout and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. are pretty even is in the number of unique factions inhabiting their worlds. Fallout 3 may have taken a simplistic approach to this, relative to the established canon, but even Bethesda’s entry offers players a glimpse into the many ways society has splintered over the last two hundred years. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. showcases a variety of factions, all with competing goals and motivations, such as the Russian military looking to keep people out of the Zone, or the Monolith, a secret group of soldiers seemingly brainwashed by the Zone. Even in extreme circumstances, humanity can survive, and will still find ways to fight one another.

This aspect was explored a bit further in Fallout: New Vegas, which featured a much more robust karma system. Instead of the player having one meter which determines if they are good, neutral or evil, the player had an individual ranking with each faction they encountered. It was a great idea, and before playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it was one I hoped to see in Fallout 4. But the second entry in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise, Clear Sky, takes this idea and implements it in a way that I feel is now mandatory for any post-apocalyptic games. Titled “Faction Wars,” players can join a number of factions, and engage in a war with the opposing faction in real-time, and can monitor progress from their map. Players can watch enemy units advancing onto their position, can plot out which strategic points they should capture from the enemy first, and ultimately take out their enemy by destroying their main base. It adds another dimension to the gameplay, as areas that may have been safe to pass through before are now littered with enemy forces. Since the player has a number of options when choosing which faction to align themselves with, each playthrough can have a different look and feel.

There is just one catch – in Clear Sky, the idea proved to be too ambitious, and the Faction Wars mode is a complete disaster. Enemies constantly respawn, and when attacking the enemy base to win the faction war, allies seemingly lose interest in the idea, forcing the player to take on twenty enemies solo. But it’s not the idea that is bad, but merely GSC’s execution of said idea. In the capable hands of Bethesda (who also has an enormous staff and a large budget), this type of mode could be revolutionary. They toyed with the idea in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – the civil war storyline had two sides the player could join, although each side’s story played out relatively the same. What would be fascinating to see would be a combination of Faction Wars from Clear Sky, along with the karma system from New Vegas. Fighting a war is what people do in the nuclear wasteland, and being able to ditch the main story for a bit to help take a fort or obliterate an enemy would be a welcome change of pace. It also would introduce some light real-time strategy to the mix. It’s one more detail that would make the world feel alive and real, something the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise often accomplishes, despite its barren wasteland setting.

Lessons From the Past

There are many ways in which Fallout 4 could benefit greatly from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise – ideas and mechanics that would set Fallout 4 apart not just from previous Fallout games, but from other open-world games as well. Best of all, these changes would not only elevate Fallout to the next level, but would keep the core identity of the franchise intact. But it shouldn’t just be Bethesda who gains from this franchise – anyone making an open-world game should look at what GSC accomplished, and should implement these ideas into their own games. It looks as if the world will never see a proper sequel to the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, which is a shame, but hopefully Bethesda can do their part and bring some of the Zone into the next Fallout wasteland.