The STALKER franchise is one of a kind. Combining an open world survival horror FPS with light RPG and tactical elements in a single, coherent package is unique in the gaming sphere and despite its numerous imperfections it is one of the most beloved PC game franchises of all time. In today’s article we outline some of our top wishes for the recently re-announced STALKER 2
This is the name of STALKER’s dynamic AI simulation system. It is one of its most outstanding (and troubled) features of the game and is unmatched to this day, 11 years later. It allowed for NPCs to wander around the game world, doing their own thing and engaging in combat without needing the player beside them. Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat only improved on the system, adding features such as Faction Wars and NPCs hunting for monsters and creating encampments. Mutants and animals would drag bodies to eat, humans would loot for more advanced weapons and use the correct one for each enemy type, and heal friends or execute enemies. And in actual combat? Considering the number of possible permutations and enemy types, the AI was really competent in most cases. Employing overwatch, covering fire, suppression and being able to handle dynamic situations with more than three opposing factions, mutants and all!
Military meet mercenaries, dynamically. By ZillerSplat
Truth is stability and bugs were the biggest issue with STALKER’s A-Life system. It can be downright peerless one second and descend into utter lunacy or nonsense the next. There is no shortage of AI fails, and I mean ones that just shouldn’t happen and show that, as incredible as GSC’s work was, it lacks polish. A-Life also was not multi-threaded and as one might guess…simulating a thousand humans or animals at the same time is quite the challenge and can cause stutter even on modern CPUs. Another problem was its sheer complexity and ambition – at one point in development the AI had the ability to team up and start finishing main quests before the player, completing the game without any player interaction. Current versions of the popular (and awesome) Call of Chernobyl mod, coupled with the DoctorX Dynamic Faction Relations and Living Zone are so far ahead of almost all other Open World games in terms of simulation that it stopped being funny five years ago.
So how should GSC deploy their legendary AI systems for STALKER 2? Well, since they are building on a new engine for sure (rumor has it this will be the Unreal Engine 4) we can assume that performance and CPU utilization will be better. The rest really is polish, and learning from what other developers have done to mask AI actor behaviors. From animations to more complex cycles, more dialogue and added interactions with the environment. Perhaps make the Zone economy a real thing driven by AI and player forces? Let the AI do repeatable quests and even entangle themselves in the main and secondary ones? This is a complex topic, of course, but it’s also of paramount importance for STALKER 2. Nailing it will not only show other developers how dynamic open worlds can be done well, but will also make the game more realistic, believable, immersive and fun.
Redo the shooting mechanics!
Sign says cut weapons. From BartTV
The series already has a lot going for it. Ballistics simulation, armor and penetration models (simplified), different types of ammo with different properties and add–ons for almost all weapon types. Thing is, it lacks simpler victories – impact, feedback and animation quality for a start. The problem here is one of both technology and design.
Dreaded anomalies can eat through the mightiest armor.
Improving the shooting mechanics is one of the simpler problems to solve, in theory. This will call for higher quality animations, better weapon models, better audio and work on feedback. Modern games may have much simpler (which isn’t always bad mind you!) shooting mechanics, but they do generally look and sound great. GSC would do well to emulate the work of developers such as Tripwire, DICE, and id and combine it with what STALKER already has mastered. 240 hz animations? Great sound mixing? Sleek and powerful animations as well as enemy responses to being hit? These things will improve the experience, especially one as dependent on its own weapons as STALKER. Even when the player does not shoot their weapon—and that’s surprisingly often for a shooter—they are still on the lookout for gear, upgrading their own stuff or listening to sound cues to know what is happening in the world around them. All this matters a lot.
And please no more balancing ladders! Just because a weapon can be found earlier in the game does not mean it should magically deal less damage or break more often than late game ones. This issue was prevalent in Shadow of Chernobyl and is almost fully fixed as of Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat, but it is so silly that it happened even once that I feel it has to be mentioned. Advice: base guns at least somewhat on their real world capabilities. After all, often enough the real world is more balanced than people think. Since cost, weight, maintenance, add-ons, and availability are real factors in the series, the real–world statistics can be used with little need for making stuff up. Sure, that beautiful G36 is a damn fine rifle, and that AS VAL is quite lethal, but if the trusty old upgraded AK that is easy to repair and has hundreds of rounds stored away still gets the job done well enough… well, players will get to make their own choices, and they will be viable ones.
Use the themes and ideas of the universe to full effect!
Even the weather is death itself, featuring MISERY mod.
The series has one of the best–realized and most believable worlds in gaming science fiction. Of course, breaks in reality and mumbo jumbo exist, and the actual plotlines are not very exciting, but the actual planning of the world, factions and motivations, and the internal consistency…are all nailed down so well. Unfortunately, the developers have so far failed to utilize is the entirety of the setting’s themes and ideas, so work remains to be done.
This thing writes itself. A modern version of the Klondike Gold rush set in a Zone already twice strangled by human progress and greed. People from all walks of life and countries, rich and poor, come to this now inhuman, alien area looking for a restart, adventure, a place to escape the authorities or riches to set their life in order and save their family’s lives. The very DNA of the game’s worlds has been inspired by the classics of literature and cinema, and by real world events. All of these elements are official parts of the game’s lore and design. The problem is that little of it has materialized in full, as a tangible part of the plot or characters, as a part of the world. With so many high and low concepts and ideas, all of them proven to work well together or alone, there is almost no limit to what an experienced writer can do with STALKER’s universe. Very few games have so much going for them, so it would be a shame if it were to continue to go largely unexplored.
Showcase more of the Zone!
By Pavel Bondarenko
The Zone is one of gaming’s crowning achievements in design and once again it is damn near cheating. Based on the real-world Zone of Alienation but with a lot of liberties taken, it is a haunting place full of otherworldly beauty and extreme horror. Dreadful experiments carried out under the dead Soviet empire, mistakes committed by a young Ukraine and the arrogance of all of humanity have left their marks on the fictional setting. Many of the game’s fans have fallen in love with this terrifying place because of GSC Game World’s excellent design and world building. But no one is questioning the developers’ skill or the concept of the world. What is essential is that younger designers working on the project study the originals and open world design in general. The fans would for sure appreciate seeing their old iconic areas and many more!
In a perfect world we would be getting the entire Zone… but perhaps that is too much land area. Game designers these days use map size as a bit of a benchmark. However, the truth is that density and quality content matter more. A solid map stretching from its border with Belarus to the classical Cordon, the Zone center and the Zaton river would be a dream.
Up the dialogue and alternative ways of solving problems!
The series is a shooter at heart, but what made it stand out was how free the players were to approach problems within the game world. From alternative pathways, different guard schedules during different times of the day, using the environment as a tool and a weapon and even talking their way out of certain situations. Clear Sky upped the dialogue options but Call of Pripyat made the game an almost RPG-Lite. Please, keep the game an FPS first, but learning from RPGs, having a good dialogue system and more ways of solving one’s problems will only add to the series’ identity and depth. Intimidation, stealing uniforms, bartering, paying off other humans, maybe even engaging in dialogue with some of the sentient mutants, all of these things can be done and would, if executed well, improve the overall experience.
The last point is key. Mods are what has kept the series alive for so long and what has been a guiding light for GSC in the past, with Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat borrowing ideas and mechanics from what modders have done in the past. Today’s insane projects, aka Dead Air, Gunslinger or Lost Alpha, can rival what AAA game developers can achieve in sheer enjoyment, size, and replayability. The modding community loves the series and the series itself owes it to its fans to continue with this good will. No matter what else may happen, even if STALKER 2 were to be a multi-platform title, it has to keep its modding base on PC alive. And that goes whether we’re talking about the greatest—or worst—game ever released.
And with that we conclude our S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 wishlist. We are fans of the series and have both high hopes and a healthy skepticism for this title. No matter what happens, though, we can barely wait to see what the developers can deliver. Now here’s to them taking our little list into consideration!