When asked “if you could vacation anywhere, where would you most like to go?” Probably very few people answer “the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone”. Well, I am one of those very few. I’ve been obsessed with the Chernobyl story since I first learned about it in grade school: a cataclysmic nuclear fire that caused an entire region to be evacuated, now reclaimed by feral beasts and mutated catfish feeding off the reactor cooling pool effluence (this part of the story is true). A 1980s era Soviet city, Pripyat, frozen in time. Train cars stuck on the tracks with no hope of passengers, huge dock cranes abandoned amidst their daily work, now posed like ancient extinct skeletal beasts stuck in time, over the horizon. Realistically, it’ll be a tough trip to do and with each year “the Zone” becomes more tightly controlled and hard to tour.
Thankfully, the PC game “S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat” gives me the next best thing. “Stalker” is actually the third game in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series, and was released in 2010. The game plays like a “budget Fallout 4” wherein it’s a first person shooter with RPG and survival horror elements. Call of Pripyat had a lot going for it, it just wasn’t very mainstream. It was developed by obscure Ukrainian developer CSG Game World and did not have much of a marketing budget to speak of. I only heard of it when I stumbled on it, Googling Chernobyl looking for an online tour or interactive experience
The game turned out to be an extremely pleasant surprise! To discuss STALKER, you really need a quick primer on the basics of the game. You play Major Alex Degtyarev, a former STALKER turned Ukrainian agent. STALKER, refers to groups of treasure seekers who prowl the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Why? Because in the story a second catastrophic accident leads to reality bending (and dangerous) “anomalies” scattered around the area. These anomalies spawn artifacts, which are essentially valuable new types of minerals which give you slight powers. You can keep many on hand to stack their effects, but mostly they’re to sell.
Major Degtyarev is dropped into Zaton, one of four real life districts in Chernobyl to try to understand where and why five Ukrainian helicopters crashed en route to the center of the Zone, the Chernoybl power plant itself. That’s the main goal of the story, but you’re welcome to explore and take the game at your own pace. The exploration is the part I loved, the games designers really tried hard to recreate Chernobyl as well as they could including many iconic places. For one district you go to is dominated by the Jupiter factory – a gigantic real life factory that was modeled inside and out as realistically as possible. I’ve looked up real Jupiter photos…And they did a good job in the game!
The game itself is cool because your character can’t actually “level up”. The only way he gets stronger is buying, scavenging, trading, or stealing better weapons and gear. Everything needs to be found: you start off with a military issue pistol and submachine gun, a little bit of ammo, and are simply dropped in a forest alone to orientate your way and complete your mission. The pacing is very good, with interesting and unique side missions. It starts off with a bang: Zaton is the best district in my opinion, I will never forget walking out of the forest to see two beached freighter ships on the bottom of a now-drained lake. Then above them, the shadows of the gigantic Zaton dock cranes, like silent goliaths peering over the whole region. I was hooked right then and there.
The game series itself is inspired by a famous Soviet era science fiction book called “Roadside Picnic” written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in 1971. It’s similar, involving STALKERS searching for artifacts in one of several “zones” after aliens make a brief pit stop on Earth causing major shifts in our reality. I own the book, but have some other stuff to read first. It will definitely be reviewed here later!
In the meantime, STALKER is available on Gog.com and I definitely recommend it to anyone who likes 1.) Cold War stuff and 2.) first person shooters with horror or RPG elements.
If you want to be amazed by the Chernobyl port cranes, like I am, the video below will show you why they’re so amazing. Skip to about 11:00 to see what it’s like to have them first loom out of the horizon…