When you mention mods in gaming a few names pop up right away. Bethesda seems to have made a habit out of including modibility in titles like Skyrim or Fallout 4, Valve has turned mods into games and a major part of Steam, and Paradox regularly encourages modding in their titles like Crusader Kings 2 or Hearts of Iron. But few game franchises have benefited from the power of their modding community like the STALKER series has. A trio of bizarre and somewhat obscure horror-shooters from GSC Game World, it’s a series that’s attracted a massive following in the mod world, and arguably been saved by the efforts of the fans. There are dozens of mods for each of the three games, far too many to name in this article, so here’s a spotlight on some of the more notable and impressive creations.
STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl
In it’s 10 years the original STALKER title has amassed a massive following, and many still view it as the best game in the series. Trying to play the vanilla version now isn’t impossible, but with so many different ways to improve the look and experience it seems like a waste of time. For those looking to experience the heart and soul of the original game, but with a massive face lift, the obvious choice is Autumn Aurora 2. AA2 is an overhaul of the first game’s look, while leaving the story and core mechanics mostly untouched. First thing you’ll notice is the greatly improved graphics, which does wonders for the aging title and it still looks great even compared to the later games. There’s also tonnes of new guns, improvements to AI, new mechanics like the artifact detector, and a host of minor tweaks. This is probably the best way for new players to acclimate into SoC, but it’s a decent change for veteran players too.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is the STALKERSOUP mega-compilation pack. The name sort of implies what you’re going to get, insofar as it’s a soup made up of dozens of different mods, culminating in an experience way larger than the base game could dream of. A whopping 53 levels, three times that of the original game, along with 230, 000 new objects and weighing in at 15 gigs of data. STALKERSOUP sets the watermark for the sub-genre of STALKER mods that focus on freedom and exploration, more content to let the player wander around the Zone and create their own stories rather than try to force a plot. It’s a great time sink, provided you have the disk space, and an impressive piece of work from fans that love the game.
STALKER: Clear Sky
While Clear Sky might not receive the same amount of love and adoration as its brother games, there’s still plenty of mods to improve what many consider a broken game. Clear Sky Complete is probably the most recommended Clear Sky mod, as it applies a tonne of fixes and tweaks the game without changing anything to drastically. There’s a version of the Complete mod for all three games, but this is the only one that’s actually recommended, as SoC and Call of Pripyat both have better and more polished overhaul mods that blow Complete out of the water. Still, the Clear Sky version is incredibly well made and goes a long way to making the game enjoyable.
Arguably the best idea in Clear Sky was it’s faction war meta-game, where the player could join with one of The Zone’s various factions and work with them to claim dominance. While that sounds great, in the vanilla game this adds up to about a half-dozen side quests that end in a big firefight, and nothing else. The Faction War Mod greatly expands on this idea, so much so that the original plot of Clear Sky is cut out completely to let the player mess around commanding their troops. Rather than pitch two factions against each other in short, somewhat scripted side quests, Faction War‘s final objective is to pick one of the heavily armed groups and wipe everyone else out. As you take out competition the other factions grow stronger, adding a nice difficulty curve that provides a decent level of dynamic challenge. This mod is a must for anyone that’s ever wanted to act out a fantasy of becoming a post-apocalyptic warchief.
STALKER: Call of Pripyat
The third game in the series is also, by far, the most stable and player friendly. The vanilla game is a lot of fun, and its actually totally fine by itself. Consider the mods for this game to be cherries on a sundae, an extra bit of nice on something already great.
The STALKER series has always erred on the side of survival horror, forcing players to manage inventories and avoid deadly hazards. Despite this some players still found the experiences too easy, and they desired something harder, or in this case, downright masochistic. Enter MISERY, whose name should tell you everything you need to know. If it didn’t have the same story and characters, MISERY could be a different game entirely, introducing a new class system, loads of new guns, and incalculable tweaks to gameplay all in the interest of killing you horrifically. Deadly beasts, wandering zombies, and your fellow STALKERs, all ready to drop you in a heartbeat. MISERY doesn’t care about you, not for a second, but defeating it provides a visceral thrill that most games just can’t compete with.
For those looking for a less…painful experience, SGM is a modpack that adds new weapons, new missions, and updated graphics to the game. There’s a few variations, but most people recommend the 2.2 release of the pack, which seems to be the most complete and the best translated version. While it may lack features like new maps or huge sweeping changes, SGM provides enough new stories to experience and weapons to play with to make it a great mod to spice up CoP without getting to weird with it.
Over the years the STALKER series has gathered a decent fan base, spurred on by the impressive mods for the games, never mind how different the games are compared to every other shooter on the market. Despite this, new STALKER games seem less and less likely each year, mostly because no one seems to know who owns the IP rights, and whoever does own them isn’t rushing out to make new ones. This has left the fans in a state of limbo, and while the mods for the existing games are great they can only do so much. It is here that the STALKER mod base goes above and beyond others, since rather then wait for a new game from the real developers, they just went out and made their own. Twice actually.
First is STALKER: Lost Alpha, not quite a totally new game, but rather a standalone rebuilt version of the alpha release of Shadow of Chernobyl. The main purpose of the mod was to restore content cut out of the original game, while also doing the series as a whole justice. Developed based on screenshots as old as 2002, and leaked builds of SoC, Lost Alpha adds new missions, new locations, and new weapons, as well as upgrading the visuals considerably. The amount of work put into this mod is impressive, and it was awarded the ModDB Mod of the Year award in 2014. An interesting note, there were actually plans for Lost Alpha to be officially released by GSC Game World, and even a Steam version teased at one point. However, due to a leaked version getting released early, as well as problems with the initial release, those plans seem to have evaporated. Still, this is a 100% free and legal way to play Shadow of Chernobyl and a great place to start with the series.
More recently the STALKER series has once again claimed top mod, with the 2016 award winning STALKER: Call of Chernobyl mega-mod. CoC plays like a best-of for the rest of the series, using maps for all three games and allowing players to freely traverse The Zone to their heart’s content. Originally a mod for CoP, the mod just grew to be too big, and is now completely standalone for anyone to play for free. The amount of content included here is nothing short of impressive, and the whole thing is a monument to everything that makes the STALKER series great. Even more fitting is that this mod has it’s own mod community with different tweaks and weapon packs to add to what is already a great game. Anyone with a passing interest in the series owes it to themselves to try out CoC, and its a great way to find out if the STALKER games are for you.
It’s impossible to know if we’ll ever see a proper new STALKER game. There have been rumors for years, and even a few pretenders like Survarium and Escape from Tarkov, games that seek to ape the style and atmosphere that the STALKER series perfected. Ten years on though, it doesn’t seem to matter. The mod community for these games has made it known time and time again that they’re willing to keep their games alive, rebuilding them and refining them. The STALKER series stands out as a testament to what a community can and will do when they love the games, and it shows just how powerful mods can really be. There’s so many mods not mentioned here, never mind combination packs that mix and match. With two free games, and 10 years of mods, there’s little reason not to at least try to enter The Zone and see what its like to be a STALKER.