STALKER: GAMMA – A Rough Diamond, But a Gem Nonetheless

STALKER: GAMMA is an exceptional mod for a classic RPG/shooter and RPG shooter, but it can’t overcome the game’s inherent flaws.

A roar in the distance permeates the afternoon fog.

I tighten my grip on my 2020-spec AK12, a gun I bought less than an hour ago from a trader at Yanov station. Not the best rifle in the world, but 5.45x39mm ammo is plentiful in the zone, and relatively cheap. I’d be lying too if I said I wasn’t just damn curious about the thing.

I’m travelling with a pair of “loner” stalkers, not part of any faction. They turn their heads to follow the noise, and I take point. We track the sounds to a small camp among some caravan trailers and junk piles. The Geiger counter in my pocket emits a subtle tick as we walk past.

Suddenly, fast, heavy footfalls approach to my front. I get two shots off before the creature appears, almost out of thin air- a bloodsucker. The beast wraps it’s tentacles around my neck as I gasp for air, my companions unable to get a clear shot. I fumble around for my knife, feeling the hilt of the weapon at the last moment before the creature releases it’s grasp, taking a swing with it’s claws and leaving a gash under my arm. It disappears again before I can grab my slung AK.

Blood – mostly my own, seeps into my surplus bytan jacket as I hear the bloodsucker running around for another pass. I make sure to flick the AK12 to full auto this time. It makes a run for one of the loners, grunting and panting not unlike a feral dog. We’re ready this time. The two stalkers and I dump round after round into the creature and this time it collapses with a dull WHUMP.

I reach into my bag and grab a likely expired Soviet-era combat bandage and tie it around my wound. One of the loners pokes his rifle barrel into the beast to make sure it’s dead, as I reach further into my bag: a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, surprisingly hard to find in the zone. I light one up and take a breather.

Holy shit, that was awesome.”

On another day, I’m diving solo into the tunnels of the Agroprom research complex, in pursuit of some legendary stalker’s alleged underground base and the knowledge contained within. “Cool, sounds like fun” I say to myself.

I’m sneaking through a long hallway full of anomalies – rifts in the fabric of reality that, in this case, will shoot a jet of scalding fire into your face if you make one wrong step. A snork – a kind of humanoid crawling mutant – climbs out of a pipe in front and above me, and I dispatch it quickly with my MP-153 shotgun. Easy enough.

Not a moment later 2-3 more snorks show up; the way these mutants attack is by leaping long distances, with no audio cue or sound to match other than the occasional growl. I forgot to mention that these snorks appeared behind me, and leapt towards my unassuming, sorry ass without so much as a slight footfall. I die instantly, despite wearing a fairly nice helmet and body armor.

“What the fuck?” I say out loud. I load a save, pop open the debug menu, flip on God mode and run through the hallway in front of me. Dozens more snorks spawn as I run through, all flying off the walls like crazy monkeys, and I’m unable to land a hit on a single one of them. I reach the end of the hall and also find it goes the wrong way. I alt + F4.

“This game sucks, I can’t believe I duped myself into installing it.”

Such is the life of a STALKER gamer.

It came with the optic.

This is G.A.M.M.A.

STALKER: Anomaly is a standalone, free to play mod for the games STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl and STALKER: Call of Pripyat. The mod merges the content from both games, including some from another spin-off title, STALKER: Clear Sky. It’s been generally regarded as the magnum opus of STALKER experiences for fans of the obscure Ukrainian open world shooter/RPG.

The STALKER series, while neglected since 2009, has been kept alive with a cult following among PC gamers for it’s extensive modding scene, and Anomaly is currently the standard on which all over mods are built. So much so that there are, in fact, mods FOR Anomaly- and this is where GAMMA comes into play.

G.A.M.M.A. (or Grok’s Automated Modular Modpack for Anomaly), is a stabilized modpack for Anomaly that combines all of the highest-regarded mods for the Anomaly framework. Generally these are quality of life mods and bug fixes, but also additional content such as new NPC’s, a lot of guns, and some serious graphical improvements. The modpack is incredibly easy to use as it comes with an actual installer, automatically downloading the content from modding website ModDB, and using the venerable Mod Organizer 2 application to bring it all together. Compared to the traditional style of rifling through hundreds of pages on ModDB to find what you want, downloading countless zip files, plugging it all together manually and praying that stuff works, the experience with GAMMA might as well be like installing an old game on Steam. I left the application running when I went to bed and it was good to go when I woke up the next morning. A full tutorial can be found on the GAMMA Discord server.

This gets a bit confusing, so to summarize:
-STALKER is the game Anomaly is based on.
-Anomaly is a standalone mod for the base game, STALKER.
-GAMMA is a mod pack for Anomaly, which in itself is a standalone mod.

You’re telling me this game is from 2009!?

Into The Zone

Once it’s working, you get essentially the experience from Anomaly but with far more content and improvements. The game now plays like a slightly-jankier Escape from Tarkov (in fact, some of the gun models are ported directly from this game). Shooting mechanics, health and food management, and exploration represent the pillars of STALKER: GAMMA, all while maintaining some relative realism, especially in the combat. The polish here is clear in improved textures, sounds, and variety. A big plus for me was the animated items mod, which plays first-person animations when your character drinks from their canteen or picks up some loot (I had to turn this part of the mod on in the settings first, mind you).

For the gun people, GAMMA is chock full of firearms the world over. From starting M590 shotguns and rusted AKM’s that represent an explosive hazard, to exotic and obscure Lebedev PLK pistols and FN SCAR-H’s, along with a smorgasbord of attachments for those guns fortunate enough to come with picatinny rails. All of them are loaded with great animations, sounds and textures that, unlike other STALKER mods, are uniformly the same quality.

Like Anomaly, the core draw to this mod is the fact you can start a new character with any of the factions, completely from scratch, without having to ever follow a linear storyline. The zone is yours to explore as you see fit. Want easy mode? Sign up as an Ecologist and wander the zone collecting artifacts and doing odd-jobs. Need a challenge? Enter the zone as a ruthless western Mercenary and have to commit a mass-casualty event in Rostok every time you traverse the map. Hate everything and everyone? Join up with the brainwashed leagues of pious Monolith insurgents and achieve things only known to those few on the path of jihad.

All in all, STALKER Anomaly represents an excellent little gun-shooty game in an interesting universe, and GAMMA makes the experience that much better, and up to (relatively) modern standards.


The Rub

GAMMA is a damn fine modpack. I enjoyed the heck out of what it has to offer and a lot of the mods I’ve run in previous installs of Anomaly before. The fact the modpack installs itself is a real draw for me. So far the experience has been fun, and mostly what I expected.

Which is just it. GAMMA compiles some of the best mods from the STALKER community but it can’t fix the many problems this game has. From expecting the player to platform in a lackluster physics engine (the in-house X-Ray engine built by STALKER developer GSC Game World, one, that, it should be noted, has allegedly been scrapped for STALKER 2 in favor of the Unreal Engine) to traverse anomaly fields, mutants that counterbalance the game’s underwhelming AI by just being too god damn fast, and a strange and oftentimes frustrating approach to map design – with doors and pathways being arbitrarily impassable or confusing to navigate – STALKER at it’s core is a very flawed game. No amount of mods, save remaking the entire game, can fix that. If you’ve even played ten minutes of STALKER you know what I’m talking about.

Anomaly’s free-play mode includes an optional story questline given by the leader of the player’s faction that will revisit most locations and some characters of the original games, which gives the player an excuse to visit some areas they wouldn’t on their own. This is also where the major flaws of STALKER rear their ugly heads.

The term “subtlety” is a foreign concept for the developers of STALKER. The first 30 seconds of a dive into the Agroprom underground involves shooting a platoon-strength holdout of subterranean bandits (who aren’t so much as foreshadowed by ever showing up in great numbers on the surface, by the way), in a space about the size of a New York bodega. If you’re doing this solo, it might as well be a death sentence.

In a final, climactic fight against Monolith in the bowels of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, you are faced off against what might as well be a brigade or division strength army of the best-geared bad guys in the game, once again in a space about the size of a rural high school. Any mystery surrounding the Red Forest becomes moot when encounter after encounter with every enemy type in the game takes place seconds after each other. Some notion of a spooky, abandoned and irradiated forest doesn’t set in when the hordes of zombies, mutants, and mercenary special forces crowd the place more than an NHL playoff match.

This isn’t mentioning the hordes of Mach-2 capable mutants present throughout the whole game that are only in greater numbers in any of the “story” areas of the map. Fighting enemies that are fast is fine. Having to shoot upwards of 10-40 feral dogs that each take 3-10 shots to kill each across multiple calibers while not falling into the anomaly trap that’s ten feet behind you is a chore. The math doesn’t add up.

What great, satisfying fun I occasionally get from a violent gunfight I barely survive, or dropping a well-earned artifact into a lead-lined container with a satisfying click after a romp through a dangerous anomaly field is always shortly thereafter sabotaged by a janky encounter somewhere, somehow. This is my problem with STALKER, and when fans of the series laud it on the internet, I say there’s a piece of the picture missing.

You think those fancy pick-a-tinny rails make you better than me, stalker?

A Rough Diamond

Of course, well-adjusted gamers will recognize this game is one of the jankiest shooters in known history with an active following. A myriad of YouTube videos out there exhibit the raw jank of STALKER as if it were a stand-up comedy routine, and in many ways, these experiences are just that. MOST of the time I am not frustrated. But the moments I am really leave a mark. (Get it?) That said- GAMMA can’t hope to fix these problems, and it shouldn’t. None of this is the GAMMA team’s doing, so on it’s own, I can recommend it.

STALKER Anomaly is perhaps the best way to enjoy the series, and GAMMA adds on to it and brings it to a higher standard. While it can’t fix STALKER forever, it sure makes up for it in every other department.

Download STALKER: GAMMA here. It requires an installation of STALKER: Anomaly first (a free download).