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).

Vode An: A Republic Commando Retrospective

2005 – I remember I was at my grandma’s house after school watching some afternoon cartoons when a commercial came on. It started with a LucasArts flash, and I was an avid Star Wars fan, so my attention was immediate. Revenge Of The Sith was due out soon, and I clung to anything I could get.

What I saw was Star Wars, but not in a way I had ever seen before: intense first-person helmet-cam combat in ambushes interspersed with the heavy breathing of a stressed Commando. I knew this was something different, something I’d never seen before.

2005 – I remember I was at my grandma’s house after school watching some afternoon cartoons when a commercial came on. It started with a LucasArts flash, and I was an avid Star Wars fan, so my attention was immediate. Revenge Of The Sith was due out soon, and I clung to anything I could get.

What I saw was Star Wars, but not in a way I had ever seen before. I distinctly remember the ad campaigns for this game showing a sense of tension and even fear I had never seen from any media from the franchise: intense first-person helmet-cam combat in ambushes interspersed with the heavy breathing of a stressed Commando. I knew this was something different, something I’d never seen before.

The Boys

Delta Squad in the team room

Released in March of 2005 for the XBOX and Windows, Star Wars: Republic Commando is a “tactical” FPS set in the Star Wars universe during the time frame of the Clone Wars. I’m not going to dive too deep into the narrative, but lets take a look as to what makes this title tick.

As soon as you launch the game, you are greeted by your boys, Delta Squad, backed by the vocals of a Mandalorian choir. The game spends a few minutes getting you up to speed. The basics: you are a Clone Commando in the Grand Army Of The Republic, designation RC-1138 or “Boss,” and leader of Delta Squad which is made up of three additional commandos.

  • RC-1140 “Fixer”
    Fixer is the teams technician and slicing expert. He is described as “pure and uncomplicated” soldier, and Four-Oh is a “by-the-books” type of Commando that will recite policy and SOPs verbatim. His favorite weapon is the wrist gauntlet vibroblade. Badass.
  • RC-1262 “Scorch”
    Scorch is the “class clown” but he’s got it where it counts. Six-Two is the demolitions and heavy weapons expert of the squad, and is always the first for a clever quip or to volunteer for a bit of “radical restructuring.” His favorite weapon is the anti-armor launcher. Enemy go boom.
  • RC-1207 “Sev”
    Sev is described as a “fierce hunter” and it’s clear from first glance he is not only very capable, but very enthusiastic about his work. The crimson smears of paint on his armor, combined with his passion for his work, have brought forth a very important question: is it real blood or not? Oh-Seven’s favorite weapon is the sniper rifle.

    Each Delta’s personality is unique and distinct from the get-go. Boss is voiced by Temuera Morrison himself, who played the role of Jango Fett and the Clone Troopers in the films, which adds a hefty amount of authenticity to the character and the experience overall. The squad’s interaction amongst themselves really does feel like that of professionals who have lived and worked together for a considerable amount of time – in this case, for their whole lives. The dialogue almost never feels contrived, or out of place.

Buckets On; Hearts Gone

Grab your buy’ce

Your first duty as Delta Lead will be partaking in a covert op in the backdrop of the Battle Of Geonosis to assassinate a Geonosian HVT. Each Delta has been inserted via separate methods as a failsafe, to ensure the whole squad doesn’t all go down in one gunship.

As you make your way through the the frontline trenches, you’ll become acquainted with your basic equipment and controls. This game handles more or less like any standard FPS of the time; it’s simple to pick up and run with. The Heads-Up-Display within the helmet of your Katarn armor will give you information as to your health and shield status, objective location, and squad status. Weapon status is indicated by readouts on the weapons themselves. Nearly every piece of info the game will give you is in a diegetic manner that Boss himself is seeing. Encountering your first enemies will get you torching off some blaster bolts with your Blas-Tech DC-17m Interchangeable Weapon System, or “Deece.” As the name implies, the Deece is modular, and with quick component swaps will perform as your workhorse assault rifle, precision sniper system, and light anti-armor launcher all in one package. Especially of note – When’s the last time you can remember using iron sights in a Star Wars game?

DC-17m IWCS in action on Geonosis

You are also issued a DC-15s Sidearm Blaster, which is fairly plain as far as handguns go. Accurate and packing a fair amount of punch, it has a recharging system which ensures you’ll never be caught without ammo for a fight. It can fire eight shots in rapid succession before needing to recharge, so I always imagined this to be analogous to iconic Delta Force 1911s, or the MEUSOC 1911 employed by the Marine Corps; whether that was intentional or not, who knows.

You can also pick up various small arms from fallen enemies throughout your missions: these include a Wookie rocket launcher, Trandoshan shotgun, and even a belt-fed MG. The arsenal is rounded out by a few different grenades, including the classic Thermal Detonator, flashbangs, and an EMP grenade which stops clankers in their tracks. Throughout your tour, you’ll be going toe-to-toe with various TradeFed battle droids, as well as Trandoshan slaver and mercenary chakaar. If you want to live to operate another day, it’d be good to become familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of your available equipment.

DC-15s Sidearm Blaster. Two Galactic Wars?

Working your way into your target location, you’ll pick up your squadmates one by one. Here is where you’ll begin to realize that the most effective weapon at your disposal is not the Deece in your hands, but your team. You are able to give your squad simple commands, such as taking up a sniping position, setting up a demo, slicing a terminal, or aiding a fallen brother in need. You can also decide the general manner in which they behave, with the “search and destroy” command prompting them to be aggressive and semi-independent of your direct command, or having them form up while you take point and call the shots.

The Deltas are able to think for themselves. They’ll seek cover as appropriate, use available healing stations if needed, or utilize grenades and the various Deece attachments. I’ll notice that if I’m performing a task, such as setting up a demo shot, the squad wont simply stand and watch me work. They will spread out, watching different sectors from positions of cover.

Each Delta has a particular skill or equipment they “specialize” in, but this does not translate to any difference in gameplay: each brother is just as proficient in each skill as the next. It would be nice if there was a perk to using each Commando to fill specific tasks, such as Sev having more accuracy or a higher fire rate when in a sniping position, or Scorch having a reduced time to set up a demo or recover an enemy mine. I believe this may have been omitted in order to keep the decision making more fluid and on-the-fly, rather than getting bogged down while in a firefight. This is a “tactical” shooter, but it isn’t Star Wars: Raven Shield. Maybe it could be compared to the simpler Rainbow 6: Vegas games in terms of that side of the gameplay.

Much of the campaign is designed around the effective use of your squad – you simply cannot play this game like Three-Eight is a one-clone army. Your energy shields and guns will get you far, but at the end of the day, there is a reason there’s four of you. The very best and most engrossing parts of the campaign are when you are setting up an ambush or a counter-assault with the resources you have around you. Is there a place you can set up a proximity mine and lure your enemies through it? Maybe there’s an E-Web emplacement nearby, but you need to demo some rubble to get a clear line of sight. The tactical gameplay keeps you on your toes, and keeps you re-assessing what resources and positions of advantage you can exploit. I can tell you that even with all the advantages you can muster, taking down a Droideka dispenser under withering fire is going to be a huge pain in the shebs.

Setting up firing positions in a Slaver Camp takedown.

A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Republic Commando will have you participating in several diverse AOs. From the red-sand canyons of Genosis, to a VBSS mission on a derelict Acclamator-class Republic Assault ship, and finally the jungles of Kashyyyk, from the depths of the Shadowlands all the way up in the Wookie villages high up in the Wroshyr trees; each environment is well-detailed, and varied in appearance. There are stark stylistic differences even in similar locales, like Trade Federation and Republic starships. None of the levels got too repetitive to me before I found myself in a new one.

Slaver patrol camp in the Shadowlands of Kashyyyk.

Sound design is very authentic to Star Wars, and uses familiar effects that will make you feel at home in the overall universe. Also present is a mix of John Williams’ score for both the original trilogy as well as the prequel films, and original tracks made just for Republic Commando – both intermix seamlessly. The original tracks make frequent use of male choir singing in the Mando’a language, intense percussion and brass elements, as well as a goddamn didgeridoo. This is in keeping with the presentation of Mandalorians being based on New Zealand and Maori cultures, thanks to Temuera Morrison being the template for them. Give it a listen in the link below.

Graphically, the game is very competent. The team managed to strike a balance between military grit, typical Star Wars presentation, with a mix of almost cartoonish stylization, and manage to pull it off with great success. You’ll see some absolutely massive Wookies defending their homes, and face off with the intimidating profile of the B2 Super Battle Droid.

As the game was a 2005 XBOX title ported to PC, the standard graphics suite is dated and native widescreen isn’t supported out of the box. There are easily-installed mods to remedy this and enhance the visual acuity of the game somewhat. An updated port of the game has been released for the PS4 and Nintendo Switch as well.

A More Civilized Time

Bugs have a tendency to get their blood on your visor. Frankly, it’s inconsiderate.

At the time, Republic Commando occupied a very unique space in Star Wars media, and it does so even to this day. This is even more surprising considering this is a first-party LucasArts project, rather than a licensed title. Around the early/mid-2000’s, Star Wars games and books detached from the main films were incredibly popular: of particular note would be the Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic and Star Wars: Battlefront series, releasing their first entries in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

Republic Commando is notable in the fact that you won’t see a single Jedi or Sith throughout the campaign; this is pure, ground-pounding SOF action in some of the hottest sectors in the galaxy. Seems like it was a long time coming for a franchise with “Wars” literally being the operative word of the title.

Reminds me of a saying someone once said about keeping a good blaster at your side.

E-Web emplacement in action.

Coming back to Republic Commando after having a bit of my own experience in our own world, living and learning, I feel I’ve been able to appreciate certain bits about the game more. You can see where the use of a military advisor payed off. It is interesting to see life-like tactics applied to the Star Wars setting played totally straight. Maneuvers are purposeful and appropriate. I take particular notice of the assaulters moving to points of domination after a successful door breach, similarly to how I’ve trained and executed many times. This has been a staple of CQB tactics in every worthwhile professional body that has partaken in close combat for decades at this point.

For clarity, I’m not a Sep-slotting space commando or combat veteran – I’m not even a part of a “tactical” team. However, I do work with a handful of guys that I have been through some pretty good scrapes with, and I trust my actual fuckin’ life with them: It’s pretty hard to do a two-man building clearance in the middle of nowhere if you don’t absolutely have faith in your partner. You get that same sense of brotherly love from Delta’s interactions with each other, from complimenting someone on a well placed shot, or ribbing them for taking too long to slice a terminal. When I was younger, I thought it was just some decent writing; I know now that this is an example of exemplary character realization, and this an extremely hard kind of relationship to portray in media if you haven’t lived it. This is no small feat for a movie tie-in FPS from the mid 00’s, and it’s something I’ve grown to appreciate greatly.

If you’d like to play Republic Commando, you can pick it up for about $10 on Steam, or track down a PS4 or Switch copy. The game is a little short at about 6 hours, but there’s no feeling of slack or filler in that time frame, and is well worth the cash in my opinion. If you’d like to read the novels, the first entry, Hard Contact is listed on Amazon for Kindle at $4, and paperback at $15.

Vode An,” a Mando’a phrase meaning “Brothers All.”

Alright, ner’vod, I’ve rambled enough about my favorite band of Space-SAS for one day. Thanks for taking the time to read, and I hope it piqued some interest in a neat slice of Star Wars media.

Stay dangerous, ret’urcye mhi.