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My vision of the zone - how about yours? (long)

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Question Is this a mod you think you would enjoy playing?
Absolutely, in every detail.
64%  (25)  
Mostly a step in the right direction, but I don't like some features.
33%  (13)  
One or two ideas are OK, but the rest suck.
0%  ()  
I wouldn't want anyone to waste time implementing anything like this.
3%  (1)  
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  17:08:38  15 May 2007
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On forum: 11/24/2005
Messages: 9
My vision of the zone - how about yours? (long)

Good though the game is as released, I think many of us were expecting or perhaps hoping for something closer to the classic 'Elite', minus the spaceships of course I thought it might be interesting to see just how much overlap there is between our personal visions of the zone, and whether there are any straightforward, practical ways we could mod the game (assuming the existence of an SDK) to get closer to them.

So, I'll start with my idealised 'gameplay clip', and then talk about what they might involve from a technology perspective:

It's early evening, and the setting sun turns the trees around me golden as I collect dead branches for the fire that will keep me warm and safe through the night. A couple more kilos should do the trick.

Distant barks and growls make me look up. The blind and mutated dogs that roam the zone in packs are scavengers for the most part, and tend to leave the living alone, but you can't be too careful. I pick my way up to the nearest vantage point to get a better look.

There: in the distance, maybe eight or ten dark shapes are milling around, fighting over something - most likely the body of the bandit I killed earlier. I'm glad now I took the time to drag it away from my overnight squat; even a roaring fire might not keep hungry mutants away if there's carrion to be had nearby.

As I watch, the dogs cease their squabbling and lift their noses in unison. First one, then another, then the whole pack start to howl, and then they're away, fleeing south. Not a good sign. Could be that something bigger is on the way, or... The far-off wail of the early-warning siren answers my unspoken question. A blowout is imminent; time to get under cover.

As I jog back down the hill, my radio crackles into life, the decoder box - a recent purchase - blinking to indicate a scrambled transmission.
"Good evening, all you subscribers to the Fallout Forecast. Get your asses underground ASAP; this is gonna be a huge one. Estimated force eight to nine."

Eight to nine; no wonder the dogs were so unsettled. An F1 or F2, you can ride out in the open with the help of anti-rad meds, just sit back and watch the light-show. F3 to F5, you want a good solid wall between you and Chernobyl, or failing that get inside something metal, like a bus or a shipping container. F6 and upwards you really need to be deep inside a building or better yet underground. Luckily for us stalkers, the bigger the blowout the earlier the Forecaster's sensors pick up the pre-emissions, so I've got time to get back to the squat with my firewood, rather than having to drop it all and sprint.

I make it back with time to spare - home sweet home: the cellar of a old tumbledown house in Bloodsucker Village. I load the firewood into a barrel and set it alight, fill my grumbling stomach with sausages, and set my PDA to wake me when the blowout is over. Time for some sleep; exhaustion plays havok with your aim.

When the PDA bleeps me awake it's fully dark; the blowout has been and gone. I turn on my radio and flip through the channels. Stalker chit-chat; nothing out of the ordinary. I turn on the decoder I took from the dead bandit earlier - they change the codes daily so this one will only work for tonight - and listen in. My ears prick up when they start talking about seeing a stalker out and about near the Garbage Dump; that's not the sort of place many stalkers would choose to go after dark. Maybe he's on the trail of an artifact.

As a stalker, there are a few ways to track down artifacts. By far the best is to get friendly enough with the Barkeep for him to put you in touch with his contact in the military, who just happens to have access to satellite imagery of the zone. He can get you artifact coordinates to within a few tens of metres - for the right price. I'm nowhere near respected enough to get that sort of information yet, however; that's for the real elite.

The next best technique is to plant remote sensors and interface them with your PDA - the strength of the signal they emit can give you a rough idea where to go looking for artifacts - and if the strength changes you know the artifact is in someone's pocket and on the move. Of course, I'm not the only stalker with sensors like that planted around the zone, so I have to be extra careful when it's MY pocket the artifact is nestling in!

I have a few of those sensors planted here and there in anomaly hotspots, but they're expensive and in short supply (they are actually made using shards of a particular kind of artifact that reacts to the presence of others). I often have to rely on other methods. Lightning storms, for instance seem to gravitate to areas where anomalies have spawned artifacts - watching the skies during bad weather is often useful. Closer to, my anomaly detector will tell me if I'm getting warm or not. Tonight, I decide to act on the hot tip the bandits have dropped in my lap, and clamber out of my shelter into the dripping darkness.

My cheap nightvision goggles turn everything a muddy green, occasionally whited out by lightning. It does indeed seem to be striking over towards the Garbage Dump. I hurry onwards, alert for any movement.

I'm getting close now and slow my pace, crawling up the last slope to a vantage point overlooking the dump. A torch flickers across the twisted metal: somebody's looking for something, that's for sure. But who? Looking through my binoculars, I recognise a fellow stalker - an affiliate of the Freedom faction like me. Just at that moment he bends down and picks something up, holding it up to study it. Damn! He's found the artifact, and I don't want to risk taking him out; I'd be KoS to Freedom if I missed the headshot and he got off a distress call.

I hear voices, and looking around I see more torches approaching. Bandits; a pretty big group too - must be the ones who I heard on the radio. The stalker down below turns off his torch and starts to sneak away, gun raised to his shoulder; in the dark and the rain they've little chance of seeing him.

Not without a little help, anyway.

I seize a nearby rock and heave it towards the stalker; it clangs off a rusting pipe and startles him into squeezing off a round. The bandits are after him in a trice, shouting for him to lay down his weapon. He surrenders, and is forced to hand over his prize. Bandits don't usually kill stalkers unless they think we're carrying artifacts, or we refuse to hand something over, or they think we're too dangerous to let live - without stalkers they'd have no source of income. Laughing, the group sends this stalker on his way empty handed.

I can't risk killing a fellow member of Freedom, but I can certainly kill bandits...

As it turns out, though, I don't get the chance. The dump is a bad place to make noise after dark, and the bandits haven't exactly been stealthy. They don't get twenty yards before grunts and howls erupt from the irradiated piles of scrap, as bloodsuckers swarm from their underground nests. It's all over in moments, and the mutants are soon gorging themselves. If I don't do something quickly, they'll drag the bodies away underground and I'll never find the artifact! Time to take a chance.

I pull the pin from a flashbang grenade and loft it into the middle of the pack. It goes off like a miniature sun, sending the mutants shrieking into the darkness. They won't be gone long, though, so I race down the hill and start rifling through the bandits' jackets. Ammo, pistols - there! A shimmering, pulsing orb; the artifact.

Looks like it was my lucky day after all - provided of course I can get this beauty to a dealer. A nearby growl reminds me of more pressing concerns, and I get the hell out of there.

The next day, I decide to expand my working range. That means clearing out, setting up and stocking shelters and hidey-holes, and planting more sensors. Of course, the better the shelter, the more likely it's already taken. I head over to Yantar, clear the mutants out of a small network of sewerage pipes, stash some ammo, a spare pistol, some food and anti-rads, and plant a couple of Howlers at the entrance. Howlers are little battery-powered motion sensors with a strobe and a siren; they'll send most mutants packing unless they're desperate for shelter, and will keep this area clear for me to come back to later. Howlers are also handy because they'll wake you up if anything comes nosing around while you're asleep - although there are more pleasant ways to achieve consciousness!

With my bolt-hole set up, I debate for a while whether or not to stash the artifact I picked up too. Taking it with me into uncharted territory is a risk; I might wander into another stalker's sensor net. I decide to leave it behind, with a sensor of my own planted nearby to warn me if it goes walkabout...

Ok, so that's a quick snapshot of the game *I* would like STALKER to be. Let's look at what that would require from a technical standpoint:

1. Dogs and other mutants attracted to carrion over long distances.

This ought to be fairly straightforward for the A-life engine, but it might be nice to factor in wind direction - which would also avoid situations where every dog in the zone turns up for one body. Some kind of HUD wind indicator would also make it possible for the player to sneak up on, or past, certain mutants from upwind.

2. Collecting wood for fires to keep mutants away while I'm sleeping

The actual collection process could be as simple as pressing 'use' when near an appropriate bush or tree. If you wanted to make it a little more in-depth, you could make it so that wood collected during or shortly after a rainstorm could be too damp to burn and need to be left to dry out, or make it so that you need kindling to start a fire and larger branches to keep it going.

Actually placing and lighting a fire could also be as controlled or freeform as you prefer: perhaps you can only make a fire in a drum, or in certain designated spots - or perhaps you can plonk them down wherever you like; whichever turns out to be most do-able.

Using fire to keep prowling mutants away should only work if the mutants don't perceive you as an active threat - I shouldn't be able to use a fire as a shield, shooting mutants from within its area of effect with impunity. The A-life engine already seems capable of 'prowling', so I'm assuming that's not so much of an issue.

Also, while a fire might keep some nasties away, I imagine it would actively attract others in certain areas - if they see it. If a particular area is controlled by a certain faction, for example, they might will come to investigate an unauthorised camp - so you probably don't want to light a camp fire on top of a hill!

Sleeping was something that was taken out of the game. I'm going to assume this was for expediency or because it didn't add much to the gameplay in its existing form, and not because there is some fundamental problem of which I'm unaware. Here's how I see sleep working:

Sleep has two functions. One is anti-negative: staving off the deletorious effects of sleep deprivation. The other is positive: passing time until a particular time of day or a given event occurs.

Sleep deprivation works as a combination of fatigue and adrenaline. Your 'fatigue' bar starts low and increases more and more rapidly the longer you stay awake. It also rises quicker when you are active (moving around, running etc) and even more quickly during periods of high excitement (gunfights, being chased by mutants etc). When you become highly fatigued your vision begins to blur, your movement slows, turning becomes sluggish and your sprinting ability is reduced. Ultimately you will fall unconscious - although this will happen later if you're out in the open, unprotected, and earlier if you've crawled into a hidey-hole.

Offsetting fatigue in emergency situations is adrenaline. This is shown as a differently coloured section of the 'fatigue' bar, thus:


In a hectic situation, adrenaline automatically pumps into your system, reducing the effective level of fatigue. However, your real level of fatigue will rise at an accellerated rate in the background, so while you might not feel the effects immediately, when the situation is resolved and adrenaline starts to drain away, you can become exhausted very quickly. Also, a very high level of adrenaline offsetting a very large amount of fatigue has its own penalties: shaky hands, loud panicked breathing etc.

If you're a bit tired but need to stay sharp, and want to increase your adrenaline levels voluntarily, you can use high-energy drinks.

The more experienced you become, the less effect hectic situations have on the rate of increase of your fatigue and on the amount of adrenaline that gets produced, so a veteran stalker will be much better equipped to cope with protracted gun battles. A novice, on the other hand, might literally fall unconscious, his system utterly overwhelmed, within a minute or two of surviving a prolonged and frenzied fight.

To reduce fatigue there are a few things you can do. The best option is sleep, which will entirely refresh you and also reset the rate of increase to its lowest level. You can also reduce your absolute fatigue level by eating, but this can only be done when you are hungry and does not reset the rate of increase, so while eating is a vital way of prolonging your waking hours it is no substitute for sleep. Also, eating, or drinking alcohol, reduces your adrenaline levels - so just like in real life, a big meal after a lot of excitement can put you flat on your back and snoring!

3. Blowouts, the Fallout Forecast and other radio stations.

Blowouts were also taken out of the game, supposedly because of the difficulty of making them work with the A-life engine. However, to my mind this is overcomplicating matters. So what if mutants and stalkers can't intelligently find shelter? The only time the player could see that happening is if they haven't found shelter either - at which point they're dead too!

In other words, blowouts are something for the player to worry about, not the AI. If you wanted to be clever, you could despawn everything above ground, and move it to spawn points that are either underground or outside the player's sight. He won't know they cheated

The different degrees of blowout are, to my knowledge, a new idea. The bigger the blowout, the longer the buildup and hence the more time the player gets to reach safety.

The Fallout Forecast is one of several scrambled radio stations you can buy decoders to listen to. One of the more enterprising individuals in the zone set up sensors near the reactor to detect the first signs of a blowout, and relays that information to anyone willing to pay for it. He will also sometimes pay stalkers to go out to the reactor and maintain the sensors.

The bandit radio frequencies are also scrambled, but if you're lucky you can scavenge a decoder off a dead bandit and listen in - though the codes change each day so bag your bandit first thing in the morning! Amongst the chit-chat they sometimes mention things they've seen: stalkers moving around, military ops, places where anomalies have moved around or appeared and so on. This would require a fair bit of voiceover work, but beyond that is not that complicated.

4. Tracking down artifacts

In my vision of STALKER, artifacts are rare and sought-after; they don't just litter the floor. Being a stalker should really mean something; right now it doesn't because any idiot could just stroll around picking up a small fortune.

But to give the player a chance of finding these things in such a huge area, he has to have some tools. I threw the lightning storm idea in, and the satellite uplink idea because I thought they were cool, but the real meat of the system is in the remote sensors you plant around the zone. These tip you off to the presence of artifacts; place a grid of them and you can triangulate with considerable accuracy. If their signals are changing, you can also tell the artifact is in someone's possession and on the move.

5. Throwing objects to distract or attract attention, and non-lethal banditry

Distraction can be modelled simply, easily and badly, or modelled well with a quite extraordinary amount of effort. The main difficulty is not in describing the desired response (going to investigate a noise, or the AI being diverted from where it thinks the player is) but in accurately determining what, if anything, a distraction attempt should achieve under the circumstances.

The largest hurdle to overcome is to find some way of modelling uncertainty. Really stupid AIs, paradoxically, know where you are at all times (Gauntlet). Slightly better AIs use line of sight (Doom) and remember where they last saw you. The really memorable AI encounters (Half Life marines) manage to give the impression that not only do they remember where they last saw you, but *they know you must still be there*. They know when they have you pinned down.

Imagine you duck behind a tree in the middle of a field. The AI can't see you any more, but it knows where it last saw you. That's easy. What's very hard to model is the AI's understanding of where you might have gone. In this situation, chucking a rock into a nearby bush, though it could legitimately make the AI think there's someone else there too, should NOT convice the AI you aren't behind the tree - because there's no way you could have got from the tree to the bush without having been seen. On the other hand, if the AI last saw you running over a hill, and reaches the top to see a field of trees and bushes beyond, it needs to be able to think 'ok, it's been X time since I saw him here; in that time he could have made it Y distance, which gives him this and this and this possible hiding places.' In which case, a distracting noise might have the desired effect.

Modelling that kind of intelligent uncertainty - an awareness of what the AI does and does not know - would be a mammoth task, complicated further by the need for AI entities to interact with one another as well as the player. To keep things simple, I would suggest that distractions should only be effective if the AI doesn't know you're there at all.

As for non-lethal banditry - I think this is pretty straightforward: you begin the game 'neutral' to bandits, except that for them, 'neutral' means that they get to chase you down and take your artifacts (they force-open a trade window and turn hostile if you close it without handing over all artifacts in your possession). They won't kill you unless you resist, or unless you've killed so many bandits yourself that you become KoS.

6. Howlers

Fairly simple idea really: a motion sensor with a strobe and a siren, designed to see off prowling mutants or provide advance warning of enemies entering your territory.

7. Burden and stashes

I really like the potential for strategic depth offered by burden limits and the ability to create stashes. However, the existing system doesn't to my mind actually realise that potential. It's too simplistic: burden limits strict enough to influence combat decisions also make it prohibitively painful and time-consuming to stock up the stashes you need to strategically overcome those limits. To resolve this problem, I propose the following rejig of the inventory system:

Divide the inventory into two: loadout and backpack. Your 'loadout' is a set of slots about your person - holster, back holster, belt/belt pouch, pockets, bandolier - just enough to carry a few clips, a little food and a couple of weapons into combat.

Your backpack, on the other hand, is a hefty hiking-style affair and can contain a relatively substantial quantity of ammunition, food, meds and a weapon or two. However, there are some important caveats with using the backpack.

Most importantly, the contents of the backpack are not directly accessible. Because they're stowed away, you have to take off the pack and 'use' it like you would a stash - and because of all the buckles and whatnot this is a time-consuming process, not something you would want to do in a firefight or with enemies prowling nearby. This is implemented by initiating a short 'sleep' period when the player 'uses' the backpack, and only if the sleep period terminates normally (without being interrupted by an enemy) do the contents of the pack become available.

If there is a permanent stash point nearby when the player 'uses' their backpack (icon on screen to indicate this and avoid accidental time loss), it is shown on the inventory screen too, and the player can transfer items between them. Unlike the backpack, stashes are presumed to be laid out for easy access, and there is no time penalty for accessing them directly. This makes a stash point a really good place to hole up and defend.

To avoid having to constantly micro-manage your loadout, items consumed from loadout slots (eg when you reload or eat something) leave behind greyed-out 'ghosts' which can all be refilled with a single button click when you access a stash or your backpack - if replacement items are available of course. As an extra feature, it should be possible to 'save' different loadout configurations, so you can outfit yourself for close-quarters indoor combat or long range sniping with the minimum of fuss.

In addition to the time access penalty, carrying the backpack (unless it's completely empty) imposes a number of physical restrictions on the player. It doesn't lower his top speed (after all, using the backpack to set up stashes is supposed to be the solution to excessive burden; we don't want to punish the player for using it) but it greatly slows his turning rate and strafing speed, and he takes longer to accelerate to top speed when you push forward. Also, although there's minimal fatigue penalty for carrying the backpack under normal conditions the player will become fatigued MUCH more quickly if he carries it during combat. Add to that the couple of seconds it takes to take the backpack off and drop it - during which the player can't move AT ALL - and the thing becomes a real liability to anyone going into harm's way. At most, you would carry it to a safe spot near where you intended to hunt/fight, and leave it there. Better still, find a stash point, unload and take the pack with you, empty - that way you can quickly fill it with goodies once you know the area's secure.

One possible option that could open up later in the game is for the player to pay for supplies to be delivered to remote areas - the barkeep or some other contact bribes the military to dump a case of supplies out of their helicopter during their sweeps of the zone. You still have to visit the barkeep to buy the supplies, but you can then radio in for them to be delivered to a remote location, saving you the trouble of transporting them.

That's more or less it for now; I'd be interested to know how closely this fits in with other players' visions of a longer, more sand-box-y game of STALKER. Thanks for reading!
  20:38:28  15 May 2007
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On forum: 04/12/2007
Messages: 45
Thanx for thinking and posting! Some things i really like!
  23:13:33  15 May 2007
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Lief Siddhe
Senior Resident

On forum: 04/11/2007
Messages: 169
Really good and detailed ideas there, mate.
  05:30:35  16 May 2007
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5 Shots 1 Kill
On forum: 04/05/2007
Messages: 102
I agree with almost everything but i think those sensors and all might be a little too much. They are all good ideas and a new system for artifacts would be better, but that might be too much. Still it was a good read and I agree shelter should be a much bigger part.
  11:13:09  16 May 2007
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On forum: 05/02/2007
Messages: 75
i would love to see this in the game
  12:14:34  16 May 2007
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Senior Resident

On forum: 05/02/2007
Messages: 186
I didn't read it all since it seems to be mostly story but a couple of the ideas that are numbered near the end to point them out of the rest of the useless info are actually very good. Supply drops I could live with but they'd need to be expensive like stalker suits & such.
  14:58:37  16 May 2007
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Senior Resident

On forum: 04/17/2007
Messages: 158
You have a lot of really great ideas Peeling, and it made a big difference to begin with a narrative before leaping into the details.

I really like almost everything you've suggested, with the exception of sensors. Personally I like the idea of a low-tech approach to The Zone (okay so the PDA breaks that rule) and I think sensors go against that. The reason for low-tech is the effects of the environment (i.e. massive radiation, anomalies, unpredictable events all round, etc.) on equipment and organisms. How on earth would sensitive electronics survive in such a harsh environment?
  15:08:45  16 May 2007
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On forum: 05/13/2007
Messages: 261

To talk about your ideas and pose some of my own...

1. Dogs etc. eating & being attracted to corpses
Ya, I agree. Anything to boost mutant numbers and get rid of dead bodies quicker. More mutants with more coming near me = dead mutants

2. Fires to keep away mutants while asleep
Yes, I think you need to sleep, maybe less than normal (like 4-5 hours/day or something), and yes, you need some form of protection while sleeping, but I wouldn't go into making fires from scratch. But sleeping near fires to stop getting munched = yes. Perhaps all stalkers, even ones from rival factions, congregate and forget hostilities when they need to find a fire for the night.

3. Blowouts radio stations bandits
Yes, I agree with proper blowouts, and with having radio stations, some with music, some with talkback (and rumors on the zone), some with useful forecasts. I think you need to script the AI properly though for blowouts. God mode is OK for important NPCs though, but not for the average Joe. I'm not sure on the idea of scrambled radios - remember, everyone except the military is running on second hand and probably scratch-built gear (and even the military probably is too ). I doubt a group as divisive as bandits would have their own station, and they would probably fight among the bandit groups if they come across each other. Actually, I don't really like the idea of "bandits" as a faction in general. They're Stalkers too - just they attack other stalkers and take artifacts as opposed to getting them themselves. Ditto for other faction stalkers, not everyone in the Freedom should hate you if you're a Duty.

4. Tracking down artifacts
I too imagined there would be more to hunting down artifacts than there is currently. But again I'm not sure about posting sensors - it would be quite risky to leave something in the open in the Zone, as with bandits and rival stalkers running around things would get stolen really quick.

And while we're on it, artifacts should be fully radioactive, even when just carried in the inventory. I always though pre release that you were going to have to chug vodka and take potassium iodide pills just to get back with one in the sack. I was very surprised at being able to "wear" artifacts when I played the game, and think they should be hazardous and fit only to be used behind leaded glass in a lab.

5. Distracting/attracting with thrown items.
After playing Far Cry before, I honestly tried this with the bolts 4-5 times before I realized it didn't work I'm sad it wasn't in.
I think your non-lethal banditry should work both ways. So if you get right up to an NPC and you have a gun out and they don't, they do a 'hands-up' animation and when you 'trade' everything is for free, if you so desire!

6. Howlers
Not really useful if the 'sleep near fires = safe' idea is implemented.

7. Complicated backpacks and stashes.
I think the backpack system is fine as is, because it's pretty stupid to try and swap weapons in the middle of a firefight with the current system. More development of the stashes would be a good thing - especially NPCs using them.

PS: I probably sounded dismissive or overly critical on some things there and I'm sorry about that, but I try to keep my opinions as honest as possible and text as short clear as possible on forums. I do like brainstorming about the 'what if's' and cool stuff that people are doing here.
  16:15:11  16 May 2007
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Senior Resident

On forum: 03/25/2007
Messages: 340
bandits shoud take youer gun's of you and any money that is on the pda's in built card.
  11:25:44  17 May 2007
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On forum: 11/24/2005
Messages: 9
Looks like the 'sensors' are the most controversial idea, and I can certainly understand how they could be construed as running contrary to the techno-hostile nature of the zone.

However, if artifacts are going to be rare, it's not reasonable to expect players to just wander around aimlessly hoping to stumble across one. What I like about the sensor idea is:

1) The sensor net is something you build up during the game, according to your own decisions and choices about how to spend limited resources, and how adventurous you are. That provides a really good solid sense of progression for the player, from being a complete noob bumbling around scavenging off other stalkers to being a real veteran with his finger on the pulse of the zone.

2) Knowing if an artifact is stationary or on the move has a lot of mileage, both in terms of gameplay and in terms of elevating the tension even before you get to the area.

Perhaps there's a slightly lower-tech way of achieving the same ends? What if the 'sensors' were nothing more than a chunk of the artifact-sensing artifact wired to a small transmitter - something really crude and basic - and the player uses a directional reciever, turning in a circle to pick up transmissions? That would force him to choose where he placed his sensors with some care, and to seek high ground to receive their signals. He could perhaps mark his orientation on the PDA and use triangulation to identify which sensor was emitting the signal. Does that sound more in keeping with the spirit of the zone?

Or we could do away with the sensors and just rely on something the player carries - again, using triangulation to locate artifacts - but that sacrifices the scope for long-term progression that building up a sensor network offers.

Also, regarding scramblers - ok, it's more technology, but I think the extra gameplay of having to actually obtain these devices before you can listen in to the various bits of zone chit-chat is worth the sacrifice. If we want a longer, more involved game experience we're going to need to eke as much scope for progression as we can out of every feature. It's the same reason the player doesn't start out with the best rifle in the game.
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