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Major and minor suggestions

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  01:29:48  25 May 2007
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On forum: 05/24/2007
Messages: 4
Major and minor suggestions

Hi. Like many people here, I thoroughly enjoyed your game and I think many of the game's strong points have been mentioned many times, such as the depth of the world simulation, the AI, the atmosphere and the engine. A couple of aspects I particularly liked were the sheer attention to detail in the maps and the embracing of the idea of the game world as a playground. With regards to the former, I think Stalker took really massive strides towards creating lifelike architecture. For years, people have wondered what it would be like to explore a whole city where you can enter almost any building, and while Stalker didn't quite manage that, with the Pripyat map it is far ahead of anything else in this regard. You did a terrific job of creating a vast environment to explore, yet ensured that the player would not easily get lost or bored in such large landscapes.

When I refer to the idea of making the game world like a playground, I'm again talking about the extent to which the player can explore, but also the ways in which one can do this. In so many games, even those which lean towards exploration oriented gameplay, the play area is often still quite predictable and limited, with the areas for exploration being almost hinted at to the player. In Stalker, the sheer vastness of the maps and the complexity of the geometry means that there is a huge scope for creativity when the player chooses to venture off on their own path. I also loved the extent to which the player is encouraged to climb structures. Often games build stunning architecture and then massively limit your ability to interact with it. In your game, with the placement of ladders, beams and various other means of ascent, the player is usually able to clamber all over most structures and really savour the detail of the environments.

I could talk practically all day about the parts of the game I liked, but it may be more useful to get on to the aspects which I was less keen on. Hopefully this criticism will be constructive and also note that I recognise many of the flaws I perceive may well be the result of the game perhaps being somewhat rushed to meet a deadline, rather than poor design choices on your part. I hear you will be making more Stalker games, so most of these points will be made as suggestions towards possible changes for those future projects. Major suggestions are changes or additions which I consider very important and/or which may take a lot of work to be implemented. Minor suggestions are changes which, while I consider them to be important, I wouldn't view as top priority, and which probably wouldn't require much effort to implement.

Major suggestions

Make the world more connected

I heard that the plan for Stalker was originally to have one giant level, with assets streamed in like the Grand Theft Auto games, or like Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion handles its outdoor areas. This would have been ideal for Stalker, given the way players have to frequently move between levels back and forth, but perhaps it wasn't possible to have this along with the massive amount of detail in the architecture. If the game structure of separate maps is to be maintained, it would probably make more sense to arrange them more like the numbers on the pad of a calculator, where if one counts diagonals, each number has many connections between it and its neighbours. This way one level would never be more than two loads from another. Compare this to Stalker, where the maps are joined almost like a giant corridor, so if one is deep into the game and wants to go back and explore an area near the start, it takes a huge amount of travel time and several map loads to do it.

There are a few other points to be made related to this. Firstly, regardless of the way maps are positioned relative to each other, it would make more sense for minor quests to be given in the same map that they must be carried out. Often one is given a quest that requires backtracking through several maps just to kill a single Stalker with little financial reward for doing so, and hence the quest will generally be ignored. The time limit for minor quests doesn't help in this regard either, since one often feels compelled to run off and do quests before the time expires or it's forgotten about. If there was no time limit, then players would be more likely to complete minor quests, since they would often be in an area for some other reason, then perhaps notice that a minor quest objective happens to be in the same area, and then go and quickly complete that quest.

Improve the richness of the world and decrease repetition by removing certain types of respawning events and recycled quests

As I said at the start of this post, the world of Stalker is wonderfully rich, perhaps more so than any other game. By 'rich', I'm referring to the level of detail and the extent of the simulation, everything from the detail of the geometry and normal mapping, to the A-Life system, to the weather and sound. There are so many details that have gone into creating a deep and varied world that it's a pity that some aspects of the design spoil this. I'm talking primarily about the manner in which certain quests and groups of enemies constantly reappear on entering maps.

Perhaps the most obvious would be the bandits who respawn at the point where Garbage connects to Agroprom. About 8-9 of them are there every time I enter this map and they are usually raiding the hangar, so I am always given the quest which asks me to defend it. This is bad for many reasons. Firstly, it ruins the illusion of a realistic world when one sees identikit enemies repeating exactly the same actions as the last batch, time and again. The Stalker world is so full of uniqueness in terms of its art when compared to a game like Oblivion, where the same few meshes are recycled and rearranged for every cave you enter, so it's a shame to see Stalker emulating the bland, repetitive nature of Oblivion's minor quests.

My various other objections to this are that it wastes ammo, that it can be too difficult for novice or low skilled players and that it's simply boring and repetitive.

My other suggestion for improving the richness of the world is to add more dialogue for other Stalkers. I realise it is probably difficult to manage dialogue and keep it relevant when so many of the characters are moving from area to area, coming and going, but I think it would really add a great deal to significantly increase the range of things said by NPCs. When so little of the dialogue in conversations is spoken aloud and when almost all miscellaneous chatter is in Russian, many players probably feel like the world isn't communicating with them enough and as a member of Valve once said "if the world stops communicating with the player, the player stops caring about the world."

My final suggestion for improving the richness of the game is to ensure consistency in the physical simulation. In Half-life 2, every object that one expects to be physically simulated is just that, while in Stalker often one will come across a barrel which will topple and roll when shot, only to come across another seemingly identical one shortly afterwards and see that it is immoveable. Again, this makes players feel like the world isn't responding to their presence.

Change the system for breakable boxes and crates

This may seem a strange suggestion for a major change, but on my first play through Stalker (I've finished it 3 times now), I was halfway through the game before I realised that one could break the brown wooden crates and the small blue and white metal boxes to acquite items. Both just look like generic world items and in the case of the metal boxes, simply appear far too small to contain most of the items of the game.

Secondly, it would be a good idea to limit to one model the type of container that contains items, and to always have items inside. This is the system Half-life 2 had, where in a game with many types of crates and boxes, you can immediately identify the type of container which will yield items. In Stalker, sometimes one comes across perhaps six or seven brown breakable crates, yet only one will contain any items. Yet because there are sometimes items in these crates, many players will feel compelled to always break them, which leads to a great deal of boring and unrewarding crate smashing. Some kinds of exploration are fun, but this isn't, it's more like a menial task.

Lastly, the way containers break into such large chunks is annoying and the pieces end up concealing the contents. In HL2 the crates splinter into small pieces and then rapidly fade, meaning you can almost always immediately see what the crate contained.

Make radiation zones less random

There are a number of problems with how radiation is implemented in the game. Unlike in real life, where radiation gathers in certain areas and obeys certain rules, in Stalker it just seems to be scattered randomly and often crudely to limit a player's movement in the way that invisible walls are used in some other games. Furthermore, often there appears to be no correlation between the extent to which the geiger counter emits noise and the level of radiation present. Sometimes I have found the counter going crazy, only to check my radiation levels and see that there is no danger.

Another criticism is that sometimes an irradiated area doesn't have its levels spread in a linear way from the strongest point to the weakest. Often it's possible to enter an irradiated area and before you even know what has happened, you are hit with a massive dose. This is especially frustrating near the start when you have limited means of removing radiation if you are hit by it in an isolated spot on the map. One final point is my suggestion for a radiation bar on the HUD. I realise that you have tried to make the on screen display as minimalist as possible, which is good, but it would be well worth having a yellow radiation bar alongside the ones for health and armour.

Include vehicles

Having tried some of the vehicle mods that have already been released, it seems a great pity that they weren't included. Even in their buggy state and in maps which clearly weren't designed for them, they are great fun to use. I can imagine a large city, similar to Pripyat but with less obstructions to driving, would make for some great possibilities related to vehicular gameplay. While Stalker is a marvellous game without them, well implemented vehicles almost always improve games and I think this would definitely be the case in your work.

Enhance the possibility for stealth in the game

I greatly welcomed the features borrowed from Far Cry in Stalker, such as the visibility bar, the way binoculars identify NPCs and the way they are displayed on the HUD minimap. It seems like the stealth implementation is only half complete yet I still managed to get quite a lot of enjoyment from occasional use of it. I liked the way certain areas of maps had been designed with a stealthy approach for those who looked for it, such as the method of sneaking into the army base in Cordon, but I would liked to have seen much more of this.

Since so many maps contain what are effectively self-contained gameplay areas walled off from the rest of the map, such as the Cordon army base, the Garbage hangar, the Agroprom base, etc, it would seem appropriate to arrange enemy placement in these areas for the possibility of a stealthy approach. Players could monitor patrol routes from distance and then choose how to proceed. Likewise the interior areas could be set up to allow players a choice of stealth or combat. Outdoors the game can often get somewhat repetitive due to the way maps push players towards solving objectives via combat. Frequently battles are just a long series shots fired at enemies 200 metres away and the option of stealth would allow players to vary things to some extent.

Change the method of acquiring hidden stashes

Often when playing the game I came across a chest or backpack tucked away in some very remote corner of a map. I congratulated myself for being clever enough to find it, but was then disappointed to see no reward for my exploration when the container turned out to be empty. In a game with so much scope for exploration is seems wrong that one should only get rewards from stashes after killing an enemy and reading his PDA, which tells you exactly where to go. With that method, the players who think and explore on their own get nothing, but those who just randomly slaughter enemies may get the contents of a stash, simply by luck of whether a Stalker has a PDA.

It also seems that whether a stash stays marked on one's map is random. Sometimes I have removed everything from a stash and it remains on the map, other times it disappears.

Ensure more clarity in item descriptions

After collecting an artifact, I was very often unsure as to what its effect would be and even after using many of them I found it hard to tell. For instance, what do terms like 'rupture' and 'impact' refer to? Is rupture a bullet wound, an animal attack or a fall? The same with an artifact marked 'health 400%.' Does this mean it multiplies your health level by four, or just adds on some a certain amount of extra health? It's the same situation with armours. Certainly, some indication to a suit's worth can be gauged from its price, but the price factors in radiation protectivity too, so it's unknown how much bullet protection one will actually be receiving. It's often difficult to tell what effect artifacts and armours are having, since you are often changing to different ones, using different combinations, using items in varying conditions and being attacked by a variety of different firearms. It might be more helpful to have health and armour bars represented numerically, so that players can immediately see exactly how much health is being removed depending on different combinations of artifacts and armours.

Less bugs please!

I don't want to be too harsh here, as I realise most of the game's bugs are probably due to the publisher pressuring you to release the game before it was completely ready. I think it's been well documented that the game has many bugs, so I simply hope that next time the game is given the time to be finished and thoroughly polished before release.

Minor suggestions

Remove the ability to unload a looted weapon's ammo

When a player kills an NPC and wishes to take all available ammo, this is the process which must be undertaken: search for corpse. Check corpse. Remove ammo. Search for NPC's dropped weapon. Pick up weapon. Right click to check if it can be unloaded. If yes, click 'unload'. Then click 'drop' if weapon is unwanted. As you can see, there are potentially 8 stages to this process. In some of the larger battles, one will kill twenty or so enemies, which takes a lot of ammo. Thus, players will be compelled to ensure they get as much of that ammo back as possible and will have to go through a pretty lengthy process if they want to maximise the quantity of ammo they receive. Having to unload weapons, while realistic, is also tedious and by the end of the game many players will probably have spent a great deal of time doing it, time they could have spent doing something more fun in the game. Players should receive all new guns empty. If the players loads the gun himself, he should be able to unload it before dropping it to ensure ammo isn't wasted, but when retrieving ammo from NPCs and their guns, unloading should be removed.

Include 'background reloading'

'Background reloading' is a system employed by games such as Max Payne and Half-life 2. It means that if you fire a few shots from a gun A, you can select gun B and if you don't reselect A for a few seconds, it will automatically reload in the background. This means that if the player is carrying several guns, they won't have to be constantly checking to ensure they they all have a full clip, as all guns not selected will be auto-reloaded. It isn't realistic but it's another feature that removes a tedious menial task from the game.

Improve the believability of level transitions

As I said earlier, the best system for a game like Stalker would be one giant map with assets being streamed in. If multiple levels are used, however, the sense of fluency and connection between them needs to be ensured. Often in Stalker, the start point of one map looks nothing like the end point of the previous map, harming immersion quite a lot.

Create more realistic map barriers

I recently downloaded the leaked Stalker alpha from 2002, just out of curiosity about how the game may have changed. I was struck by how much one map seemed to be the predecessor to the final game's Cordon map, and how cliffs were used to form the borders of the world rather than the barbed wire fences found in the final game. This seemed much more believable, as cliffs seem like a realistic barrier to further movement, whereas fences seem very much like a quick and dirty game method for ensuring that the player stays restricted to a certain area and guided in a certain direction. The idea of a vast world where one can explore anywhere is shattered if the player is presented with a 4 foot high fence that in real life one could easily hop over. In the game, often one can jump on top of the fence, only to meet an invisible barrier preventing one from going any further.

Lessen the repetition in NPC's speech

In the bar of the Bar map, players will find themselves surrounded by Stalkers talking to themselves and the player. However, they all have a very limited number of things to say and they repeat them with great frequency. This doesn't just spoil the realism of the world, it also gets quite irritating. There are other areas of the game like this and it would be preferable if NPCs had more things to say and said them less frequently.

Enable players to skip cut-scenes

The cut-scenes were all beautifully made, but some people will want to skip them, most if it's their second time playing through the game.

Improve collision on steps

This is a relatively minor issue which I imagine may require a lot of work. My complaint is that climbing steps is very slow and sprinting doesn't improve the pace.

Enable the player to lean by holding 'use' and pressing the sidestep left or right keys

This feature was present in Return to Castle Wolfenstein. It enables the player to lean without needing to bind any extra keys. A reduction in the number of key binds of other kinds would be welcome too.

I realise that this post if pretty huge and full of criticisms, but that's only because I enjoyed the game so much and would like to see it improved in every way possible. Keep up the good work and I hope you consider implementing some of my suggestions for future games.
  15:50:55  25 May 2007
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On forum: 05/25/2007
Messages: 5
I Read your suggestions, and I have a couple that i have to disagree with you.

First of all, about the Geiger meter going crazy.
I noticed that he is going crazy in NON Radiated zones, usually when you are close to an Anomaly. Also, if you wear proper anti-radiated defence suit, it should prevent you from even feeling the radiation.

Next, the leaning is a lot better with the Q and E keys for a lot of experienced players.

And Last,
Thought the background reloading will make game simpler, i think it should be added as an option, for a process that will reload all your weapons at once (a key/button)
  20:41:43  25 May 2007
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Senior Resident

On forum: 03/25/2007
Messages: 340
a lot of this is good for option's that can be worked on
i say that all suit's have ther stat's in the text and the pda can have a help topic full of stuff.
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