How does one survive in this misery?
There is something to be said about taking a difficult game and taking the challenge as far as it can without becoming cheap, unfair or hard enough to just be a bully. The Misery mod for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat comes close, and even crosses the line on some aspects. But barring a few minor tweaks, it can become one of the most immersive and daunting mods for any game that I have ever played.
My journey into the Zone started differently from the start. I first had to choose between three different classes when I installed the mod, choices being Sniper, Recon or Assaulter. I decided to go with the sniper class, as I was accustomed to sniper style tactics of taking enemies out from long range. When it loaded I was met with a completely different game than I was ready for. Unlike normal Call of Pripyat fare, where I spawn into the Zone on a clear, bright day, this time I was faced with a dark, impenetrable wall of misty fog. In my backpack, I had only a rifle, which included no scope and a mere five bullets, a pistol with only fifteen bullets, and tawdry amount of supplies. I was painfully unequipped for the Zone ahead of me, so my first objective was to find the land-locked ship where many Stalkers had called home.
Immediately apparent is that Misery incorporates the stunning AtmosFear mod, which makes significant changes to Call of Pripyat’s weather and skies. Rainstorms can range from mild showers that give the world an almost calm and serene feeling, to violent thunderstorms and pitch-black nights, upping the intense dread already in the game. On clear mornings, the sun shines light through thick mist and casts a warm glow on the new high resolution buildings. New ambient noises have been introduced as well and the sounds of far off gunshots or creatures can be heard in the distance, wrapping a player with an auditory blanket of immersion. Call of Pripyat is suddenly a beautiful game, if only in a dreary sort of way. Travelling across the landscape is no longer a chore, but a journey.
Still, it is an extremely dangerous journey. Misery tweaks gameplay heavily, including much more meticulous inventory and resource management to force a player to make some pretty tricky decisions. You can really only carry the barebone essentials, lest your energy drain at a nauseating speed. Generally it’s best to carry only one or two guns along with food rations, ammo, and medical supplies. Any extraneous equipment is best left in your personal locker. However, your energy is bound to drain no matter how hard you fight it, sooner or later. I had to sleep regularly, keep my hunger down, and heal any wounds that I had been afflicted with, or it made the game quickly go from difficult to impossible.
The mod is called Misery for a good reason. There are times playing where the game just beats you down with some incredibly misguided balance issues that all sort of feed into each other. Firstly, the fatigue happens too quickly, too unexpectedly and affects far too much. There are three movement speeds in Call of Pripyat; normal speed, sprinting and walking. At normal speed, if you’ve had enough sleep, food and you’re inventory is not too heavy, energy drains very minimally. While sprinting it drains a little faster, obviously. If you are hungry or tired, energy drain so rapidly that a few steps could force you to stop and wait for the gauge to refill. Take another few steps and wait again. This happens a lot.
The immediate response would be to just eat more food. Sounds easy enough if food was not so scarce, or if eating it actually took hunger away. Forget paying rubles for food because the economy is a farce. One loaf of bread costs 300 rubles, which is not much especially in the beginning of the game, and barely satiates hunger. If you wanted to get enough to fill you up, you wouldn’t have any money left. I’m all for realism, and I believe there are some great ideas here, but they seem so disproportional to any sort of common sense. The beginning of the game states that you play as a military agent, and I find it hard to believe that someone trained in the military succumbs so easily to these trivial mechanics.
With the unfortunate items accounted for, Misery still takes a step in the right direction. The above complaints are easily fixable with a couple number changes in a game file, which I happily tweaked. This is a mod after all, so fixing minor issues like these seems par for the course. After that was settled, I was able to enjoy a breath of fresh, radiated air and lose myself into the Zone once again. There are enough positive changes here, that it is worth the effort to fix the negative ones.
Enemies in Misery are of no laughing matter. They are tougher, smarter and don’t hold back. The world is still a living thing in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. The world has no immediate interest in your life, but will lash out if you mess with it. Hazards are everywhere and with Misery they can become much deadlier. Zombies can only be killed with a headshot or two, though, they are unfortunately crack shots as well, able to snipe you from across a field with only a few shots. Anomalies are not as obvious and will pick you up and kill without a moment’s hesitation, as you search deep for their valuable artifacts. Creatures roam the countryside and will attack if they feel threatened. Mutants hide out in strange radiated caverns and buildings waiting for unsuspecting Stalkers to waltz into their territory.
The most frightening powerful force in the game are the random blow-outs and emissions that occur. They can suddenly light up the night sky while sirens blow in the distance. A player has to find good cover quickly or be blasted away into oblivion by a twisted, apocalyptic thunderstorm of doom. Misery has given these events a face-lift as well, making them look as eerie and intimidating as ever.
There are plenty of more fantastic features that culminate into what makes Misery such an immersive mod, it would be foolish to list them here. Suffice it to say, Misery is one of those experiences that you remember if you allow yourself be taken in by S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s Zone. While it is at once beautiful and frightening, while forcing a player to think about their actions, Misery holds a special place in my heart for bringing me even deeper into such a fascinating world. Turn down the lights. Turn up the sound. Get that bottle of vodka ready. It’s time to enter the Zone, stalker.