Here's another one of the columns I wrote for gamesTM. I was partially through Lost Alpha at the time and loving it - actually it sustained pretty well for the whole thing, although the writing did degenerate as it went on. But anyway. This is what I thought at the time - actually, at the moment, I've just started hitting Misery, so will have to update with thoughts on that as things go...
Lost Alpha ain't no Roadside Picnic
I've mostly kept my S.T.A.L.K.E.R. obsession away from this column, but with the release of Dezowave's Lost Alpha stand-alone mod, it's time to air some dirty post-apocalyptic laundry – blood and sweat stained vests, mouldy hats with chewed ear-flaps, old lead-lined pants, that sort of thing.
Nostalgia, the expected raft of early glitches, and some occasional lapses of judgement aside, Lost Alpha is a brilliant game. It's too easy to say it's a window into the game Shadow of Chernobyl could have been, or once was, and I don't think that does justice to the team that made it. What's more interesting to me is what we can take from it. Here's my top points:
1. Modding ain't dead, punk. The scene seemed to take a hit with the rise of the indies, but Lost Alpha is everything that makes this community great. The love of a game, combined with a hunger to optimise, to explore, to push it forwards. A freedom of expression and an acceptance of errors. A big, bold flawed mutant born from nothing but passion, talent and free time. Modding still rules.
2. Never stop the action. A genius move in Lost Alpha is you can only reload from ammo on your belt, meaning you have to do desperate inventory reshuffles in real-time, boosting stress and panic. You can almost never have too much stress and panic.
3. Emptiness is awesome. Having escaped a helicopter attack, I'm wandering around a deserted Darkscape, and the immersion is boosted exponentially because there's almost nothing there. It amplifies the intensity of discoveries and encounters massively. Not having Day Z-esque multiplayer murder squads in the world does, I gotta say, improve things. The single player shooter experience is still, for me, what it's all about.
4. It's good to be tough. In a world where we are being suffocated by babysitting game design that's got you clamped into a headlock and an idiot-nipple rammed into your gums like a big stupid mewling infant, a game that is quite happy to let you get hopelessly, game-breakingly lost in a pitch-black underground space because you didn't ration your batteries is pretty refreshing. Yeah, it can be frustrating, but that's a price I'm happy to pay.
5. Let chaos run. The emergent qualities of the A-Life system more than makes up for it's flaws with a lack of over-scripting. Games are so desperate to orchestrate and polish events now, they can end up feeling a little stale and fake. OK, so you might have to climb over the odd Duty member who's trapped himself between door and wall liked a glitchy, confused pensioner, but A-Life provides endless opportunities for events to occur without fanfare, that dreadful 'LOOK AT ALL OF THE EXPENSIVE ASSETS! NOTICE THEM! PLEASE NOTICE THEM!” desperation that's almost the AAA clarion call these days, and this makes for a fantastically rich game experience.
6. Bugs can be good. I level transitioned from Agroprom to Garbage and somehow my beloved AK with sniper scope, the killing instrument of choice for any aspiring Stalker, just vanished from my inventory. Which left me with a crappy pistol and a total of seven bullets, and a long walk to Rostock – but through a re-invented landscape that meant all of my previous knowledge of the Zone was useless. And somewhere off in the distance, between me and safety, a dog pack began to howl.
Hello again, old friend. It's good to be back.