What awaits you, Stalker… before the Zone changed?
Today I got my grubby mits on a copy of Stalker: Clear Sky and showing an uncharacteristic amount of self restraint, didn’t rush home to play it immediately. When I did fire it up I was initially left with mixed feelings. However, I have now played about three hours on the hardest difficulty setting and thus far quite enjoyed the experience.
Clear Sky is a prequel to Shadow of Chernobyl, set in a larger Zone around the NPP. There is a fair amount of new content and a lot of the original terrain has been rejigged which adds greatly to the excitement. You wake up as an anonymous loner who has *just* survived a massive blow out which cooked the other members of your party. The similarity to the original title ends there though, and players are immediately put to work as a member of the Clear Sky faction – a group of scientists who are studying the Zone. The game starts quickly, throwing the player into the nearby swamp and introducing them to a lot of the ‘strategy’ concepts early on.
Do not get too excited about the strategy side of things – I was of the mistaken impression that it would involve a game play cross between the original Stalker and a Battlefield style with resources and areas of influence. Unfortunately it is a lot more basic than that and really just expands the completely superfluous Stalker ranking system of the original game. To those of you wondering what I am talking about.. you have made my point for me. The feature was completely superfluous and merely tracked the player’s progress through the game based on how many people they had killed. Fast forward 18 months and Clear Sky expands this concept by formalising the factions in the PDA and providing nifty bars showing faction influence, disposition to the player and ‘resources.’ Any hope of any deep strategy is wiped out here as the stats can so far simply be interpreted by: powerful faction – lots of pointless side quests, otherwise ignore. The side quests are the biggest disappointment thus far for me as they seems to be generated from the template : “Go 5 to 10 mins out of your way and kill something” which gets very old very quickly. Scripted side quests are however interesting and having met a deserting Russian Army driver who promptly tried to double cross me I am cautiously optimistic about the rest of the game. Let this be a warning to you – don’t trust people you meet hiding under a bridge. :p
Despite the use of the original locations, models and textures Clear Sky is a very different game. The story is just as engaging as the original, if not more so, as it makes full use of the fact it is a prequel to interweave some of the key characters from Shadow of Chernobyl into the plot. Who knows, maybe even Strelok will make an appearance later? The engine has been greatly upgraded and now includes a lot of beautiful weather and lighting effects coupled with a day night transition system which turn a game already dripping in atmosphere into something almost surreal in places. The atmosphere is largely thanks to the authenticity of having a development team from the Ukraine. The moody, functional architecture from a post Soviet era comes accross naturally and is sufficiently alien to many Western players to really add intrigue to this already very different world. Greatly improved textures and sounds coupled with the graphical enhancements and interesting developments to the AI really make the game stand out for me, and although it will never have the same level of graphical polish as something like Call of Duty 4, there have been moments already which have left me in awe. Sadly players who played the original will be frustrated that some of glitches still present in Clear Sky. Randomly disappearing NPCs, occasional clipping bugs, annoying side quest spawning (and timing) all remain, although many bugs have been fixed.
Bugs not-with-standing, I have only played this game for a very short duration and even by my overly critical standards the game is, so far, highly enjoyable and definitely worth buying. I will write more when I have had a chance to get deeper into the Zone.