STALKER: Call of Pripyat Review
Ukranian developer GSC Game World took PC gaming by the jibblies when it announced the first STALKER game back in late 2001, and the eventual release six years later gave us an interesting, challenging, and unique experience that was unlike any other first person shooter we'd seen. It recreated the area around Chernobyl after the meltdown disaster, complete with science-fiction storytelling about powerful and valuable radioactive artifacts and the "stalkers" that scavenge the area to find them. Throw in dangerous mutants, powerful factions vying for control of the whole place, and deadly anomalies left over from the disaster that must be carefully avoided or traversed, and the game became a frightening (but still exciting) first person shooter. Not everything that was promised for the first STALKER actually made it in, and while it was still a great game, most agreed that there was a lot of room for improvement.
Stalker: Call of Pripyat is a true sequel to the first game. You play as Ukranian agent Alexander Degtyarev, tasked with finding out what happened to a group of Army helicopters that went into the Zone (after the events of the first game) and never made it back. You'll find that unlike with the past games, the opposing Duty and Freedom groups don't take a central role in some kind of faction war. People aren't constantly at each other's throats now, and are loosely working together to find artifacts and fight off a new surge of mutants in the Zone .
Some rather disgusting new creatures have been introduced, and you'll often have to fight them in the pitch black of night (pack some night vision when it becomes available, because the flashlight barely makes things better than Blair Witch Project) or in a deep, dank basement or abandoned testing lab. Ok, one of the new enemies kind of does resemble a wart-infested Yoda in a bathrobe, using something resembling the Force to throw objects in the room at you. Pull him out of his element and he's some goofy little dwarf troll, but in the context of the settings you often fight him in, it generally does work well enough.
Pripyat supports DirectX 11 effects which I wasn't able to check out with my Radeon 4850 cards in Crossfire, but even in DX10 mode, the graphics in this third game are better than ever. Plus, the large expanses of rusty catwalks and (mostly) abandoned buildings do much more for the game's atmosphere and visuals than some high-powered motion blur or tesselated triangles. The lighting is clean and crisp and often makes for some great atmosphere - assuming, of course, that your idea of "great atmosphere" has room to include a twisted world full of mutants and strange noises coming from everywhere.
With the action focusing more on fighting the Zone itself rather than its human inhabitants, I found that the game can lapse into dull sections quickly when you're scavenging, trying to make money, or just having to run back and forth and don't want to pay the fee to quickly travel between locations. The STALKER games were never big with advanced combat AI or anything, but with the way that characters and factions moved around maps, they could seem unpredictable and sort of accidentally surprise you now and then - but that doesn't happen terribly often in here in Call of Pripyat. The only unexpected occurrences you now have to deal with are the mutants that randomly spawn, sometimes in places you've already explored, after big Zone-changing emissions that happen now and then.
Many of STALKER's unique gameplay peculiarities are back, some of which can get a little annoying - especially since you can't remove them just by turning down the difficulty. Some missions must be done (or started) within a specific time or you'll fail them, there's a pretty severe limit to the weight you can carry so you won't be able to haul a ton of guns back for sale (and now, vendors will refuse to buy any gear that's not in near-perfect condition), and most of the early artifacts you can pick up and equip aren't really usable until you can deal with the radiation they pour all over you. You'll also hear some completely ridiculous cut-and-paste voice acting, with multiple characters sharing the same voice, text-only dialogue all over the place, and the characters calling you "bro" and using American slang that just doesn't fit at all. Some hardened gamers will see this last one as an endearing, integral part of the STALKER experience, but it certainly is jarring and awkward for a new player.
One of my favorite parts from Clear Sky is back, though, and that's the ability to customize and upgrade your favorite guns and armor to make them more powerful. Scoped rifles also appear early and are generally pretty accurate at mid-range, fixing the Shadow of Chernobyl issue where you generally couldn't find a gun that fired straight for the first few hours of the game. And even though you can't sell everything you bring back from the field, finishing missions gets you enough money to make sure you've got the cash for new gear and upgrades.
There's a balance here that GSC Game World has been looking to achieve over the years, but I don't think they've hit it yet. On the one hand, fighting off crazy mutants, exploring deadly anomalies, and finding powerful artifacts are all interesting things to do, but on the other, having a few well-crafted gunfights with other stalkers is a compelling way to play as well. For me, Call of Pripyat is as close as the developers have gotten yet, but the new focus on the Zone's more natural predators still hasn't hit that balance right on the button. Having one or two major areas with tons of artifacts, anomalies, and mutants is a good choice, but there should still be a bigger focus on interaction, both in and out of combat, with the sentient life in the Zone. It seems that at least some of the modding community agrees, because the game's been out for a few months in Europe by now (the game was much buggier when released there) and there are now quite a few mods already available.
Call of Pripyat includes a multiplayer mode with some basic deathmatch and Capture the Flag options, but I found it largely forgettable after an hour or two of playing - much like I did with the online play in the past games. If you're thinking about getting this game, it certainly shouldn't be for the multiplayer action.
For anyone who loves STALKER, it's hard to find a reason not to pick this one up. It offers the same free-roaming first person shooter action we've seen before with its signature foreboding atmosphere and a couple of new surprises. Casual action fans would probably be better off skipping this one, as it lacks polish and is one of the least accessible shooters out there. Yes, GSC has done a pretty good job with STALKER: Call of Pripyat, but the series is progressing a little too slowly; I don't think they can continue making more STALKER games at this pace. Until it's time to reboot the franchise or just start over fresh, GSC might be better off trying something new and coming back to the Zone in a few years' time.