Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: GSC Game World
Release Date: September 15, 2008
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl had a pretty rough go of things. It was released broken and unfinished, even if you were one of those who had a great time with the game. Community mods alongside patches essentially finished the development, though it never fully hit its stride as a high-quality title. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky proves that the developers at GSC really listened to the community, and while it still isn't a flawless ride, Clear Sky does a great job of delivering on some of the promises that the original game didn't reach.
Both games are based in the irradiated zone surrounding Chernobyl, the site of a massive nuclear accident. In the game's fictitious world, the radiation has caused all sorts of mutations in people and wildlife, and these dangerous creatures often prey upon the unwary who wander around the zone. Bands of armed men called Stalkers roam the zone in search of valuable artifacts to sell and trade, items of great power and potential that were formed from the unique radiation levels and circumstances of the zone itself.
Clear Sky serves as a prequel to the events of Shadow of Chernobyl. The zone is an even more chaotic and violent place; the uneasy peace between the various factions of Stalkers has been shattered, so they're now locked in bloody territory conflicts. The zone has had its very core breached by a mysterious Stalker and has consequently begun producing massive blasts of energy, "emissions," which rip across the landscape. Mutant attacks are a common threat to any living creature in the zone, and if a faction doesn't lose a territory to a rival faction, it is often due to a group of mutants that wiped them out instead.
The player fills the role of a Stalker named Scar, who was leading a group of scientists across the zone when an emission occurred and killed everyone but himself. Scar was saved purely by chance when a squad of the Clear Sky faction of Stalkers found his unconscious body. As it turns out, Scar is unique in that he is the only known being who has survived direct exposure to an emission, although continued exposures will kill him anyway. As Scar pieces his equipment back together and works with various factions toward their goals, it gets him closer to figuring out why the zone is behaving so chaotically and if it can be stopped.
One thing that may initially bug veterans of the series is that barring a couple of new additions such as the starting Marsh map, Clear Sky revisits most of the maps that were already featured in the original game. You'll still shoot bandits in Garbage and meet up with some contacts in Cordon. However, the levels have seen quite a few tweaks here and there to spice things up, and the environments are now vastly different. Maps in the first game had the player merely sidestepping dogs between performing missions, but they're now populated with roving bands of bandits or mutants on their way to attack Stalker encampments or to drop the unwary wanderer. Since the game is a prequel and takes place in the same geographical area, it makes sense that those same areas have been reused, and while the geometry is sometimes identical, a series veteran never feels like he's playing the same thing all over again.
Ultimately, Clear Sky is similar to the first title in that the gameplay hinges a great deal on survival. At the outset, ammo is scarce and the player barely has two rubles to scrape together; later on, when the equipment gets better, a savage mutant or a bandit with a sawn-off shotgun can still drop you pretty quickly. Players can only carry so much at a time, and between all of the med kits, bandages, guns, ammo, and other necessities that a Stalker needs to survive the zone, it's common to trade for bare essentials and looting gear from the fallen.
Weaponry is a varied selection of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, and sniper rifles. Ammunition also comes in a number of varieties, with different types of calibers for different makes of guns, and you also get to choose from normal, armor-piercing, or hollow-point rounds. Unlike the first title, weapons and equipment can be repaired and upgraded, thanks to the new upgrade gameplay mechanic.
Weapon upgrades come in the form of a tiered system, with one tier focusing on assault and the other on long-distance combat. Upgrades include recoil reduction and handling increases, flatter trajectories and higher accuracy, as well as the occasional ability to increase the clip size or completely rechamber the weapon to use a different caliber of ammo. Once a weapon component is upgraded, it cannot be changed, so players must think before they put on a higher-accuracy barrel, as it cannot be swapped out for one with lower recoil later on. This system essentially lets players tailor their weapons to reflect their intended use, although upgrades can get insanely expensive for higher-end weapons or top-tier upgrades.
Artifacts are much harder to find and require the use of specialized equipment to locate. To find them, players must first equip a detector, after which the player can only use single-handed weapons or items, such as a pistol. Some detectors only beep faster when you're close to an artifact, while others also indicate direction. They're a pain to find and are often in the middle of a ton of abnormalities that can kill or severely wound the player, but the payoff is worth it. Artifacts can bestow a number of useful stats to their wearer, such as radiation reductions or other traits, and they can usually be sold for a fair amount.
The game engine has been upgraded to some extent, most notably in the bug-fixing department. Whereas the original often required the sacrifice of some small mammal to function properly and stay running, Clear Sky only crashed once in our preview build and remained completely stable with the final build. This is for the best, as keeping the game running is obviously the only way to appreciate the often stunning visuals that Clear Sky has to offer. Nights are pitch-black, which makes the long shadows caused by flashlights all the more stark, but the stars of the show are dawn and dusk, which cast beautiful rays of amber light through the trees.
To remind the player that the place only looks like a pleasant area, the aural side of things is often filled with the sounds of combat. Screaming mutants wailing against the staccato sounds of gunfire have an eerie contrast, especially when the player isn't involved in the fight. Wandering around the ambient sounds of the wilderness can be incredibly immersive. Dynamic music can be turned on, which is supposed to give combat a nice thrashing soundtrack, although it often doesn't turn off after combat has concluded; it's probably better to keep this turned off until a patch remedies things. Clear Sky features a long list of voiced dialogue, and while the voice acting isn't particular exemplary, it does have a certain charm.
Faction wars are new to the series, and on every map in the zone, you can rest assured that two factions are fighting each other over it. If the player joins a faction, he gains access to their radio and PDA frequencies, which allow him to track the map points over which the faction is currently fighting. As the player is doing his own thing in the zone, he may pick up a distress call over the radio, only to arrive and find the place overrun with armed men or mutants tearing up the place. These points can change hands frequently, and though player involvement isn't necessary to facilitate this process, they are a good way to get money and equipment as a reward. Some zones have guides when they're under friendly faction control, which serve as a form of fast travel to other guides in controlled points, though not without a fee.
The new additions to the series aren't without their issues. The faction wars in particular occur too often yet are over too soon, to the point that after hoofing it to a site after hearing about it over the radio, you may get there only to find a couple of mutant dogs. Then, 15 minutes after you've left the point, you may get a call about the same place, repeating the vicious cycle. Artifacts are often hard to find and even harder to get to because of the incredibly dangerous conditions they are usually found near. Given their relatively minor impact on the game, some players may forego their use entirely.
The AI of the creatures you'll face is often poor, alternating between running straight at the player and wandering in loops around obstacles for no discernable reason while they're filled with lead. On one occasion, we watched a pack of seven mutants of varying types in combat with two bandits, and while the bandits poured shotgun rounds at the mutants, they just wandered back and forth — despite their obvious angry intent and increasing amount of buckshot in their bodies. Fighting human opponents makes up the bulk of the game and is more level-headed, with enemies who will realistically take cover and trade fire with the player, although there is the occasional odd duck who stands out in the open, practically asking to get dropped. There are also other issues at hand, such as enemies spamming grenades with superhuman throwing and accuracy, which hopefully will be addressed in a future patch. While none of these are game-breaking, they either break immersion or unfairly frustrate the player, neither of which are exactly commendable traits.
Despite its flaws, however, it is difficult to not give some praise to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky. With some patches, the game could be polished up a bit, but as it stands, if the player is willing to live with the occasional imbalance or AI oddity, there is much fun to be had. The faction wars are an interesting concept, but the game is mostly about the player making his way through the zone and uncovering some of its secrets. It's a bit more about gunfights and a lot less scary than its predecessor, but overall, Clear Sky improves upon the original in many ways while using the same strengths that made it so compelling in the first place.
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