The third game in the series, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, is the first true sequel of the series and takes the survival gameplay to a set of brand-new locations. The game is set after the events of Shadow of Chernobyl and even later after the events of its prequel, Clear Sky. Call of Pripyat puts you in the shoes of a military officer disguised as a Stalker and sent into the Zone to investigate the downing of a series of military helicopters and other aspects of life. Of course, the Zone is still as dangerous and unpredictable as ever, with periodic emissions tearing across the landscape and killing anyone who's not safely ensconced in a shelter. It's a tough world to survive in, even for an experienced soldier, and it will be even tougher to pierce into the heart of some of the most dangerous areas the Zone has to offer.
The game is once again based on the irradiated area surrounding Chernobyl, the site of a massive nuclear accident. In the title's fictitious version, the radiation released by the accident has caused all sorts of mutation in both human beings and in the wildlife, and these dangerous creatures often prey upon the unwary wandering in the Zone. Bands of armed men called Stalkers roam the Zone in search of valuable artifacts to sell and trade; artifacts are items of great power and potential that have been formed from the unique radiation levels and circumstances of the Zone. Unlike the previous games in the series, Call of Pripyat lets you wander into the city of Pripyat, a worker's town for the plant that was completely evacuated when the incident at Chernobyl occurred. Though the Zone is always a creepy and desolate place, Pripyat is essentially an entire city that has begun to be overrun by nature and is filled with the tense and almost worrisome atmosphere that exemplifies the Zone.
One of the benefits of your military background for your mission is that you start the game equipped with an AK-47, a sidearm, and a meager amount of ammunition and supplies. Of course, the AK is a rather poor weapon, but it still gives you a running start because it's far better than the basic pistol with which you usually start in other games of the series. You are by no means a powerful force capable of dominating the Zone's dangers right off the bat, as mercenaries and bandits can often have far better weapons and armor, and the creatures of the Zone are quite resilient this time around.
The weaponry in Call of Pripyat seems a lot more subdued as well. In previous games, you could get by fairly easily by using just about any assault rifle as long as you set it to semi-automatic fire to tap off shots. Higher-end rifles certainly had better features and stats, but there didn't seem to be as much to differentiate them. In Call of Pripyat, however, there is a lot more to differentiate weapons, and although effective use of them is as important as ever, there is a lot more variation in their damage, accuracy and stats. For example, if you wander into a Snork den with your starting AK, you may as well expect to get killed, even though the lowly AK was still a potent weapon in prior games of the series. Come back later with a stronger weapon, and your survival rate in that den — and in the rest of the Zone — will be much higher.
You start the game in an almost completely dried-up lake bed that is filled with the hulls of beached ships, one of which serves as the first form of civilization that you can take refuge in and do some trading. This "town" is filled with merchants such as standard traders who will buy goodies that you bring back from the Zone, doctors who will heal you or remove your radiation level, and weapon upgrade and creation craftsmen. These places also function as a shelter from the deadly emissions that fry any living thing in the Zone, and they also provide a place to sleep so that you can skip ahead to a specific time of day. Don't want to make a long walk at night? Take a rest for a few hours until dawn.
Weapon upgrades can include recoil reduction and handling increases, flatter trajectories and higher accuracy, as well as the occasional ability to increase the clip size or completely re-chamber 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 equip a higher accuracy barrel, as it cannot be swapped again for one with less recoil. This system essentially lets players tailor their weapons, though upgrades can get insanely expensive for higher-end weapons or top-tier upgrades.
Weapons can be ordered from the creation craftsmen, which means you can select a weapon or armor type and then give the man a sum of cash. When you come back after an amount of time, he will have your new weapon for you. These weapons are usually incredibly expensive, but they are also better than the junk weapons that you usually find in the Zone. One thing that hinders the system is that you have no idea what you'll be getting when you use this feature; you are essentially paying a large sum of money and specifying that you want a rifle, but you don't knowing what type of ammo it will use, what its stats will be, or even if it's better than what you're already using.
To get money quickly, you can track down and recover artifacts, but such artifacts are usually found in dangerous places. The method used to find artifacts is essentially the same as it was in Clear Sky, and it requires the use of specialized equipment to locate them. Players must first equip a detector; while it is equipped, the player can only use single-handed items or weapons such as a pistol or bolts. Some detectors only beep faster or slower, depending on your distance from an artifact, while others also indicate direction via a small screen that resembles a radar. Artifacts are usually a pain to find and are often in the middle of a ton of anomalies 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 reduction or other traits, and as a bonus, they can also be sold for a fair amount.
The anomalies in Call of Pripyat aren't much different than the ones found in previous games in the series, which is to say they are highly dangerous and capable of instantly killing even the most well-equipped Stalker. Anomalies are usually based around base elements such as fire, electricity or air pressure, but they've been amped up to be incredibly deadly. Many of these anomalies are invisible and can only be detected by listening to the detector's warning beeps or throwing one of your limitless supply of bolts to trigger them. Unfortunately for those looking for safe travel, some of these anomalies are mobile and follow predefined paths through their corner of the Zone. Traversing anomalies is always a dangerous affair, but it is also essentially the only place where one can find those precious artifacts.
More dangerous than the anomalies found scattered around the Zone are the emissions that tear across at random intervals. When these emissions begin to form, a call will go out over the radio from one of the Stalker base camps to let people know that an emission is about to occur. At this time, the mini-map will show the location of the nearest shelter, which is usually somewhere underground or in a suitable structure. As the emission builds, the sky turns red and your vision begins to warble and blur, until finally the emission releases and any living thing found topside at the time is struck dead in an instant. These emissions (and the system to take shelter from them) works much more elegantly than they did in Clear Sky; you can concentrate more on possibly dropping goods so that you can run faster and make it to the shelter in time rather than wondering if the shelter will bug out.
Money is much harder to gather in Call of Pripyat than it has been in any other game in the series. Though you may pick up a ton of rifles and other goodies after wiping the floor with a few bandits, you may haul them back to a trader only to find that he doesn't want to buy them. In addition, since you need to eat periodically, you may need to spend a chunk of your rubles on purchasing food and items such as medical kits and bandages. Basically, you will often find that you need to raid a bandit or a human camp to get some much-needed supplies rather than just selling loot and buying everything from a local trader. It fits the game's motif better, but at the same time, it can be problematic when you are already running low on ammunition or bandages.
While life in the Zone is problematic, the game is not. Even in its preview form, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is probably the most polished game in the series yet. The presentation is still largely the same one of gloom and despair that is practically the series trademark, but there are fewer instances of the AI not working correctly and no instances of shoddy performance. Call of Pripyat is simply the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series at its finest to date, and when it is released next year, fans are going to have an excellent reason to strap on their gear and take a brand-new journey into the heart of the Zone.
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