GSC's S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is something of a work in progress. Its challenges have swung between satisfying hardcore survivalists and trying to entice newcomers to its world. To anyone who tried upgrading from a starting pistol in the first game, Shadows of Chernobyl or survived the opening area of the prequel, Clear Sky, you know what I'm talking about. With the third game, Call of Pripyat, GSC may have found a middle ground that still has that irradiated touch while easing in new players from outside of its fan base.
The action still takes place within the Zone, the exclusion area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (CNPP). In this sci-fi take on reality, there was a second event in 2006 that caused all sorts of havoc. In the following years, the curious entered the Zone and discovered strangeness, such as invisible anomalies that exist as reality-ripping holes that can burn, crush or melt the atoms of the careless. Then there were the physics-defying artifacts that also appeared, irradiated lottery tickets that made survivors rich as czars.
The military had also tried to cordon off the vast Zone, but more of these opportunistic treasure hunters - now called stalkers - found ways back in to continue their black market gold rush. If it weren't for the mutants that also cropped up along with the anomalies, there might have been more brave souls who were willing to risk being gunned down by the military or microwaved by the occasional radioactive emission.
Taking place in 2012 after the events of Shadow of Chernobyl, Call of Pripyat starts with the military sending in several choppers to the previously inaccessible heart of the Zone. Unfortunately, all the choppers go down and you, as a former stalker, are assigned the ugly task of finding out what happened, eventually leading to what is left of the former Soviet city of Pripyat.
Storytelling hasn't been the series' strong suit in comparison to the bleak, sparsely populated and grim atmosphere. Quest-givers exist only to recite the required text to give you an idea of where to go, but they and their stories add some color to the gritty, gray world of the Zone. Most NPCs can be needled for a little info, but most will begin reciting the same lines after exhausting what they have to say, so this isn't a game in which the story holds too many surprises or will change the lives of everyone around you. Newcomers also won't be able to appreciate references to the previous titles, leaving some of its unique flavor squarely aimed at longtime veterans, but there is still plenty to do and shoot at.
Being a part of the military also means that players start off better armed and armored than before, and you'll also have a decent chunk of cash. Surprisingly, CoP comes off as a somewhat friendlier experience while still retaining the ability to mulch unprepared stalkers in seconds. Witnessing a few of these isolated urban explorers mauled by the mutant horrors of the land or perforated by bandits before looting their corpses is still a fact of life in the Zone.
GSC has apparently weeded out some of the earlier entries' obvious brutality by replacing it with a few subtle touches that add to its challenges, and rewards, in other ways. The first game was very good at simply killing you after playing violin with your nerves in the dark. Clear Sky threw plenty of danger your way, albeit without as many scares. With CoP, the formula eases you into harm's way and wants to rob you blind before leaving you to bleed to death. If you think it's being too nice, you always have the option of raising the difficulty level.
Money is still the grease that keeps things moving, even in the irradiated wilds of the Ukraine, and wads of it are needed to keep weapons and armor in fighting form. The economy of the first two games didn't feel as reliant on the sale of artifacts to keep my wallet above water, thanks to being a prodigious robber of corpses. Not anymore.
CoP's economy has now been tweaked to be less forgiving, at least initially. No longer can you simply sell every weapon that you pick up to anyone with cash and expect to make a boatload of money. Weapons have to be in near-perfect condition before anyone will want what you're offering. Almost nothing is free. Not every technician is the same, either, especially when it comes to armor modifications.
Finding the right tools is a prerequisite for a tech to provide the right services, and in the scavenger-oriented market of the Zone, the tools could be anywhere. If you find a set, deciding who to give it to also depends on understanding the upgrade path they can provide. If you want that expensive exoskeleton that you had purchased to be able to jog, be sure that the tech you butter up with the right tools can actually do the job first.
Artifacts are also a lot more useful to the economy. Anomalous areas can spawn additional ones following an emission, allowing well-protected stalkers to farm them for goodies or bonus cash. On the one hand, it's easier to make money, but on the other, it also makes the game a bit too easy for patient players who begin building their own mint in this way. Since you can now place an order for special armor all the way up to an exoskeleton, getting the best protection isn't as rewarding as it had been when it had to be found or required a special favor. Finding the best guns is still an exciting event, since many of the unique pieces can't be purchased in stores.
Although factions won't be fighting each other for supremacy as they did in Clear Sky, your reputation will now have a much greater impact on how you survive; it's a rewarding change that adds a greater incentive to seek out jobs. In doing these, new "achievements" can eventually be earned in recognition of your hard work. Aiding a stalker in hunting down certain mutants might bring you the respect of the community as they occasionally leave ammo for you, saving you some dough in the long run.
However, one change isn't as welcome and comes off as more of a cheap shot in dragging cash from the player: You're no longer able to walk from area to area. To jump from one area to the next, would-be stalkers now have to pay someone to take them. While the rest of the economy tries to squeeze the player's wallet by picking away at it, the whole "guide" idea feels like it was tossed in as an additional excuse to burn cash. Even though GSC adamantly sticks to not providing a vehicle because it would take away from the experience of walking the land, it apparently wasn't enough to keep them from installing a toll booth.
Added to this is the fact that armor is still bonded to the skin of everyone you meet. Taking out a guy with a headshot in the hopes of leaving his powered exoskeleton intact isn't as impressive when you can't take it back with you or salvage it for parts. No one seems to carry any money, either, so scavenging only goes so far. It might make sense from a balance perspective, but now that the series is this far along, it's bizarre to deal with, given the degrees of realism present everywhere else in the gameplay.
Getting around is the same as it is in any FPS, only with the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, players also get an inventory of options. Different gear such as helmets, armor vests, weapons, healing aids and nourishing food all contribute to your survival, and grabbing as much stuff as you can is as much fun as it is to survive and sell it later. Though you can't grab that snazzy helmet from someone's corpse, you're still free to eat his lunch in case the hunger indicator comes up. You don't need to sleep, but bleeding out still requires a quick bandage job to keep yourself from dying.
These hubs set up in the wilds of the Zone provide safe harbor from the pseudodog packs and zombified stalkers that roam the wilds. They also provide a variety of valuable services: Merchants provide ammo and can buy any artifacts that you might find, techs can upgrade your gear, a worn mattress keeps you safe until the morning, a personal chest allows you to lighten your limited load, and contacts can give you special missions that range from paying a bounty on found artifacts to helping someone kill a particular mutant for cash. All of these provide welcome distractions from the main mission, so it's easy to get caught up in exploring an abandoned sawmill in the hopes of finding hidden goodies.
The hubs also make the game somewhat less threatening than its predecessors given that each major area has at least one of these gathering spots. Instead of taking you too far from safety as you pushed deeper into the Zone, the safety blanket of knowing that such havens are around takes some of the edge off. You won't find yourself an area or two away from any vestige of civilization as you might have in the series' earlier titles.
Outside of these safe houses, the wilds are still just as dangerous, if not as terrifying, but I can probably chalk that up to having been through the other two games. Shadow of Chernobyl creeped me out with its hidden horrors lurking in the darkness, and Clear Sky focused more on factions and open combat, though there were a couple of memorable terror trips. CoP does away with the chills almost entirely. Seasoned explorers like myself probably won't be as shocked by what they see in the game, but it replaces much of that with deadlier hordes and several scripted setups that try to make up for them.
Depending on how much you do (or don't) in the Zone, the ending appears to reflect the fruit of your labors in a dramatic about-face from the thrifty finishes of the last two titles. The missions might be cut-and-dried experiences from a story standpoint, but the ending is as rewarding as the journey, not to mention far more lucid than the mind-bending weirdness of its predecessors. That it apparently remembers what you've done gives the game an unexpectedly RPG-ish touch.
However, that only comes up if the player decides to actually end the game, even after spending 15 or 20 hours in trying to find and do everything possible. As a fan-requested feature, players can now opt to keep exploring, collecting and building up their arsenal of goodies for as long as they can stomach it after the final story-based mission is completed. When finished, an NPC guide can take them out of the Zone.
The actual game engine isn't as polished, and although it hasn't crashed on me, it comes with an expected dose of bugs. After the last two games, I've come to pretty much expect an issue or two, but nothing prepared me for some of the new things that I've seen. NPCs walk one way while their upper body faces another direction, or they lie down on the floor and then float to the nearest bunk bed. A hub closes itself off because of an attack, but you're unable to help out because the enemy is on the inside of the locked building. Enemy mutants attack only you and ignore everyone else, who reciprocate by leaving you to die alone despite being on good terms with them. The voice-over narration doesn't match the actual subtitles.
You'd think that after three times, they'd iron out some of these things, but at this point, I've gotten used to it. The same goes for its multiplayer.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s multiplayer has always been something of an underwhelming experience, and this unfortunate tradition continues with CoP. Again, most of the servers running the game with actual players are either in Russia or the Ukraine, and whether it is the distance or the actual netcode, attempting to play any of its modes, from team deathmatch to capture the artifact results, in a heaping helping of unplayable lag. It's a shame, considering how large many of the maps are and that they feature the same, ruined detail that make the series' venues ideal for that sort of thing. If you're hoping that it's actually worth playing here, you might be better served in a LAN setting among friends. For most everyone else, however, Call of Pripyat is better left as a single-player experience.
GSC has almost gotten the formula right, even with the rusty edges that still plague its engine. The experience manages to strike a near-perfect balance between ruthlessly testing the player's ability to survive and experiencing the sublime feeling of having lived to fight on, trade and explore another day through superior firepower. It won't scare off newcomers in as much as its two predecessors might have, so it's an ideal place for the curious to begin, but it still provides many of the dangers that veterans may already feel are too familiar.
It's hard to deny that the series still keeps me coming back for more, and part of me is hoping that a mega-patch will come out, Might and Magic: Clouds/Darkness of Xeen style, to merge all of the areas from each game into a single uber-Zone. For all that it does and doesn't do, Call of Pripyat is a unique experience that only S.T.A.L.K.E.R. can be counted on to deliver behind the Irradiated Curtain.
More articles about S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat