Note: I played S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky patched to version 1.5.05. I’ve read complaints online about many, many bugs, some major, some minor, and very few of which I saw on my machine using the patched version. My review is of this particular patch – earlier unpatched versions or later patches may alter gameplay elements and there’s nothing I can say about that.
The Good: Highly immersive atmosphere. Brutally realistic FPS. The Bad: Fancy schmancy graphics engine has steep system requirements to turn on all the bells and whistles. Minimum system requirements hardly scratch the surface. The Ugly: Uneven difficulty level, some parts requiring (for me at least) a dozen tries or more to survive, while other parts are cake.
Though I haven’t played the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. much since I handed my review in, I can still recall the oppressive atmosphere of Chernobyl – perpetual clouds and rain, fields of dead grass, stunted and twisted trees, dark and forbidding ruins. It had I think a level of tactile reality matched by only perhaps BioShock, and both are games that make you totally live in their worlds, your moods of wonder and horror are genuine as the worlds unfold before you. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky (S:CS) brings more of the ruthless, terrible world that is Chernobyl after the accident at the nuclear power plant to life, this time as a prequel to the events of the previous game. Why did they go with a prequel as opposed to a sequel? I’m not entirely certain. I think the designers wanted to delve into the environment of total chaos that the early years after the disaster offered because the radioactive/psychoactive rifts are much more deadly in S:CS than the first game as well as the high state of flux of the various factions that are trying to control the regions around the disaster site. In a way perhaps they are indicating that between the events of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and S:CS things are improving which brings an odd hopeful quality to the two games. Had they been in the other order, showing the physical world and the social order both destabilizing, the games would have had a very different thematic tone. Woo, thematic tone! Listen to me. What, did I go to art school or something?
S:CS is a tactics-heavy FPS, where you frequently find yourself up against better armed, better positioned, and bigger numbers of enemies standing between you and your goal. The guy who goes in with guns blazing isn’t going to last very long. Even the slow careful route sometimes isn’t enough as you get your head blown off by a sniper you almost can’t see. There’s a certain frustration in that, as well as the sort of deadly accuracy with which the enemy sometimes hurls grenades right at your feet. I remember now that I gave up on the first game after there was some area that even after dozens of tries I just couldn’t get through. I haven’t hit anything like that in this one, but I’m not done yet either, and I have hit some very tough parts. While it is fun to be challenged by a game sometimes, there can also definitely be too much challenge where it ceases to be fun. S:CS treads dangerously close to that line at almost any difficulty setting. If anything, loot in this game has become more difficult to obtain. Artifacts, which were the big money-maker in the first game have become more difficult to find, requiring you to brave more lethal singularities to get to them and a special detector to even find them. In the first game I came to a point where, if not exactly flush with money, I could at least afford to buy whatever gun and ammunition pleased me. I haven’t hit that point in S:CS as far as I’ve played, which I think is about halfway through the plotline. Forever counting ammunition, trying to decide if you can afford to shoot someone because they may not be carrying enough loot on their bodies to allow you to buy ammunition to reload may be fine for the kids in Compton but gets tiring in a videogame.
The story begins with you playing the role of a Stalker, one of any number of fortune hunters who have come to the zone to find wealth in the artifacts the disaster has created. It seems like a good plan, until you are caught in a singularity explosion which changes you, making you tougher while at the same time sapping your life. You awaken in a camp called Clear Sky where scientists are attempting to study the singularities, your only hope for a cure being to help them. The bulk of the gameplay then consists of getting assignments, quests if you will, working for one faction or another as you try to understand the overall mystery of the zone and why it has become so active. The goals of the different factions (soldiers, stalkers, mercenaries, scientists, bandits, etc) are frequently at odds with one another. Working for one isn’t going to necessarily earn you any friends with the others, and it is up to you to decide which factions you want to support and which you want to oppose. The interaction of these factions, which I recall getting just a taste of in the first game, has exploded essentially into all-out war in this one. You can participate in faction attacks, sort of like CoD4 squad combat, which end up molding the balance of power in the zone. The choices you make and the impact it has on the relative strengths of the factions makes the world seem very organic. Your PDA has been heavily modified for faction wars, giving you relative group strengths and feeding you goals to help your faction win.
The graphics engine has been improved extensively, but to get most of it in play I had to reduce my frame rate to a crawl. Dialing it back to something that my machine could handle (still well above the minimum system requirements BTW) left the game looking much like the first one with perhaps a little more dynamic lighting and particle stuff going on. The palate, a limited selection of greens, browns, and grays punctuated by flashes of fire and explosions, is effective and jarring. I would say that graphically S:CS compares quite well to most recent FPS titles. Much the game has essentially no music, just a little bit in the camps, leaving you to experience the ambient sounds which are chilling and desolate. Voice work is OK, a little shlock heavy on the accents, but the dialog, often long boring monologues with only slight interaction with you, is too much.
Multiplayer, which I honestly don’t think I ever tried for the first game, has many of the usual variants: deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag (only they call it capture the artifact). It’s also got something called artifact hunt in which the artifact appears randomly on the map and the team to bring it to their base gets the point. They’re entertaining, but nothing stellar. The strength of S:CS is in the single player gameplay and storyline. The multiplayer stuff is almost slapped together as if the designers knew they had to include some multiplayer element but their hearts weren’t really in it.
As sequels/prequels go, S:CS is a good one. It introduces a new engaging storyline, adding some features but by and large leaving the good things about the first game alone. Some play testing would have perhaps caught some of the sections which are almost impossibly difficult that I think will frustrate some gamers to the point of quitting (I know the first game did for me). From the standpoint of immersion, however, S:CS is among the very best games there are.