Disclaimer: This review is very long. Much longer than normal. Most likely due to my ability to ramble when writing past one in the morning. Please excuse the length.
While most reviewers are probably gushing on and on about the complete awesomeness that is Stalker: Call of Pripyat, I am dedicating some more time to that game in order to do a proper review. So, instead, I bring you a review of a game that I procrastinated on beating for about two years.
Stalker: Clear Sky is the second game in the Stalker series and prequel to the story of the first game, Shadow of Chernobyl. Clear Sky, like the original, is set inside the infamous Zone; the area of radioactivity surrounding that lovely, lovely place, Chernobyl. You play as Scar, Stalker for-hire and grand prize winner of ugliest man in the entire Zone. During an expedition deep into the Zone, Scar is engulfed by an unnaturally large emission, putting him into a coma for several days. He awakens to find himself at the base of a local faction of scientists, Clear Sky, who then tell him that the emission has made him a walking dead man, and that if he does not help them quell the Zone, he will die a horribly painful death. Scar accepts, of course, and then the scientists reveal exactly how bat shit crazy they are. Clear Sky (the scientists, not the game) treat the Zone the same way islanders would treat their local dormant Volcano; in the sense that they think it has some sort of consciousness and that they must constantly please it, or it will seriously fuck them up. They believe that someone has reached the center of the Zone and that the Zone is so unhappy about it, it's pitching fits in an attempt to simply kill everyone. You, as Scar, must find this person and set things right with the Zone.
"My name is Lebedev. I am your coach for the Ugliest Man In The Zone competition."
Aside from the aforementioned fanatics, I really don't have too many problems with the story. Without giving too much away, I will say that it melds in with Strelok's story in Shadow of Chernobyl very well, and completely enhances your understanding of the overall story arc. That said, the main plot of Clear Sky is much shorter than the one in the first game, and because of that, feels completely rushed. It doesn't delve any more into Strelok's reasoning for wanting to get into the center of the Zone, nor does it really give you any sort of background on Scar. Honestly, Scar might as well be a floating camera with arms, because he really only serves as a living macguffin to further the plot of Strelok, runner up for ugliest man in the Zone. If you enjoyed the plot of Shadow of Chernobyl, then chances are you'll enjoy the plot in Clear Sky, considering it explains any questions you may have about Strelok. Fortunately for GSC Game Worlds, the ending cutscene is so awesome that you immediately forget any gripes you have with the game's story.
Winner of Ugliest Church In The Zone competition.
The game plays out essentially the same as the original; scavenge, hunt, kill, and then sell shit. Yet again, if you enjoyed Shadow of Chernobyl, then you'll likely enjoy the way Clear Sky feels and plays. However, several small changes have been made which will most likely determine whether you prefer Clear Sky over the original. The most obvious change is the addition of faction wars. Basically, you join a faction and your faction has a rival faction. The resulting war plays out much like a first-person Battlefront. You attempt to capture bases from the enemy and they try to take them back. This lasts until one faction completely exterminates the other. I enjoy this primarily because having a massive and intense war inside the Zone is exactly as fun as it sounds, the only problems being that you can't just rush in and take out the enemies' main base. Instead, you first have to eliminate all of the smaller enemy camps, which can make wars become rather tedious and frustrating after having to retake the same base for the billionth time. Fortunately, after your first faction war, you never have to partake in another ever again if you choose not to. Faction wars do serve as a rather effective gameplay lengthener, however, and can determine whether your game is ten hours long or twenty hours long. Several much smaller changes to the game are also present, such as the ability to upgrade guns, which I absolutely love. Also, unlike Strelok, Scar never has to eat, which makes for the most unusual change to the gameplay. One small feature that annoys me to no end, is the fact that your PDA map shows the location of every single enemy, friendly, and monster in the entire Zone. I can't decide if it's cheating or if the game is trying to make up for the fact that it's about to ambush and fuck you with a pack of salivating mutants.
Remember the underground laboratory portions of Shadow of Chernobyl that were atmospheric, shit-your-pants scary, and easily some of the best parts of the game? Well, hopefully not, because they are completely gone. Apparently, the development team believed they had reached their awesome quota for Clear Sky, because this lack of any sort of survival horror element almost defeats the purpose of having creepy mutants as some of the main enemies. The last hour or two of the game pulls off the Fallout 3 strategy of trapping you in the final act of the game, forcing you to finish it even if you didn't exactly want to; and on top of that, it's nothing but an endless war, clearing out squads of enemies one house at a time in a massive city environment. This sounds awesome, but can be frustrating as hell because you have no idea whether the next corner holds another empty, dilapidated room, or an entire firing squad waiting to fill you full of lead almost instantly.
Winner of Ugliest Sky In The Zone.
The best part about Stalker, its beloved atmosphere, remains completely intact, and even improved in many aspects. For starters, a more realistic weather cycle is present, and the days are longer, meaning, you can have that oh-so lovely midnight hurricane firefight that makes Stalker's atmosphere such an engrossing part of the game. They've also added random emissions, essentially huge radioactive blowouts that you must seek shelter from, lest you turn into ugliest corpse in the Zone. During an emission, the sky turns blood red, lightning arcs across it, and thunder booms in the distance, making for some really intense moments of scrambling for shelter, especially if you're in the middle of nowhere, or engaged in a firefight. The graphics are also vastly improved, with much nicer textures to the environment and characters. The trees are still ugly as shit though, proving that the games desperately need a new engine. On the positive side, the dynamic lighting system can make the game a wonder to behold, provided you have the PC to run it.
Umm... This one is actually pretty beautiful.
The sound design, one of the most essential parts of the game, is also very nice. Mutants grumble, growl, and shriek, adding to the immersion. Guns are all deafening and sound very appropriate, meaning that an AK-47 sounds much deeper and louder than a Makarov pistol. My only real issue with the sound is that the voiceovers are laughably bad, another staple of the Stalker series. Part of the blame could go to the writers for making some of the worst character dialogue in the history of gaming. I'm not sure if this is due to the Russian to English translation, but whatever the reason, they really should work on it. As for the music, there either wasn't any, or it was very unremarkable, because I certainly cannot remember it.
The biggest negative about Stalker: Clear Sky is the amount of bugs the game contains. This was my very reason for leaving the game unfinished back when it originally came out. I actually encountered a bug at about the half-way point that made it impossible for me to continue, and I had to restart the game from scratch. Well, the game has now been patched up to 1.5.10 and I'm happy to report that there are no bugs that stop you from continuing. However, that doesn't mean that there aren't a shit ton of other bugs that will constantly annoy you. Screen tearing, sound going out, and corrupted save files are aplenty. Not only that, but I hit a bug on both of my playthroughs that wouldn't allow the Stalkers to occupy the Bandit base during the faction wars, regardless of how many times I murdered them all and cleared the place out. Not exactly a make or break moment, but annoying nonetheless. However, the game only crashed one time and it was during the opening cutscene, funnily enough. Those annoying little hiccups during gameplay still remain, and are even more frequent than they were in Shadow of Chernobyl. If the stability of a game keeps you awake at night, then Clear Sky (the game, not the faction) will drive you completely insane.
Your new an improved PDA, which now shows the location of every single person in the Zone. Guess there really is an app for everything.
You'll have most likely heard this time and time again, but the Stalker series really is unlike anything you'll ever play. It's impossible to describe the feeling of excitement you get when engaging in a firefight directly in the middle of nuclear anomalies, waiting to tear you to shreds. The game has its faults, and it certainly isn't as good as the original, but if you are looking for an immersive and atmospheric game with plenty of ugly people to shoot, then Clear Sky will not disappoint in that aspect.
Feel free to read my other reviews: Stalker: Complete 2009, HAWX, Fable 2, and The Boondock Saints
Also, if you like Stalker, there is an awesome Escapist user group. Feel free to join it: Stalker User Group
Feedback on my reviews is always welcomed! Thanks for reading.