Disclaimer: This review is long. Very long. And a tad bit rambly. So, just know that going in. Looking back, I feel the main problem I have with this review is that I've done so many Stalker reviews before, they all begin to run together. It's very monotonous. I think I deserve a break after this.
It seems like only yesterday that I was browsing the PC games section at my local money pit, Best Buy. I was desperately searching for something new, hoping that whatever I found would be a gift directly from Zeus himself, meant for me, and me only to play. It was there that I came across a glistening jewel in the form of Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. I saw the potential just by looking at the box.... But I had no idea what to expect. I immediately purchased it, beat it in a single 48-hour sitting (not counting the times taken for shits and the like), and loved it. But, that wasn't yesterday. That was a long, long time ago (around March 2007 to be exact). Well, the year now being 2010, a new game in the series was released about a month back, and I've been playing it rather devotedly on and off since its release. Not knowing whether it would be as good as the original, or be plagued with the same mediocre fate as the prequel, Clear Sky, you could say that I was a tad nervous. Luckily, my fears were unfounded.
Stalker: Call of Pripyat is the third game in the series, picking up directly after the events of Shadow of Chernobyl, and continuing the rather intriguing plot of the original. You take the role of USS Major Alexander Degtyarev, who, strangely enough, seems to be the only moderately attractive man in the entire zone. You, as Major Sexypants, must investigate the cause of several military helicopters that crashed near the recently opened center of the Zone. The plot continues rather lazily after the original intro, especially considering that absolutely nothing happens throughout the entire game. You'll investigate all the downed helicopters, you find out why they're no longer in the air, and then go home. If only I were joking. There's no sort of suspense and not any real conclusion. If you were planning on learning more about how the Zone was created, or anything else interesting (god forbid, right?), then you're out of luck. Also, as per tradition, Strelok makes an appearance, if only to make your character seem more attractive.
If you've played any Stalker games before, this next scenario I describe will seem very familiar. You are dropped off directly in the middle of a several kilometer land of death without knowing anything other than that you need to walk blindly towards several blips on your map. This was quite startling in the earlier games, but nothing compares to the confusion you'll experience when first booting up Call of Pripyat. After a short intro cutscene ( a first for the series), they simply dump you off in the middle of an open field with nothing but an AK, some bread, and your own stupid expression. They don't even have the common courtesy to drop you off in a base or safe zone, leaving you rather vulnerable as you stare dumbfounded at the size of this completely unknown land.
"Hey, I can see my house from here!"
So, it goes without saying that Call of Pripyat does not hold your hand. Once your initial confusion wears off and you figure out exactly where the fuck to go, you'll find that a completely open world full of interesting and amazing landmarks is yours to explore. Safe zones are scarce in this daunting land and mutants roaming to eat your attractive face await over every hill. All of this is quite similar to other Stalker games, but there are a few key differences that really enhance the experience. Rather than having many smaller levels make up one large Zone, you have three huge levels that make up one massive Zone, which is probably the best decision the developers have ever made. It really gives you an increased sense of freedom on exactly how you traverse the Zone on one of your many treks. The environments of each level are nicely varied, going from a swampy mudhole full of abandoned ships, to a sort of industrial area surrounded by a forest, and finally to the abandoned full scale city of Pripyat itself. Another difference you'll likely notice is that many key locations are marked on your map, things like abandoned buildings, which are yours to search for anything of value.
Of course, anomalies make a return, except they play a much bigger role this time around. Often times, a few of those key areas on your map are anomalous hotspots, which you'll search for artifacts using your detector. The ability to find artifacts has always been present in Stalker games, but the detector wasn't introduced until Clear Sky; regardless of all that, I ignored the damn things until Call of Pripyat. They've increased the cost for each one, meaning that finding two-three artifacts could net you a small fortune. Aside from the lucrative side of artifact hunting, anomalies are much more of a wonder now, featuring huge columns of rock jetting from the Earth, massive fissures, and even spouts of fire. The incredible danger and the amazing reward combine to give you a reason to actually go out of your sexy way in order to look for artifacts.
Each of those little blips is a horribly painful death. How lovely.
Much of the gameplay remains the same as the rest of the series. You'll spend majority of your time stumbling around the Zone, shooting at anything that isn't as attractive as you, and finding loot to sell. The shooting mechanics don't seem to have changed in the slightest, however, you'll notice that things die easier. Honestly, I never exactly figured out whether this was because guns were more accurate, or because the developers realized that a guy can't take fifty bullets when only wearing a fucking hoodie. Regardless, the game still maintains its punishing difficulty, not because the enemies are made of solid steel, but because you're made of squishy flesh. Call of Pripyat is still a tactical shooter after all and that means if you aren't careful, the enemy will fuck you. Be it bloodthirsty mutants or just some random guy with a shotgun, plan on dying quite often. However, unlike Clear Sky, the game is still fair. The NPCs are no longer quite as liberal with the grenades as they once were, cutting down the frustration level a tad.
The ability to join faction wars has been removed and is replaced by the much less stupid idea of just making some actual side quests, rather than spewing out the generic "Kill bandit/stalker/mutant X at abandoned building Y". This is the part of the game you will spend majority of your time on, as some of the side quests are more thrilling than the actual fucking story. One in particular sends you off to investigate the disappearance of several of your stalker neighbors. After receiving a tip that the culprits are a pack of Bloodsuckers (mutants who can turn invisible at will and are some of my personal favorites), you and a fellow stalker head off to the bloodsucker lair in an abandoned building and eliminate the two you thought were the only ones. However, upon entering the basement, you stumble upon a massive nest of the bastards, and must sneak out without making any noise, lest you be torn limb from attractive limb. The quest later takes a completely amazing and unexpected turn (which I won't reveal), making it a personal favorite of mine. The existence of these thrilling quests is primarily the reason that it took me one month to beat the game, rather than a day or two. Also, the inclusion of achievements gives you some things to work for, as each achievement has a reward attached to it. Equipment repairing and upgrading has been expanded upon vastly, forcing you to make some tough decisions when deciding which aspects of a weapon to upgrade. Often times, you'll have to choose between things like rate of fire and accuracy, ultimately deciding exactly how your weapon is useful. Taking a traditional AK, adding a scope, increasing the accuracy, and then increasing the flatness of the bullets turns it into a sniper instead of an assault weapon. You can now fully upgrade aspects of your armor and helmets as well, making you less vulnerable to the dangers of the Zone. Honestly, majority of the aspects of the gameplay are exactly the same as they were in the previous two games. However, that is not a bad thing at all. GSC Game Worlds essentially took the best parts of both Clear Sky and Shadow of Chernobyl, creating one hell of a fun game to play.
This mutated boar will give me some excellent mutated pork.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Stalker game without the amazing atmosphere gluing the entire package together. Thankfully, Call of Pripyat maintains the tradition of sucking you into the game and keeping you there until your eyes bleed. However, they have improved upon it in many aspects. The weather cycle is much more realistic than before, even if it rains more now than it did in fucking Vietnam. The difference between day and night is also much more stark. Before, dark was only mildly dark. Now, it's like someone draped a black sheet over your head, punched you in both of your eyes, and set you loose on the side of the road at about midnight. This only further enhances the experience and makes exploring the Zone at night much scarier. The radioactive blowouts, called Emissions, make a return from Clear Sky and are even more frequent, though the reason for their increased frequency is never explained (big surprise). When an Emission happens, the sky will turn completely red and it almost seems like a violent thunderstorm. In order to survive, you must find the nearest shelter and hold out there as the world seemingly falls apart on top of your head. These are just as exciting as they were before, given that you have the patience to deal with them. Often times, you'll find yourself over-burdened by the amount of shit you just stole from the pockets of a recently deceased stalker, and on your way back to the nearest merchant when an Emission will occur. I promise you, you'll be pissed off every single time it happens.
Adding greatly to the atmosphere is the amazing sound design. The guns are appropriately loud and each one has a unique sound that you'll recognize, making it especially impressive when eerie silence erupts into a sudden firefight. Even more impressive are the sounds of the mutants and anomalies. Sound alone can give away exactly what type of mutant is nearby and planning to remove my insides from inside of me, where they belong. Each type of anomaly also has a sound of its own, from the bubbling sound of the acid anomaly, to the explosive sound of the fire geyser. The voice acting is still terrible, but serves the purpose of entertaining me during some of the more pointless and boring cutscenes. However, my primary complaint is that many of the sounds remain the same as they did in previous games. Of course, the sound design has always been outstanding in Stalker games, it's just that some new sounds might be in order, seeing as its been since 2007 that they recorded any. Honestly, it isn't exactly a problem with the game, but the current sounds are aging rapidly, and it won't be long before the quality drops below the bar.
Speaking of being below the bar, the graphics are still the same as they've always been. They are by no means bad, but the age of the X-Ray engine is showing, and it would be in GSC Game Worlds' best interests to find a new one. The lighting effects are excellent as always, but the environments still look goofy. Trees are like blobs of green felt with no sort of "alive" qualities to speak of, textures are still rather dated, and character animations are always worth a laugh. The worst part is (and always has been) the actual physical features of the characters. Hands in Stalker suffer from Grand Theft Auto 3 syndrome, meaning that they are basically constantly in a "gripping" form. Fingers never move and they all look like they're permanently stapled together. Character's faces are also horribly un-detailed, making absolutely no sense, considering that the mutants features are absolutely stunning. Get a new game engine GSC. Seriously.
"Go out there. I triple-dog dare you."
By far, the best aspect in Call of Pripyat isn't a gameplay feature at all; it's the technical stability that the game provides. The Stalker series is notorious for having some serious fucked up bugs that make the game barely playable (and even that's only if you're lucky). Well, I'm extremely happy to report that Call of Pripyat suffers from very few technical issues; the most abundant being some pointless frame rate stuttering, even on high end systems. This has been said to be caused by the pre-loading of all objects, AI, envrionments, etc. in the Zone. Regardless of the reason, it can be tad annoying when the entire game is running smoothly and then it turns into lag-fest 2010 at the most inconvenient times. Even that is small in comparison to the issues that plagued the previous games in the series.
All of those complaints aside, I still completely adore this franchise, and this one is the best yet. Yes, I just lost all of my street cred with the Stalker fanboys, but it doesn't matter. This game is simply the most fun, most time consuming, and most technically sound of them all; not only taking all of the best elements of the series and refining them to perfection, but adding elements to the game that drastically improve the quality. If you love the Stalker franchise thus far, then you simply have to buy this one. You certainly won't regret it. Yes, it has its problems, but it's just pure fun. Besides, there really isn't another game out there like it. It's a shame that the story wasn't better, but I guess we'll all have to wait until Stalker 2 in order to figure out exactly what the fuck is going on in the Zone.
Thank you for reading! Feedback and criticisms are always welcome.
If you enjoyed this review, feel free to read my others: Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Shutter Island, Halo: Legends, Stalker: Clear Sky, Stalker: Complete 2009, HAWX, Fable 2, and The Boondock Saints
Also, if you love Stalker as much as I do, there's an awesome new user group for it. Feel free to join: Stalker User Group