PC S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky

Scott Tortorice

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Like vodka, the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl was a bit of an acquired taste. While it was generally hailed by critics as a hybrid which successfully merged the RPG and shooter genres, the game also frustrated a lot of players because of the large number of serious bugs which plagued the release. After a time -- and with a lot of feedback from the community -- GSC patched those bugs and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. eventually evolved into a unique and very satisfying game experience. If you enjoyed S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s tense, open-ended gameplay, chances are you'll also enjoy the refined gameplay in GSC's new prequel, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky is set prior to the events in the original game. The gameworld, called "the Zone," is in many ways a wilder and more dangerous place than the previous game. One could easily wonder around the zone for quite some time without encountering any significant resistance. This gave the zone an eerie and desolate feel--a place not for the living. Only a few stalkers and mutants could be found scattered here and there on the map, and it could be a real chore to gather equipment and ammo. And while the zone remains as creepy a place as ever, there is now a lot more activity and a lot more enemies to deal with.

Much of this activity is due to a new gameplay mechanic called factional warfare, which allows the player to join one of the many existing stalker factions in the game and advance that faction's cause. The factions battle each other for control of important areas of the zone, and the player will frequently be asked to help clear out an enemy camp or base. These missions can range from ridiculously short and easy affairs which barely offer any challenge at all, to brutally difficult assaults against well-prepared bases manned by a significant defensive force. Players are able to monitor their character's factional warfare standing via a PDA with an interface set up to display information on the current status of the various rival factions. Assisting a faction brings the benefit of better prices when dealing with the traders and access to guides who can quickly take you to distant locations on the map--a particularly useful feature when traversing the dangers of the zone.

Like the first title, combat in the zone is conducted with a wide variety of pistols, shotguns, and real world military hardware. At first the player only has access to crappy weapons and money can be pretty difficult to come by. But after completing some important missions and networking with the various traders, the situation generally improves and the player can "level up" with better guns and a higher quality stalker suit. The zone is a very dangerous place and setting out for the wilder areas without proper equipment is a recipe for becoming a mutant meal. Salvaging and looting from the dead are just a part of survival in the zone. One important new addition is the ability to upgrade guns to improve characteristics like range or handling. Care has to be used here, though, as once an upgrade is installed, it can't be removed. This is a welcome addition to the game and adds an additional bit of depth to the combat system.

The developers have really done an outstanding job of tweaking the game engine to produce some spectacular effects. With DirectX 10 support now an option, Clear Sky's visuals are a significant step up from the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. The attention to detail in the level design is as good as any first-person shooter currently on the market. Everywhere you look there is something to see, from the remnants of bizarre-looking trees twisted by the horrors of the zone to sprawling wastelands of marsh and quicksand. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s abandoned factories and industrial locations littered with rusted equipment and radioactive anomalies never looked better. Be warned, though, you'll need a hefty game rig to get the best out of Clear Sky. We tested Clear Sky on a system equipped with an i7 and a pair of NVIDIA 295's. At 1920 x 1200 the game looked amazing on a 30" display.

But for all the improvements Clear Sky offers over Shadow of Chernobyl, the game remains very much an acquired taste and does have a few lingering issues. At the time of this review Clear Sky has been patched and many of the problems experienced by gamers in the early release version have been dealt with. Nevertheless, there is still some occasional odd behavior by the AI that detracts somewhat from the game's overall value. Enemies sometimes roam aimlessly or go in circles. Too, combat is unforgiving and can be very hard at times, even with the difficulty level turned down. Enemies know how to use grenades and often seem to have uncanny accuracy, which can get a bit frustrating at times. The voice acting is hit and miss. Sidorovich the trader, for example, is very well done and quite convincing. On the other hand, some stalkers sound like rejects from a bad 60's biker film.

Closing Comments:

Despite its shortcomings, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky offers a compelling gameplay experience that will keep players entertained for a long time. The zone is a big place and there is a lot to see and do. There's no denying the game is hard, but there is also a genuine sense of accomplishment after successfully tracking down a valuable artifact and barely surviving the hostile anomaly where it was located, or dealing with a particularly nasty group of bandits or rival stalkers. Clear Sky's non-linear design and open-ended environments are a breath of fresh (er, polluted) air.

8.0 out of 10
 
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