Like the first two games, STALKER: Call of Pripyat is a game of contradictions. At times it’s glorious and exciting, a further refinement of the now age-old STALKER template. Yet, as ever, most of the idiosyncrasies that define the series are still present and correct, making this pretty much the same game you’ve played twice before.
It’s certainly better, and something that we don’t hesitate to recommend to those partial to a bit of radiation-soaked action, but it’s still the same. Before its release, noises have been made about COP being a substantial step forward, but it isn’t. It leaves you thinking, “It’s great, but it should have been better.”
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. A little house-keeping needs to be done first. For those that are unfamiliar with all things STALKER, it’s basically a game where you wander around the irradiated wilds of the Chernobyl area, killing mutants, scavenging for weapons and hunting down twisted bits of radioactive junk that bestow mystical powers on the user. These artifacts have always been the reason you’ve been in the Zone, as the area is known to the locals. Naturally, you get dragged into an overriding plot that gives you something else to focus on, but basically artifacts are why you’re there.
Except now in COP, you’re not. You’ve just got to behave as if you are. You see, while in the first two games you played a Stalker, this time you’re a Major in the armed forces. You’ve been sent in to discover why an important mission involving helicopters and scores of army personnel has gone kaputski. The only way to do this is to pretend to be a Stalker and generally get up to the same old tricks as before.
COP is definitely more story-focused than the previous games, as well as having far more streamlined, set-piece missions. So more thought has been put into what you get to do in the Zone beyond the basic fetch quest paradigm.
For example, you might have to infiltrate some huge anomalies and place scanners or perhaps do a bit of detective work to uncover why certain Stalkers are missing. Also, these quests will be long-lasting in their implications. Take the scanner mission: in previous Stalker games, finishing it would have meant a reward and that’s it, over with. This time, completing it means your map is updated every time an artifact is detected. As for the detective quest, Stalkers in the area will be generally better disposed towards you and free medical supplies will be placed in a stash box for you periodically. Vendors will drop their prices and so on.
In fact, people are perhaps too friendly, certainly in comparison to the previous STALKER games. This is perhaps the first thing to worry about if you’re a STALKER veteran – it’s actually pretty easy on the standard difficulty. Play your cards right and you won’t actually ever really be doing much fighting, other than with packs of dogs or boars and perhaps the occasional easy-to-kill zombies. The Zone is a less-than-intimidating place to be, more often than not, and this is quite a sad thing to have to report. For long periods we forgot the quick load key was even necessary, so long was it between challenging sections. This is ideal for new players, but experienced Stalkers will want to avoid the default difficulty and ramp things up right from the get-go.
It’s still idiosyncratically STALKER though. Lots of the little quirks reappear to remind us of where this newer, sleeker version comes from. On one of the machines we tested the game on, performance levels were wildly varied, seemingly dependant on whether you’d loaded up a saved game while playing or not. Characters greet you (and you reply back) in a bizarre mash-up of various American styles. In the same conversation, for example, you might be greeted by a “Wassup bro?” and end it with a “Fuhgeddaboudit”. All of this takes place within the same ghastly text-based conversation mechanic as before, which yet again fails to captivate the reader in any way whatsoever.
As we say, COP is all about the contradictions: the improvements mixed in with the oddities. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the visuals. Once, grim was the oft-used adjective when it came to STALKER. Now, it should be beautifully grim. At times, the visuals are stunning, even on the medium settings, especially when it gets dark and the lightning starts to strike. When it turns on the style, COP is a superbly realized and atmospheric game. Yet it can look equally ugly, especially indoors. Again with the duality.
Perhaps the main question is whether things have really moved on enough from Clear Sky or even the original. It’s easy to forget what the original game actually looks and feels like after so many different mod packs and overhauls, as Oblivion Lost, Stalker Complete and so on have all distorted our view.
So it seems that all the developers have done is implement a lot of the ideas introduced by modders, then slapped a price tag on it. In fact, that’s rather unfair. It’s surely better for a developer to appropriate good ideas and work them into their next game, making the experience better for everyone. This is pretty much what they’ve done here, with some touches of their own for good measure. So let’s talk tweaking.
If we’re accepting that COP is basically just a fancier suit on the same old bones, it’s important to realize that a lot of the embellishments do make the experience a more pleasant one, on the whole. Although, naturally, one man’s pleasant experience could be boring for another (like with the difficulty). So, just going by our own personal preferences here, we liked that it was easier to make money in COP than in the others. It seems to be more straightforward to find artifacts, with good scanners becoming available relatively quickly.
Perhaps it is a bit silly that we were able to blow 60,000 on an exoskeleton after a relatively low number of hours invested in the game, but still, it was nice to be able to feel we could earn that money back quickly, rather than grind out the pennies doing busy work for days. Don’t get too cocky though. If you do go for this sort of massive upgrade early on, you have to remember that repairing said suit will cost you a vast amount, should it get damaged.
Weapons and armor can be upgraded quickly too, making it easier to work your belongings around your preferred playing style. A shotgun and a scoped assault rifle were our two main weapons of choice, with a sniper and pistol in reserve. There’s still the issue of overloading yourself with ammo and weapons, but it seems to be more manageable than before.
Actually, there’s little point raiding every single corpse for guns, because traders will sensibly only purchase items that are in reasonably good nick. Pick up a clapped out old rifle from a zombie and you’ll have to actually spend more than you’d make to make it sellable.
So Call of Pripyat is a difficult one. It’s clearly a better game than Clear Sky and the original, plus it’s definitely more accessible, being as the easier settings are actually made with non-experts in mind. The graphics are generally better and, despite the potential performance issue we flagged earlier, it is more stable and robust than its predecessors. The additions are all welcome, with nothing that feels tacked on or unnecessary. Artifact hunting is more interesting and enjoyable too. So why the lower score?
It’s because playing COP is just like playing the original. Nothing has really moved on, even if that means the game itself is still just as engaging and good as ever. But we expected more and we wanted more than just a glorified update. If at any point while plowing through the previous games you experienced burnout, you definitely don’t want to pick COP up. It’s just going to reinforce all the negative things swirling around inside your mind. All the same problems are, basically, still there, albeit ameliorated slightly by a few new ideas, but there’s nothing you won’t have seen before. There are a few new mutants, but nothing mind-blowing.
However, if you haven’t or indeed can’t get enough of the Zone, everything you want is right here. The map is completely new, so there’s loads of new bits to explore and Pripyat itself is one of the best things yet seen in a STALKER game. Things don’t get much more atmospheric than sneaking about the deserted streets when it’s pitch black. For this and many other reasons, Call of Pripyat is a great game. It’s just sad that, with a bit more effort it could have been the eye-popping classic the series could create.
Feb 2, 2010