Let’s see a show of hands from those who played the original STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl. All of you with your hands down: shame on you. Despite its lack of polish, the appeal of its immersive open world, shooter/RPG hybrid gameplay, and gritty atmosphere earned it an 85 percent score last year. But those who skipped it will have an advantage in STALKER: Clear Sky, a prequel to Shadow of Chernobyl. While it rectifies many of the original game’s problems and adds a few new features, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m playing the same game all over again.
Case in point: in Clear Sky, you’re a Stalker charged with hunting down Strelok, the protagonist in the original game, who has unleashed a series of disruptive radiation outbursts after getting too close to the mysterious Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Strelok’s unsanctioned incursion has sent the Zone (the radioactive no-man’s-land surrounding Chernobyl) into chaos, as rival factions of scientists, military, and mercenaries use the disaster as an opportunity to cleanse and conquer enemy-held territories. The main story quest sends you through numerous derelict encampments as you trace Strelok’s footsteps, eventually leading you to the famed power plant itself...which is basically the exact same story of the first game, recycled with reworded quests and more NPC encounters.
Since you’re covering the same areas again, a large chunk of the game’s setting is recycled wholesale from Shadow of Chernobyl. The Marsh, Cordon, and Garbage area maps have been spruced up with more foliage and reworked buildings, but the layout and level design are taken directly from the old maps. At least the new lighting engine makes the old environments appear even spookier, something I didn’t think was possible. Wandering on an abandoned road in the pitch black of night with only the howls of mutant boars to keep me company was enough to send me cowering next to an abandoned car to wait for dawn. Make no mistake: this is a creepy game. The only major new territory, Limansk, is a sprawling city that’s reminiscent of the urban environments in Half-Life 2. Other new locations, such as the Red Forrest and Pripyat Undergrounds, are similarly vast, but less detailed. Each offers its own unique atmosphere and dangerous side quests.