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.
Clear Sky’s biggest innovation is the artificial intelligence system that controls the NPCs and factions that inhabit the aforementioned districts. The ongoing dynamic faction war is displayed in your PDA menu, which shows each faction’s personnel strength and territory holdings. As you meet new factions, you’re given the opportunity to support their cause by assisting in raids and defending against assaults. I’m disappointed that these optional missions don’t have any effect on the main story, but I thoroughly enjoyed the spontaneity of the skirmishes. Randomly happening upon two (or sometimes more) groups engaged in a firefight added life and believability to the world, and being able to turn the tide of each battle and earn some loot in the process was very rewarding. The only aspect of the faction war I found annoying was the presence of Bandits, a group of seemingly unkillable hooligans that occasionally mugged me for all of my hard-earned weapons and cash, leaving me to start again from scratch. I’d prefer they just killed me.
The inevitable shootouts (this is, after all, still a shooter) ranged from ridiculously easy encounters near the beginning of the game to frustratingly challenging assaults later on. At times it seemed impossible to win, thanks to the AI’s impeccable aim and night vision superior to what any human could ever hope for. Running out of bandages (which are more scarce than in the previous game) in the middle of such fights often proved fatal - a couple of times, I had to resort to quick-saving after every kill until I eventually prevailed. I wasn’t impressed by friendly NPC behavior, either - it never felt like they were fighting alongside me as much as I was a lone third party interfering with their conflict.
Other minor changes, such as the new artifact discovery system and random radiation shock waves, don’t differentiate Clear Sky enough from its predecessor to make it feel like more than a stand-alone expansion pack. The game stability improvements and faction system certainly make this a technological step up from the original, but they don’t add up to a compelling reason to replay the same game. If you’re new to the series, however, it’s definitely the place to start.
PC Gamer scores games on a percentage scale, which is rounded to the closest whole number to determine the GamesRadar score.
PCG Final Verdict: 78% (good)
Sep 17, 2008