Version tested: PC
Crawling through a filthy, mutant-infested basement 20 metres below the surface of an irradiated Ukrainian wasteland, clutching a seen-better-days Kalashnikov while my Geiger counter rattles ominously, I stop to wonder why I actually enjoy STALKER so much.
Because, for one thing, it's hideously bleak. Playing more than an hour or so of any of the games in the series is like spending a month in Somerfield. Before long, murdering a total stranger with a hand grenade seems pragmatic rather than craven. He might have a bottle of vodka. Even the most picturesque of sunsets comes tainted with the knowledge that, shiveringly, they mostly come out at night. Mostly.
And that's where something else I don't usually really enjoy comes in: the unremitting terror. It's the noises. The skittering. The lowing. The moans. The snuffling growls which sound like an angry, adenoidal walrus mating at the bottom of a well (another familiar Somerfield experience). They're terrifying.
It's never silent in the world of STALKER. Even during the lulls in action, which are actually much more common than the desperately-fighting-for-your-life bits, there's always the ragged wind and the caws of the wheeling crows providing a unsettling auditory rug, ready to be whisked from underneath your sense of safety by the slightest hint of a grizzle, groan or gunshot.
The sudden snarling of a pseudo-dog, barrelling from cover as I sneak across a pitch-black, anomaly-strewn bluff, is a typically pulse-thrashing moment. 20 seconds later, when the roar of my drum-fed shotgun has abated and the beast lies dead in the clinical glare of my night-vision, I've collected myself enough to rationalise the fact that it's just a dog.
A mutated, highly aggressive dog with the ability to psychically project a pack of terrifying ghost buddies, yes, but a dog nonetheless. In the Zone, this sort of thing is a minor inconvenience, but that doesn't stop me jumping out of my seat.
This tension, crafted so beautifully from the gloomy materials of the game's fractured landscape - its bestial, hypnagogic foes and the tenderly coddled supply of medicine, ammunition and equipment in your backpack - is a part of STALKER so intrinsic that it's become something of a one-word strapline for the series. Atmosphere.
Every dark and foreboding basement, every foetid and festering tunnel, each chattering, Learian, wind-blasted moor is pregnant with the potential for sudden and terrifying action. STALKER's environments seethe with sinister malevolence, despite being largely uninhabited.
The scarcity of foes - when traversing the topside environments, you'll only need your weapon once every few minutes - is completely necessary to this balance. Familiarity breeds contempt, and STALKER's enemies are scattered enough to maintain their mysterious malice, just sneaky and sly enough to make your imagination teem with invisible Bloodsuckers and grim-faced Burer.
Curiously, human on human violence has been toned down considerably for the latest game, Call of Pripyat. The much-vaunted but never perfected system of factions has all but disappeared, reduced to a token discord between the hippy-go-lucky Freedom and their young Republican Duty counterparts.
Even the Bandits have calmed down enormously, chatting away to you and each other for the most part (and dependent upon your actions, of course). It's a strange choice, because often in both Clear Sky and the original Shadow of Chernobyl humans were some of the deadliest foes you would encounter.
There are still plenty of folks with radioactive chips on their shoulders, mind you, and there a few, like the fanatical space-cadet Monolith, who will attack you on sight, but generally the Zone has become an altogether more humanitarian place. If you approach a group of human enemies, even with the telltale red crosshairs and everything, they'll probably just tell you to get lost, warning you to holster your weapon well before they start shooting. Ignore their clemency and you'll soon be choking on a hot lead butty, but it's a definite change of pace.
It works, though. Clear Sky's constant re-zoning and pitched open warfare was too much too deal with and needed reining in, and Call of Pripyat has it pretty much nailed. The A-life system does all it is expected to do, and indeed all it promised as well. Mutants scuffle among themselves and with the regular patrols of STALKERs and bandits who wander around, and dogs or Flesh can often be seen dragging bodies away. Human parties are plentiful, looting corpses and searching for artefacts in the game's large-scale anomalies.
These giant anomalies are pretty much the only place you'll find the valuable, stat-boosting artefacts, which retain their invisibility from Clear Sky and so require detectors to be found. They've evolved from the collections of smaller hazards that they were, too - becoming huge rents in the earth or giant, twisted organic structures glittering with acid or flame. Exploring them with a detector in one hand and a pistol in the other is a tense experience, simultaneously made vulnerable by lack of firepower and proximity to danger.
In preparation for this dangerous harvest, you'll probably want to take advantage of one of Call of Pripyat's new toys, the medication system. Meds are pre-emptive items which increase resistances, load-capacity or healing rate, even allowing you to survive the lethal radioactive emissions which periodically sweep the Zone. The small boosts to resistance you'll gain from them will probably only see any use at the beginning before you're kitted out with a decent suit, but they're a nice addition.
The weapon and suit repair and upgrade system has been polished nicely, with technicians requiring sets of tools to perform the modifications which increase rates of fire, accuracy or armour ratings. Repairs and modifications are pricey too, but making money is nowhere near as hard as it has been in the last two games, with artefacts now fetching extremely high prices. To balance that, weapons and armour that are heavily degraded can't be sold until repaired.
The RPG elements gel extremely well, the branching and exclusive paths of upgrades allowing you to modify kit according to your play style. Decent equipment is available much earlier, too - there's no more wandering around for hours with a sawed-off and a trenchcoat. By the end of the game you'll likely be rocking a pretty serious armoured exoskeleton and assault rifle combo, with sniper-weapons and piles of healing equipment in your pack.
The progression is empowering, and although enemies like the mutated dwarf Burers and Chimera will test you, difficulty seems to have been lowered a little on the default 'Stalker' setting. Veteran and Master are still very tough, however, with enemies occasionally reverting to pinpoint grenading techniques, although nowhere near the extent of Clear Sky.
Call of Pripyat is a huge improvement on both originals in translation terms, too, despite some quite jarring incidental chatter from NPCs who are more frathouse than grizzled soldier. Voice acting is solid as well, with some Russian retained outside of direct conversations.
Sadly the storyline is fairly insubstantial, the main premise never really blossoming into the mystery that the original had in spades. Nothing is really resolved, but there's no cliffhanger ending either - instead the denouement is punctuated by a précis of the consequences of your actions during the game.
Should you not be ready to leave the Zone once the storyline wraps up there's a free-roam mode too, where there are apparently new nuggets of quest and kit to be discovered, although I didn't manage to discover them. Having played the game pretty thoroughly, doing a lot of the exploring and gathering which the game encourages you to do so well, I felt I'd seen pretty much everything anyway.
This feels like a smaller game, area-wise, than the original, although this may be due to the fact that it's not split into as many distinct parts. There's still a huge area to roam, including a new take on the city of Pripyat itself, desolate swamplands and the trademark, claustrophobic underground labs.
The X-Ray engine still just about stands up to inspection, too, although some textures and mapping disappoint once in a while. Animations are openly ropey on occasion too, especially when NPCs try to do anything too complex like turn in a circle on the spot or drink something. I didn't play this on a DX11-capable machine, but the lighting and specular effects which DX11 seems to affect most are probably the game's graphical highlight anyway.
It's not really a game about prettiness though. Somehow the slightly rudimentary visual touches are part of the charm. Architecture and sense of place are just as accurately observed as you'd hope, though - giving a fantastic sense of abandonment and decay.
If you already know all this, you're probably a STALKER fan. You've been there since the start with Shadow of Chernobyl, alternating between exuberant praise of GSC Gameworld's bravery and vision, and paroxysmal despair at the lack of bug-testing, and so the one big question you have left is the one most prominently bequeathed by Call of Pripyat's storied predecessors. Is it broken?
Amazingly the answer, this time, is no. That's not to say it's completely flawless - I experienced a couple of crashes to the desktop, and co-ordinating anything with the slightly clumsy AI actions can still be a grind. But essentially the experience is bug-free.
STALKER. Unbroken, without being modded. If you're a fan, this is basically what you've been waiting for - a fully functioning STALKER which combines the best aspects of Shadow of Chernobyl and Clear Sky and polishes them to a slightly creaky charm.
Only the slight sensation of datedness prevents this from scoring higher, and no doubt once the mods start flowing the value for money will get even better. But there's plenty here to keep the faithful feeling extremely optimistic about the prospect of a proper sequel. And there's still nothing out there quite like STALKER.
8 / 10