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