Version tested: PC
The first moment that comes to mind when thinking of the original Stalker (we'll dispense with "S.T.A.L.K.E.R." if that's alright) is from my first playthrough. I'm descending into one of the toxic Ukranian underworlds and come across something that makes me stop and laugh. A paint-pot is levitating, bouncing against the ceiling and twitching spasmodically. I'm playing it in a room with fellow journalists, so call them over to have a giggle at Stalker having one of its very special moments.
Everyone has just enough time to gather before it comes hurtling at my head causing a mass panicked jump and me diving at the controls to run back the way I came. It wasn't a bug. It was a poltergeist. To me, it kind of sums up the best of Stalker - its sheer vigour and determination to summon a world completely overwhelming your expectations (and experience) of technical foibles. Stalker overcame its weaknesses. Clear Sky - while interesting in half a dozen ways - ultimately doesn't.
It's a graphically improved prequel that integrates a mass of things that were promised for Stalker with assorted game tweaks that - on paper - sound as if they'd improve the immersion of the game considerably. In practice, it mainly shows that there are no good or bad ideas: only good and bad executions.
The core of the game remains the same. You play an eponymous stalkyguy operating in the Zone around Chernobyl where reality has been rent apart as reality tends to be. Mutants roam the land. Anomalies dot the landscape - often invisible counter-natural singularities which maim or kill anyone who walks into them. However, they also act as portals by which artifacts have arrived - and it's these alien items which have brought the Stalkers to the zone. Various factions populate the area, each acting according to its own desires. For example, the Bandits are only after wealth, but Duty are trying to fight against the increasing insanity of the Zone. It plays much like any realistic-edged FPS does, but with minor RPG elements (you can improve your equipment or equip ability-improving artifacts) and it's in a living open-world. It's basically Oblivion with gu... oh, we've used that one before. And there's still a load of bugs.
It's understandably familiar. As a prequel, there's a lot of visiting areas you met in the later game and seeing them in a different light. Putting aside the graphical improvements (in short: the graphics have been improved), the biggest changes are an increase in character-customisation and reworking of its A-Life system, which manages the simulacra of life in the Zone. The most obvious effect of this is that there seems to be a far greater sense of a war being fought, which is pretty much because there is a war being fought between one faction and another. Units of each will head off to try and secure or defend mission points, often generating an on-the-fly mission for you to go and try and help. You'll regularly - well, constantly would be nearer the point - have people shouting that they're about to be overwhelmed and need help. Like, quickly and stuff.
The character-customisation is equally welcome. Weapons simply have many more options available - you're able to repair and improve them in multiple ways with the help of specialist characters, spending incrementally more money to improve a gun's accuracy, magazine size or many other aspects, often in ways which preclude a further advance in another area. Or in crude terms: if you make an assault rifle more suitable for sniping, you'll be excluded from the advances which develop it into a close-quarters storming weapon. Similar advances are available for the armour, and some of the higher-tier abilities require you to locate a flash-drive with the plans. Without going fully RPG - which would break Stalker completely, I suspect - this is about as powerful and interesting system you could integrate.
The other half of the character-customisation system has been downplayed in importance, however - well, not "in importance" but "as a core part of your experience". The original game was criticised for having artifacts far too easily available, often littering the floor near anomalies so you could easily gather and sell them for enormous profits, keeping the good ones for yourself. This time, obtaining an artifact is an actual achievement. First, they're invisible, so you have to locate them via a detector, which tells you their proximity - and, I believe, you have to be looking right at them. Actually, that's not first, it's second, as you have to actually get close enough, which means working your way through (also mostly invisible) anomalies which you detect by lobbing nuts ahead of you and surviving whatever radioactive/chemical/psychic hazards are in the area by having good enough armour or anti-rad drugs or whatever.
On the surface, both of these seem splendid additions. The first means that there's plenty of stuff to spend your cash on and the latter means that artifacts become meaningful, strange and spooky. It did seem odd that anyone was trying to rob one another in the first game's Zone when there was this fancy stuff lying everywhere.
The problem is simply a string of design and balancing issues. In practice, after I received my first artifact in the training sequence, I didn't get a second for at least ten hours of play. That's "get", not "find", by the way. In some cases I was in the right spot - or, at least as close as I was when I managed to get hold of one - but completely failed to make the thing appear. In most cases, however, the area I was lead to was toxic above what I could survive for long enough to locate the tricky blighter without burning medkits. So I mostly just ignored it and carried on.
The obvious solution would be to get hold of some better armour, which would involve actually being able to afford any. Getting money is simply too hard, unless you're ignoring the forward thrust of the plot completely. If you simply play the game and do some occasional helping out, you find yourself falling into a poverty trap. To try and save up for a decent protective suit, you find yourself scrimping on buying things like medkits, which only exacerbates the somewhat punishing death system even further.
To stress this is a primarily a design issue rather than a me-being-rubbish issue, there's a point when you're starting to get on your feet - in my case, having saved up three quarters of the money for an "okay" suit - where it simply and unavoidably strips your character of all your equipment, artifacts and money. Which, for a game that's trying to make you buy into character development, love of your customised weapons and all that, is a bit like letting you gain your mount in World of Warcraft and then dragging it off to the knacker's. (Is there a way to get it back? Maybe. God, you'd hope so. But it's certainly not signposted and I certainly didn't find it.)
On a similar note, take the Bandits guarding crossings. You can shoot through or stand still, waiting for them to walk up to you. If you do the latter, they start a conversation about taking some stuff and proceed to purloin every single thing you have, bar your pistol. Once the conversation kicks off, there's no way out of it and no warning. Where most games that do something like this would include an "Actually, no, let's fight" option or let you haggle a toll, Clear Sky just goes for the equivalent of turning you into a level 1 character. Obviously enough, you're not going to carry on - you're going to just reload. They must have known the player was just going to press reload. In which case, why did the designers choose that as an option? Immersion - as that's what Bandits do - but "reload" is as big an immersion breaker. (And when I shot the guy with my pistol immediately after being robbed, he didn't have the stuff. So not that realistic, eh?)
GSC certainly likes reloading. The enemy AI that throws grenades is nice to see, but it'd be even nicer if you could see it more regularly - there's little of the vocal warnings you may expect from what's an instant-death weapon thanks to Clear Sky's more characteristically realistic damage model. And remember you're bleeding to death, as you were turning down bandages to try and save for a decent suit. And what about that bit when you leave the swamps for the first time and they just lob a machinegun ahead of you which leads to a trial-and-error working out of the "correct" route down the hill? What were they thinking?
Well, I suspect they were thinking about trying to create as harsh an image of the Zone as possible - it's the only explanation for something like the Bandits. Stalker's always been a survival-horror game where some of the worst creatures of horror are humans, and you have to scrimp and save to survive. But Clear Sky takes it too far - when your resources are as limited as they regularly are, you fall back on the one resource you always have plenty of: the quick-save. That said, when other horror aspects like the underground missions have been minimised and the comedic aspect of the people you meet have been pumped up, you wonder if they were just confused.
There's been a lot of negativity, hasn't there? There's still a lot of what made Stalker so appealing here. It shows how having these sorts of character-improvement and living world elements can improve a shooter's appeal. Why do you think we're so angry when they take away all our stuff? Between the improved weapon modification and the more living Zone, a certain strand of Stalker fan will find much here to applaud, and those who've never actually played the earlier game at all will still be enchanted by the unique atmosphere of the place... but would be recommended going there first, perhaps with the Oblivion Lost mod attached.
A little tough? Maybe it's appropriate. Life is tough in the Zone.
7 / 10