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