GET OUT OF HERE STALKER, GET OUT OF HERE STALKER, GET OUT OF HERE STALKER.
Let’s recap 2010 in gaming so far. Mass Effect 2? Excellent. Bioshock 2? Pretty good. Aliens vs Predator? Pretty crap but still scrapes a pass. Next up on the block is STALKER: Call of Pripyat. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the STALKER series for quite some time. STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl was a technically competent shooter with numerous flaws which were probably a product of its protacted development cycle, and it was a bit of a let down. Clear Sky cleared things up quite a bit and improved on the fundamental STALKER elements while removing those that didn’t work so well. It stands to reason that CoP will do even better… and I’m rather pleased to report that yeah, it does. It seems like GSC Game World do better each time, and have more or less proven that they can deliver the goods if given half the chance.
The storyline this time around is that you’re working for the military to investigate why so many helicopters crashed during the assault on the nuclear power plant. The intro movie, to be perfectly honest, is pretty crap. For a start the dates and words given in the subtitles don’t match up with the spoken statements, which makes things pretty damn confusing straight off the bat… but the STALKER series have always had pretty piss-poor writing and voice acting. Then again this comes from Ukraine, so I’m completely willing to forgive a bit of error here. It adds to the charm in some ways, but I will say that the written text is a hell of a lot better than in the first STALKER game. There are no lines referring to “old socks” and odd sentence structures are fortunately nowhere near as common as they were.
In CoP you’ll explore three large areas, the first being similar to the swamp area you saw in Clear Sky, the next being an industrial sector called Jupiter, and the last one is Prypiat. Yeah, Prypiat! If you’ll recall my STALKER review, I bitched about Pripyat being a piece of shit because it’s turned into a massive war zone. Pripyat is the poster child of the Chernobyl disaster… all you have to do is show a picture from Pripyat to captivate the imagination of anybody. So what did they do in the original? Turned it into a war zone that you spend about 15 minutes in before going off to the NPP. Fortunately they realised their mistake this time around and Prypiat is explorable, with plenty of iconic places like a grocery store, a kindergarden, a school, a department store, and an apartment block. Much of this is lifted directly from photographs taken from within the real Zone of Alienation, so they’re reasonably authentic.
Another thing I should mention is the change in anomalies. GSC can’t seem to make up their mind about what to do with these and they’ve changed them yet again. In STALKER many anomalies weren’t all that dangerous; you’d lose a bit of health but in most cases you could just run through them, or avoid them entirely because they stuck out like a sore thumb. Artifacts spawned somewhere within the anomaly fields, and were pretty easy to find. In Clear Sky they did more damage and were a bit less conspicious, and any artifacts you could find would have to be picked up by a detector first. In CoP it’s much the same way, except that some of them are even harder to spot and they’re all marked on your map. That said they seem to do less damage this time around… especially once you get a decent suit. Also, I don’t know if it was the difficulty level I was playing on, if it was intended, or if it’s a bug, but I never once suffered any major ill effects from psychic anomalies except for an annoying blue tint on the screen.
In fact CoP seems to be a lot more forgiving at the easier difficulty levels than ever before, giving you more of a chance to not screw up because you’re unprepared or still learning. Unfortunately this does tend to skew the balance slightly in that medkits and bandages rain from the sky, but given how unforgiving gunplay can be in STALKER I suppose I don’t mind so much. Weapons and armour now break down pretty easily and you can forget about selling anything except perfect condition weapons and armour to traders, they simply won’t buy it. That means you’ll be selling off artifacts and not much else, because you’ll either need whatever else you find, or it’ll be too broken to be of any major use. Bandages and medkits and things don’t sell for much so you’re better off stockpiling them for future use.
The X-Ray Engine is now at version 1.6, and really I can’t help but think they should retire it. So far the last two STALKER games have had major performance issues on release, and yet CoP doesn’t seem to suffer from the same problems… except for an odd DX9 crash on Windows 7 systems on anything other than static lighting. Apart from that the only other issue I’ve encountered is the game stopping in its tracks every so often to load some new event or area. This is pretty damn annoying and shows that the streaming system isn’t up to par, but I’ll forgive it somewhat because the load times have been drastically reduced since Clear Sky, and it’s a far cry from the first game. In saying all of that, how much more crap can they bolt onto the X-Ray engine? Although it does a fantastic job at lighting, most of the textures in CoP are looking pretty dated and ugly, and they looked dated and ugly back when STALKER was first released. Building textures look great thanks to normal mapping, paralax mapping and plenty of other goodies, but character models are starting to look pretty piss poor. The fantastic environmental lighting effects are back in full force, and it’s truly an awesome sight to see the sun rise in Pripyat and cast shadows from rusting buildings, or to stand on a derelect ship watching a storm light up the horizon. The STALKER series excels at this kind of thing, which is why you play the games in the first place.
At the end of the day, the main job that CoP sets out to do is to put you into a unique environment and let you explore while making the place feel dangerous, and CoP does this extremely well. Howls in the night, flickering lights, anomalies glowing at night, the occasional emission forcing you to seek cover, dark underground areas, glowing eyes in the bushes, or even just silence with the sound of wind and nothing more… it all combines to make the Zone feel real. Few games ever manage to achieve that, but the STALKER series has always managed it. The abandoned buildings all work extremely well, as do the anomaly areas. Really, there’s nothing that seems astoundingly out of place, taking into consideration the obvious liberties that the developers have taken with the science-aspect of the game.
So, to summarise…
The X-Ray engine can do some fantastic lighting effects which work well in the Zone, but it’s starting to get a bit old and tired and probably needs to be retired. Character models are still pretty bad.
The mixing is fantastic and the sounds are great. Nothing to complain about here.
The Zone is a fun place to explore, and the environment is absolutely fantastic. Walking through Pripyat exploring the abandoned buildings and so on is great, but a lot of the time the Zone is fairly empty except for the specific areas where you can explore. Even then, there’s a lot of empty rooms. Still, it’s forgivable.
You can continue to play after the game is “over”, and there’s plenty to explore, but it’s still ultimately a linear experience and the storyline isn’t compelling.
STALKER – Call of Pripyat is easily the best in the series and it shows that GSC have really been paying attention to players and critics. It’s a fantastic game set in a great game world, and CoP’s environments are the best seen in any of the series. There are still few problems, namely too many empty/pointless rooms and the X-Ray Engine needs to be retired, but otherwise it’s a solid experience. The storyline isn’t exactly the best you’ve ever seen, but it’s at least good enough. In all, it’s surprisingly good. Well done!