As a franchise, GSC Game World's Stalker has come a long way. That the original Shadow of Chernobyl was actually completed and released to the public at all after a seemingly endless string of delays was a bit of a surprise. Sure, it was rough around the edges, but no other game out there offered such an intoxicating mix of horror and bleak beauty like Stalker and the irradiated wastes of its setting. While the follow-up prequel, Clear Sky, was a bit of a disappointment in how it trimmed out a bunch of elements that helped Stalker stand out, Call of Pripyat ditches a lot of the changes made and returns to the series' roots. It's not quite the revelatory experience Shadow of Chernobyl was, but it hits all the right notes for fans of the original and anyone else who values mood in their games and finds entertainment in being scared out of their socks. It also, thankfully, isn't nearly as buggy.
To get the timeline all straightened out, Call of Pripyat is the second title to follow Shadow of Chernobyl and takes place after the events of the first. The game is set in the Zone, a tract of land surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in which all life has been corrupted and twisted into hideous and deadly forms. Frightening and powerful creatures dwell in isolated underground testing labs and caverns, the landscape is full of dangerous traps that spout fire from the ground and trigger damaging windstorms, and every once in a while an emission blasts across the land wiping out anything silly enough to neglect shelter. Despite the fact that this land sounds entirely inhospitable, it draws fortune seekers in search of curios called artifacts that tend to spawn right in the middle of the anomalous traps. As a result, groups of these stalkers bunch together in whatever safe areas they can find, such as in rusted husks of beached ships, abandoned train stations, and the crumbling remains of Pripyat. The mysterious circumstances surrounding the propagation and sustainment of the Zone have also created several subgroups within the area, including factions that want to wipe it off the planet entirely and those that think its uniqueness alone justifies a need to preserve it.
In this game you play as Alex Degtyarev, a new character and part of a military mission to discover what happened to a number of helicopters sent into The Zone following the climactic events of the first title. Everyone was curious as to what kind of power beat at the setting's center, and after watching Call of Pripyat's opening cutscene it's clear the military didn't have a lot of success finding an answer. As you comb the grounds in search of the damaged military vehicles and their crew members, you'll pass through three large areas comprised of toxic marshes, desiccated fields, decaying industrial facilities and urban wastes, all of which have their own set of side quests and feature plenty of scares and entertaining challenges.
The game is structured like a role-playing title, with primary missions and quest rewards and a trading system where you'll repair guns, buy ammunition and medical supplies, wrap cuts with bandages, and upgrade your gear the further you go. There's no leveling or experience point systems, however, so the power of your character is more directly determined by the kinds of equipment you're carrying around. Like Shadow of Chernobyl, when you start out, you're going to be incredibly vulnerable to the dangers present in the Zone. You'll also be poor. Talking to NPCs, taking on quests, and hunting down and trading artifacts for cash are your best options for upgrades, which in Call of Pripyat is a more interesting process than in the original.
That's because the modification system built into Clear Sky has been imported here, meaning if you talk to specific NPCs and give them what they want, they'll offer services that can do things like upgrade the reliability of your weapon, improve its accuracy, or boost the defensive parameters of your armor. Even by implementing these upgrades, you'll still need to keep an eye on your gear's condition. Call of Pripyat is a game where a sense of realism is crucial to the overall tone of the world, and as such that means your armor can break down and weapons degrade with use. Eventually, guns you've ignored will deteriorate and start to jam with such frequency that there's no point in using them anymore. You'll also need to monitor radiation levels and bring scraps of food on your journey to keep Alex in fighting shape, since it really doesn't take very long for a skittering mutant to claw the life from you.
Though you do still interact with Duty and Freedom factions in the game, the flimsy faction balance system from Clear Sky has been tossed out for Call of Pripyat. The result is a more natural feel to the interplay of AI systems across the Zone. You'll see wandering bands of humans get into some large-scale fights against ravenous packs of mutated dogs and hulking boar creatures. You'll hear this combat in the distance and get the sense that this world is alive and chaotic and exists independently of your actions, which reinforces the elements of realism built into the game's weapon and armor systems and the general vulnerability of your character as you scamper from firefight to firefight.
Guns in Stalker are not incredibly accurate, something that holds true of your weapons and those of your humanoid opponents. Bullets spray everywhere during a fight, encouraging you to crouch down behind cover and fire in quick bursts. It means you'll need to pay attention every time you go to shoot. If you panic and try to fire from the hip while on the move, you're going to get punctured and shredded in seconds. You need to be surgically precise, even after you've purchased upgrades, if you want to stay alive while out on your own. It adds to the authentic feel of the world that by using each weapon, you'll notice a difference in feel almost immediately. The variation between each firearm contributes to a greater sense of growing power and progression as you come across better equipment, keeping you motivated on your journey toward the Zone's secrets.
If you're not questing, you'll find this world interesting enough to make simply wandering around to see the sights and searching for the occasional artifact entertaining. The windswept slopes and unsetting, icy soundtrack never let you relax, building a tension that keeps your attention glued to the events onsceen even if there's nothing happening except for wind swishing through tall grass. It's the threat of action that hooks you and draws you forward, since you never know if something like a cloaked bloodsucker or loping snork is waiting for you behind the next rise as rainstorms wash across the fields and day turns to night. It's an environment built with such clarity of vision, that feels so alien and hostile that simply managing to survive a journey from one location to the next feels like an accomplishment, a feeling amplified greatly when you manage to actually uncover a cool new item or pocket of bizarre activity.
Unfortunately, there are elements that eat away at the atmosphere of the world, and those are the voice acting, quest text and delivery. The English voice acting in the game is from time to time decent, but frequently irritatingly overenthusiastic. I'm not looking to hear "Hey, bro!" screamed with the cadence of someone who just slammed a line of Jager bombs after I nearly lost my head in a snork nest. A lot of text is also copy and pasted between conversation trees with non-essential NPCs, which can be distracting, and the overall delivery of the story is very straightforward. So, if you want to learn all you can about the zone, it means digging through a lot of limp text in chat boxes.
While those elements tend to be underdeveloped, the action out in the field is always interesting. This is particularly true of some of the more extensively structured elements, such as a terrifying trek through an underground series of cavernous tunnels along with a few NPC teammates, one of many missions where you'll get some friendly assistance. In this specific case the writing and voice acting actually do fit in well with the feel of the world, as one soldier exclaims, "Well I'll be, that's beautiful," as you emerge into a huge underground space choked with decay, rust, and lurking terrors. It makes you realize how warped everyone's perception of reality has become after spending time in a setting where at every turn you're reminded of your insignificance in the face of chaotic and unknowable forces.
Also included with the game is a multiplayer suite, like in previous versions of the game, which affords you the opportunity to deathmatch and participate in capture the flag style competitive matches. While it's certainly a welcome addition for anyone who wants to spend more time firing and fleeing in this one-of-a-kind world, it's not the reason to pick up this product. Within the single-player game you'll find plenty of quests and gear and reasons to keep playing to occupy quite a few hours, roaming and hunting at will as the allure and intrigue of the Zone develops throughout your adventures.
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