August 3rd 2012.
Name: Maj. A. Degtyarov, USS.
Designation: Undercover stalker.
Mission: Locate and examine helicopter crash sites.
Equipment: Minimal, old.
Wildlife: Loud and howly.
This is pretty much all I knew as the game began and I emerged from an unremarkable corner of Zaton, Call of Pripyat’s first area. Mouldering freight barges lay ahead on the marshy floor of a dried up soviet era shipping port; through the twilight I could see a couple of men in the distance and I was certain some shiny white eyes were glaring at me from a near-by bush. A quick chat with the men disclosed the whereabouts of a local stalker hang-out and I hurried off to find shelter. There’s a whiff of something here, I thought as I ran, something not present in the previous Stalker titles: this game wants me to explore.
STALKER: Call of Pripyat, GSC’s third venture into the mysterious Zone created by Chernobyl’s nuclear whoopsie, is undeniably their best yet. Although it’s possible to argue that CoP fails to repeat the highs of Shadow of Chernobyl, it’s precisely the absence of some of its daddy’s aspects that makes it the better overall experience. Gone are the grandiose plotlines of the previous games. You don’t feel like there’s a contrived outboard motor of a story pushing you along; you are an undercover stalker, you have to investigate several locations – that’s it. This brief basically demands that you a) explore and b) act like a stalker, so bloody well get out there and have a good poke around.
To encourage this the size of the areas have increased dramatically. Although there are only three, each are easily three times the size of the largest locations in the previous games. They’re also populated with some truly intriguing sights courtesy of the Eastern Bloc derelicts and anomaly scarred landscape. Many have little or nothing to do with the main plotline, they are simply waiting to be discovered. Returning from a mission, I reached the brow of a hill and a monumentally massive rotor digging machine appeared in the distance, just standing inert at the base of a quarry. I literally stopped in my tracks – few games posses such huge and detailed pieces of incidental design. The spectacles are helped by an improved engine which allowed my computer to manage DX10 features it struggled with in Clear Sky; the game can be very pretty indeed.
Travelling between areas is easy with the aid of a guide (and a few thousand roubles). And thankfully, there are no more respawning bandits and Far Cry 2 alike attacks to spoil your fun. GSC have done well to eliminate many of the problems that made aspects of SoC a bit of a chore. Other stalkers don’t often shoot on sight but this doesn’t preclude the trigger-happy player from joining in with a fire fight as other stalker factions slog it out. Nor can you be completely off your guard as there’s the constant howling threat of the Zone’s wildlife. A pack of dogs, while not dangerous individually, can easily be the end of an unprepared stalker and even well-trodden routes can hold nasty surprises.
I was caught out when returning to Skadovsk, a stalker safe-house located in the shell of a rotting tanker. I knew to keep an eye out for dogs and mutant boars but seeing neither in the area I holstered my weapon a little way out (required to be granted access) and approached. Without warning a bloodsucker – a half man, half vampire-squid thing with the added threat of occasionally turning totally invisible – jumped out from nowhere and attempted to claw me a new one. I managed to draw my shotgun and blast a few shells at its disappearing form before stumbling, bleeding and bewildered into safety. I hadn’t seen any bloodsuckers in that area before and haven’t seen any since. Touché, game. Touché.
CoP has a few new RPG features to up the survival stakes. You now have to ensure you’ve got enough food to keep your stamina up and you also have the option to sleep, allowing you to avoid excursions into pitch-black darkness or wait out fatal emissions – massive storms which randomly shake the zone with radioactive and psychic energy. Along with the need to bandage your wounds, weapons and survival suits have to be cared for too with local stalker engineers able to repair and upgrade your gear. For the majority of the game this isn’t cheap and makes scavenging loot and hunting valuable artefacts a necessity for maintaining a comfortable stream of cash. It didn’t seem too long, however, before I’d found an effective weapon and suit and was easily able to complete the main story without any major upgrades.
This is another departure for CoP, where the main plot is perhaps 60-70% of the whole game. I found I’d horded health kits and powerful weapons in anticipation of a hellish finale, like the Chernobyl Power Plant assault from SoC, but it never came. This could elicit complaints that the difficulty has been curbed a little, with fewer heart-in-throat underground moments or punishing set pieces. I would argue that the underground areas are just as spooky (crying baby – I’ll say no more) but in an unsettling way as opposed to a shit-your-pants, sudden-appearance-by-35-gun-toting-monolith-soldiers kind of way. The set pieces are undoubtedly better, managing to be involving without resorting to the huge difficulty spikes of SoC. Generally there are more uncanny occurrences rather than out-and-out danger which pleased me as a player who likes to explore more than fight. The environments feel real too, less contrived than some places in the earlier games, which adds to the atmosphere all the more; the Jupiter industrial complex comes immediately to mind and pretty much all of Pripyat must have been modelled on the town’s real architecture.
Following only the main mission leaves plenty of places unexplored and side-missions which can be left to free-play mode after completing the story. The side-missions are numerous and generally slick, with good narratives, NPC interaction and game design taking you through the relevant areas without dumping you somewhere awkward when they finish. They also lead you into some dark and unpleasant places themselves. A stalker hunter asked me to check out an old train yard where bizarre events had been reported. Tentatively entering the quiet building, a gas cylinder levitated off the floor and flung itself at me. Darting an increasing barrage of scrap metal I noticed a shadow moving in the far corner. This turned out to be a hooded mutant dwarf with some kind of psychic ability. A comical, yet terrifying battle ensued with me chucking grenades at him, all of which he promptly psychically deflected. Reappraising my tactical approach lead to a close range shotgun charge failing when the gun was ripped from my hands and tossed across the room. I finally bested him by retreating into a doorway and popping away with my pistol. Heroically.
You could criticise CoP for being a little underwhelming, but this is only because GSC are emphasising atmosphere and exploration over moments of against-the-odds combat. It’s fitting that the menacing Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant doesn’t feature in any material sense this time around; rather than a handful of daunting high-points (like the CNPP), the energy in CoP is crumbled and dispersed throughout. This is evident when stumbling across somewhere arbitrary but original and breathtaking, when noticing details like the birds falling out of the sky during an emission or when becoming involved in a particularly haunting side-story. The late English release has also probably helped iron out the bugs as my play-throughs were all bug free, excepting a couple of minor AI glitches. All in all, Stalker: Call of Pripyat is the PC’s quintessential exploration and survival game. It’ll certainly be on my hard drive for a long while; this enigmatic Exclusion Zone is a place I know I will want to return to again and again.