copyright © Jedo Dre 2011

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky



Rati ng:


Impact: Average

STALKER is back with a prequel. The long time it took for the first game to come out and the short time between the original game and the prequel highlights, among other things, two possibilities: that the original game was released prematurely and that the prequel is closer to the vision of developers or the second game is more of a standalone expansion pack rather than a separate game. It seems that both proposals are true although the definition of a prequel stays rather vague.


GAMEPLAY


In Clear Sky you play a loner mercenary found alive after another anomaly "discharge" in "the zone". Normally deadly, the wave doesn't kill the mercenary, instead stressing his nervous system and binding him to an objective given by the first faction of the game: "Clear Sky".


The storyline is not one of the strongest point of this prequel. Some points feels badly glued together and unconvincing, like for example there is no real reason for you to follow the main objective other than because the leader of Clear Sky tells you to…unconvincingly.


Luckily, there's plenty to do on the side. There are eight factions in the game with each having a territory and a mortal enemy amongst the other seven factions – a perfect setting for a gang war. Side missions are mostly about clearing a location from enemies or retrieving an item, so it gets boring after a while but it does add a sense of freedom and continuity.


Unfortunately if you get beyond the point of no return in the main objective you can no longer follow the sandbox gameplay, although this time, the point of no return is further than in the original game. Of course, there's always the multi-player mod with a maximum of 32 players per server if you get tired of the single-player. It's a pretty standard fast-paced multiplayer package with some attempt at utilizing artifacts. When comparing the multi-player mode with the single-player mode, it is the single-player game that seems to be the central element.


STALKER Clear Sky has kept its main formula of success: the gloomy atmosphere of the abandoned Eastern-European area of Chernobyl and the sandbox gameplay. Chernobyl is a great location choice for a spooky game. If the scenery scares you, don't credit the graphic designers right away, because ironically, the rural areas of Eastern Europe look exactly like that. The abandoned and radioactive site of Chernobyl turns the murky look a notch. Reality is scarier than fantasy sometimes...


The unmodified gameplay feels like a mix of First-Persion Shooter and a Role Playing Game. There are not only different types of rifles but also different types of ammunition and armor. Most of it doesn't deal much damage and firefights can take a long time. The anomalies produce the artifacts, carryable items that enhance your capabilities in one way or another (the artifacts are harder to find in the prequel). All of these features comprise a system that effectively replaces "leveling" normally seen in a standard RPG. The downside is that some weapons and items are hard to come by and you might go through the whole game without ever having seen them. In that, once again, the game makers have stabbed themselves.


If the gameplay mechanics do not suit you however, making your own game is not difficult. Simple mods got released very soon after the release of the game and can be added and easily altered to modify the way weapons and items behave to create a whole different gameplay.


A few changes in the gameplay from the previous installment were perhaps not a good idea. The game this time around is very concentrated on the humans and their factions. Several really impressive monsters have been put farther into the background and it's a shame their presence in the prequel is so brief. Lack of multiple endings is another loss for the developers. One can argue that, because it's a prequel, there can only be one ending, but the original game doesn't feature the main character of the prequel and thus the endings for him can be different. Moreover, the only finale that does exist isn't clearing up any of the questions, leaving a great cliffhanger for anyone who isn't going to play the original game. The ending is also a bad one for the main character. Playing through a shaky main quest and having such an ending is a real disappointment.


The game is not particularly long, but considering all the side quests and the presence of the multiplayer, another side comes into light: the value. STALKER Clear Sky costs around 30 euro's (less than 30 if you look around a bit), which is very cheap considering today's game prices. This might be connected with the costs being outsourced to Eastern Europe, because the game surely doesn't lack quality as it may normally be true for budget games. Either way, it's a great plus.


GRAPHICS


Visuals is one of the strong points of the game. The location choice of course does a part of the job. But there's also plenty going on for those of us whose computers can handle it. There are no highly contrasting shaders in Clear Sky buy the sunlight can create complicated shadows from everything. The atmosphere is amplified with the presence of different original looking monsters and anomalies. Most anomalies were designed to not be directly visible and yet they all have very diverse effects. Countless objects and effects come together to create a very distinct STALKER look.


PERFORMANCE


If Clear Sky has kept its points of success it has also kept its greatest flaws: the bugs. And these bugs aren't the cute little beetles either but are more like the mutated flying roaches from the Chernobyl caves. The retail version of the game is heavily and distinctly bugged. Corrupt saved games and general crashes are the main annoyances, but smaller storyline stuttering is also apparent. The patches fix some of the problems, but not all. Creating many savegames, creating them often and checking their integrity by loading them can help STALKER's current problems. It is unfortunately not a solution. One type of crash will happen no matter what saved game you load. The game will crash at that moment in game time, no matter where you are at that moment. These kind of crashes simply destroy the gaming experience.


SOUND


The atmosphere in Clear Sky would not be nearly as impressive without the howls of the mutated dogs or the background roar of another Zone discharge or the scary hum of the "Controller" or the sudden stop of all sounds. The developers have really played with noises to support the mood the "Zone" generates.


CONCLUSION


STALKER Clear Sky, just like its predecessor, has character. It has something that many of us were mesmerized by in games like Elder Scrolls Morrowind – a gaming magic of a kind. Whether you like the game or not depends very much on whether or not you can feel that magic and whether or not you can maintain enough patience for the SCS's software issues. If the answer to both of those questions is yes then you may very well enjoy yourself. At under fourty euro's, this game is worth the money as long as you don't forget to patch it up to cover some of its holes. Considering the nature of the game, it would probably appeal the most to those who have played and enjoyed STALKER Shadow of Chernobyl.