Blurring the Line: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky – Staff Review

Hot on the heels of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl comes a prologue hyped to be everything last year’s unpolished, but memorable, first-person adventure was supposed to be. Clear Sky takes us back into the blighted Chernobyl exclusion zone, showing the events immediately preceding Shadow. The new gameplay elements have substantially expanded Clear Sky‘s depth, and the sense of genuine adventure is as compelling as ever. However, the underlying weaknesses from Shadow again rear their ugly heads here, and the game is saddled with a few new setbacks to call its own.

The story opens with a sudden blowout – violent, radioactive energy storms that randomly surge throughout the Zone – which overtakes a science expedition and leaves their mercenary guide the only survivor. He is rescued by stalker scouts from the Clear Sky faction, a group which believes the Zone is a living, sentient entity. Lebedev, the group’s leader, explains that the blowout was triggered by someone breaching the center of the Zone. That someone, as it turns out, is none other than Strelok, the same stalker the Marked One would later pursue in Shadow. Fearing Strelok may try again, and that the Zone will retaliate with even more blowouts, Lebedev enlists the mercenary to hunt down and stop Strelok’s group.

Clear Sky builds on the same engine used in Shadow, and it features the same controls; typical FPS setup with mouselook for aiming, WASD for movement, number keys for weapons, and so on. New additions include an artifact detector (artifacts are now invisible until you get in range to grab them, which involves toeing an anomaly and poking around with a detector), grenade warning indicators, and a slight targeting drift when you sidestep, but otherwise the setup is identical. The PDA has been altered to account for faction warfare – more on that later – and works well enough, though the absence of a built-in encyclopedia, local contact listing, and diary makes it feel too streamlined; this is perhaps a minor omission, but it is noticeable. A welcome change is the ability to upgrade and repair your equipment with friendly factions, ranging from longer barrels and higher rates of fire for guns to night vision and better durability for armor.

Let's move.  Five meter spread, no sound.
Let’s move. Five meter spread, no sound.

The visuals have been given a major facelift, with improved animations, better shading, and more overall attention to detail, though the highest settings force Clear Sky across the DirectX10 barrier. The engine is slightly better optimized than Shadow‘s, however the enhanced visuals come with steep hardware requirements. Dynamic shadows, once again, are the main hinderance to framerate, though if set to static the game can scale well to midrange computers. Soundwork is a bit more stable, with little if any NPC dialog repetition, and stalkers are as chatty and musical as ever; a lot is added by men just sitting around a campfire, sharing stories, telling jokes in Russian, and playing music. Guns are convincingly weighty, eerie animal howls and growls echo through the night, and enemies gleefully taunt each other in the thick of combat. Conspicuously absent is Firelake’s “Dirge for the Planet,” which helped set the eerie, haunting tone of Shadow and seemed to follow you throughout the game, but otherwise the sound leaves little room to complain.

As a prologue, Clear Sky covers a lot of the same territory featured in Shadow, ranging from the edge of the army cordon, to the garbage pits, to the industrial facility at Lake Yantar. New locales include the swamps concealing the Clear Sky base, a different segment of the Red Forest, the forgotten city of Limansk, and an abandoned hospital. For the most part each location retains the series’ penchant for derelict and bleak atmosphere, though the large number of friendly or neutral stalkers minimizes the sense of isolation. A handful of familiar faces make welcome appearances, and the course of the game does a lot to explain how the stage was set for Shadow: for instance, how the military warehouses were cleared for the Freedom faction. On the whole, the game makes effective use of both old and new areas, and it feels like the designers put a lot of thought into how familiar territory could be used anew.

The game structure hasn’t changed much either. You still have primary quests to follow, geared towards advancing the plot and picking up on Strelok’s trail; the ‘Oblivion with guns’ label is again a misleading but not inaccurate description. Secondaries pop in and out of your PDA as factions call for help or you take on side jobs. Gunplay is still as gritty and dangerous as ever, and it feels a bit tighter this time around. Human enemies are a wholly dangerous lot, such that even one bandit with a shotgun can end your rampage in a heartbeat. Animals and monsters fill in necessary gaps and prove challenging foes in their own right, though Clear Sky doesn’t bring any new critters to the table. It does, however, use existing ones as smartly as its predecessor; expect your first encounter with a Controller to be almost as memorable as the one you met back in Shadow. You know which one.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, in several instances GSC bit off more than they could program, neglected key balance issues, or just plain had the wrong idea.

According to my readings... this place is ALL f***ed up.
According to my readings… this place is ALL f***ed up.

First, the oft-mentioned faction warfare system feels unpredictable at best, and haphazard and broken at worst. It fits well enough in the new areas, where opposing stalkers will engage each other, send squads to defend control points, and launch attacks and counterattacks. Sadly, most of the game isn’t spent there. The system is poorly grafted onto the older areas, to the point where it flat-out doesn’t work in some cases. Stalkers in Garbage, for instance, almost never send out squads to engage bandit patrols or assault their base. Clearing the bandit base single-handedly is a frustrating endeavor, in large part because the game may sometimes redesignate it a safe zone in combat, forcing the player, and only the player, to momentarily holster their weapon. Worse, bandits literally spawn from thin air to repopulate the base upon moving on, forcing the quest to restart and nullifying the reward before it can be claimed. Less problematic, but more common, is an objective being completed or failed before one can physically reach the target, or that the enemy simply has no base to assault, lending to regular, unending attacks by hostile stalkers.

Second, there are certain scripted segments that appear solely to test whether the quickload key is working. More than once you’re to join a group of invincible stalkers in killing waves of enemies for a few minutes until some theoretically important objective is achieved by someone else. Sometimes this creates for tense, exciting moments, such as a running street fight through the city of Limansk, but more often than not these become mindless shooting galleries meant to drain your resources, degrade your weapons and armor, and test your patience. Other scripted sequences simply have you die until you figure out what to do; one such part involves a stationary machine gun near the start of the game, which forces a player to hug a wall in one direction, then dash laterally across the gun’s field of fire. “Random” blowouts also force you to take cover, and sometimes that cover is extremely inconvenient to get to, such as smack in the middle of a bandit base.

Third, combat has taken a turn for the cheap in a few ways, and not to the player’s favor. Stalkers are now annoyingly accurate with grenades, and they throw them with alarming frequency. No matter how safe you think you are, how much cover you’re behind, there’s a fair chance a grenade with a two-second fuse will plop down at your feet. Almost as irritating is the fact that nearly every hit seems to cause a significant amount of bleeding, and enemies are painfully accurate even with basic hardware. Shadow featured atypically challenging gunplay, but not impossibly so; enemies regularly carried bandages or first aid kits, and thus you were never that far away from turning even the most hectic firefight around if you were careful. Clear Sky is far more stingy with medical supplies, and it has significantly ramped up the threat each enemy poses.

GET OUT OF HERE STALKER.  (God, I wish that guy was in this game.  I don't care if the sound thing was a glitch, it was an iconic glitch.)
GET OUT OF HERE STALKER. (God, I wish that guy was in this game. I don’t care if the sound thing was a glitch, it was an iconic glitch.)

A final grievance is with the endgame. Shadow‘s finale was a linear series of gunfights that nonetheless remained tense, atmospheric and exciting. Alternate routes sometimes existed to the next level, and additional suits of armor were scattered throughout to compensate for the inability to repair your own suit. There were a total of seven endings, two locked to the player unless a certain questline was finished, and the game’s ‘true’ ending proved far more conclusive and satisfying than the FPS genre is accustomed to. Compared to this, Clear Sky‘s final level is a disjointed mess. You have no chance to resupply, and there is but one ending for the player to achieve. There’s no way to point out the obvious short-sightedness of the NPC who’s barking orders at you, no alternate plot thread where you discover What’s Really Going On ™; you get to the end, you’re given two guns and told to shoot the boss with one of them.

This is not to say Clear Sky is a bad game. Quite the contrary, it manages to rise above its numerous flaws and provide a compelling adventure all its own. Shadow fans will appreciate all the references to the previous entry, and the game does a good job of explaining how Strelok’s group geared up for their push toward the center. Characters are a bit more lively and interesting – Forester, an eccentric old ranger who’s lived there since before the ’86 meltdown, certainly has his share of stories to tell – though there are fewer iconic NPCs; there’s no “Get out of here, stalker,” guy or “I said come in! Don’t stand there!” bar bouncer this time around. The story picks up in a good way after the first few hours, and the combat, despite its problems, becomes far more tolerable once you get your hands on some decent equipment. Mods, once again, will ultimately rescue the gameplay from its multiple annoyances, and the community is already hard at work just porting some of the more common mods over from Shadow.

The first game shrugged off its weaknesses by effectively blending exploration, action, and linear dungeon crawling to create one of the most atmospheric and captivating experiences to date. Clear Sky regrettably hamstrings itself by botching some of its own innovations, and it comes off as the weaker of the two games because of this. Still, the core mechanics are still sound. Despite the above grievances, which will be harder to ignore by newcomers to the FPS genre, the game is still a worthy counterpart to Shadow, and it has few equals in what it sets out to do. Years from now, when F.E.A.R. 2, Crysis 2, Halo 4 and Half-Life 2: Episode 3 all end on cliffhangers and consist of nothing but linear action setpieces, would-be stalkers the world over will fondly remember how the buggy, barely-finished upstart from Kiev still managed to finish what it started. And that, apart from the series’ bleak, but intriguing and innovative world, is perhaps the most important thing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has brought to the platform.

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