Blurring the Line: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Call of Pripyat – Staff Review

The Zone is a harsh mistress, as all who’ve followed the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games can attest. GSC Game World’s adventure-heavy shooters borrowed from both the real Exclusion Zone and works of related science fiction to present a unique, beautiful, and deadly environment. The games featured their own hazards to the player: technical instability, a steep difficulty curve, and unforgiving gunplay. With Call of Pripyat, however, GSC has pulled off the impossible and delivered a stable, well balanced, and surprisingly complete entry into the series. Though still far short of perfection, Pripyat‘s take on the Zone is fascinating and rewarding in ways that few other games are.

Occurring some time after the end of Shadow of Chernobyl, Pripyat follows the military’s attempts to chart and assert control over the Zone. An aerial survey mission, Operation Fairway, predictably goes awry as the choppers are downed by unknown forces. Lacking information, the Ukraine Security Service sends an undercover agent, Alexander Degtyarev (Dehg-Tie-Rehv, in case you’re wondering), into the Zone to investigate. Finding the crashed Stingrays means mingling with communities of stalkers; scattered groups of survivalists, adventurers, and thieves that inhabit the Zone. As far as these men know, Alex is a free agent, and it’s in his best interest to keep them thinking just that as he figures out what went wrong.

Gameplay is functionally identical to prior installments, such that nobody who’s played them will feel lost here. FPS basics still apply with a few welcome improvements to the Clear Sky interface, like adjustable quick-use keys for medicine, food, and such, for starters. Your overall mission and various sidequests are managed through a PDA, with additional information available if you need a reminder of what you’re supposed to be doing. Unlike previous games, you’re given considerable leeway in how you approach your main objective, and thanks to better scripting, many sidequests now have several possible outcomes. The plot eventually funnels you into a linear series of quests, but the majority of the game feels more open than the series ever has.

DEGTYAREV DO EVERYTHING just doesn't have the same ring to it, so these guys politely volunteer to sweep the building first.
DEGTYAREV DO EVERYTHING just doesn’t have the same ring to it, so these guys politely volunteer to sweep the building first.

Aiding the open feel is a major redesign of the Zone, limiting the number of checkpoint-linked areas but greatly expanding their size. Any one area in Pripyat is as big as at least three in the other games, yet a simple fast travel system – hiring guides from available stalkers to take you to marked locations on the map – helps the player get around in a hurry. Zones are vast and distinct, often containing several smaller areas. For example, an old research center connects to a train station serving as a town, along with various small settlements and abandoned railway infrastructure. Pripyat itself has changed a lot since Shadow, feeling more like a proper urban jungle, albeit with fewer well-known landmarks. The Zone’s physics-defying anomalies are ever present, only now they’ve ripped deep, impossible scars into the ground and feel more unearthly and dangerous than ever.

Visually, GSC’s X-ray engine is showing its age but still serves well enough to convey the atmosphere. The Zone is bleaker than ever, littered with derelict Soviet-era structures and overgrown foliage. Stalkers have a tendency to all look alike, but they (and their mutated counterparts) are well detailed and very convincing in behavior and motion. It’d be a stretch to call Pripyat‘s vistas stunning, but some of the game’s best moments are when you can stop and soak up the scenery: picking through an anomaly field at the base of a massive bucket-wheel excavator or sneaking into a rotting village populated by brain-dead, gun-toting zombie stalkers. While nothing here tops the underground sections of the first game – still very potent nightmare fuel – Pripyat transitions just as well from the Zone’s open wastes to linear yet eerie dungeons.

Sounds go a long way in sealing the deal, from the memorable crack of a sniper rifle to the distant growl of an enraged bloodsucker. Day or night the game sounds alive, as distant battles play out and groups of stalkers chat away around a campfire. Stalkers still break out guitars and trade anecdotes in Russian, and some catchy new guitar tracks keep the ambiance from feeling recycled from previous games. Storms rumble as they gather, anomalies crackle and hiss menacingly, and your geiger counter clicks ominously as you near a hot spot. On the downside, voice acting is spotty at best. Degtyarev and a handful of stalkers sound fine, but too many key figures either overact or fall flat, and the cheerful “Howdy ho!” some stalkers tend to belt out just sounds strange. It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a noticeable mismatch between the audio and text of the intro and outro narration.

Other new additions here and there keep things interesting. Equipment stashes can be found out in the world without having to mark their location first, though they can still be marked for a price or as a reward. New creatures spice up combat considerably, such as the psychic, bullet-deflecting Burer, and old ones have a few new tricks too. Fewer groups of stalkers will shoot you on sight, making them seem less like cardboard cut-out bad guys in endless supply. Your map helpfully points out where you can safely hide from blowouts – massive supernatural energy storms that can fry the unprotected in seconds – and shelter is never too far away. The above-mentioned sidequests have gotten a lot more versatile this time around. To name one, a tug-of-war between competing business interests in Skadovsk carries over several quests, such as picking sides at the last minute during a planned ambush.

So, who's up for poking around in that for an invisible, moving, radioactive thing?
So, who’s up for poking around in that for an invisible, moving, radioactive thing?

Shadow and Clear Sky often defined themselves by unique moments, when all the elements came together just right. Pripyat stays true to this, working the intelligent stalker AI and unorthodox monsters into its bigger and bolder playground. An attempting mugging might go south if your would-be robber’s friends run afoul of the local wildlife in the process. Enemies track sounds and flashlights, and it’s sometimes to your advantage to kill your own light and wait for others to come looking for you. Stalkers will take shelter from blowouts if they can, gathering indoors and passing the time with songs and jokes. And every now and then, the attack you expect to come never does, leaving you alone with your itchy trigger finger and overactive imagination. The moments will vary from player to player, but when they hit, the only word that seems to fit is magic. There is something deeply engaging about exploring the Zone, and Pripyat captures it as skillfully as its predecessors.

There are still snags, however. Certain quests later on can take some guessing to do right, like picking off the right enemy in a sniper section. The game’s freeplay mode, available after clearing the last mission, is oddly placed; it asks you right at the end of a running gunfight if you’d like to stay in the Zone. Enemies are still frustratingly accurate with grenades, though they don’t spam them as much as they did in Clear Sky. The story starts off interestingly enough, as Alex has free reign to investigate the choppers as he sees fit. Missions build predictably towards a hazardous journey into Pripyat, and the build-up is handled well, drawing on allies and enemies you’ve made along the way. However, the finale is rather sudden – hardly as climactic and memorable as the assault on Chernobyl in Shadow – and weak acting hampers the cutscenes.

However, chief among Pripyat‘s redeeming features is just how polished it feels in relation to its predecessors. The atmosphere is intact, and unscripted mayhem between various stalkers and mutants means no two trips across the Zone will be identical. For once, though, a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game doesn’t trade technical stability to achieve this. Not a single crash was encountered in the course of the game, and all manner of quicksaving and quickloading couldn’t break quest scripting. The game did tend to eat more horsepower as time went on, suggesting a memory leak, and there were occasional issues with creatures bunching up at doors or other locations. Overall, however, Pripyat is an extremely stable game by any measure. Given the series pedigree, this is both doubly surprising and worthy of considerable praise.

Outside of technical errata, the game feels more balanced than it ever has been. As in Clear Sky, artifact hunting involves tiptoeing through an anomaly field, detector in one hand and bolts in the other to find a safe path. With a little effort, one can safely rack up plenty of cash, and thanks to a relatively fair economy, it’s rarely cost-prohibitive to repair and upgrade your gear, even if you don’t plan on keeping it for long. Returning stalker and professional narcoleptic Nimble now has an arms dealing business, taking special equipment orders that are often well worth the wait and expense. Pripyat takes achievements one step further, giving tangible rewards for passing certain trials; get enough cash and traders open their special stock, solve a murder mystery and earn a recurring reward of medical supplies, and so on. The addition of a sleeping system, dedicated storage box, and stat-boosting medicines round out the list of things that make Pripyat much more convenient and fun to play.

Not that there's ever a good time to have your phone go off with La Cucaracha as the ringtone, but now is particularly bad.
Not that there’s ever a good time to have your phone go off with La Cucaracha as the ringtone, but now is particularly bad.

What Pripyat inarguably does better than its predecessors is maintain a sense of consistency, the feeling that your actions matter and yet life in the Zone goes on without you. If your safe is suddenly emptied, it’s not a bug; you wronged someone and they’re getting back at you, so go get back at them. Those scientists might want to know if their guards haven’t been on the level, and they may pay you to go find replacements from a faction. That faction, in turn, will thank you for the job reference by taking your word for it if you vouch for a freed Monolith stalker, a former member of the main enemy faction in Shadow. And keep tabs on that ex-Monolith fellow too, because you never know when you’ll need a hand yourself. Quests and characters very often tie into each other in sensible ways, and with the exception of some plot missions, nothing really comes out of left field.

Bear in mind this is still S.T.A.L.K.E.R. we’re talking about, so expect a tougher fight than most shooters will throw at you. Fortunately, Pripyat isn’t stingy with medical supplies, and you’re rarely more than one looted enemy away from finding a medkit and turning the fight around. Overall playtime ranges comfortably in twenty-plus hour territory, give or take depending on how thorough you are. The choices you made in the game are tracked in satisfying Fallout-style epilogues, and quite a bit can change depending on who got hung out to dry; in spite of lackluster acting, it was good to see certain people come through in the end. It remains amusing that a game based on Russian science fiction, set in one of the bleakest environments imaginable, still manages to finish what it starts better than most other shooters on the market today.

The Zone’s alien beauty is sometimes difficult to put to words, requiring you to find those moments for yourself: to creep through that abandoned factory and keep your ears open for footsteps or gunfire; to track that invisible monster by luring it to water and leading the splashes; to wait out that storm while a passing musician tries to cheer everybody up. This time, however, the scripting has the chops to stand alongside the robust world that GSC has created, and the mechanics of gameplay work better than ever. Pripyat may not pull in a lot of newcomers, drawing its backstory from Shadow, but series veterans will not be let down. What you want is here, stalker. Come.

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