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Review: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky
Developer: GSC Game World
Publishers: GSC World Publishing, Deep Silver (Koch Media)
Distributors: Valve (Steam), Koch Media
Engine: X-ray Engine 1.5
Platforms: Microsoft Windows
Release date: August 22, 2008 (Russian), September 15, 2008 (NA)
Genre: First-person shooter, Role-playing, Survival horror
I have played S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky on two different occasions. The first time was when it was still very new and with limited support in the way of patches. I surfed the internet for weeks looking for fixes made by fans of the game. I even outright declared on a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. forum that I hated the game due to its unpolished nature and the many bugs that prevented me from enjoying the game.
I uninstalled S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky and left it tucked away for the next several months. Then after reading the news that there would be another expansion and a sequel, I got the game out and decided to give it another try. I got all the official patches that had been released over the months and installed the game. After patching it, I ran the game, expecting some new bug to rear its head (which it did), but I was surprised to see that it was more stable and didn’t kick me out to the desktop anymore (referred to as CtD).
This time I was hooked.
What is S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and why is it so popular?
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. stands for "Scavenger, Trespasser, Adventurer, Loner, Killer, Explorer, Robber”.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl came along in 2007, and received some mixed reactions. Some people liked it, others hated it, and some loved it to bits. It was basically a futuristic answer to games like Oblivion. In fact, it started off being known as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Oblivion Lost, but the title was changed.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl was first announced back in 2001, and was set for release in 2003, but was delayed several times over the years, and In 2006, the game came 9th in Wired's Vaporware '06 award.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl takes place in the Zone, or Zone of Alienation (or Exclusion), the area surrounding the site of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that suffered a catastrophic event back in 1986. The game is a mix of FPS (First person shooter) and RPG (Role-playing game) - a hybrid, sort of like System Shock 2.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl was inspired by the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, a book called Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, and a film of the same name, Stalker, by Andrei Tarkovsky.
The game was developed by GSC Game World, a Ukrainian developer, and the game is known for its dodgy translation into English as well as many bugs.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky is a prequel or prologue to the events of SoC, following a new character and exploring new areas.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is another expansion in development that will be released by the end of 2009 hopefully.
There is also a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 in the works.
There were rumours of a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 3, but it turns out that game is either S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2. It turns out many people get confused and don’t realize that Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat are add-ons or expansions, not sequels.
I came across a novel way of explaining it:
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl: V.1x
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky: V.1.5x
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat: V.1.7x
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: V.2x
The story of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky is a prologue or a prequel to the events of Shadow of Chernobyl. You take the role of Scar, an ageing mercenary who, at the beginning of the game, is leading a team of scientists along the swamp area or so I assume, otherwise somewhere in the Zone, when he is hit by an energy emission that looks and feels similar to an atomic bomb exploding.
Scar survives and is rescued by Clear Sky, a group dedicated to researching the Zone. He is put straight to work for them by assisting a patrol in the swamps when another emission hits him and he ends up back in the Clear Sky base. He is warned that if he is hit by another emission, he will die.
Lebedev, the leader of Clear Sky, believes that the emissions are a result of human activity, and that the Zone is trying to kill that person to preserve its secrets. Eventually Scar finds out that it is Strelok (the main protagonist from Shadow of Chernobyl) and his group of stalkers who are trying to get as far into the zone as possible- to the Power Plant, and Scar is tasked with finding Strelok and killing him.
• Blend of RPG, FPS, and survival horror gameplay.
• Interesting fictional story taking place in a real location.
• Plenty of guns.
• New features like faction wars, and the ability to upgrade and repair weapons and armour.
• You can now join factions in the Zone.
• New AI abilities like throwing grenades, flanking and ambushing the player.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky Review
The game comes on one DVD and on this is the game, the manual, as well as Direct X files and the Adobe Acrobat reader to open the manual with.
The manual consists of several pages and consists of a quick key or hot key reference for controls, weapons and equipment, and introduction to the game’s story, installation instructions, minimum system requirements, as well as an in-depth list of what all those bells and whistles in the advanced video section do. Then it runs through what all the buttons and sliders on the HUD during the game represent and it has list of weapons you’ll find throughout the game. There’s also a section on your PDA which you’ll use frequently throughout the game and lastly the multiplayer options that are available.
Once you fire up the game, you arrive on the main menu. The game’s graphics menu will appear after entering the advanced mode, and here you’ll find that the game is very scalable and can run on a low end system.
After selecting new game, you can choose from four different difficulty levels which all affect gameplay and how quickly you can die: Novice, Stalker, Veteran, and Expert.
The load times are painfully long, although there are descriptive images shown on the cracked display to keep you interested, anticipating what will come next.
It’s a shame that there are less FMVs this time around that showed some interesting things, like Shadow of Chernobyl. In Clear Sky, there are only two- one at the beginning at one at the end.
The game feels very ‘PC’, and I like this. I don’t ever see it being played on console. It can be very complicated for some, as it requires constant playing, and play sessions can last for a long time, hours, as it sucks you in. Console orientated games are meant for the more casual audience who don’t have the intelligence, skill, or the time to get to grips with the entire game.
Some people criticized the original game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, when it came out, saying that it looked as though it belonged in 2003, which is when it was initially slated to be released. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky’s graphics have been improved, with the X-ray engine being updated to version 1.5. True, Clear Sky is no Crysis, and some people have compared the two, but it still manages to look quite good in its own gritty way. It’s got detail on the minor things like trees that look rough just like bark on a real tree.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky is different from Crysis not only graphically but setting wise. Crysis takes place on a tropical island with sandy beaches and palm trees, while Clear Sky puts the player in a dark, foreboding landscape with occasional dilapidated buildings dotting the landscape. And it achieves the effect it’s going for- a neutral, gloomy place consisting of shades of grey; quite the opposite of other games like Mirror’s Edge.
Of course, there are two different games. There's Clear Sky on Direct X 9.0 and there's Clear Sky on Direct X 10. Clear Sky on DX 10 has a lot of new brilliant looking lighting effects, which most of us can't run on our systems.
The character detail could be better though, with the characters looking a little blocky and flat footed. They come in different outfits and have varying appearances, and you’ll be hard pressed to find characters that don’t have some form of headdress obscuring their features, like a gas mask, a kerchief, or a helmet with goggles. They definitely don’t look like the types that you’d want to mock about their dress sense, that’s for sure. Clear Sky is filled with surly characters that will express this mood in more than a few ways and not just by their looks.
The character animation is looking a little better though, with characters able to sprint and climb up on objects at some points in the game.
One thing that captivated me in both S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games is the sound, whether it’s the firefights, or the spooky moans, groans and howls echoing in the distance. The atmosphere comes alive with the wind blowing leaves across the player’s path and rustling the leaves in the bushes, and the rumbling and cracking of a thunderstorm overhead with rain falling on the ground.
In addition to the sounds are the voices of stalkers, bandits and others shouting in Ukrainian, which I must confess, does sound authentic, but a little funny too.
The music goes for a more atmospheric feel, with no loud orchestral numbers like Call of Duty, but usually just sad sounding tracks whimpering and wailing in the background, adding to the general despair and sense of loneliness and abandonment. There tends to be one track for each area of the game, with a few making a comeback from Shadow of Chernobyl. There is of course the main menu theme too, which has garnered surprisingly negative attention, with some even attempting to change it by way of modding. I quite like it, actually.
You start off in the Clear Sky base, playing as Scar, a mercenary who is recovering after being hit by an energy emission somewhere in the zone. As soon as you wake up, you are questioned by Lebedev- the leader of Clear Sky and have a nice chat for a while.
You are sent off to do some tasks for Clear Sky, but after a while you get to explore more of the Swamps, a new area that was unexplored in Shadow of Chernobyl, and later on, the rest of the Zone.
You have access to a PDA, a tool that will prove necessary and crucial to success and staying alive in the zone. It has a map of the Zone, as well as indicators of objectives, both primary and secondary. On the map it will also show you where the locations of loot stashes are. The PDA also lets you read through a log of recorded messages, conversations, and there is a stats page that will tell you how many stalkers and mutants you’ve killed and objectives you’ve achieved among other things. There’s a new faction tab that details what faction you are a part of and objectives and details that belong to that faction.
One thing that’s missing from the PDA this time is the Encyclopedia that was present in the first game that filled you in on things going on in the Zone. It was a nice touch.
Anyway, once you get going, you’re bound to come across a trader sooner or later, and these characters are very important seeing as this where you get your money- from selling goods and from payouts for helping the faction. When you interact with these characters, first the usual menu will pop up with possible dialogue options- just like with every other character you meet. At the bottom of the screen it will say ‘trade’, and this is where your inventory comes up, and his inventory comes up, and you can buy and sell things.
Your inventory is also very important, as this is where all the goods you find or buy in the Zone will be viewed. Here you also assign armour, weapons and artifacts to be used in the game. A number of hotkeys also exist to make it easier during a heated firefight to patch yourself up with first aid kits and bandages rather than having to open up the inventory all the time.
So, I’ve covered the basics of the inventory, the PDA, talking to characters. What else?
As you run around the Zone, you’ll bump into several factions, just like the first game, but this time you can join some of them. You are able to join Clear Sky, the Stalkers (neutral), Freedom, Duty, and the Bandits. Factions you cannot join and which will always try to kill you are the Renegades, Monolith, and The Army. There are military stalkers and mercenaries that may sometimes be enemies and sometimes ally with you.
There are of course plenty of weapons for you to find, buy, or take off of bodies that you come across in the game. There are pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and heavy weapons like RPGS. You can also pick up grenades. Part of the whole Survival Horror theme of the game is the fact that you will usually find ammunition in small quantities in the game, and ammo costs quite a bit to purchase.
Another thing you can do with weapons and armor is to take it to a technician, another important character, new to Clear Sky, who can repair, and upgrade weaponry. They can increase the rate of fire, reduce recoil, increase the clip size of the weapon to hold more ammo, and make other changes. As far as the armour in concerned, they can add night vision, Kevlar plating, and extra pouches for artifacts, among other things.
There are a number of dangers you will face in the Zone besides other people though. There are mutants like Blind dogs, pseudo dogs, and other strange creatures. There are much more dangerous and less common ones though, like Zombies, Snorkelers, and Controllers. There are also environmental dangers like radiation, booby traps (usually part of an ambush), and anomalies. Anomalies can seriously hurt you, but before you go avoiding them, they sometimes contain artifacts that you can locate with your locator. You can then equip these anomalies which will either have positive or negative side effects, or both. You can also sell them if you want. As Lebedev will warn you in the game, before you move through an area filled with anomalies, first throw a bolt- and you have plenty of them.
Other ways to make money are to sell goods, run side-missions for factions, or achieve major objectives for a faction, like taking control of the Depot in the Garbage, or the bridge in The Red Forest. You will also sometimes receive other things in addition to or instead of cash, like weapons, armour, artifacts, or the location of a loot stash.
The single player won’t take you that long to get through depending on which difficulty level you select. The side quests add a bit of longevity to it, but they’re mainly go there, fetch this, deliver this, or capture this tasks that get a little repetitive, but they do bring in extra money which is handy. Also learning the location of valuable loots stashes will keep you running around trying to get them, and sometimes they are placed in very dangerous areas. There will be a lot of running around in this game, with no vehicles to drive around and limited shortcuts to take, and not to mention the long loading times. You should be able to get through the main quest within several hours of play, perhaps a little longer than your average FPS (which this isn’t).
Afterwards, you can play through the game and join different factions (stalkers, bandits, Freedom, or Duty in addition to Clear Sky).
There’s also the multiplayer where up to 32 people can play on different game modes, like Death Match, Team Death Match, The Freedom Faction, Mercenaries, Artifact Hunt, and Capture the Artifact.
In multi-player you also get ranks that allow you access to better guns and equipment, and you also need the money to buy them, which is mainly earned by killing other players or carrying out tasks specific to a mode of play.
What's The Score?
+ Good graphics
+ Good Story
+ Good Sound
- Sometimes AI is poor
Lasting Appeal: $$$$
Playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky feels like:
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007)
System Shock 2 (1999)
Deus Ex (2000)
Doom 3 (2004)
Fallout 3 (2008)
Bugs and other issues
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve played the game on two separate occasions. The one was with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky v. 1.5.04, and despite that meaning two updates, it was still horribly buggy, mainly with CtDs (crash to desktop), freezing and other problems. I hated the game and uninstalled it.
The second time that I played it, I was happy to see that CtDs happened less frequently, but it’s still disappointing when they do happen. I came across one bug where if you try to quickload after dying, the game crashes. You have to go back to the main menu and load it manually. There was also an occasion in the area known as the Red Forest where the game suddenly crashed without warning too. I managed to get past this after killing the stalker who was leading me in there and attempting to make a run for it. He deserved it after trying to kill me in the firefight beforehand.
There are sadly still bugs even after all these updates, and others have claimed that talking to wounded characters that might advance the plot will also crash the game.
What I think of it
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. universe is an excellent one to play inside. I can only say that I wish some of the maps were bigger.
The game is a bit buggy and you’ll have to make sure that you patch it up to the latest one if you want to actually finish it, although some claim to have few problems even with earlier versions.
What do you think of Stalker: Clear Sky?
© 2009 ANDR01D