Wednesday, April 20, 2016

STALKER: Call of Pripyat - Review

STALKER: Call of Pripyat is the third game in the STALKER series, a trio of open-world survival-horror FPS games set in the irradiated "Zone" around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, following a fictitious second blowout in 2006. As a result of all the radiation (and other mysterious forces), the Zone has become an inhospitable place full of violent mutants and dangerous scientific anomalies -- small, localized spaces that defy the laws of physics, like gravity wells that pull you off the ground and rip you to pieces, or spots of earth that shoot fire when you step on them. Some of the mutants have even developed powers of telekinesis, invisibility, and mind control. The only people who venture into the Zone are scientists looking to study the anomalies, and treasure hunters known as "stalkers" hoping to find valuable "artifacts" contained in and around anomalies, which bestow their carriers with special powers like accelerated blood clotting or extra strength.

Call of Pripyat follows the events of Shadow of Chernobyl, in which you, as an amnesiac stalker known as the "marked one," managed to disable a device called the "brain scorcher," which had been keeping people from reaching the center of the Zone. With the demise of the brain scorcher, the Ukrainian government launched a series of helicopters to survey the area in preparation for a large-scale military raid on the CNPP. All five of the helicopters crashed in the Zone before reaching the CNPP. You play as Major Degtyarev, member of the Ukrainian Security Services, on an undercover reconnaissance mission investigating the helicopter crashes. You begin the game on the outskirts of the Zone in the Zaton swamps, before advancing to the Yanov Railway station and Jupiter manufacturing plant, and eventually, reaching the city of Pripyat itself.

I'm a bit of a STALKER veteran, having played Shadow of Chernobyl twice and Clear Sky once, but it's been about five or six years since the last time I played either one, and I'd almost forgotten how vague and unforgiving these games can be. Call of Pripyat's introduction gives you next to nothing in the way of tutorials explaining how the game actually works -- there's no message that pops up telling you "these are anomalies, and they will f**k you up," or NPCs telling you "this is how you use a detector to find artifacts." It doesn't tell you how important different resistances are, how "handling" differs from recoil or accuracy stats on weapons, or that equipment can deteriorate to the point that their stats decrease and weapons start jamming. You either have to know all of this stuff already, either from playing previous STALKER games or by actually reading the manual, or else figure it out on your own. Even having a lot of previous experience with the series, it still took me a little while to get the hang of things again.

An easily visible fire anomaly in Pripyat.

STALKER's almost complete lack of hand-holding is one of the ways it sets itself apart from a lot of other shooters. The Zone is supposed to be a brutally harsh and unforgiving place, after all, so it makes sense that the game would do you no favors and be generally indifferent whether you succeed or fail. As an open-world survival-horror game, that feeling of being alone and vulnerable, left to your own devices to figure out how to survive in this dangerous world, plays a key role in setting the game's unique tone and atmosphere.

The Zone is divided into three explorable hubs, each with a centrally-located "town," which acts as a safe zone for buying and selling goods, storing your loot, resting, and picking up quests. The areas outside of town are completely open, allowing you to set off in any direction towards any other location you like. Major locations are marked on your map, but there are plenty of interesting things to discover if you take the time to explore between the main map markers. As with any open-world game, you're free to complete quests and explore the map in any order and fashion that you like. Once you advance the main quest sufficiently in each region, you open up access to the next hub area, which offers you a brand new map to explore. You're always able to travel between hubs, as you desire; sometimes it's even required to return to a previous hub to complete a quest you picked up in a newer hub.

There's a very natural, organic feeling to the way you pick up and solve quests in this game. You're not just talking to every random person you find hoping to trigger game content; you're usually going up to established people like merchants, doctors, and mechanics asking them for work. It makes sense in the context of the Zone, and doesn't feel like you're picking up a traditional quest just for the sake of accessing content -- you're just doing what's necessary to survive by gaining resources and people's trust. Likewise, when you're interacting with less authoritative figures in the Zone, like other random stalkers, you're doing so because you found them in an unusual area in unusual circumstances, or because you over-heard their conversation in the bar and wanted to know more. Sometimes, it's because other stalkers approach you and ask for your help.

Me about to get obliterated by the oncoming wave of a nuclear blowout.

The quests themselves are usually pretty interesting and engaging, as well. In the starting area, you work with a hunter who's looking into a bunch of deaths believed to have been caused by bloodsuckers -- humanoid mutants that can turn invisible, and drink the blood of their prey -- because no one ever sees the victims die, and their bodies are always drained of blood. You visit an abandoned power station with the hunter, descend down an elevator shaft, and find yourself trapped underground in the heart of the bloodsucker's nest, while they're all sleeping, leaving you to sneak your way out without alerting any of them. The hunter says he has some ideas about how to exterminate the nest, and that he'll contact you in a few days once he's explored some options. A few days pass, he calls you on the radio, and you go to meet up with him, only to find that he's been killed by the town doctor -- a hemoglobin addict who's been killing the other stalkers for their blood.

A lot of quests involve some form of decision-making, usually in terms of whose side you take in a conflict, whom you give a limited resource to, or how you go about solving a problem. If you special order a unique weapon from a merchant, you'll be confronted by someone else on your way out of town claiming that new weapon of yours is the one he lost a few weeks ago -- do you give it to him to avoid confrontation, or keep it for yourself, knowing that he might try to get back at you later? When two stalkers are trying to rescue their friend who's being held hostage, do you suggest negotiating for his release, or suggest an armed raid on the bandit camp? These decisions give you a strong feeling of influence over the Zone and your place within it, since you have the power to effect change in the environment, and the Fallout-style ending makes sure to showcase how all of your decisions affected everyone's lives and the future of the Zone.

Picking dialogue options to determine the next path of a quest.

The game includes a PDA system with GPS tracking for quests with obvious destinations (like when a stalker uploads specific coordinates to your PDA), but a lot of quests go completely unmarked, leaving it up to you to explore and figure things out for yourself. When you're given an objective like "find this missing person," or you come to a dead end in a quest with no idea what to do next, the amazing and utterly mind-blowing thing is that you can almost always talk to the random, ambient NPCs for suggestions or advice. They don't always know the solutions to your problems, but they can usually point you in the right direction or give you some ideas. This is what I mean by the quests feeling natural and organic; when you're presented with a problem, you do what you'd do in real life -- ask someone for help -- and solve your problems entirely through the context of the game world. I only needed to consult a guide on two or three occasions, because I could usually count on my own logic and determination to solve any issues.

As with virtually any open-world game of this nature, about half or more of the Zone's NPCs aren't there to serve any specific purpose -- they're just there to flesh out the Zone and make it seem lived-in. Random stalkers hang out in town and provide for atmospheric ambiance with their idle chatter and guitar-playing, while others patrol the Zone, sometimes engaging mutants and zombies in combat. The random NPCs can therefore be completely ignored, but they also serve useful functions if you're out in the wilderness and need some assistance. Besides just asking for help with quests, you can usually pay a stalker to escort you to a specific location (basically a fast-travel system) or trade goods with them, both useful if you're low on ammunition or healing supplies and don't want to risk continuing on in your current state. But really, it's their somewhat random, unscripted behavior that makes the Zone feel so alive and lived-in.

NPCs hanging out.

For example: once I made it to the first town, in the starting area, I went around talking to important NPCs, picking up quests, selling loot, putting things in storage, and so on. As I went about my business, I started to hear gunfire in the distance. I ran outside and found two groups of stalkers fighting one another. As a neutral party, I had no stake in who won, but like a true scavenger, I wanted to snag the guns and equipment off the dead before the survivors could, so I was frantically running through the brush dodging bullets and ripping the guns off the dead, before heading back to the outpost to make inventory. Meanwhile, packs of mutants randomly wander about the Zone, while any random stalkers who get caught in one of the power plant's periodic blowouts will get turned into a mindless zombie.

Survival is a major element in Call of Pripyat, as it is in the other STALKER games, with death around every corner and behind every tree. You not only have to contend with living threats, such as mutated monsters, bandits, and gun-toting zombified stalkers, but the environment itself is even out to get you -- take one wrong step and an electrical anomaly may char you to death. You have to be mindful of every step you take, and watch yourself everywhere you go, because you put yourself at risk every time you step out from town. If you want to fare well out in the Zone, then you need to make sure you pack your supplies well, setting out with enough guns, ammunition, food, medkits, and drugs to tide you over until you can make it back to town. These items all have weight values to them, and you can only carry so much weight, so you have to maintain an ideal balance on everything. And if you run out of one resource, like ammunition, then you may find yourself relying on crappy weapons left by the dead and scrounging for every last bullet.

That's not to say Call of Pripyat is some brutally harsh survival simulator like Day Z, Rust, Nether, or any of these other post-apocalyptic survival games that pop up on Steam every other week. Rather, Call of Pripyat is more about traditional open-world action, adventure, and exploration, with a post-apocalyptic survival-horror theme tying it all together. In truth, surviving in the Zone really isn't that difficult compared to other, more strict survival-horror games; you're usually able to find enough of what you need if you explore thoroughly and conserve resources when you need to. I, for instance, had a near constant supply of backup weapons and ammunition, and frequently had more money than I knew what to do with.

A hidden supply cache, tucked in a recess on top of this train.

That's not to say that it's easy, either. The Zone has been occupied for a few years by the time of Call of Pripyat, so most of the obvious loot has already been picked clean -- you won't find valuable goods just lying out in the open. In order to get ahead, you have to work for it, either by doing jobs for merchants, risking your life hunting for artifacts in anomaly fields, or by searching really obscure out-of-the-way places for hidden stashes of loot. The stashes, in particular, are hidden so discreetly by other stalkers that you're unlikely ever to stumble upon them randomly, which makes it feel more rewarding to find them because it took clever observation for you to notice something and think "this looks like a good spot for a supply cache."

Likewise, there's a lot of cool stuff that you can find in the unmarked spaces between major landmarks, if you're the inquisitive type of person who likes to explore everywhere just to see what's out there. At one point I was wandering along, following a GPS coordinate for a quest, and I noticed an interesting train off to the side with an electrical anomaly running up and down its length. I go to check it out, run all around it, and find there's no way to get inside. I notice, however, that it's stopped under a bridge, so I jump on top and find a hatch to drop into, which then traps me inside the train, forcing me to advance up the entire length of it dodging the moving electrical anomaly. At the front of the train, I find a set of tools, which I can give to one of the mechanics in town so that they can apply higher tier upgrades for my weapons and armor.

The train with the electro anomaly.

Then, I'm wandering along and notice an odd side path on the road, with what appears to be an underground station access. I go inside, kill a ton of zombified stalkers, find a hole in the wall hidden behind some destructible crates, and find myself deep underground in some kind of sewer system connected by tunnels everywhere. I wander around for a while before coming to a long, open hallway with several rows of pillars spaced down its length. I continue pressing forward for several minutes, constantly finding myself back at the entrance to that room, when I suddenly realize I'm stuck in a loop, and that I'm supposed to walk through the correct series of pillars to unlock access to the next area. A few more minutes of trial and error later, and I find that I've accidentally wandered into the Oasis, a fabled healing spring of immense power that most stalkers believed was only a rumor. I'd been asking nearly every stalker I came across if they'd heard of the Oasis or had any ideas about how to find it that I was in complete awe when I actually found it.

The game's rich atmosphere is what sells this rewarding feeling of exploration and discovery, because everything just feels so immersive; everything has some kind of meaningful context, and the open-world simulation makes it feel natural and unscripted, like anything could happen at any time. Constant combinations of random events, like running for cover during a nuclear blowout and being ambushed by a hidden mutant throwing telekinetic projectiles at you, leads to some of the most atmospheric and memorable moments you'll ever experience in any game. When faced with a minefield between me and one of the crashed helicopters I'm supposed to investigate, I was literally holding my breath, nervous with every step I took, cringing in preparation of a mine blowing up in my face, as I slowly advanced forward tossing bolts out and listening for the tell-tale "click" of a mine in front of me. It's so immersive that I even find myself moving in my chair, reflexively jerking my head back when I'm about to walk into a corrosive bit of foliage dangling from the ceiling, or hunching closer to the screen during combat and juking my head left or right when a bullet whizzes past my face.

As with the other STALKER games, combat is another one of the subtle ways in which Call of Pripyat sets itself apart from other shooters. Bullets in Call of Pripyat have realistic travel times, and drop over long distances, which requires you to make estimated guesses as to how far you should lead a moving target, or how much higher you should aim to account for gravity -- it's not just a simple matter of "point and shoot." The guns also have meaningful recoil, which requires you to pay closer attention to how your gun is behaving and adjust accordingly. The guns feel pretty satisfying to shoot, and there's an RPG-like feeling of progression as you start out with crappy worn-out AK47s that fire wildly and jam up all the time, and progressively work your way up to pristine military-grade stuff like the H&K G36.

Shooting a zombie with a pistol.

Guns have other stats, too, like damage, accuracy, rate of fire, handling, and durability, in addition to various attachments and upgrades. There are tons of different weapons within the same class (e.g., 10 pistols, 11 assault rifles, 5 shotguns, etc) which all function differently in noticeable ways, and there're a lot of different types of ammo for the same class of weapon, depending on the gun's manufacturer. Even within the same class of ammunition, like say the 9x18mm pistol rounds, you encounter several variants like standard hollow point, full metal jacket, pressurized rounds, or jacketed-soft-point, which you can use in different situations for different purposes. Each gun also has unique upgrade trees that let you follow specific tiered upgrade paths, choosing one of two possible upgrades for each slot. With all of these options, you have a ton of creative freedom to come up with your own desired, optimal loadout. There's so much room for customization that I actually spent two hours trying out different combinations of equipment and upgrades near the end of the game, just trying to find my own perfect loadout.

Human enemies behave with surprising intelligence; if they're safely behind cover, they won't just pop in and out waiting to die, they'll stay behind cover and pin you down with suppressing fire or flush you out with grenades while their comrades circles around to flank you. If enemies are alerted, but don't know where you are, they move cautiously and deliberately, or else move into safe, defensive positions and try to entice you to come to them. There's also a surprising amount of tension in combat, because in a lot of situations, you don't know how many enemies there are, or where they are, and with death able to descend on you as quickly as it takes a bullet to travel through the air and puncture your heart or lungs, you tense up checking your surroundings at all times. You have to be really spontaneous, reacting quickly and making quick improvisational decisions, and the game will actually reward you for using the environment to your advantage or out-smarting the enemy.

Mutants behave a lot differently, and mix things up depending on what you're fighting. Most of the more common mutants, like dogs, boars, and fleshes will just charge straight at you. Bloodsuckers activate a form of invisibility and try to circle you, attacking you from your blind sides unless you can spot their faintly glowing eyes or hear them coming, first. Snorks and chimeras jump around a lot, requiring precise aiming and quick dodging to take them out. Psydogs use a type of psychic projection to make it seem like you're being attacked by an entire swarm of them, when in reality only one of them is real, and you have to keep track of which one that is. Burers use telekinesis to throw objects at you, as well as to yank weapons out of your hand or drain your stamina, effectively paralyzing you for a few seconds. And controllers possess your mind, pulling you in and knocking you back with a psychic force that disrupts your vision and disorients you.

Catching a glimpse of a bloodsucker's eyes, while he's invisible.

As good as the game's open world structure is, a lot of its best moments occur during more scripted levels and missions. Like Shadow of Chernobyl, a lot of these occur in underground research labs, and it's here where the game turns the spacious, open world structure on its head by putting you in dark, claustrophobic corridors where all kinds of strange, paranormal anomalies and mutant monstrosities lie in wait between you and the exit. These sections are a great change of pace since they completely invert the usual gameplay formula, and they force you into more intense situations where you have to press forward into known (or unknown) danger, usually against the game's more sinister mutants. The game doesn't show you all of its tricks up front, so as you play through the game you're constantly being put in new situations against new enemies who do new and different things, so you never really know what to expect up ahead, and the more linear, underground lab sections can be downright spooky and terrifying because of this.

It's hard for me to believe, just because I remember when I was hyped about this game coming out and it didn't feel like it was that long ago, but Call of Pripyat is now over six years old, having been released in North America in February of 2010. Sadly, some of its technical designs haven't aged that well, and some of them, frankly, were never that great or polished to begin with. The game plays at a default, unchangeable (at least, not without file tweaks and console commands) FOV of 55, a lot of the graphics look pretty shoddy these days (2D tree foliage, flat walls of grass, bland skyboxes, low detail on long draw distances, etc), and it, along with Shadow of Chernobyl and Clear Sky, was pretty buggy at the time of release, needing a ton of patches (both official and unofficial) to get the game working properly. At this point, certain mods -- "Call of Pripyat Complete" -- are absolutely required (or at least, strongly recommended) to get the best experience out of the game. Personally, I found that the game ran smoothly, without any major bugs or crashes on my modern system, and ran only a few graphical mods -- "AtmosFear." "AbsoluteNature." and "AbsoluteStructures."

If this is the first you've heard of the STALKER series, then you should know that everything I've mentioned about Call of Pripyat basically applies to the series in general, though there are some notable differences between games. If you're interested in trying the series out, Call of Pripyat would be a fine place to start, since it's the most streamlined and modernized game in the series, but Shadow of Chernobyl -- the first game from 2007 -- is, I believe, the bigger, better, more epic game. It's got more maps to explore, more underground research labs, a much better story, and more unique, memorable moments in it. Clear Sky is, unfortunately, somewhat rubbish and should be avoided unless you've already played Shadow of Chernobyl and Call of Pripyat and want more STALKER. Even then, you'd probably be better off just installing an overhaul mod for one of the two better games than playing through Clear Sky.


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  2. And here I thought only the first one was worth playing. I'll definitely be picking this one up, and maybe the second as well just to complete the trilogy.

    Thank you, good sir.