S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky Review
We go back to the Zone with S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky.
Review by Lewis Denby
Published 19th September 2008
S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky
- Developer: GSC Game World
- Publisher: Deep Silver
- Release Date: 5th September 2008
STALKER: Clear Sky tries so astonishingly hard to improve upon the original title that it's tremendously difficult not to be impressed. The problem is the implementation of the admittedly brilliant new ideas, which creates something of a mixed experience. With Clear Sky, developers GSC Game World seem to have attempted to bring even more life to the wondrously dark expanse of The Zone. In this respect they have absolutely succeeded, but often at the expense of a cohesive and intuitive gaming experience.
Clear Sky takes place before the events of its predecessor, in a Zone still at the height of bloody conflict between rival organisations, all vying for a piece of the mysterious aftermath of the Chernobyl Power Plant meltdown. The mass of radiation, still hanging in the air decades after the disaster, has begun causing anomalies in ordinary Newtonian physics, and naturally a lot of people want to claim the area and its tremendous properties as their own. As a sort of 'STALKER 2.5' instead of a full-blown follow-up, Clear Sky is careful not to alienate newcomers with its narrative, featuring an entirely new cast of characters and never getting caught up with a reason to reference later events in the timeline. The game begins with the player miraculously surviving a huge emission of radiation from ground zero. One of the many groups in the game, the eponymous Clear Sky faction, sees this mysterious man as an excellent resource for their team. You are signed up for service.
The problem is that there's very little reason to invest emotionally in the faction or its motives. As the game progresses, there are opportunities to switch sides and investigate The Zone for personal reasons, but the opening fails to fill a few essential holes. Though it's established from the start that you were previously investigating the area independently, this information is outlined through a brief cut-scene, and with no other apparent background to the main character it all feels a little forced.
Deep and memorable characters are thin on the ground throughout, but fortunately the world itself does much of the talking. The Zone, an unfathomably vast land of rubble, remains and decay, is a spectacular world to live in for the duration of Clear Sky. This time round, it's much less entrenched in survival horror sneakery, and more about a living, breathing, edgy atmosphere of war. It's a very successful shift for the most part, and one that places it towards the territory of something like a supernatural Operation Flashpoint, only with more close-quarters gunplay, more talky bits and some minor RPG elements. The AI system is far closer to what was promised in the pre-release jargon for the original STALKER, with competing factions playing out a continuous conflict regardless of the player's own actions. Sometimes, this grates – early on, you're given about five different missions to complete, and it's quite possible that you could get half way to each of them before being informed that the situation's simply resolved itself – but more often than not it creates one of the most real-feeling videogame universes on the planet. Units of each faction are identified on a useful map, and it's thoroughly interesting to sit back in a safe area and quietly observe the artificial interactions playing out on their own.
But as a gameplay mechanic, it's disappointingly one-dimensional. Instead of opening doors for all manner of tactical thinking and careful strategies, it creates a rather tedious and repetitive 'obvious route' to victory. That is, to sit for a while away from your current objective, and wait for the inevitable support to arrive, letting the friendly AI do most of the shooting and allowing you to conserve resources. Admittedly, you're likely to be picked off by a sniper or mauled by a wild boar on a few occasions while using this tactic, but it's a hell of a lot more forgiving than the fiendishly difficult fire-fights in Clear Sky. Enemy AI is hugely impressive, but even on the easiest of difficulty settings, each close-quarters battle is likely to require a few goes and a huge amount of quick saves to end in success. It's not even a case of trial and error, due to the semi-random nature of the game.
STALKER also falls into the same trap as so many games in making its opening third by far the most interesting portion. As you progress through The Zone, venturing closer and closer to ground zero, the impressive scope of the game is lost in favour of an increasingly linear path towards the main objective. At the start, the enormous landscape and endless side quests can seem overwhelming and confusing, but seven or eight hours in you'll start longing for a return to the sandbox opening. Alas, it never really arrives, and the inter-factional conflicts begin to take the form of individual skirmishes, rather than a genuine battle for control over the area. Given the initial promise, it's incredibly frustrating.
The frustration doesn't stop there. The biggest tragedy is that Clear Sky is at its weakest while it's at its most inventive. Take the emissions, which occur every few hours. The volatile nature of the mysterious force at ground zero means it occasionally fires out huge waves of radiation, annihilating everything and everyone within an unforgiving large radius. You can escape the blasts by finding cover, but more often than not, cover is a long run away, and you're rarely given more than a couple of minutes warning. A tremendous idea, but in reality it might as well be a big sign reading "Caution: Random death in this area." Sure, due to your immunity you don't die outright, but it still means you're deposited back at base camp, miles away from where you're supposed to be.
Other annoying features include the wildly imbalanced trading system. Most obviously, it's enormously counter-intuitive, and the screen itself gives virtually no indication of how the task is tackled. The first time I went to stash up for a mission, I ended up selling the rifle I just bought, thinking I was equipping it, when actually I was dragging it into the unmarked 'for sale' section of the window. Once this hurdle is overcome, you'll still find you've very little opportunity to kit your character out the way you want, due to a stupendous lack of funds.
Unless you go actively hunting for important artefacts, that is. These are incredibly valuable, and can be traded for enormous amounts of cash throughout the game. They can be found hidden in within the anomalies of The Zone… which kill you if you enter them. The only way to find these artefacts is to wander into the danger zone with the appropriate detection device, using medkit after medkit, hoping you stumble upon something before you use up all your health and die. This means the most obvious way to make money is to instead help various factions defend or attack key areas of the map in return for a financial reward, but while there are reams of these missions available at any point, they become horribly repetitive, and the nature of combat means you often end up spending half your newfound cash replenishing the health and armour you lost whilst earning it.
To top it all off, even if you do become successful at managing a careful financial balance and making some insightful purchases, Clear Sky occasionally decides to reset your character entirely, stripping you of all but your basic sidearm and apparel. The bandits that litter the game aren't fans of bartering: you either fight them, or hand over the entire contents of your inventory. The former would be the obvious choice if these baddies didn't have a tendency to ambush you in huge groups, in areas the game absolutely requires you to pass through. This means that all but the highest level characters will find themselves duly handing over their goods, and the chances of actually reaching a level where fighting is an option are all but destroyed by the alarming frequency of these encounters.
But then, oddly, such annoyances do add something to the experience. Clear Sky doesn't play fair – but then, nor does real life. In a game about the stark reality of human greed, maybe playing fair should never have been GSC's aim in the first place. It certainly does seem that the majority of gripes with Clear Sky involve very specific design choices, rather than developmental laziness or actual problems in the traditional sense of the word. As such, some players will undoubtedly decide that many of these aspects contribute to the unwelcoming, unforgiving atmosphere of Clear Sky - but do be warned.
One thing that all will agree upon is the artistic vision and wonderful technology behind Clear Sky. The updated X-Ray engine is simply miles ahead of any competition, and on high detail its wondrous effects are always astonishing. The dynamic lighting and shading system in particular looks wonderful. While this certainly isn't a novel feature in today's videogames, never before has it looked so magical. The engine is surprisingly stable, as well, given the original STALKER's bugs, and it runs like a dream with full settings enabled on a machine equalling the recommended spec.
The engine, though, isn't simply about looking sparkly. It all comes back to the same point: everything in Clear Sky is meticulously crafted to contribute to the thick atmosphere of The Zone, right down to the precise way the game looks and sounds. Communities of hunters living in amongst the rubble of former villages and towns, their houses falling apart around them; rolling hills, barren aside from the odd military outpost on the horizon; soldiers sitting around campfires, singing folk songs to pass the time and uphold morale; the distant and mysterious creaks and groans emitting from ground zero, an omnipresent reminder of The Zone's dark origins. Even the occasionally hammy voice acting doesn't really grate; only the frankly ridiculous lack of subtitle proofreading breaks the illusion.
One thing that's certainly true of STALKER: Clear Sky is that it knows exactly what sort of experience it wants to be, and it honours that ambition almost entirely. It's clear that a great amount of precision has gone into creating the apparent unpredictability of The Zone. Whether its approach provides enough entertainment value will depend largely on the patience of the player and a willingness to buy into some objectionable gameplay mechanics, but The Zone itself remains as remarkable a place as ever. Shadow of Chernobyl was a more solid game, but Clear Sky represents GSC's true vision – and, despite its problems, it manages to be fascinating and thrilling at almost every turn. I hated Clear Sky at times. I think I was supposed to.
Review Score: 8.2/10
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