Games For 2008: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Clear Sky

By Alec Meer on February 1st, 2008 at 5:18 pm.

So here’s my concern. I’ve played Stalker. Twice. I’ve seen the Zone. I know how it works. I’ve killed every mutant, collected many guns, many artifiacts, drunk much vodka, eaten many, many sausages. Do I genuinely want to do it again, but with the linear purpose of its wobbly but oddly affective plot removed?

Damn straight I do. The Zone was my favourite game-place to be last year. Give me more mutants, more guns, more artifacts, and all the digi-sausage I can eat.

Still, a lot of Clear Sky’s appeal to me depends on whether Stalker 1’s roleplaying restrictions are removed along with the train-track narrative. Those impenetrable barbed wire fences need to go. My backpack needs to hold more than a broken machine gun and two tins of spam. I need to be able to kill the greeter in the bar (“I said come in! Don’t just stand there. I said come in! Don’t just staarrgh” *dies*) if I want to. I want to be able to sneakily knife a Duty member because I fancy swiping the armour he’s wearing, and not then find a) the armour is mystically glued to his corpse and b) somehow the entirety of Duty automatically knows it was me wot did it.

Also, I want a dog. A Stalker should have a dog. A pseudodog, at the very least.

I don’t think I’m going to get all of that, and nor do I really expect to. This is Stalker 1.5, not Stalker 2. Certainly though, the game’s geography sounds as though it’s in for a –fixin’. While Stalker was great at the illusion of wide-open spaces (I know ‘atmosphere’ is a cop-out generalisation, but it remains an apt term for Stalker’s key strength. The lightning-illuminated silhouette of something hunched and mishappen on a far hill gave the small levels a sense of dread immensity), its levels didn’t amount to much more than a road with some optional wilderness on either side and a loading screen at each end.

Clear Sky promises multiple paths through each level, multiple connectors to other territories. There’ll be no vehicles to navigate them with (though they’re being considered for multiplayer), but there will be instant travel to ease Stalker’s endless walking. Stalker was always good at tying its mechanics into its fiction, and this is no different. You’ll find guides who can show you clandestine shortcuts, for the right price or favour.

But these are not just Stalker’s old areas with a coat of DX10 paint. 50% of the game’s environments are brand new, while returning places are redesigned. Again, there’s an in-game reason for that – the Zone is recovering from a recent Blowout, a radioactive explosion of enough force to close off paths, open up new ones and generate deadly anomalies over familiar terrain. This is set before Stalker, remember – the first game took place during a period of relative clemency for the Zone. Here, it’s still recovering from fresh wounds. Wounds exacerbated by the rival factions battling for control of its secrets.

These factions are key to how Clear Sky is freeform where Stalker was not. Seven different tribes of surly men compete for the Zone’s land and the treasures within it. You can ally yourself with one, some or none, leading one to victory at the fatal expense of another. Lone Stalkers, Mercenaries, Bandits, Freedom, Duty, The Military, the Scientists or mysterious newbies Clear Sky – who d’ya fancy? Each have different motivations and different enemies. Each, also, has an economic structure of sorts. Rather than all those laborious trips to the barman and back in Stalker, you’ll find mechanics, traders, quest-givers at your chosen faction’s base. It’s your hub, not the hub. Help your faction grab territories and artifacts and, as well as your standing with them improving, you’ll see their other members benefit from better kit. All the better for the final push against your enemies, then.

That’s the ultimate answer to my concerns about playing Stalker again, really. Gang war in the Zone is a totally fresh prospect in a perfect environment, and while the breadcrumb trail of where to go is removed, new, stronger purpose is added. That artefact I stumble upon in an underground lab actually means something more than cash. When I loom out of the darkness to knife that Duty member, I’m knifing him for a reason.

Will GSC pull it off? It’s all too easy to moan “they took seven years over Stalker and it still broke a dozen promises and was buggy as all hell.” Well, this time around Stalker and its Zone already exist. The torturous years of building foundations are over. With Clear Sky, GSC finally get to paint their house.

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26 Comments »

  1. Chris R says:

    Woah, Deja vu… I thought my browser was messed up somehow when I saw the title and the same picture again.

    But yes! I just finished Stalker on Tuesday, after multiple attempts to get into the game, and I must say, it was a blast. Exploring those old Labs (X18, X16, etc) was nerve wracking for me. There were a few times where I was hiding in a corner, with my nightvision on and my flashlight on, just trying to work up the nerve to continue on… haha.

  2. dhex says:

    color me jazzed for clear sky.

    but we will see what we will see.

  3. Chris says:

    I’d be more confident if they’d taken even just a few steps to fix the first game. I’ll be pretty hesitant to buy this until I read lots and lots of reviews. Atmosphere kept me going in the original, but I’m gonna need more than that to buy this one.

  4. Chris R says:

    Hey Chris (kinda weird saying my own name), check out this site: http://stalker.filefront.com/

    Alec is the one that first pointed me in its general direction, and it has lots of mods that fix some of the more annoying things about Stalker (Sound, guns, lighting, weight issues). After picking up a few mods from that site, it made my playthrough of the game much more enjoyable.

  5. Jim Rossignol says:

    I went back and played around in Stalker until I had exhausted all the faction and side mission stuff. It seems to me that this is where the game was strongest. From what GSC have revealed about the factions and their mission AI so far I’d say that Clear Sky is exactly the right direction for the series.

  6. Chris says:

    Thanks, Chris R. It’s great that the modding community fixed some of the bugs, but I guess my point was that it should fall to the game-maker to do so if they want me to buy more games from them. The fact that they never patched even the simplest looping-dialogue bugs doesn’t give me a whole lot of confidence in them supporting and patching their next product.

  7. Kast says:

    This all sounds rather familiar – GSC were promising all this the first time around. What are the chances they can pull it off this time?

    Still, a gamer can dream.

  8. Chris R says:

    But like the last paragraph of the post says, they don’t have to build the engine from scratch this time, so they should be able to spend more time on their promises. I think it’ll be good.

  9. Cargo Cult says:

    All it needs is an updated Pripyat map with even more detail and a proper day-night cycle, and I’ll be happy.

    I spent numerous hours pootling round that place, and really wouldn’t mind going back. Even with Monolith’s goons wandering around, trying to stop my architectural appreciation of the place. It’s a lot more … condensed than the real thing, also.

    (Oh, and have you seen the real Chernobyl NPP from space? It’s impressively close to the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. version!)

  10. Flint says:

    I just hope they release a demo this time. The first Stalker looks really interesting but I’m somewhat wary about buying a game that’s apparently so problematic in so many ways (even if there are patches that correct stuff somewhat).

  11. Max says:

    I thought S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was utter lame. It was the little things that ruined it for me – starting out with guns that couldn’t hit a bulldozer at 10 paces, the fact that it desperately wants to be a MMORPG but isn’t, the horrible graphics (dynamic lights on or off) and the most irritating things of all; no matter what awesome exoskeletal armour you might be wearing, you still see that same hand on your guns.

    Oh, and don’t get me started on “Don’t just stand there – I said come in!”. I took great pleasure in luring that guy out with grenades, knifing his guts out and dragging him to the nearby dog den. And that snitch guy in the bar – never managed to kill him, but got him to hate me somehow – whenever I entered the bar he’d peg it into the back room like a mad thing – unfortunately there’s nothing cool back there. =[

  12. UncleLou says:

    I pretty much disagree with everything you say, but “horrible graphics” stands out particularly. Stalker was one of the prettiest games I’ve played in 2007. Great artistic style despite the realism, the dynamic lighting is the best I’ve yet seen in any game (in a positively unspectacular fashion), and a pleasant lack of 12 layers of plasticky special effects that plague so many games in favour of subtlety. It’s also incredibly detailed.

    The only thing that looked slightly dated were the models.

  13. Chris R says:

    Yeah Max, on my 8800GT the game looks amazing at 1900×1200, and runs as smooth as butter. The dynamic lighting was excellent I thought.

    Also, go to http://stalker.filefront.com/ and pick up some of the weapon mods that make the starting guns more realistic and powerful. It really does help you get into the game a lot faster when you can actually hit and kill things.

  14. Inglorion says:

    “I need to be able to kill the greeter in the bar”

    I’m always puzzled when I see things like that. I mean, wouldn’t you think play-testers would immediately be annoyed by the very same thing we are annoyed by? The “bar greeter” annoyed me the very first time I saw him, because I wasn’t standing around; I walker right on through. :-P

  15. dhex says:

    don’t just stand there – comment! comment!

    sorry.

    i was one of the lucky five in north america whose playthroughs of stalker – unpatched – were almost entirely bug-free.

    i do like the float32 mod myself. didn’t have as much of a problem with the guns, etc, so i never really got into the modded stuff.

  16. Crispy says:

    @Inglorion: I’m fairly sure anyone who would have playtested that would have bugged it. Just because it’s been reported doesn’t always means it gets fixed. The first Stalker was already taking too long, hence why it was split into 2 (or more?) games. It’s likely that guy in the bar was bugged but it was waived by the team in view of hitting a ‘do-or-die’ scheduled release date.

    That said, Stalker released with a lot of major, even showstopper bugs, so somewhere along the ‘test/fix/allocate time for fixes’ chain someone really screwed up. That guy in the bar was the least of my worries considering I had to start again twice because a) the door to the trader/questgiver got jammed shut and b) the in-game clock suddenly started running the day/night cycles ten times faster, meaning if I didn’t eat every 10 seconds I died of starvation!

    I hope they take the time to make Clear Sky a relatively bug-free release otherwise I won’t be buying it at full release day retail price, I’ll wait until a patch has come out and I can be sure of a working game, by which time the price may have gone down, so the publishers/developers will effectively get less money for their sloppy release.

  17. Muzman says:

    There’s a lot of criticsms to be levelled at Stalker, but bad graphics is a tough one. I’ve never seen anything like it and it’s beautiful. There’s a tendency of games in settings like that to slather on the decay wherever possible, extending it to the sky as well as everywhere else. I was (am) impressed by their restraint. They were confident enough in the engine to just let it do the work rather than be showy. Are there other games with radiosity/sky lighting this good where you can just wander around anywhere, in a wide variety of lighting conditions, colours changing, weather changing etc? Not very many I’ll wager (and someone should tell me about them so I can play them).
    Something should be said about the design of the suits in particular. They seem like practical extrapolations of real military and survival gear, so much so I would have sworn they exist. But they don’t, not completely. They look like bits and pieces of current and experimental gear but subtly futuristic and combined in the Zone’s hot house. I’m impressed by that, and the regular looking dudes who populate the place.

  18. UncleLou says:

    ” considering I had to start again twice because ….the in-game clock suddenly started running the day/night cycles ten times faster, meaning if I didn’t eat every 10 seconds I died of starvation!”

    Don’t you save your games? :p

    As for the bit I quoted – sounds like you hit the time acceleration key, actually, more than like a bug…

    Never had any real problems with Stalker myself – deliberately restarted after the first patch, but that was pretty much it – I admittedly have a reasonably high tolerance level for little niggles though if the game is great.

  19. Kareem says:

    I really hope this isn’t as buggy as the original game (which I never got past the first area in because of the myriad of bugged quests I encountered — enemies spawning only when I entered the area from a certain angle, messed up reactions by military, etc.). Is this a standalone game, by the way, or is it an expansion?

  20. Optimaximal says:

    It’s a standalone game that is *currently* a Steam-only release because THQ dumped GSC.

    The fact that they never patched even the simplest looping-dialogue bugs doesn’t give me a whole lot of confidence in them supporting and patching their next product.

    As mentioned in that ‘threequel to Soldiers: Heroes of WW2′ post, it’s a bloody game from the eastern bloc.
    They never work ‘right’, rather they just work, meaning you just live with the broken interface, the engrish and the bugs because you know deep down it’s a much more innovative and clever game than anything a Western developer would ever release for fear of not selling anything (Ukranian developers are used to everything being pirated anyway – why bother chasing sales :) )

    Finally, I just picked up Stalker last week for £5 from Zavvi/Virigin/Whatever its now called in an in-store offer. It’s not on the website, so if anyones interested, pop to your nearest store and see if they have it.
    Now I just need to find time in my life/gaming schedule to actually play the damn thing.

  21. Zeh says:

    Hello… Hello?

    Thanks for this post. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. C.L.E.A.R. S.K.Y. is my most anticipated game of 2008. I can’t wait.

    While I agree with some of the area limits (and the linear-ish progression of the main story – which you weren’t too forced into following) I really think the rest was perfect. Even the loadout limits and the inaccuracy of the initial weapons had their place… I think the curve in stats you got to enjoy as you got better equipment was good enough.

    Also, you can kill the bar greeter guy with a grenade bouncing off the walls just before you enter the bar.

  22. fluffy bunny says:

    Optimaximal: It’s not Steam-only, the retail version will be published by Koch Media/Deep Silver.

  23. Luomu says:

    You can carry almost 60 kilograms without an exosuit. How much more do you want? Stop being such a packrat.

  24. Lightbulb says:

    “This all sounds rather familiar – GSC were promising all this the first time around. What are the chances they can pull it off this time?”

    Considering what modders have done with the game without access to the source code or a proper SDK i think it could be much improved.

  25. Crispy says:

    “As for the bit I quoted – sounds like you hit the time acceleration key, actually, more than like a bug…”

    Please… I’m not that stupid (or ignorant, if you like). This was my initial thought, but using those buttons made no difference.

    And, I try to only use the area-to-area autosaves, so I basically had to do the entire first section again. It happened a few times after that and I had to revert to previous autosaves, but after you finish the first section you move between areas much more frequently so re-playing from a previous load point isn’t such a hassle.

  26. Stromko says:

    I would be frustrated as hell by 90% of RPGs if I had to rely on autosaves only. That sounds like more of a way to add challenge than the way the developers intend you to play, as not every game is designed to live and die by automatic ‘checkpoints’. But I’ve also been annoyed lately by games that force me to save constantly or lose tons of progress, so I can kinda sympathize.

    I don’t know what the hell someone would be comparing Stalker to in order to call the graphics bad, just playing the demo alone I was very impressed by the lighting. That demo was in Russian so I’m not sure if they released a U.S. demo offhand.

    I hope this Clear Skies thing is more free-roaming than the first, but I’d actually appreciate a better weapon balance too. In the original STALKER they waste a lot of guns by giving them really inferior stats, while others are game-changing in power and accuracy for no logical reason. Why would I ever touch the Okoban when I’ve already got an M4?

    Personally I would’ve preferred an array of guns at each ‘tier’ so I felt like I had more of a choice. Maybe if Clear Sky has this system where gangs get better equipment over time that also means you’ll no longer be able to go a little bit out of your way and get lots better weapons about 10 hour ahead of time, which kinda hurt the challenge and pacing imo.

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