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.