This week I've been playing the English-language version of Stalker: Call of Pripyat. While the game is already out in Russia and Germany, the English version isn't coming out until January. The version I am playing is therefore a preview build, and incomplete in a number of ways, mostly in UI English and some bits and pieces of presentation. What does seem to be complete, however, is the new and transformed zone, and its surly denizens. My impressions of this, the third Stalker game, follow.
Having photo-montaged its plot - in which, post-Shadow Of Chernobyl, military helicopters are lost in the zone - you're dumped straight into the game world. While the opening of the first game, and of Clear Sky, were both fairly linear, and could be seen as something like tutorials, Call Of Pripyat is instantly open. The first of the three maps, a clogged up and toxic river valley, is vast - perhaps three times the size of the largest area in the original game - and you can immediately wander its enormity, encountering neutral stalkers, and setting about investigating the crashed helicopters that are marked on your map.
Of course it soon becomes clear that the standard equipment supplied to you isn't going to be good enough to keep you alive. The environmental dangers are ramped up in Call of Pripyat, to the point where I've been suffering mild radiation poisoning for almost the entire game. The A-life is rampant too, with battles between stalkers, dogs, bandits, and snorks breaking out constantly across the spooky valleys.
Nor is the game as forgiving as the previous titles in terms of resources. Previously selling guns and other loot to trades made for an easy living, but this time you're going to have to search for - and sell - the artifacts produced by anomalies if you want to stay alive. The detector system from Clear Sky remains, so this is a necessary process. You only occasionally find artifacts lying about, as in Shadow Of Chernobyl, and these are tied into specific plot lines.
What all this amounts to is a game that immediately presents you with the "go, survive" ideal that many Stalker players had said the original game should have espoused. While Call of Pripyat has a very clear mission for you - investigating the helicopter crashes - your primary concern is really one of staying alive and working with and for the people who really belong here. You need to scavenge better equipment, food, anti-radiation drugs, and ammunition, and trading with the locals is an essential part of that.
This, in part, requires you to rely on your equipment, and to get it fixed up. The upgrades and repair guy you find in the first zone is crucial to progress. You are going to be spending money on repairs and upgrades, because there's no other option. The surplus of equipment in the first two games is gone, and the suit you have must be fixed and augmented. Amusingly, the upgrades dude can be bribed with bottles of vodka - the greater the drunkenness, the cheaper the prices, until he falls unconscious and is inaccessible. Fortunately, the sleep function that a number of mods unlocked for the first two games is now available from the outset, so you can kill time yourself. But you must find a bed to activate it. (Bunks can be found in some of the trade and mission hubs.)
What's been most interesting about Call of Pripyat, however, is how much more like an RPG it has so far been. There's already been a backstab storyline which beautifully illustrates the game's subtle faction mechanics: I can't get the revenge kill I want without alienating the quest hub I currently rely on. If I slay the miscreant then other Stalkers end up attacking me, and traders don't want my goods. I am certain, however, that he'll get his comeuppance. There have also been a couple of missions which I've felt uncomfortable about - including one seemingly insane blood-sucker hunter (the invisi-beasts) who took me through a lair of sleeping creatures, just to show off Call Of Pripyat's stealth mechanics. Basically, crawling = quieter. And walking on noisy surfaces, or shooting, gives you away. I've yet to see whether sneaking plays any greater role in the game, but I'm hoping it's going to.
So far I've only partially explored the first two areas. As I said, they're vast compared to the original game, but I suspect the full game will nevertheless end up being smaller and shorter than Shadow Of Chernobyl. It's also weirder, at least at an environmental level. While there was some strange stuff in SHOC's world, Call Of Pripyat reminds me a little more of the open surrealism of Pathologic. In the starting area there's a giant mutant tree, a grater full of fire-ghosts, and a slice through a hillside (like the path of a giant blow-torch) which puts you under psychic attack if you try to go inside. There's also a bunch of cracked, warped, and otherwise anomalous sections of landscape that make the first two games look positively conservative in their level design. The zone really has changed, even if its gas-masked populace remain much the same.
And I'm not sure it has all changed for the better. While some areas of the world retain the original bleak and desolate beauty, it feels like much of the level design is perfunctory. The original game seemed to hide a lot of the cracks in technology by simply making the level design very beautiful indeed, but that's not so apparent here. It seems a little hurried, a little under-imagined. I wonder if the additional weirdness is a symptom of a lack of confidence with the original palette of post-Soviet dereliction.
While the surface issues of presentation are the most obvious problems with this build of the game, there are some more subtle issues at work in things like balancing. The most obvious the reduce stamina capacity of your character. Unlike the previous Stalkers in the zone, your military major is quite out of shape, and can only manage a fraction of the distance that the previous motorcycle-legged characters could manage. It's a strange change of pace, presumably design to limit the zipping about, and to make the levels seem a little larger. It's a peculiar choice - and one that might not make the final build, I suppose - and it seems to chime in with a number of things that don't feel like mature design within the game.
That anxiety is balanced, however, with a feeling that there's just a lot to do. I'm not going to be sure of this until I've spent some serious time into completing the game, but it feels like I'm scraping the surface of the mission arcs - especially the side missions - in the hours I've already sunk into it. A couple of the missions have been really interesting, and I'm hoping the GSC team have made some of them complex enough to be memorable. (I've already had one good anecdote to tell, that I don't want to spoiler here.) Naturally, I'm hoping to review a release version, so I'll be able to offer a better judgment of it at that time.
Call of Pripyat feels a lot more like the Stalker game we wanted and expected than Clear Sky did. It doesn't seem to quite capture the atmosphere and terrifying claustrophobia of Shadow Of Chernobyl, but perhaps nothing ever will. I haven't played enough to be able to judge whether it's ultimately going to frustrate, either, but it's already a stronger offering than Clear Sky. For zone-junkies like me this is clearly going to be fascinating terrain, and I'm going to go back to exploring it the moment I get this posted on the site. (No, you're coming shopping - The Lady Rossignol.)