The third Stalker game, Call Of Pripyat, has been out in Europe and Russia for quite some time, but it has only just made the leap to English-language release. The UK version due on Friday. I've recently completed that edition of the game and my account of that experience follows.
Call Of Pripyat is almost certainly less frightening than the original, much-lauded game, Shadow Of Chernobyl. It doesn't quite muster the extreme tension of the underground "dungeon" sequences, even though it returns to them on occasion. Nevertheless I found myself rigid with adrenaline as I entered one of the tougher complexes in the game, at night, low on ammunition. I expected trouble, but I figured I'd wing it.
Stalker has a 24-hour day-night cycle, and CoP finally features sleep as one of the basic features of the game. I could have skipped forward and gone to this hostile venue in daylight, but instead I thought it might be a good idea to creep around a biohazardous post-Soviet military facility in the middle of the night, during a lightning storm. Through the rain and thunder I could hear something lurking in the ruins, and the fear rose the longer I couldn't see it. I swept my flashlight about, leaned around corners, peered into the gloom... There was definitely something there, but HOLYFUCK! I blasted my now-cold tea across the desk. Unbeknownst to me, my cat had silently entered the room behind me, and chose that moment to leap up onto the desk. Having mopped up the mess, I took my stalker back to base and got a good night's sleep before trying again. As I said, Call Of Pripyat is on the whole less frightening than the original, but it is nevertheless and experience that engulfs you with atmosphere.
In case you've been trapped under a radioactive concrete slab for the past few years, I should explain a bit about what Stalker is. There was once a book called Roadside Picnic, written by the Strugatsky brothers in Soviet Russia, and published in 1977. It was about contaminated zones on the Earth - places which had been radically warped by a brief alien visitation. It didn't take long for people to associate this fiction with the zones of contamination and pollution that existed all across the Soviet bloc. When the book was was made into a film by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979 it wasn't hard to find appropriately polluted settings in Estonia. By the time the 1986 nuclear plant incident at Chernobyl created a huge exclusion zone within the Ukrainian countryside, many people were familiar enough with Roadside Picnic to point out that mankind had once again managed to make its own zone, thanks to our own high technologies going haywire. People even became real-life "stalkers", going into the zone around Pripyat to live, scavenge, or to give tours to visitors.
Skip forward to 2007 and we get to see this mythologisation of the Chernbobyl incident used as the backdrop for a videogame. it's a ready-made inspiration for a Ukrainian team, who wanted to make an ambitious shooter in which everything as good as it could be. Stalker: Shadow Of Chernobyl therefore takes its environmental templates from the abandoned Chernobyl zone, its science fiction setting from Roadside Picnic's tale of supernatural artifacts and anomalies, and its videogame mechanisms from Western shooters and RPGs. This ambitious hybridisation of ideas - and the limiting factors a budget and an inexperienced team - created an open-ended survival shooter that is brutal, glitchy, clumsy, weird, and ultimately brilliant. It's a singularity that could only have come about thanks to both its ideological ancestors and real world events.
Call Of Pripyat is the third game in the series, each one being built incrementally on the achievements of the former. Clear Sky was a flawed remix of the original game with some new areas and an ill-fated faction system. Call Of Pripyat is again the same engine, models, textures, and fiction (it's set after the events of SoC) but this time it's an entirely new game. The maps in this new game are only three in number, but each one is around three times larger than the original levels from Shadow Of Chernobyl. In many ways this is the zone as so many veterans of the original wanted it to be: wide-open, filled with more weird corners and creaking ruins, ripe for exploration and horror. It's in the same X-Ray engine, which still looks fantastic, but seems even less optimised than before, and stutters and locks up in a way that previous games do not, on exactly the same PC.
Fortunately that does not seem to matter, because there's enough essentially new Stalker game here to keep me transfixed for hours. The larger areas are filled with a kind of strangeness that the previous games didn't seem to dare to deliver. Anomalies are no longer simply semi-visible areas of radiation or crackling electrical hotspots, they're great holes in the earth, or pits filled with spirally flame, or haunted slices through the landscape: places where standing water curves like a hill, or where it looks like God took a blowtorch the landscape. Overall the environments feel less detailed than the previous games, and they're obviously fairly recycled in terms of texture and theme, but it does feel like the team are more comfortable with creating their own world this time. Some of the locations feel a little arbitrary, but equally there are areas that are lavish in their dereliction. Pripyat itself (the abandoned city of Chernobyl) is fully explorable, and while you can't roam about the interior of every building, you do come and go from this dark heart of the zone, and find yourself exploring it over time. Things like the rotting children's playground and once-playful statues are now mired in the sinister murk of abandonment.
Call Of Pripyat manages to strike a commendable balance between open-ended messing around in the world, and the core story of lost military teams. You play a major, a special military agent, who has been sent in on foot to investigate the loss of a number of helicopters. You do hook up with the military from time to time, but the overall story is still of you as a lone stalker within the three new sectors of the zone. You find yourself ill-equipped for the task at hand, you are forced to work alongside other denizens of the wilderness, and skirmish with mutants and bandits, much as before. Only this time it feels rather more like an RPG. All those side missions do add up to quite a lot of material, and many of them are essential to getting the materials - and people - you need to complete your mission. You aren't just relying on weapons. Although the faction aspect of the previous games has taken a back seat in CoP, you do need to get Stalkers on side for your descent into Pripyat. One of the key scenarios sees you assembling a small team of men to travel through a gas-filled tunnel into Pripyat itself, and this entire sequence is about as ambitious a scripted sequence as we've seen in any of the Stalker games.
I'd argue that this all amounts to is the best story we've seen in a Stalker game. It's sprawling and undramatic in places - and there's still some wacky English voice acting - but there are so many individual events, and so much mounting mystery to what's happening in the zone, that you can't help but find yourself a little bit invested in finding out what's going on.
What the design team have not done is fiddle too much with the basics of the game. You remain Mr Motorbike-Legs when getting about, but the larger zones mean that your stamina huffing out is far more of an issue than it might have been before. I think I'd have been tempted to buff that a little in testing, but I suppose it's not a major issue. Combat has been tweaked a little from Clear Sky, but all the basics remain solid and recognisable: enemies seem slightly too tough, but combat is otherwise realistic and brutal. The AI will attack where it last saw you, and cover and flanking and essential to victory. Enemies use grenades, but it's far less of a problem than it might have been, and you can usually take the blast, or just about manage to duck out of range. There are a handful of new weapons in the mix too, although this time the focus is definitely on upgrading and maintaining particular firearms. By the end of the game I had spent so much on my stalker suit and main assault rifle that there was no way I could reasonably consider trading them in for anything else that the game world could cough up. This repair and upgrade is performed by a number of technicians across the game, and you will need to go on missions to find these guys tools. The location of these items is deeply obscure, however, and it does take some serious rooting around - or lazy Googling - to find them. Things like this mean that the game rewards deep exploration. It's huge, and you're going to want to see it all - and do all those side missions - to make the most of it.
It seems fairly certain that this is the last in this particular Stalker trilogy. GSC have said a few times that a genuine Stalker 2 is something they see in the future, and I think Call Of Pripyat may point the way to that game. It also points the way to some epic modding exploits. I couldn't read this game as anything other than ludicrously fertile fodder for Stalker's energetic modding communities, and I'll fascinated to see what overhauls they can come up with.
To sum up, I know it's basically meaningless for me to recommend this to people who have played the previous games, because most of them will just buy it anyway. But the recommendation is there to all of you. You should play this. Yes, it is simply more of the same survival FPS we've seen twice before, with new and interesting bugs (such as a broken cut-scene in which I found myself hunched over the corpse I had been examining) but this time it feels freer, and more relaxed. It's been executed imaginatively and competently, and delivers genuine surprises. The rough edges remain, and still they do nothing to diminish its charm. Call Of Pripyat is a vital excursion to the zone and probably the most interesting shooter we're going to see on the PC in 2010.