S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky

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Introduction

In 1986 on April 26th around 1:23 in the morning reactor four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explodes. This was actually caused by secret experiments drawing too much power from the reactor. The subsequent evacuation and creation of the Alienation Zone is the perfect cover up for more secret experiments. In 1991 the Soviet Union collapses but the experiments continue. In 2001 a bus filled with tourists goes missing and The Zone is sealed off “completely”. In 2006 the military quarantine around The Zone is utterly destroyed, the sky blazes with bright light and the earth quakes as a wave of energy explodes through the Zone, this is known as an Emission or a Blowout. The Zone expands in size by 5 kilometers. In 2007 enterprising mercenaries and hunters enter this Alienation Zone in order to find objects of worth. In 2011 you play as Scar, a mercenary stalker (Scavenger, Trespasser, Adventurer, Loner, Killer, Explorer, and/or Robber), escorting some scientists into The Zone. The sky brightens and the earth begins to tremble, The Zone suffers another Blowout. Scar survives the Blowout, despite being completely unprotected. The Zone expands another 5 kilometers.

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Then this old man starts asking you a lot of questions like, “Why aren’t you incredibly dead?”

History

The Stalker games were developed by GSC Game World, a critically undermanned and underfunded game studio. It took them seven years to finish Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl but it only took them a year to make Stalker: Clear Sky– I guess making a game engine really takes a lot out of you. GSC is no more, unfortunately. After trying to port Stalker to the Xbox and PS3 they scrapped that and tried to make Stalker 2 but that project was also scrapped.

The Stalker series of games are based on a Movie from 1979 simply called Stalker. Which in turn is based on a short story called Roadside Picnic, which was published in 1972. They all share certain traits in common, the existence of a Zone, with peculiar things in it, men who will do what they need to get these things, and something that grants wishes. I haven’t seen the movie or read the story but Stalker seems like a very loose adaptation but taken in a very interesting direction.

GSC created and used the X Ray 1.5 engine and as a result it has really dynamic lighting which is great for a survival horror shooter. It also provides weather, water effects, and a day and night cycle. All of this was employed by the developers to really bring the Zone to life– and make things more creepy..

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Nothing like good lighting to point out how terrifying… this… thing is.

Stalker: Clear Sky was released in the United states on September 5th, 2008. It’s competition included Spore (PC), Silent Hill: Homecoming (PS3, Xbox 360, and PC), Dead Space (PS3, Xbox 360), and Bioshock (Ps3, Xbox 360, and PC). (Geez, tough crowd).

Nostalgia

When I was in college I was part of the computer club and every once and awhile someone would start playing Stalker. After one person would start someone would say, “I never did beat that, lemme give it a shot.” Soon the whole room was filled with cursing college students getting their faces rocked by mutants and shotgun blasts. We started coming up with stupid stories about The Zone and acting out little scenarios between characters from the games. And even though that has all passed there is still some remnant that all Stalker fans can enjoy, the “Get out of here Stalker meme.” If you’re not sure that someone you know is a Stalker fan–I mean should this bizarre niche need ever arise– just tell them to “Get out of here Stalker,” in a bad Russian accent and if they’re response is to hang their head or grimace you’ll know they are.

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Seriously, can’t a dude who’s glitched himself into a locker while creepily staring at you get a moment’s peace?

Gameplay

Stalker: Clear Sky is a survival shooter so… let that just sink in for a second. Most shooters that I’ve played do not involve the consequence of injury, or the expenditure of bullets as seriously as Stalker does. This, combined with the crack enemy AI and the brutal numbers associated with damage makes this game hard as hell. Everything is trying to hurt poor old Scar, other Stalkers, mutants, space-time anomalies, and even the air– if radiation counts as the air trying to kill you (It’s usually in the water, but it’s all over the place). The game’s scenarios put the player in a situation where they’ll pick up fallen weapons and unload them just for a few extra bullets but throw the weapon behind because it’s too heavy and every Kilogram of weight works against the player. Weapons also jam with infuriating frequency, an unreliable weapon jamming can get you shot up quick.

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Encumbrance is no joke in this game. It measures the weight of every single bullet in your inventory and if you go over your 50 kg load you’re gonna have a bad time.

The controls in this game seem normal at first WASD to move, mouse to shoot. But X makes you sprint and [ uses a medkit and ] uses bandages. It took me 5 minutes of hitting every key on my keyboard to figure out that Y changes the ammo type you’re using and = changes the firing type of you weapon. Reader be warned, you might want to map your controls to something that fits your playstyle.

The game’s big hook mechanic is territory control. Each chapter of the game includes a situation where 2 factions are at war and the player may choose a side. It’s extremely beneficial between the money, favors, items, and reputation you’ll garner to participate. The first faction war is sort of a tutorial and you can’t choose a side but you may in the other two. Be careful which faction you choose because the benefits are exclusionary and there’s no going back once you’ve chosen.

Anomalies present an interesting dilemma to the player. There are objects in anomalous areas called artifacts and these artifacts have a myriad of extremely beneficial effects like healing the player or eliminating radiation. Going into the fields is incredibly dangerous but the prices that these artifacts garner can be extremely useful disregarding their other benefits. Speaking of anomalies, they’re everywhere and extremely dangerous. The Whirligig and Vortex anomalies are very common, they catch the player, mess with they’re controls, then explode. Even veteran players still gets caught in their grip, unable to escape before they die, from time to time. But, just like the Stalker movie, Scar is equipped with a bag full of bolts which he can throw to trigger or detect anomalies.

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Who’da thought these little guys would be so useful?

The Kvush

The glitches, dear goodness, they’re everywhere. One time the game crashed because I had the sheer audacity to have a guide take me somewhere. Not somewhere I wasn’t supposed to go, just to the next town. That being said, sometimes the glitches can be hilariously funny. These rampant occurrences have given rise to the phrase, “Such is life in the Zone.” No matter what’s going on it’s just the Zone’s weirdness, certainly not a problem with the game.

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Blurry people phasing through floors. Such is life in the Zone.

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People phasing into other people. Such is life in the Zone.

The voice acting in this game is shockingly good for such a low key title. Unfortunately, like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, it’s got like… 5 guys doing it all. They’re chops include trying to sound tough when they’re voicing bandits, or trying to sound stoned when they’re voicing guys from the Freedom faction. Then again Steve Blum did two of the voices for this game and he does a very good job.

The Gush

The territory mechanics are usually spot on and really fun. The organizations are really dynamic, choosing one can be an uphill challenge or have interests that the player has stake in. Taking objective after objective while keeping your team alive sounds like a dumb escort mission but these guys aren’t chumps. Sometimes they’re better equipped than you are. It’s an odd feeling being in an FPS traveling with someone else for protection instead of the other way around.

The Zone has a beautiful atmosphere. Stalkers in camps and settlements talk with each other, in Russian. They banter, they argue, and they laugh. To see men in a place like this fighting untold monsters and then to hear them laugh because Smitty over there risked his life to pick up a useless rock he thought was an artifact is really cool. Mutants attack camps and are beaten back by independent squads. There are a lot of events that go on without intervention by the player. Bandits attack or are repelled. There’s a whole world of things going on that the player can choose to involve themselves in or ignore.

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There are 8 minutes of guitar tracks the game plays when a Stalker at a campsite breaks out his dusty guitar. Sometimes I even sit and listen.

The music is really atmospheric and perfectly puts the player on edge. The moody synth sounds put the player in a mood to face the strange and unusual. The game itself is visually stunning. It’s a little dated and a little brown but I think it presents a ruined wilderness very well.

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Take in this scene. A tree, nearly dead, hanging over the entry path to a dilapidated church filled with bandits that have take up residence.

The game may be difficult but it’s all downhill from here, sort of. The game has this peculiar way of getting easier the further you go on instead of more difficult. The more powerful armor and artifacts can make the player incredibly durable and the more powerful weapons can deal heavy damage to even the most armored stalker.

The Kvetch

The finale and ending to this game might make you feel like you’ve wasted your time reaching it. It’s so bizarre that a game that I love so much has such a terrible ending. The game is about exploration, solving a mystery, seeing the unknown, getting some mad loot and the finale is about shooting dudes. Shooting dudes in increasingly one-sided scenarios. I had to deal with not one, but four machine gun nests. Did you run out of ideas, developers? The ending itself is a great lead up to Shadow of Chernobyl but it doesn’t give any closure to Scar, the guy we’ve been invested in and playing for the past 20 hours.

The Verdict

I think Stalker: Clear Sky is a great game. Through the glitches– funny or game breaking, the adequate voice acting, and the incredibly disappointing ending I think this game is a really good survival shooter and a step forward for the Stalker series. It made numerous improvements over the previous title and presented a larger more playgroundy world to explore and have fun in. I’m not blinded by nostalgia for this one, I only played it recently, so this review is free of rose tintedness. I highly suggest picking it up if this interests you.

Next Week: Megaman Legends

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