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S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky

Having already sold over 2 million copies worldwide, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky has clearly demonstrated the success of the original's reputation, with the pun clearly intended. But with two game fixing patches released in as many weeks, what can be said about the actual quality of this stand-alone prequel compared to the original Shadow of Chernobyl?

 

The immediate answer to that particular question would simply be "disappointing", thanks to a number of reasons. The easiest to comprehend is the obvious: crashes and bugs. I sadly believe Clear Sky falls into that uneasy category of not being ready for release, i.e. it's been rushed out. The opening swamp sequences are truly excellent fun, which rightly shows the true quality of the developers' potential. But as the game progresses those moments of quality become flaky, as if it was suffering from radiation poisoning.

Playing the role of a mercenary, your ultimate goal is to reach the centre of the zone and stop the protagonist of the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R., with a number of weaving plot references to the original thrown in for good measure. The actual story isn't exactly awful, but the scripted scenes are often broken or poorly done. Sequences not working are examples of the former, while invulnerable and infinite spawning enemy sections are of the latter.

The general gameplay of Clear Sky is very similar to it's predecessor - FPS action with a peppering of RPG frolics. The basics of these two genres are done well, with shooting things satisfying and the inventory generous and easy to use. A reasonably sized game-world can fulfil your non-linear desires to a certain extent, with a limited range of optional missions and chores available.

Being a more recent sibling to Shadow of Chernobyl, you would expect a number of improvements and changes from the original. One of three proud bullet points on the back of the DVD case is the new "Dynamic War of Factions", which certainly sounds exciting. Choose a faction to fight with and battle alongside your faction's fellows for control of various control points, with the enemy factions base the ultimate target. It sounds like a familiar flavour of Battlefield, but dejectedly it just doesn't work.

Joining your chosen "clan" is initially rather exciting. You're given a warm welcome, a powerful weapon, ammo and armour, and are then sent on your way to help your comrades capture territory. However, the ultimate and critical flaw is that you can't capture points yourself. The other faction members are the only ones who can, but seldom do. In my saved game this cascaded into the whole faction war grinding to a halt before it really began, purely because of an AI bug. I tried walking into and wiping out the whole 25 man enemy faction base, but nothing happened after my remarkable personal victory.

Even when the Faction War did function, it was still nothing more then a nuisance. Joining one faction means the other becomes your enemy - you have a new large scale enemy, which significantly increases the amount of people who awkwardly spray bullets in your direction. In addition to this, I kept getting asked to help out at points which had recently been captured, just as I had reached the other side of the map. Having to go back and forth, making little or no progress is frustrating to say the least. You can ignore the faction war all together since it doesn't really materialise if you don't join, but I was hoping for a lot better.

In fact, enjoyable new features are hard to come by in Clear Sky. You can splash the cash on new upgrades to improve your chosen weapons accuracy or firepower, but this is under used since money is now a lot harder to come by. Fast travel has also been introduced, but it's in the form of a guide who requires large sums of money for his services, when things are already cash-strapped as it is. That can, to a certain extent, be undone by doing a rather easy and tedious shooting mini-game over and over. Enemies do at least make an effort to use cover now, though seemingly not very often.

Unfortunately things get exasperating elsewhere, with a range of bizarre and annoying bugs. One shocking bug, which was at least amusing at the time, was when I first attacked a bandit camp. At the exact moment when I notched up my first kill they sent a radio message, asking me for help to help protect them from an attacker - me. Crashes to the desktop for no reason are too frequent, as are corrupt game saves, meaning saving regularly is a must.

Other moans include the new grenade indicator, which is shockingly absurd. It actually somehow manages to point you in the wrong direction, which usually leads to game-over status. Load times are still around couple of minutes, even with 2GB of RAM, and there are no alternate endings, just a short and mediocre cut scene. The stat changing artefacts of the original are now rarer, in addition to being invisible, meaning I managed to completely forget about them. The new "Emissions" feature is a good idea, but the fact you are told to hide from this character killing storm while all the other NPC's just continue with their normal routines shatters what's left of the atmosphere. Mournfully I could go on.

It's not all bad news though - the graphics do at least remain impressive. The lighting effects are second to none, with everything casting its own shadow by order of the sun, which is in addition to the finest HDR and "God-Ray" effects on show. To my eyes the game still somehow appears out-dated, which I believe is down to the "gritty" look it portrays, which in fairness is no bad thing. A second of the three bullet points on the game case mentions the "Exclusive DirectX 10 support", which as expected amounts to nothing special. It all boils down to some extra "nice to have" effects, if your graphics card can handle them that is.

Speaking of performance, Clear Sky is going to be demanding on most peoples computers. A Dual Core processor with 2GB of RAM and a relatively modern 512mb graphics card is recommended. There are many options on offer to tweak and optimise performance though, so owning something above the minimum specification of a 2GHz P4 processor, 512mb RAM and a 128MB DirectX 9 graphics card may make the game run, albeit in a rather mutated and ugly form.

Aurally, Clear Sky is a mixed affair. Sound effects are generally re-used from the original, which feels like a big let down. For those who have played Shadow of Chernobyl, the highly effective spooky groans, rumbles and wails no longer spark fear, but instead induce a dull and stale atmosphere. The music has improved dramatically though, with a new "dynamic" option providing pumping Half-Life 2 style music during fire fights, while reserving the slow atmospheric (but again re-used) music for exploring. The new music is so well done and surprisingly catchy that I felt tempted to engage in battle just to hear it. However, the original was so special because of its wonderfully atmospheric auditory, and I feel that has to some extent irradiated away.

In Clear Sky you do at least get six new and six old reworked areas from the original. The new areas are very well done, showing an excellent calibre of level design, ranging from highly tactical swamps and forests to a beautifully war torn town. Typically though, these new locations are usually only used for a brief amount of time. The older, so called "re-worked" areas are almost exactly the same; the only differences noticed on my travels were the locations of the faction strongholds. This meant that everything felt too familiar to induce the need to explore, which was another of the originals great selling points.

As you have more than likely noticed, the resultant feeling of my Clear Sky experience is that of disappointment. The final of the three bullet points on the game case is "The official prequel of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl", which I feel is the key to the commercial success of Clear Sky. Were this to be the first in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise with no reputation behind it, I believe it would be thrown aside and branded as a lacklustre and average shooter. Developers GSC Gameworld have littered the game with their superb talent potential, but the general feeling I had swamp me after the initial marsh scenes was one of dissatisfaction.

As soon as fun and excitement loomed over the ashy horizon, it was always abruptly flattened by a game breaking bug or crash, an invisible anomaly or the AWOL grenade indicator. The fact I was more scared of the game crashing than the atmosphere means that the 10-15 hour game time was one for me to forget. I should think this will change if you play the game in a year's time by the time the 52nd patch has been released, at which time you can add one point to the overall score. Hardcore fans of the original might be able to extract enough fun from this purchase, but for everyone else, we can only hope for a brighter, clearer future.

6.00/10 6

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky (Reviewed on Windows)

Game is enjoyable, outweighing the issues there may be.

Having already sold over 2 million copies worldwide, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky has clearly demonstrated the success of the original's reputation, with the pun clearly intended. But with two game fixing patches released in as many weeks, what can be said about the actual quality of this stand-alone prequel compared to the original Shadow of Chernobyl?  

This game was supplied by the publisher or relevant PR company for the purposes of review
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