Wednesday, 12 March 2014

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

Post-Launch Review
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky
Developer: GSC Game World
Released: August/September 2008
Played: story complete in 20 hours


As a prequel to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky follows the mercenary Scar as he investigates the cause of the recent massive radiation emissions from the centre of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. With the help of a research group called Clear Sky, Scar determines that a stalker has disturbed the balance of the zone - Strelok, the player's character from SoC.

At Launch

Clear Sky received average review scores of 75%. Clear Sky was widely criticized for falling short of Shadow of Chernobyl in many ways, though still considered a good game. Many reviewers considered the atmosphere and environments to be stronger in the original, and experienced many bugs and glitches in Clear Sky.

Post Launch

A bunch of patches were released to fix various bugs and issues. I'm not clear on whether the patches are included in the Steam version. I think they are, but if you find that they aren't, the patches can be found on the official site.


I enjoyed the first S.T.A.L.K.E.R., but when I tried starting Clear Sky I hit a wall where I felt like I couldn't do anything. My guns weren't accurate enough and I took too much damage. So I took a break and tried again later, and for some reason those problems are pretty much gone. Don't know what I did wrong the first time, but oh well, here's the review.

Clear Sky begins in a new area, the swamps, but quickly has you return to the Cordon, the starting area from the previous game. It's not quite a copy/paste job - since it's set before Shadow of Chernobyl, anomalies are in different locations and faction control of each area varies.
Combat is quite lethal and you'll have to be careful if you're used to soaking up lots of bullets - the last game I played was Mass Effect 3 where my vanguard could replenish shields in an instant, so this is a change of pace. If you're unfamiliar with the series, what are you doing you should play the first one first, but I'll explain anyway. Health does regenerate very slowly - as in, too slow to help at all during a fight - so there are first aid kits for healing. But a good hit you can also start you bleeding, which requires a separate item to fix (or the rarer army medkit). So if you get shot you may be low on health and bleeding, which is a bad situation in the middle of a firefight. And radiation poisoning also drains your health, and that needs yet another item to resolve. If you haven't got the hint yet, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is somewhat survival-oriented, so quicksave frequently.
I enjoyed Shadow of Chernobyl, and since Clear Sky's gameplay is mostly the same but with a few additions, I enjoyed Clear Sky. My favourite series element is the variety in exploration. You can find notes on hidden loot locations by searching corpses or buying tips. You can use your detector to search anomalies for valuable artifacts that upgrade your abilities, or can be sold for lots of cash. And hidden areas sometimes contain chests with rare loot.

I did encounter a few bugs, though mostly minor. A couple of times, enemies disappeared when I shot at them. Not died - just vanished, leaving no bodies or weapons. Odd, but not a big deal. I got occasional skipping for a fraction of a second, but I get less to none when I set the .exe process priority to high. And as a very minor criticism, neither of the STALKER games I've played so far work with the Steam overlay.
About 8 hours into the game I got mugged and had all my expensive upgraded gear stolen. I just sat there for a second, checked that I had a recent save, and quit the game. I actually didn't play for a few days afterwards. You can get your stuff back immediately, but I really don't like this crap.

Emissions are a cool idea, but quickly become annoying. Sometimes when you enter a map, you'll be warned that a dangerous emission is approaching, and you have a short time to find a safe spot. That gets annoying after a few times, but what's more annoying is that the game is almost too generous with the amount of time it gives you - I constantly find myself reaching the safe spot and having to just sit there for quite a long time until the emission passes. Boring. Emissions would be much more exciting with a greatly reduced timer - as is, there's no rush, and even an overburdened character can make it to a safe spot.
For a combat complaint, enemies have too many grenades, and there's too little time to dodge them. Unless you're wearing strong armour in good condition, a direct hit with a grenade is pretty much an instant kill... and you have about one second to move once you see a grenade coming.

The faction war - one of the core elements of gameplay - is well intentioned but disappointing in a lot of ways. Once you join a faction, you quickly lose access to the vendors and upgrade services of other factions. Depending on the faction you chose, this can mean that some items can no longer be upgraded or obtained at all. This wouldn't have been so bad if you had to join a faction on reaching a certain point in the story, but as is, you're discouraged joining a faction until as late as possible, once you've obtained and upgraded all the gear you want. There are also some major game-breaking bugs associated with the bandit faction, so don't join them.
For me the biggest problem was that the game didn't tell me when I was hitting the point of no return into the final mission. I had literally just deposited my combat exoskeleton so I wouldn't have to carry it around, thinking I'd upgrade it a bit later, and was instead wearing an environment suit with little bullet protection. And all of a sudden I'm facing armies and I can't go back for my exoskeleton. By the time I made it to the final battle, I was extremely low on ammo and my suit was completely broken, providing no protection at all.

Now that I've listed all these complaints, I'll note that many of these issues are resolved with the Clear Sky Complete mod. In addition to fixing many of the bugs and glitches, the Complete mod also bumps up the graphics and textures, and adds more sound and music for atmosphere.

Recommendation: play it with the Complete mod after finishing Shadow of Chernobyl.

The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series does a good job of combining survival, treasure hunting, and shooting. You should play the first game first since Clear Sky doesn't bother to explain much, even the big stuff like the Monolith and the Brain Scorcher - which makes the story feel a little slower and more opaque. Once the game is cleaned up with the Complete mod, the faction wars create some interesting dynamics and add some longer secondary objectives. Fun game and a good prequel if you already know the setting.

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