S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat
Developer: GSC Game World
Released: October 2009 (CIS) / February 2010 (worldwide)
Played: complete in 13h:24min
Shortly after Strelok disabled the Brain Scorcher during the events of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, there's a rush to explore and exploit the centre of the mysterious and anomalous Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Military helicopters have gone missing during a scouting mission, and Major Alexander Degtyarev is sent in undercover as an independent stalker to identify the reason for the choppers' disappearance.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat received good reviews, averaging scores of 80%. Reviewers were impressed with the atmosphere and useability improvements over previous games in the series, with some who didn't like the past games enjoying Call of Pripyat. Some criticism was directed at "a slight sensation of datedness" and the precision of AI gunfire, even at night or when the player is under cover.
As far as I can tell, the original Russian version received two patches for bug fixes, both of which are already included in the English release.
|Gravitational anomalies on a pond|
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is one of those games that's great at atmosphere, and it's a very unique feel. The Zone is bleak and oppressive - the colour palette is full of greys and browns, buildings and machines are all in ruin, dangerous and unpredictable anomalies are everywhere, and it's common to find corpses and active combat. The audio is quiet but creepy: the background music uses some weird sounds, and you'll often hear anomalies, mutants, or gunfire at a distance over the wind.
But at the same time the Zone is very active, full of intrigue and conflict among the many factions - stalkers, bandits, military, mercenaries, zombies, mutants, scientists, Duty, Freedom, Monolith, and the various loners and independents. Despite the hostility of the landscape and the monsters, the Zone is a place where the lucky and skilled can strike it rich by hunting for artifacts, guiding others around the hazards, or setting up shop to provide vital goods and services.
I wouldn't outright call S.T.A.L.K.E.R. a horror series since the horror is sporadic, but those elements are great, especially in underground segments where the mutants lurk and stalkers fear to tread. The high-contrast lighting and dangerous environments do a great job of creating tension even when there are no monsters around - but of course, turning a corner and coming face to face with a controller or burer is always worth a jump. These are definitely the best missions, and I think they strike a perfect frequency balance too: they'd be less effective at freaking me out if this was the only type of environment in the game. They work very well as an occasional delve into horror that you have to prepare for, as opposed to constant pressure.
I also really like artifact hunting. The experience of throwing bolts to discover a safe path through fields of deadly lightning or flame in order to find powerful supernatural treasure is really cool, especially when you can come back after an emission to find that the anomalies have moved and new artifacts have generated. I haven't experienced that same dynamic in any other game I've played (and actually it's giving me ideas for one of the D&D games I'm planning).
I found that the story starts strong, with a much clearer direction and objective than in previous games - rather than "find this guy because reasons" or "help these research dudes", you're a military man sent in to determine the reason for the failure of Operation Fairway, an aerial scouting mission in preparation for a military assault on the nuclear plant. You need to locate the downed helicopters, find out why they crashed, and if possible, complete their mission. You are undercover as an independent stalker because the population of the Zone is not fond of the military. I thought this was a great way to start the game, especially for an open-world game: you have clear objectives, but can approach them how and when you choose, without the problem that plagues many open world and RPG games where you have an objective that's time-sensitive according to the story but not at all in gameplay.
There are two issues with the story. One is that it's highly dependent on having played Shadow of Chernobyl (which actually isn't so much of a problem as an important note). A bunch of things are referenced or directly relevant to the plot that aren't ever explained in Call of Pripyat because it's assumed you have the knowledge from Shadow of Chernobyl - major stuff like the Brain Scorcher, the Wish Granter, who the Monolith and Strelok are. But like I said, not so much an actual problem, as something to be aware of before you play.
The big issue is that the ending felt pretty weak to me. It made perfect sense and followed from previous events, but it just didn't have much impact, especially when the big mystery actually turns out to be something that's been a plot point through all three games (the military wants to know why their choppers crashed when they had an anomaly map with a safe route, and it's because they didn't account for anomalies moving during emissions - something the players and characters have known about for years). I expected the final mission to be more than a mildly dangerous stroll and a minor defense against pretty standard non-mutant enemies. Missions such as the tunnel to Pripyat or the abandoned laboratories had much greater tension and even difficulty. Instead of the siege I was expecting, all I got was "the helicopters are here, time to go".
On the other hand, the slideshow sequence afterwards was nice. It changes depending on which missions you completed and how you completed them, and who's alive at the end of the game. But on the other other hand (why do I have three hands?!) there's less variability and impact to the various endings as compared to SoC.
The weakest point of the game is definitely in the characters. Voice acting is okay to bad, and there aren't very many actors so you'll be hearing the same voices repeatedly. Character animation also isn't great, which is fortunately not an issue in most cases (such as dudes chilling at the bar or on patrol) but it's something you're really going to notice in occasional dialogue cutscenes. In particular, there's trouble with characters turning around, as they awkwardly shuffle their feet and turn really slowly.
Call of Pripyat isn't a game where I was having tons of fun from moment to moment or excited to reach the next point of the story, but it's the kind that I just couldn't put down. The diverse, quiet, horror-tinged atmosphere and the elements of exploration and discovery are top-notch and really pull me into the world. And the stats, survival elements, UI, and upgrade process are noticeably improved over the last two games. For fans of open-world, survival, and horror, Call of Pripyat is excellent and unique, though you'll want to play Shadow of Chernobyl first (which isn't exactly a chore since it's also very good).