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

If you were browsing TR in March of last year, you might have seen the blog post where I lauded S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl for being a unique, captivating, and sometimes frightening experience with an atmosphere thick enough to cut with a knife. You might understand, then, why I've been looking forward to the prequel ever since GSC Game World announced it in July 2007. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky finally came out last Friday over here, and I eagerly rushed to the local video-game shop to purchase a copy.

I finally reached the ending last night, but I now have somewhat of a sour taste in my mouth. It's not that Clear Sky is a bad game; it's just that it seems to lack many of the elements that made the original great—elements like an unpleasant, surreal atmosphere; oppressive dungeon exploration that makes you glad to see pixelated daylight again; the lonely, derelict feeling of long missions in an unforgivingly hostile world; the desolate feel of a barren countryside full of decaying, abandoned buildings... I could go on.

Clear Sky does look great on paper. It tightens up the gameplay, improves the graphics (some of the environments are simply breathtaking), removes some of the need for traditional RPG tedium, and makes the whole experience a little more linear than in Shadow of Chernobyl. But there's just something missing. It's kind of like Shadow of Chernobyl is the cute, geeky girl with glasses and Clear Sky is her smoking-hot cousin who thinks Europe is an island where everyone speaks French and there are no indoor toilets.

That analogy fits better than you'd think. Whereas I still think the first game was a masterpiece tarnished with little flaws, the prequel seems to focus on technology while neglecting some key gameplay elements. The tighter storyline doesn't give you as much time to soak in the atmosphere, there's a myriad of bugs, and some aspects of the game just feel off.

For instance, I never had enough money to purchase better armor, so I went through most of the game with a suit some character gave me. Perhaps I should have joined one of the multiple factions to get some free goodies, but Clear Sky's character is a mercenary, and I felt like staying self-employed. Besides, I always had so many bandages and medkits that didn't really impede my progress. Similarly, Clear Sky makes the process of retrieving and using "artifacts" (rare objects that improve your character's stats) so difficult I never felt compelled to bother with them. Yes, I could have gathered those for money, but I also expected that repeatedly helping some factions in huge gunfights would reap financial rewards.

Even the graphics are missing a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. The new-and-improved X-ray Engine conjures up truly beautiful images, but I think everything's just a little too pretty and sunny, so you don't get the same oppressive feeling as in the original. Oh and you still can't sleep, despite the abundance of prop beds and sleeping characters, so you have to play a portion of the game in pitch-blackness with a flashlight. That made me feel like I was missing out on some of the eye candy, especially since the game doesn't really encourage back-tracking.

Then there's the ending. I won't spoil it, but after the epic, multi-ending bonanza of the original, I was expecting more than a short bit of gameplay and a one-minute cut scene.

Of course, Clear Sky does have its upsides. Environments have a distinct realism and authenticity that makes you feel like you're really there, and the storyline sheds light on the events of the original in interesting ways. At one point, for example, you help a faction capture an army base that becomes their headquarters in the first game. Cool. Then again, almost everyone had died by the end of the gunfight, and a pack of mutant dogs finished off the rest while I was up a tower fiddling with radio equipment. Clear Sky also makes you chase around the character from the first game and figure out his past, along with the whole amnesia thing.

Having said all of this, I will likely try playing Clear Sky again and following a different path this time. GSC Game World released a second patch this week, so that should also help squash away many of the immersion-killing bugs. Heck, maybe I'll just wait for a third patch to be sure. I definitely feel like there's plenty of potential here, but it looks like it's dug in much deeper than in the first game.

If you're planning to buy this game when it arrives in America next week, I won't try to dissuade you—especially if you're after something different than Call of Duty 4 and the endless stream of console ports. It may not be as good as its forebear, but Clear Sky still remains a welcome, albeit imperfect diversion in a sea of monotony. I just think GSC could have made it far better with more polish and slightly different gameplay mechanics.

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