Review: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat

CallOfPripyat.jpg I still remember back to 2004 discussing the rising hype around the soon-to-be-released S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl on some gaming forums with friends. Of course, it was spring of 2007 by the time S.T.A.L.K.E.R. actually arrived, and by then many of the promised features had been whittled away. But what remained was still an amazing – albeit buggy – game. A prequel (S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Clear Sky) arrived in late 2008 to decent reviews, but was still seen as somewhat buggy. Now we get to enjoy the sequel to the original game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat. So how did GSC Game World do in bringing us the third entry in the franchise? Read on and see!

The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise is based on an alternate history in which the Chernobyl area was repopulated following the nuclear meltdown, but then a second disaster happened in 2006 which either killed or mutated nearly everyone. The story picks up some years later as people have started coming back to the region searching for artifacts, things to sell, and scientific information. In the original game the player is just one of many S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s exploring The Zone and doing missions, but is ultimately the one who can get to the ending and eliminate the C-Consciousness. It was an incredible game full of choices and consequences and different endings based on your decisions.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat picks up shortly after the events of the original game, with the introduction indicating how after the collapse of the C-Consciousness the government decided to take control, but after their initial assault failed they sent in a single S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Alexander Degtyarev (your character) – to work your way to Chernobyl and figure out what happened.

Technically, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is a first-person shooter with light RPG and survival-horror elements thrown in. But at its core it is a story- and character-driven open-world FPS. You take on missions in The Zone, which is a large and sprawling area surrounding Chernobyl. There is a large viewable area, with the detail dropping off in the distance as expected. Character models are very detailed, look better than ever and compare nicely to even current games. Overall the game still looks great, but is now beginning to show its age – and yet it still chugs away at times!

The audio is austere but effective – mostly environmental sounds and some solid voice acting. The controls haven’t changed much – standard PC shooter layout that is fully customizable. I am happy that there isn’t much else to add – nothing special to consider, nor any constraints around what you can and cannot do. It is a reminder of how well things can work when a game is developed purely for the PC.

When you shoot at something, it is the skill of the player that matters – well, also the health and status of the character, the weather and other environmental factors, and also the state of the weapon. You are never the classic over-powered character with the mega-weapon that can just plow through enemies. Every fight feels tense and frantic as you are constantly struggling with ammo and health concerns.

One of the coolest things promised in the original game – and still great after being trimmed down for the actual release – was the sense of a ‘living world’ in which life was actually happening around you. There wasn’t a fancy name applied, but as you traveled around you would see things going on without you needing to be involved – and sometimes they would impact your missions. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, GSC has realized the concept much more fully: you can easily see a pack of mutant dogs taking on some humans or other STALKERS, and you can also see other STALKERS roaming The Zone taking on missions. Sometimes you can even tag along under their leadership and actually help them on their missions.

Wait … did I just say that not only can the AI act independently, it can take the lead on missions and STILL produce satisfying gameplay? Yep! Amazing stuff!

Further along those lines, I got a new gaming laptop about a month ago, and this one doesn’t have an optical drive. So I ended up re-buying S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat on Steam (they have a nice ‘loyalty’ discount if you already own the earlier games), and when I started I immediately headed in a different direction than I did before and made a number of different choices – and it made a HUGE difference in how the game played.

Considering I just mentioned that I bought a second copy of a game so I could continue playing it on a different computer without a DVD drive, it should be pretty clear that I really like this game. The original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was a great game, but riddled with bugs to the point where before patching I felt like an apologist just enjoying the game. The second game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, seemed like an attempt to add more stuff in but ultimately felt a bit scattered and was still problematic.

Now we have S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, and it is truly the ultimate realization of the concept: a huge open living world in which you are just one of many potential heroes. The game still centers around your actions, but more than ever the world truly feels alive. You will spend a couple of dozen hours getting through the game, and the open feel predictably narrows towards the end of the game, but I never felt that the game was rushed or unfinished. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is a satisfying third entry in the franchise.

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Pros:
+ Loads of content
+ Loads of replayability
+ Top-notch AI in a living world
+ Great story, missions and characters

Cons:
– Game is still somewhat buggy
– Performance is still problematic
– Engine showing its age

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Viva Media
Developer: GSC Game World
Release Date: 2/2/2010
Genre: FPS
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-32
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!