SANTA MONICA, Calif.--Ducking out of the summer sun into one of the biggest video game press events of the season could net you hands-on time with the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. prequel, Clear Sky. It worked for us. The new game from GSC Game World will still take place in the "exclusion zone" outside of the irradiated ruins of Chernobyl after the fictitious second nuclear meltdown that occurred in the previous game, Shadow of Chernobyl. However, the prequel takes place about a year before the events in the previous game and puts you in the role of a totally different character, who may actually end up being an enemy to the protagonist of the original game.
In Clear Sky, you'll play as a mercenary who can work with any of the different factions of stalkers--the paramilitary scavengers who comb the wreckage of the exclusion zone in search of valuable, irradiated artifact items that can be sold for cold, hard cash. By allying with a specific faction, you can help that group complete the game by gathering the artifacts and fending off rival stalker factions and irradiated monsters. However, conditions were apparently different in the exclusion zone a year ago--radiation conditions were such that artifacts are invisible to the naked eye and can be found only with a detection gadget that must be held in hand at all times. This means that when you're close to finding an artifact, the biggest weapon you can carry will be a pistol in your other hand. If you're taking heavy fire and need to equip a two-handed weapon such as an assault rifle, you won't be able to find the item.
We played through a brief, prebuilt mission specifically created for E3 in which we came charging through the Ukrainian wilderness to join a stalker squad camped out in a ruined two-story building that might've been a bathhouse. The new game will apparently feature an all-new texture engine built on DirectX 10 architecture, though we weren't able to see DirectX 10 code at this year's E3. Once we met up with the group, we had a chance to compare the original game's character models to the new game's models. The Clear Sky character models are far more detailed, with higher-resolution textures that render the rumpled cloth of the stalkers' bodysuits much more realistically.
We ran through part of the mission, which required us to weave through the bombed-out second floor to take out enemy stalkers who were entrenched behind various cover points, pinning down our allies. We ran up flights of stairs bounded by walls of shattered bath tiles, piles of bricks, and loose wooden crates to get the drop on our enemies by ducking beneath cover, leaning behind walls, and looking down the sights of our weapons to zoom in slightly on our foes. The game will model different physical properties for different surfaces in the world--some objects, such as crates, will be fully destructible by gunfire, which means that flimsy cover won't really be cover at all once heavy fire starts. We were given continuous mission updates as we picked off each enemy soldier to move on to the next one until we'd finally taken them out. There will probably be plenty of intense gunfights in the new game, just like in the original.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky is apparently scheduled for release in the early part of 2008, though no North American publishing partner has been announced. Even though developer GSC Game World had worked with THQ on the original game, the studio is actively negotiating with a variety of partners to bring the game to market.