LEIPZIG, Germany--It was only a little over a month ago that we last met with GSC Game World to play an early version of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, but today we met with them again at the 2007 Games Convention. The game hasn't changed too dramatically since E3, of course, but today we had an opportunity to check out a previously unseen level from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl prequel, and we thoroughly enjoyed doing so.
Set approximately one year before the events of the original game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky will see you assuming the role of mercenary who has no great love for Strelok, the protagonist in Shadow of Chernobyl. The upcoming game will attempt to answer some of the questions that were never resolved while playing as Strelok, and will also introduce a number of gameplay improvements to the mix--largely based on feedback from the first game's passionate and vocal community.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky will feature a total of 14 distinct locations (the original game had 18), and while many of them will be recognizable to fans, they won't be identical. Five of the locations in Clear Sky will be all-new, like the "Marshland" level that we saw today.
Taken from early on in the game, Marshland is purportedly the biggest environment to appear in a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game yet. The Marshland isn't as closely based on any area in the real Chernobyl exclusion zone as most other areas are, but it certainly doesn't look out of place, and we're told that it's quite typical of marshes that would be formed when areas of Russia were deliberately flooded during the construction of hydroelectricity plants and the like.
Even at this relatively early stage of development, Clear Sky's visuals are looking impressive. The expanses of water and tall grass that make up much of the Marshland look great, and the run-down factories and such that dot the landscape look like they've been there forever. The icing on the cake is new volumetric lighting that produces some really impressive shadows as the sun moves through the sky, and the character models that we got reasonably good looks at all appeared to represent a significant improvement over those in the previous game.
The first character model that we got a really good look at was the leader of the Clear Sky faction--one of eight warring factions in the game, and one of the five that you'll have the option to join as you progress through the story mode. Like its predecessor, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky will afford you plenty of freedom to play the game as you want to, and the factions are perhaps one of the best examples of this. You'll be able to play through the entire story mode without ever joining one of them if you wish, but each faction has a number of missions waiting for you, and if you progress up through the ranks of a faction, you'll find that the improved weapons and armor are well worth the effort. You'll also find that factions have access to traders, guides (you can pay them to get to destinations more quickly), and mechanics with the ability to maintain and repair your gear.
Faction missions will include everything from hunting wildlife to capturing key locations, such as watchtowers, factories, and enemy bases. Every capture point that you successfully claim for your faction will make your group stronger, which will not only be evident in your own gear but also in the gear used by the comrades you fight alongside. You'll want your guys to be as well equipped as possible, too, because we can tell you that some of the new enemies you'll be facing are pretty brutal. The new "marsh beast" that killed a mercenary right in front of our eyes today, for example, is lightning fast, can jump great distances even when it has an enemy in its grasp, and likes to hide in long grass. Oh, and it's invisible. Good luck with that.
You won't be able to issue any orders to your squad, but their actions will be largely be determined by your own, and they're certainly more intelligent than anything we remember from the first game. In today's presentation it was clear that the CPU-controlled characters were comfortable moving in and out of cover when appropriate, and leaning out of cover to shoot at enemies. They were even smart enough to come to a halt at one point when they spotted a particularly large group of boars up ahead.
Our demo came to an end shortly after we saw the boars taken care of with some sniper rounds, but not before we were treated to a quite beautiful look at the day and night cycle being accelerated. The sunset was especially impressive, and the dead of night was so dark that campfires in the surrounding area were almost the only thing we could see.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky is currently scheduled for release in early 2008. We'll bring you more information as soon as it becomes available.