Life is not easy for a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Besides the excessive punctuation between the letters of your job title (making a complete muck of stalker business cards), you inhabit the Chernobyl exclusion zone inhabited by angry militants, well-armed bandits, and irradiated boar--all of whom would take pleasure in guttin' you, boy. We hit the zone running this week and are here to offer our final thoughts on S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, the prequel to the acclaimed Shadow of Chernobyl, before its release on September 15.
Clear Sky is a shooter, pure and simple, but also throws in elements of role-playing and survival horror games. Weapons are rated in strength, accuracy, rate of fire, and overall condition, which all deteriorate over time. Luckily for you, enemies tend to drop their own weapons when they, you know, die, and you can grab low-level replacements at any time. There are also a number of parts like scopes and larger ammunition clips that can be combined with firearms to increase their respective attributes. Early on we can already say how fun it is to pimp out your gun with items earned in the heat of battle. Although there is no custom creation tool for your looks, the combinations of weapons and armor at your disposal are endless.
There's also somewhat of an economy at work in the zone, and you'll pick up rubles along the way that can be spent at trading posts throughout the area. After a few hours of capping bandits and stealing their loot, we stopped by a trader in hopes of purchasing a shiny new American shotgun. We had more than a dozen basic Russian shotguns along with a number of pistols, worth thousands of rubles. But no. Blame it on the radiation, the sinking dollar, whatever--the trader would only offer pennies on the ruble for our weapons, a total of about 300 RU. Of course, he wanted nearly 3,000 RU for his shotgun, so we casually tipped our hat and left his humble shack. There's hope that different traders will offer better prices for your wares, but we decided to take our economic frustrations out on the enemy instead of haggling with miserly shopkeepers.
The opening portion of Clear Sky takes place in the Great Swamp. There reside enemy factions, bandits, and the friendly faction by the name of--you guessed it--Clear Sky. Clear Sky claims it's doing research on the zone to discover the reason behind the sudden increase in explosive radioactive bursts that kill everyone in their paths. Something about an intruder had gotten past the Brain Scorcher to reach the center of the zone, and the zone isn't happy at all about it. (The writing and dialogue aren't going to win any awards, if you were wondering.)
To guide you through the swamp, you have a handy PDA. The map showcases friendly, neutral, and enemy locations, and also exactly how big the area is. While it remains to be seen how much of the zone is cut off by fields of deadly radiation early in the game, if you zoom out of the map, you can see that the exclusion zone is huge. That's good, because it's also filled with valuable artifacts that can boost your abilities and resistance to radiation, or be sold for heaps of rubles. Your PDA also has a list of primary and secondary objectives, and a handy button that will highlight their locations. Because the factions are fighting a dynamic war that developer Deep Silver claims is different every time, there is also a faction page that gives details on each group's combat strengths and resources. After we took out several enemy strongholds, it was admittedly a blast to see Clear Sky's borders and resources expand.
Combat is basic first-person shooter fare, with a few twists. Particularly nasty bullet wounds will bleed, and you'll need to access your inventory for a bandage to stop the bleeding or else your health will continue to deplete. There are basic squad commands later in the game, but at this early stage we fought alongside Clear Sky soldiers. The health system is unforgiving, and you'll need to take lots of cover--this is not a run-and-gun shooter.
Clear Sky guides will escort you through the zone to previously unreachable locations. One such location was a stalker outpost located right next to a military base. Unfortunately for you, that particular military base is not friendly, and a soldier immediately opened fire with a mounted machine gun, forcing you to take cover behind boulders and trees--wait, not trees. Bullets slice right through the wood. After many deaths, we gave up trying to single-handedly take down the base and absconded to the stalker outpost for our next mission.
At this point, it's fair to say that fans of the original Stalker will enjoy Clear Sky as well. It's not without its foibles--cheesy dialogue, punishing difficulty, unfriendly checkpoint system--but the customization and open world offer a unique experience in an engaging universe. Check for our final review next week.