Like its predecessors, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is all about stretches of chilling stillness and thick dread, punctuated by the tense thrills of menacing mutants and the rush of discovery. If you've played either of the first two games of the series, you know that The Zone is a harsh mistress, and exploring it requires patience, thoughtful planning, and plenty of ammo. But it's also erupting with rewards as long as you know where to look. This shooter/role-playing hybrid oozes ambience by the bucketful, whether you're traversing marshes or skulking through dark crevasses, and the dread that accumulates makes encounters with all sorts of grotesque freaks feel all the more suspenseful. These compelling moments don't inspire every aspect of the game, however. The story does little to draw you in until the final hours, and the visuals are showing their age despite some welcome improvements to the graphics engine. But Call of Pripyat is an excellent return to form after the uncomfortably buggy, awkwardly paced Clear Sky. Prepare, once again, to face impossible odds as you trudge your way across one of the planet's most dangerous expanses.
In the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series' third installment, you play as Ukrainian security agent Alexander Degtyarev. A number of military helicopters have crashed in the region devastated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster--known as The Zone--and you're sent to investigate. Call of Pripyat tries a bit harder than its predecessors in the storytelling department; the camera pans around your character in cutscenes, the writing is more straightforward, and the climax ties back to Shadow of Chernobyl, the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game. The plot gets a bit interesting in the final few hours as you find out more about what's going on in Pripyat, the abandoned city closest to the nuclear plant. Unfortunately, there's little to get you invested before that, and the awkward scripted scenes don't communicate a sense of drama as much as they highlight the aging visuals. A few characters, such as an alcoholic technician who will upgrade your weapons only after you give him enough vodka, are interesting or entertaining enough to make you care about their fates. But for the most part, you'll care only about surviving--and thriving--in such bleak, lawless environs.
And what environs they are. Shacks dot the grassy landscapes, cracks open in the earth's crust, and the famed Pripyat Ferris wheel looms beyond a barbed-wire fence. Storms rage across the skies, and frightening radioactive emissions spread across The Zone, threatening the small pockets of human life that populate it. You encounter groups of bandits fending off mutant attacks or huddled around a fire, camped near a radioactive anomaly. This is a tense, unpredictable, and sometimes scary place where the next step could invite danger or bring respite. You get some forewarning of some attacks, such as the frenzied barking of mutated dogs before a pack of them descend upon you. But other times, the darkness hides a shocking surprise, like a new enemy to the series called the burer. These misshapen dwarves are like mutant poltergeists, flinging objects at you and even telekinetically yanking your weapon out of your hands. A sinister encounter with one of these creatures in the center of Pripyat near the end of the game is one of several nail-biting highlights.
Another highlight is a nighttime ambush of another newly introduced beast called the chimera. Night is wholly black in Call of Pripyat, not the dim facsimile that so many other games provide. Not knowing when this terrible beast might bear down upon you in this blackness makes this just one of many petrifying sequences, though even most mundane encounters will have you sweating bullets. Call of Pripyat is not an easy game, so you need to aim well, know your weapons' strengths and weaknesses, and conserve ammo. Human opponents put up a tough fight, so running in guns blazing is a quick ticket to the afterlife. There are times when the AI's ultraproficiency seems a little too obvious. Human enemies facing away from you have the uncanny ability to notice when you peek out a window behind them and are remarkably good shots in the dead of night, even without night vision scopes equipped. But despite a bit of cheating, Call of Pripyat rarely feels unfair. It features none of Clear Sky's lame choke points and mission design issues, and the economy and weapon upgrade systems have been tweaked in sensible ways. So while you'll still make use of the quicksave and quickload keys, you never feel like the game devolves into frustrating save-game attrition.
These aren't the only improvements Call of Pripyat makes over its precursors. This is by far the most stable S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game out of the box; we didn't experience a single crash or corrupted save file, and the graphics engine performs better than ever (if not quite perfectly), even when you turn on the new DirectX 11-specific options. This update doesn't thrust the game into the forefront of cutting-edge visuals, but while low-resolution textures and clumsy animations may betray the engine's age, carefully crafted environments and all sorts of atmospheric touches make this a case in which art trumps technology. Other welcome improvements include flexible hotkeys,along with important gameplay additions, from preventative medications to the ability to roam The Zone freely once you've finished the story.
Outside of the main story, there are plenty of side quests to pursue. You'll eliminate bloodsucker nests, search for a fabled corner of paradise, and, as before, hunt for incredibly valuable artifacts hidden in the midst of various anomalies. Gathering artifacts is as tense and exciting as it ever was, requiring you to venture into a deadly anomaly that may pick you up into the air and throw you around, burn your skin to a crisp, or zap you with jolts of electricity. All the while, you must follow your detector's signal to pinpoint the artifact's location. The search is frantic, and the risk is high, which makes success oh-so-sweet. All these tasks are wrapped into a free-form package, allowing you to explore The Zone under your own terms. In fact, the vague instructions you receive from some mission providers require you to thoroughly explore every nook and cranny, from abandoned schoolhouses to derelict fuel stations. Don't expect a specific mission waypoint with every job you undertake. This is frustrating if you let it be, but it's an authentic part of Call of Pripyat's bleakness. The Zone does not allow you to tame it without a struggle.
The game isn't always so open ended, and some story missions funnel you through a few extended, linear sequences, though Call of Pripyat falters slightly here. The game spends a lot of time setting up Pripyat as home to unspeakable dangers, and a protracted journey through a long, dark series of tunnels is so nerve-racking that the reward for the effort--the city of Pripyat--is a bit of a letdown. There are fewer opportunities for boundless exploration here, fewer surprises to discover--and no typical vendors, which might lead to some unavoidable travel back to the game's two other major regions. Thankfully, this is when the story missions start to get more interesting, moving from mundane to there’s-something-freaky-going-on-here territory.
Call of Pripyat's multiplayer options, just like those of its predecessors, are routine and slightly clumsy, because the game's shooting mechanics don't work so beautifully when isolated from the context that makes them successful. But it's the chilly ambience and lifelike ecology that should lure you to the newest S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game, not the ordinary online play. Well-constructed environments and superb sound design make The Zone as cheerless and ominous as ever. But it's also rich with resources, begging you to cultivate its secrets and withstand the hostilities. Series fans and newcomers alike should don their protective gear and journey forth.