Taking all the best features of Clear Sky, Pripyat is a rock solid Stalker sequel that leaves no gaps in its armor vest.
Now, before I continue let me say that I've always been the type of hardcore elitist gamer that frowns upon any "dumbing down" of my games and considers any compromise made to accommodate new players to be not only unforgivable but an immediate sign that the game will be put on my "no buy" list. Removing even the slightest bit of a game's complexity or shortening it sends me into the kind of catatonic fit that is usually reserved for mental patients or spoiled celebrities. If a new iteration of an established game series refuses to stay true to its roots and maintain the size and depth of its earlier chapters I consider the sequel to be a failure.
Yet, in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat's case, I think I'm going to be forced to eat my own words.
When the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Shadow of Chernobyl, hit shelves in 2007 it was everything your typical Eastern European (In this case, actually Ukrainian) game was expected to be. It was notoriously buggy, highly difficult and running on an unoptimized homemade graphics engine. Though like its other foreign made siblings, it was also supremely detailed, incredibly complex, genre-redefining, refreshingly non-linear and as ambitious as a game can be without having a budget the size of its nation's GDP. It was a hybrid Shooter/RPG that, unlike other games in this crowded sub-genre, never scaled back its ranged combat and instead embraced the unbalanced power of the modern FPS head shot.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R., even though it was billed as a shooter, was a game that required an obsessive amount of item scrounging and NPC questing. So much in fact that I felt its target audience, mainly hardcore FPS fiends, were turned off by the slow pacing and extremely large open world areas. Most of your time was spent skulking through the dark and evading life-ending anomalies as you dug through the foliage searching for pricey artifacts like a pig rubbing its snout in the ground looking for truffles. It was a game that only fans of both slow-paced exploration heavy RPGs like Fallout and Oblivion could appreciate, and even then they would have to be comfortable with a combat system that played host to enemy A.I. that could pull off head shots about as effectively as it did throwing uncannily accurate grenades.
You can therefore imagine my shock when I saw how much simpler Call of Pripyat was compared to the two previous S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games.
It doesn't surprise me to see many longtime fans of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. turned off by Pripyat. I've heard many of their gripes and have to say that they aren't without merit. Call of Pripyat is, to borrow a phrase I once used for Fallout 3, "Made palatable for the average gamer".
Now before you bring out your torches and pitchforks, let me state for the record that this isn't a bad thing. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s case, this is actually the best thing to happen to the series.
Though S.T.A.L.K.E.R. ranks right below Deus Ex and No One Lives Forever 2 as my third favorite FPS of all time, it wasn't without its annoyances. First of all, the game was far too large for its own good. With vehicles having been removed from the game during its development it was left to the player to walk all the way to and from each quest location. With the option for fast travel not present (Guides were later introduced in the second game, but they didn't quite solve the problem), it meant that some quests required a walk of 30 minutes or more of real world time to complete. It was so bad that I would avoid half the game's side quests due to me being sick and tired of backtracking 4 zones south of where the quest giver was because I didn't feel like spending the better part of an afternoon holding down the "W" key.
Other gripes such as the over abundance of re-spawning bandits, annoying "USB Flash Drive" quests, cluttered user interface and the god-awful faction system that filled your quest log up with whiny pleas from your mentally handicapped allies only succeeded in adding more reasons why the average gamer couldn't get into the series.
Perhaps in response to this, GSC Game World has made Call of Pripyat a streamlined, trimmed, scaled-down and fully realized S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game that nearly everyone can enjoy.
Storywise, Call of Pripyat has you playing as Ukrainian Secret Service agent Alexander Degtyarev, a man forced to go undercover and disguise himself as a stalker in order to infiltrate the area and find out why the army's five Stingray helicopters mysteriously crashed en route to the center of the zone. Taking place not long after the events in the first game (Clear Sky being merely being a prequel), the major factions within the zone have mostly set aside their differences for the time being and are focusing on forcing their way through the Monolith-controlled urban environment of Pripyat in an effort to explore the zone's lucrative and mostly unexplored center area.
Though the story moves slowly and the payoff doesn't come until the very end, this is typical of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, and citing this as a detriment, like some have, isn't exactly fair. Like most things in this game, the story has been trimmed for a reason. That reason being that sometimes it's better to get the basics right then to try and add a ton of new features like Clear Sky did.
Pripyat, compared to the other two S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, is extremely small. So small that its three "zones", when combined, are probably about as large as one third of the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s entire game world. However, it's this small land mass that makes Pripyat such a wonderful sequel. Instead of spreading out a couple "points of interest" in each zone the way the previous two games did, Call of Pripyat squeezes dozens of quest locations in each of its three play areas, resulting in a much more robust and exciting world that doesn't fall prey to that old "empty, meaningless" feeling that so much of the first two game's landmass was full of. In Pripyat, nearly every nook and cranny of the game world has something in it to see. Though there are only three main maps compared to the previous games eleven, each of the three zones are absolutely overflowing with things to do and see. It's also worth noting that the newly shrunk down zone makes the trips to and from quest destinations a much more bearable and effortless affair that rarely requires more than a minute of walking.
This mantra of efficiency is most evident in the way anomalies and the artifacts that reside in them have been handled. In the two previous S.T.A.L.K.E.R. titles, anomalies were seemingly placed on the map at random and most of them were off the beaten path and required the player to do a little bit of roaming around until you stumbled upon them. In Pripyat however, all of the game's anomalies are marked on your map and can be mined for artifacts without having to spend an hour looking around for them. While this might anger the hardcore S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fans, I found it to be a refreshing change of pace and a valuable time saver when compared to the haphazard discovery of anomalies in the previous games.
Also following the new streamlined rules of gameplay would be the weapon and armor upgrade system. Until now, upgrading your gear meant finding a technician who specialized in your particular piece of equipment and then somehow finding the one magical little stash that had a USB drive with that item's third set of improvement plans on it. Needless to say, it was an annoying and unnecessarily complicated system that required back tracking to each of the game's technicians until you found the guy who could fulfill your upgrade request as well as sniffing through expensive-to-purchase stash locations that may or may not have your upgrade plans in them.
Well you can forget about all of that since Call of Pripyat only requires you find a set of tools for each of the game's three tiers of upgrades. The first two can easily be found within five hours of hardcore play, making upgrading a mostly hassle free affair. The only downside to this is that your final set of tools, which unlock the final tier of weapon and armor upgrades, doesn't come until the very last moments of the game.
Furthering the whole "slimmed down" approach GSC Game World has taken with Pripyat is the complete removal of the faction system. While you are given a chance to choose between Duty and Freedom via a certain quest concerning a PDA full of sensitive data, it doesn't result in the same endless and time consuming battles that the previous game was full of. All it really does is decide what items the barman in Yanov will offer to sell you.
Though some fans may scoff at the simplified upgrade system, lack of faction play, conveniently marked anomaly fields and the smallish world, there's one thing that I doubt anyone could find fault with...
The user interface.
While Clear Sky made an honest effort in improving the lackluster user interface used in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, I always felt like I was fighting against it. Comparing currently equipped items to newly found items was made easier in the second game, but there was still quite a bit of room for improvement. Thankfully, In Call of Pripyat, there is a very clear red/green bar that shows you exactly what statistical differences each piece of equipment has when compared to the one you're using. Also, when mousing-over a gun, all bullets and attachments which are compatible with that weapon are highlighted in both your backpack screen as well as any NPC's inventory. Add in the fact that you can place medkits and anti-rad medicine in a series of four "Belt" slots that correspond to the F1 to F4 keys and you have the kind of easy to manage interface that you'd expect from a mainstream developer like Bethesda or Blizzard. Out of all the Pripyat's changes, I was happy to see the interface end up being the best.
By now you're probably sensing a pattern. Nearly everything people found cumbersome in the previous games has either been simplified or cut entirely from Pripyat. While it's expected to see this sort of change within the interface, I never expected it to be found in the combat system.
Oh, combat is still as vicious as ever and full of the same level of challenge you've come to expect in this series...the only difference is that you mainly fight mutants instead of humans.
Up until now, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has reserved battles against mutant enemies for the rare moments when you are within Chernobyl's many underground facilities and even then they are usually sandwiched between protracted firefights with heavily armed and predictable military men. In Pripyat, however, you spend the vast majority of the game fighting mutants and won't experience much gun-to-gun combat until the final area where you once again get to murder a few platoons worth of brainwashed Monolith soldiers.
This actually works splendidly, since it was the fights against Bloodsuckers and Controllers that truly made S.T.A.L.K.E.R. stand out amongst all of the other hybrid shooters that have come after it. Not the splicers of Bioshock nor the homicidal bandits of of Borderlands could ever hope to match the level of terror a camouflaged bloodsucker in a dark hallway can elicit in a player. Though the two new enemies, the super strong "force-push" using Burer and the extraordinarily fast Chimera thankfully manage to live up to the game's high standard.
As you've probably figured out by now, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat is a condensed form of the previous games that takes most of the content and advances introduced in Clear Sky and shoehorns it into a smaller, tighter package. While I feel it has actually made this game better than its forebears, it does create a few downsides.
First of all, the game is terribly short. Even if you go out of your way to complete every quest you'll probably hit the ending at around the 15 to 20 hour mark, which is about half of what it took me to go through Shadow of Chernobyl on my first trip. Granted, most of your time in the first two games was spent sprinting from one end of the game world to the other on random quests, so the condensed nature of Pripyat and its easily found and traveled to destinations are a nice change of pace for exhausted S.T.A.L.K.E.R. veterans.
Secondly, good equipment is far too easy to come by. Partly due to the over abundance and ease of locating artifacts its quite possible to hit 100K in cash within the first couple hours of gameplay. Filling an artifact order for the barman can net you anywhere between 15 to 40K in rubles, making money almost as devalued as it was in the first S.T.A.L.K.E.R. This is a situation made even worse by the return of everyone's favorite slacker, Nimble, who will sell you end-game quality equipment for some very reasonable prices. The fact that you can buy an FN-F2000 after only two hours of play is a bit unbalancing, especially since the huge amount of money you can scam from the game removes that guns only hurdle to new players, that being the expensive ammo.
Last, and perhaps least bothersome on this list is the rushed ending. The final area, Pripyat itself, ends rather quickly and is nothing more than a fancy shooting gallery. It felt like the designers were deep in crunch mode and figured they needed to end the game quickly to meet their projected release date, so they cut the last area short and shipped the game as is. It's not a terrible deficiency like so many other fans claim it to be, but it does leave a foul taste in your mouth. This is somewhat remedied by the fact that you are given the option to continue your game after beating the story, a nice little addition that was once added by Artistpavel's "Complete Mod" for Shadow of Chernobyl and helps tack on another 5 to 10 hours or so to an already enjoyable game.
At the end of the day, Call of Pripyat is probably best described as "The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game for people who don't like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.". Maybe I'm being a bit presumptuous, but with the smoother difficulty curve, intuitive user interface, ease of play and tighter focus it's probably going to bring in enough fans to finally make S.T.A.L.K.E.R. a household name. Though I'm normally angered by these kind of compromises that are made to sequels in an effort to make them more attractive to non-fans, in this one case it seems to have actually worked to a game's benefit. Call of Pripyat is everything that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is meant to be, only without all the aggravation or wasted time players of Clear Sky and Shadow of Chernobyl are accustomed to. In Pripyat, you can focus on exploring the densely packed zones rather than waiting through several loading screens as you make a half hour trek to your disappointingly distant quest targets.
Though, as I said, if you enjoyed the overwhelming size and length of the previous games, you may walk away from Pripyat feeling cheated. I wouldn't blame those gamers either, though I think even they'd agree that many of the changes here (such as the GUI improvements, the new upgrade system and the new 4th level "svarog" anomaly detector just to name a few) need to be carried over into any potential sequels.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat is the most complete and enjoyable game of the series, and though nostalgia just BARELY keeps me from placing this game above Shadow of Chernobyl on my all-time list, I believe that Pripyat is a much better starting point for gamers new to the series than the other two. It is, without a doubt, the best shooter I've played so far this year and an early contender for my own personal game of the year. With the entire S.T.A.L.K.E.R. modding community putting their cross-hairs on this game it can safely be said that it will only get better as time goes on.