Unpolished and difficult but amazingly engaging

User Rating: 8 | S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky PC
Clear Sky represents both a thorn in the side and a feather in the cap of PC gaming. It's a thorn because it's not a polished experience like many games today, it crashes, AI can be buggy (hey guys why are you looking at the ground?), patches can disallow save games from previous versions; enemies spawn in front of you. It's a feather in PC gaming's cap because it shows how ambitious gaming can be, open world gameplay, FPS mixed with RPG elements, dynamic battles, player choice and participation in a world of thick atmosphere.

When you set out to play Clear Sky you will be torn between a buggy game and an ambitious one. Part of your opinions will be formed from how lucky you are with crashes, which patches you use (I used 1.5.04 with user script fixes), how much patience you have and possibly how many times you quick save. Which actually explains the huge differences in ratings as seen in press and player reviews, players won't get the same experiences – which is also a very big positive for Clear Sky. The game is hard to review for this reason, so perhaps it's better to describe some of the experiences I had.

The big changes in Clear Sky include the factions; you can join or attempt to defeat them. Basically each faction has a home "base" which contains a variety of merchants, repair guys and quest givers. You can do a few quests for the leader and then join the faction. You can participate in faction battles, small camps or buildings scattered through the zone represent these points of constant battle of supremacy. Sometimes you'll be alone, and be told to wait for reinforcements, looking at your map you wait a further 10 minutes for them to arrive. Other times you'll have quite a few stalkers ready to storm an enemy base for capture! You can push through and overtake a factions base, which becomes yours. Eventually the originating owners will take control of it, preventing a faction from being destroyed.

Other changes include weaponry, artifact and gameplay changes. Weapons can now be repaired and heavily upgraded although it does get quite pricey. You can equip scopes and grenade launchers upgrade muzzles and grips, making a weapon suit your style. Don't be fooled though, you are still going to see quite a bit of bullet spread from early weapons in particular. Artifacts are now found using a detector, rather than sitting in the open. You pull out your detector and a pistol or bolts, and find paths through the hazardous (often instant kill) anomalies. The rewards are often good, with prices for the artifacts being high and their bonuses as in the first, helping you throughout the zone. Unfortunately one big problem with the gameplay arises from friendly stalkers physically moving you huge distances by pushing you, creating a lot of frustration in team missions and anywhere around other friendly AI, you end up trying to stay away from them.

The Zone itself is different too, you can use guides to fast travel to the capture points or bases, as time goes on it becomes quite costly to travel only a short distance. The main story quests will at some stage strip you of your weapons and money, thankfully a secondary quest ensures it only takes 10 minutes to get them back. Faction war battles are a great way to earn a bit of money fast, but it's not always safe just like artifact hunts. The game seems quite a bit harder than the original, you die quicker, and enemies are very accurate at close range. Most tricky of all though is the use of grenades from enemies. Their accuracy is incredibly high and the indicator provides not much assistance as it explodes so quickly after it lands next to your feet, the only saving grace is the relatively low shrapnel spread. You'll be running when the audio clues tell you a grenade is coming your way. The upside of this is that lots and lots of STALKERS carry grenades, which means now you have access to a huge number, either for sale or for revenge.

There are still moments of high atmosphere, walking through swamps to hear rustling in the reeds, then walking further to hear a growl. Frozen I turn around my weapon at the ready pointed in the direction of the growl, rain pours down hard around me, the crickets and frogs light up the silence. Suddenly to my right a large boar runs at me, intent for a feed, I whip my shotgun in his direction, one shot hits, but only wounds. My final shot lands in his head and he slides to a stop meters before me, I catch my breath. The game is full of many of these moments, wild dogs or zombies may give you a surprise. In one section the game plays some audio cues around the player to create a bit of false atmosphere, which becomes deadly when a real bloodsucker gets up in your face in the pitch black of night.

There is quite a bit of downtime and trekking across barren wastelands, but the game specifically tailors to those people who like to just take a quest, and roam about. You get satisfaction from planning a journey, taking risks and missions that may give good bonuses. It may not be the best choice just to rush through following the primary story quests without doing much adventuring. Not just because they can be fairly mediocre quests in themselves but because you need to be immersed in the game and it doesn't happen when you are just following a yellow arrow and not thinking much about the world around you and what you can do in it. The last few "missions" in particular are unbalanced - featuring spawning enemies, small linear levels and generic trigger based action. This ultimately means it completely ruins just about all it established in the previous 10-15 hours of gameplay. Luckily enough the end drab missions aren't too long so you aren't in pain for an extended time.

Of course the game doesn't help you when you are trying to get sucked in, one example might be constant quests involving defence of an outpost from mutants, five minutes after your last successful fend off, you are given the same quest, "perhaps you should let them all die", you mutter to yourself but begrudgingly rush over and save the day. Then there are the weird spawning oddities, emissions may cause stalkers to disappear, and then reappear after it ends, as if they were invisible all along. What about an outpost that is being invaded by a single snork, seems fairly harmless? You dispose of him and instantly six bandits spawn right in front of you, fire at you immediately as you try to run with bullets slowing your progress before you become another casualty of The Zone.

The game is quite beautiful when its given room to breathe, a gentle graphical upgrade of SHOC. Sun rays peer through the wispy trees in the crisp morning, anomalies look more hazardous than ever and emissions are severely engrossing. There aren't many underground sections in Clear Sky sadly, although they were linear they enhanced atmosphere and broke up the open gameplay. The upside is that GSC seem to have done more with the game space and added more detail to the landscapes, short trips can often reveal more than you might expect. Many of these hidden locales might not be seen if you follow the main quests. Better yet, the loot – artifacts, weapons, armor – keep you on the steady improve throughout the main story arc.

There is a lot of Clear Sky to like for me; when it works you are seeing things that have improved over SHOC, but when it doesn't you will see CS as something worse. Newer patches will fix bugs and people who are patient will be able to get through. It's an unorthodox game, like stalker, you have to push passed its faults and then savour those moments in the dark, alone. Clear Sky pushes the franchise closer to its potential than ever - just don't focus on the "main" missions too much. Most importantly games like Clear Sky are fairly rare, so if you can enjoy it you should really enjoy every bit of it. It's just a pity GSC didn't spend a few more months in the QA stage, everybody would have been better for it.