Header
S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky

Game: S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky
Developer: GSC Game World
Publisher(s): GSC World Publishing/Deep Silver
Year: September 2008
Reviewed: April 2012
Platform: PC
Game Type: Single Player FPS/RPG Survival Horror
Author: VaLkrR-Assassin

I’ll start this review by saying that I had serious reservations about even buying a Stalker game, let alone playing it, and then completing it! Due to it being in the bargain bins now, I decided on an impulse purchase of Clear Sky, the ‘prequel’ to the first game, Shadow of Chernobyl. There is a clue in the original game's title as to where in the world this game is based.

Lebedev suffers from extreme flatulence (click to see larger image)
Lebedev suffers from extreme flatulence (click to see larger image)

The Stalker games start off many years later after the original nuclear accident in Chernobyl, around the current year roughly. They involve an area called the ‘Zone’, whereby there is a barrier all around setup to keep people out, and more importantly all the nasty mutants that live there, in. Of course, in real life there is an exclusion zone of sorts around the power plant, and the nearby town of Pripyat, in the Ukraine. Fortunately though, that is just to keep people away from dangerous levels of radiation in some areas. No mutants or other nasty things that the game includes for its fantasy setting.

In the zone, people called Stalkers are allowed to patrol around to gather things of scientific worth, and also anything of general monetary value that could be sold to collectors in the outside world. The name partially comes from in real life, where tourists to the ‘Zone’ were said to be called Stalkers, and also from a film made a few years before the accident even happened, which the game is loosely based upon.

While you were generally alone in the original Stalker, in Clear Sky, there are various factions that you can join, and then if you want, fight with towards controlling certain points on the map. At the start of the game, you begin with a faction called Clear Sky, which aims to understand the Zone and research it. Throughout the Zone, there have been strange radioactive emissions, so powerful they affect the whole area.

STOP: Darkness ahead.
STOP: Darkness ahead.

At various points in the game, you’ll have to find cover from these powerful emissions and it becomes a race against time to find shelter, but for the most part your main enemies are in the form of radioactive anomalies and other humans. The anomalies are scattered randomly throughout the countryside, and while it becomes easy to recognise them in daylight, trying to navigate at night becomes a nightmare, as it is easy to go running into one, and before you know it, you’re fully irradiated, and unless you have anti radiation drugs on you, your life is effectively over very soon afterwards.

Most of the time, the majority of humans in the game are neutral towards you, and will not attack, the only starting factions that will attack you are the Ukrainian military and a group of renegade stalkers. It is best to remain peaceful with as many of these factions as possible, because if you start off a war with any of them, your progress through the Zone becomes very difficult. The only initial faction that is neutral and worth starting a fight with are bandits, as they tend to try and steal your equipment off you anyway, and as a relatively small group that is enemies with every other faction, they make good fodder for getting weapons, ammo, med kits, and other goodies you can either keep or sell to traders.

When first hearing about the game including radioactive areas and mutants, you would expect these mutants to appear a lot in the game, but even though you do see various wild mutated packs of dogs, and other humanoid mutants, they are relatively rare to come across, which is good, because when you do see them, there is usually a big group of them to deal with.

Fortunately this mutant had been previously attacked by a taxidermist.
Fortunately this mutant had been previously attacked by a taxidermist.

The humanoid mutants you see in the game mainly appear later on, with ones that leap huge distances at you, and can tear you to shreds very quickly. There are also ‘zombified’ stalkers that have lost their minds, and will shoot at you, but they are quite rare and only generally located in one sub-map of the game world.

General game-play is centred on basic survival, you have to get from point A to B, and that means crossing terrain filled with plenty of creatures, humans, and environmental hazards. The game tries to make things more real to life, like having a weight penalty that means you quickly become tired and have to rest often when running. You also can’t jump too much, as you’ll feel exhausted all too quickly. This is one game where you can’t just run and hop you way around, gunning everything you see, because you’ll quickly learn the hard way that the game just isn’t that forgiving. You’ll soon end up running low on ammo, your protective clothing becomes damaged, and your weapons start to jam in the middle of a fire-fight. To gain items, it most often requires killing something else, so in a way, you have to spend some resources to gain more overall.

Feeling a bit fuzzy. Must have been all that vodka I drank....
Feeling a bit fuzzy. Must have been all that vodka I drank....

There are a small number of humans that will trade major items like weapons, health-packs, and protective clothing, and everyone else will at least trade food and drink with you. To get through the game, you’ll find it is best to gather up as much as you can scavenge, and sell it all barring a couple of chosen weapons for keeping. Money is hard to come by in the zone, so this needs to be done often, and besides, the weight limit for carrying items will soon be reached, so it’s best to sell off things before that happens before having to make a decision between items to keep or drop.

Side quests can be completed for various stalkers, and very rarely, you might be given an item of value to keep, such as a weapon, but most rewards come in the form of money that is unfortunately only dispensed from the HQ of a given faction, which often means a long trek back through hazardous zones to collect it. You also receive some money from completing the main quest at various points, but this money needs to be supplemented with the side quest money and item scavenging, otherwise you’ll just struggle later on in the main quest when things start getting very tough. Unlike in the original Stalker game, you don’t need to sleep, and not eating food doesn’t make you hungry, but food can sometimes be helpful for providing a small health boost when you are running low on medical supplies.

If you go down to the woods today......
If you go down to the woods today......

Weapons that you find, as well as armour, can be upgraded in various ways, and it is up to you to decide the best way to spend what little money you have. Some of the very best items don’t appear until much later in the game, and so most of the time, and due to lack of funds anyway, you’ll be making do with what you have from around a quarter of the way through the game and onwards. As mentioned before, things can wear down, and this can cause issues in heavy combat, so you’ll need to repair items whenever you have the funds available to do it.

The missions in the game generally involve sending you on a wild goose chase to various hazardous points, and engaging yourself in combat with something or someone that you’d rather avoid, and the side quests are pretty much simple collection and retrieval missions, so there isn’t much to overly excite people.

Conversations can be had with everyone who is friendly, but very few actually respond with anything other than a set of basic, overly used responses, so it’s not a major part of the game. Sometimes you do have a choice in what reply you give, and on a couple of occasions, this will affect how the main quest plays out, as it involves choosing whether to fight with a friend, or go it alone; a response only the best players should consider taking.

He lives in a house, a very big house in the country
He lives in a house, a very big house in the country

The game world itself is also quite grim, and that might put some people off of playing, as early in the game, you can just end up feeling both utterly hopeless and depressed at the thought of what lays ahead of you. The Zone does look graphically nice, and unlike the Fallout games where brown and dead seems to be the order of the day, the Zone is positively teaming with life, and looks just as lush as you would expect that part of the world to be, given all the rain that pours down almost daily. Buildings are generally in ruins, as you would expect, and there are various vehicles, a lot of which that are military in origin, strewn across the landscape. Considering the years of decay though, they do seem a little too well preserved! The weather can vary from sunny partly cloudy skies to a powerful and spectacular thunderstorm, and the lighting in both situations is very good and creates a good changeable atmosphere in the game. There is a day and night cycle, but one drawback mentioned earlier is that you can’t sleep, and it’s a shame because navigating at night time is so hard because when it goes dark, it really does go very dark! Texturing seems to be of good quality for a game a few years old, and at no point was I presented with any ugly or blurred textures.

Unfortunately, the game suffers from some lighting bugs by default, and considering so many people have encountered the lighting issues, it is surprising that they weren’t eventually patched. These issues were overcome eventually, but it is something that just shouldn’t have been there in the first place. One of the issues involved a big dark shadow following your character around, which is noticeable, at most points during daylight. Another is a banding or shimmering of shadows on walls from the sunlight, and it did make the game look uglier than it should have been until I came across some different values I could input into one of the games configuration files.

The effects of Vodka strike again
The effects of Vodka strike again

Another issue that happened quite a few times is a crash to black screen, which generally seemed to happen when I tried to quick-load after dying in combat. Throughout the game, which took me around 28 hours to complete (and I didn’t do every single side quest, as they seemed too boring!) I must have had at least a dozen crashes in this way. There is also an issue at the very start of the game, which can cause the game to fail completely by not triggering an event, and any game save after that point becomes corrupted, causing the same crash to black screen issue. I had to restart the game completely to get it working again, but luckily, it was only after about 15 minutes or less of game time, so not too much to redo, but still annoying nonetheless. A lot of people would have been put off continuing altogether with major bugs cropping up so early in the game, so it was relieving that, besides the quick-load crashes which I admit were still quite rare considering the amount of play time, that there weren’t any other major bugs worth noting. Occasionally I saw the odd human get stuck in a walking animation while standing on the spot, but stuff like that is often more funny to look at than being a real annoyance.

Summary

Goodness gracious great balls of.....of.....what the hell are those???!!
Goodness gracious great balls of.....of.....what the hell are those???!!

Stalker: Clear Sky is a game for a proper PC enthusiast, with a game world that punishes you for trying to rush into things. You need to take things at a slow deliberate pace, and you are not spoon fed information and directions all the time, although thankfully things are usually clearly marked on a map, but the route to get to those locations isn’t as simple as being a straight line or following a dotted path. This is no hands-holding game like a lot of modern console-orientated shooters have become, and so in a way, it is refreshing to be tested in such a way, as you have to plan your route to destinations, and make decisions on how much to use items, because you can’t just fire away relentlessly at your foe, you need to preserve your weapons, ammo, and ‘armour’. Even playing the game on its easiest setting, the game can be incredibly tough, and I did wonder at various points in the game whether I’d ever be able to finish it, especially at the end, when the toughness factor goes into overdrive.

For all the grimness and hopelessness of the game world, it is an interesting world to look at and explore, despite being limited to just the odd scattered ruined house, and plenty of trees and grass. I still found it enjoyable to just look around at the landscape, because amongst all the misery, there is beauty to be found.

The game is a solid first person shooter combined with RPG elements that work generally well, even if they can cause frustration at times. Survival is also a key element to game-play too, as it isn’t all about shooting things, as it is often best to avoid combat altogether. The one thing I was surprised about was the lack of ‘horror’ though, as I expected the game to be much scarier than it was. In the end, the game world feels relatively safe in this regard because you most often fight enemies you know, in the form of humans. Mutants, particularly the really nasty ones, are quite rare, and I think the ratio of mutants to humans compared to the first game has changed a lot. So for all the people out there looking for a fright, there are very few times in the game when you’ll genuinely feel any dread. Enemy AI is generally quite strong, and will keep you thinking, as they duck, hide behind things, and sneak up behind you while others distract you. It is very rare for an enemy to simply charge at you, and when it does happen, it’s usually too late to react as it means they’ve successfully evaded your view until the last moment possible.

No one leaves work until I say so.
No one leaves work until I say so.

I commend the game for providing a world that requires an intelligent approach to game-play, and while the story itself isn’t completely gripping, and quite weak overall, the action and exploration is good enough to keep you going. I just wish that when talking to characters, you got more information about the game world you are in, because while some responses can be lengthy, they still don’t really explain much of why the Zone is what it is, and why you should even care about the fate of the Zone, beyond the fact that one guy thinks the big radioactive emissions might start spreading to the world outside the Zone. For anyone like me who hasn’t played the first Stalker game, it feels like a lot of information which could have been included has been left out. The main quest itself seems to go from one place to another in a confusing way, and I never really understood much of what was going on until nearer the end, and even then, looking back, the plot seems muddled and not very clear. The ending video that plays also feels a bit meaningless for me, as I thought it meant one thing, but from what I’ve seen it means something else, and ties loosely into the start of the original game. For these reasons, and the bugs, I have to mark the game down, but that shouldn’t detract too much from the game, as the game is still good enough to hold your attention and keep you wanting to play, if only just for completions sake and to say you survived the zone!

Game-play: Good 4/5
Story: Weak, could be better, but ok 1.5/5
Graphics/Effects: Some nice effects, lush game world 4/5
Sound: Thunder sounds scary, as do the growls and howls at night 4/5
Save System: Save anywhere, unlimited save slots 5/5
Stability: Lighting bugs, save game bugs, but generally ok 3/5

Arbitrary Final Score: 3.5 stars

If you like this, you might also like: Stalking people, sterilising yourself through radiation

Have you gone into melt-down while reading this review? Let us know in the forum!