Since Valve have so graciously offered S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl for 5 'bucks' via Steam, I'm prompted to write a review I've intended to do for some time. Though of the sequel, Clear Sky.
Clear Sky does what many sequels do when succeeding a very good, albeit flawed game, and that is to improve upon many of the elements that annoyed the merry sh*te out of you in the original, while also neglecting the some of the cooler parts that endeared you. Oh and then there's the gimmick.
I suppose the gimmick is the first part to address, and in following the S.T.A.L.K.E.R method, it is both very cool and annoyingly flawed. Factional Warfare is the name of said gimmick and is essentially that, there are several factions and you pick a side to fight for. It's rather fun. Your first instance of the factional warfare element will be early on, between the Clear Sky and the Bandits. More of a tutorial to the concept to prepare you for the proper thing later on, it is done reasonably well. You essentially capture and hold ground, defend when being attacked and 'victory' is achieved upon taking the opposition's base.
You will receive various radio messages from your comrades in arms, with updates on the tactical situation. This is where the 'flawed' part of the factional warfare comes into play. You can suddenly be greeted by anguished screams of, “Where are you, we're being slaughtered!” only to receive another message in around 20 seconds explaining that the attack was repelled. Approaching the attacked position often reveals that the enemy consisted of one bandit with a rusty pistol against your SMG armed peeps. Though this situation is not always the case, indeed the enemy attacks can be quite intense, but often enough you're sprinting half way across a map to reinforce you men only to find them repelling the attack with relative ease.
There are many other annoyances that crop up during the factional warfare and I'm going to explain one more, which made me facepalm when it first happened, though it ultimately turned out to be a good thing. I'd decided to take part in conflict between the Duty and Freedom factions. I chose Freedom, as Duty came across as a bunch of jarheads. After hours of slow advance, defend and repeat I'd gotten to their base. Just me. All my other friends were either dead or defending check points. But no matter, I set upon my grisly work with methodical precision, eliminating all sentries before cautiously clearing all the buildings. I'd finally eliminated their commander and received a victory message, I even w00ted.
Now, what was left of the Duty forces in the base were a lot of dead bodies and a helleva lot of guns. So naturally I set about looting everything, excited about the prospect of receiving enough cash from this haul to support me through most of the game. There was a neutral base in the same area, so I loaded up with as much loot as I could carry, leaving much for the next trip and trekked over to the other base of sell my sh*t. I was overjoyed with the monies I received and started the walk back to the Duty base. Upon reaching the perimeter I was greeting by a hail of gunshots and a radio message from the Freedom commander explaining that the Duty forces had retaken the base and all the check points in the area. In the five minutes it took me to walk to the neutral base.
*facepalm and ragequit*
However when my rage had subsided I started the game up again and decided to see what had happened. To give them their due, the game designers executed this part quite well. By maintaining their gimmick of factional warfare but without destroying everything you'd achieved. Basically when you're taking part in the actual warfare event, the opposition constantly attacks you, a balance of attack and defense is required. However, when the event 'resets' as it did suddenly with me, the opposing faction cease actively attacking you, and only reinforce their home territory. This means that the Freedom faction's home area, as well as the disputed territory were firmly under my factions control. In retrospect I like this, as it means you can pew pew some Duty guys if you wish and receive a constant supply of loot from wiping out the re-spawning guards at the checkpoints. Though it would have been preferable if perhaps the re-capture of the Duty base occurred after a game day, rather than five damn minutes.
Any who have played the first game will attest of it's ruthless and unforgiving style. You die in S.T.A.L.K.E.R games. A lot. That is still very much present in Clear Sky, with the end game being particularly unrelenting. The accuracy of the guns has always been a love/hate relationship with me; I hate the fact that I sometimes cannot hit someone in the face even at close range, but in the same vein it's kinda enjoyable to fire a few shots from behind cover to take someone down, before diving behind it again. What I enjoyed about both games is that it's not that the enemies have kevlar where their skin should be, but rather that they're, almost, as tough as you are. This makes for some very tense moments.
Now now, speaking of tense. There are some wonderfully atmospheric moments in the first game. Genuinely creepy parts that, when combined with it's unforgiving nature, amount to very tense and scary scenes. This is what led me to scratch my head after finishing Clear Sky. It's not that the game doesn't have the scenes in it, it's just that there are only about a fraction compared to the first and those that are present seem awfully rushed. It was quite a shame, as the creepy atmospheric bits in the first were the most memorable.
Akin to games like the Elder Scrolls series and Fallout, there's a lot of scavenging to be done in Clear Sky, and when compared to the original, this has taken an interesting turn. Namely that ammo is everywhere, but other more mundane items from the first game are in short supply. And by other items, I'm mainly pointing towards bandages. Bleeding is an important status effect in both games, and both can be cured with bandages and some med-kits. However, whereas in the original game bandages where carried by every lootable corpse you encountered and bleeding would eventually stop, in Clear Sky this has been horribly reversed. Gone is the steady supply of bandages and even worse, bleeding just keeps getting more serious, requiring more of your precious bandages to cure.
Bleeding isn't dire earlier on in the game, the enemies having standard ammo and balanced guns. However, in the later stages all enemy ammo is armor piercing and they have scopes on everything. Which translates to you trudging forward in your armored exoskeleton believing yourself to be some kind of walking tank, only to find that you might as well be wearing papier mache. You will get hit a lot and bleed out often. It's painful. You'll weep.
I do wonder if reading this review, you will be turned off by Clear Sky. Yes it is unforgiving, and yes there are some elements which were cool that have for some unholy reason been removed. But after all that, the game is still really enjoyable. It's so refreshing to find a game that doesn't hold your hand, that is a lot like the old school console games that would punish you for some slight mistake. Completing Clear Sky is a rewarding achievement. So if you enjoy a painfully challenging and awesome experience, pick it up.
After you've downloaded the first from Steam of course.
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