Sunday, 30 September 2012

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky - Late Verdict

Last year I wrote an article very much extolling what a great game the last in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series 'Call of Pripyat' was. Balanced, well-thought out game play, great graphics and so on. Like so many teenage and not any longer so teenage boys I absolutely love post-apocalyptic games and movies and this series falls right in there.

In the competition for time though the series lost out to the Bethesda games Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas, and their additional missions distributed as DLC (downloadable content) kept adding many more man hours to waste, err enjoy. Because of this I found myself in the unique position to be able to play the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. trilogy backwards.

I've been sitting on -and occasionally playing- the second in the series 'Clear Sky' ever since February, and this already shows that I never really got into it, unlike usually when you just can't wait to finish and go to work tired because you couldn't help playing until 3 am.
'Clear Sky' was intended as a prequel to the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - 'Shadow of Chernobyl' and also introduced more team based combat with the other characters of your ever changing party of allies controlled by AI. It reminded me a lot of Rainbow Six, only that it was infinitely better done and more balanced there. This title introduces the new faction wars and multiplayer mode to the world.

In-game characters are looking bland and members of the bandits and  renegade teams for example are wearing the same clothes and gear over and over again. There only seem to be three or four base types which makes them virtually indistiguishable, and although some of your mates from the Clear Sky faction later on while on mission in the swamps have camouflage, while at the camp they're wearing the same outfit as the renegades and by all accounts look the same.

Starting out in the swamps you're set into an extremely dull environment without much action, and the first mutants you encounter armed with only  a pistol, a basic shotgun and only 20 or so rounds of ammunition also doesn't help to spice things up. Ok, it's the swamps and how interesting could that be, but making us spend an extended length of time in this boring scenery right at the very beginning does not contribute to the atmosphere of the game and severely limited my enthusiasm after a while. Add to that the rapid onslaught of often confusing messages on screen and targets coming from the HUD and the radio and it all made me loose interest quite quickly. The display simply gets too busy.

Gameplay feels somewhat heavy and slight unresponsive, using the inventory is more cumbersome than usual, and death is quick before you even know what hit you. A high level of difficulty has been identified in several reviews and blamed for taking away some of the enjoyment, like in this review on Gamespot UK that gave it 7/10 and is also mentioned in the Wikipedia article. Even for the first in the franchise 'Shadow of Chernobyl' it was stated that the AI had to be impeded because it could have completed the game by itself, characters were non-scripted and could develop even when not in contact with the player, could heal allies and throw grenades with pinpoint accuracy. It seems for this title some of the changes were reversed and it is often puzzling how enemies could spot and hit you with accuracy from far. Worse, using medkits often doesn't stem the bleeding and even bandages which you have to take from dead bandits do not work with immediate effect but with a several second delay.

All this wouldn't be a deal breaker though if it was actually playable. Both titles have also been criticised for the high number of bugs they contain, and certainly 'Clear Sky' has more than its fair share of them. Playing on Windows 7, after the inevitable reloading 3-4 times (only) the game would stutter, exhibit extremely choppy AV, come to a halt, even exit and crash me back to the desktop. If you have to exit and restart every three reloads that pretty much kills the fun. This on the same machine that the much newer CoP ran quite well and smooth on, with fluid graphics, sound and animations. Given that specified recommendations for this one are much lower and it's two years older I would have expected better performance on a Phenom X3, 4Gb Ram and a much more capable albeit integrated video card than was around then. One possible explanation is it might not be taking advantage of the multiple cores yet, but is that enough? Low frame rates and sluggishness abound.

You will probably not have a better experience using WINE instead of a full Windows install either as descriptions of frequent crashes and no sound go, unless you don't mind playing without. As a last resort, it would be interesting to see if anybody has been able to play this to an acceptable standard on ReactOS, the free reimplementation of Windows NT that has been in alpha development since forever.

Graphically the game is not up to the standards of 'Call of Pripyat', not surprising given that this one is older and was released in September 2008, but again, coupled with everything else, it's another notch down albeit my least concern. Worse is that the atmosphere does not feel as enveloping and immersive as before and weapons and other gear feel antiquated and look rubbish.

Overall, it just feels like a not particularly well-done attempt at a squad-based tactical shooter with RPG elements.
Back then I gave CoP 5/5, or now maybe 9.5/10 on the compatibility scale.
For CS I'ld go as low as 4/10. Basically unplayable. Stay clear of 'Clear Sky'.

If you're into survival horror FPS almost any game in that genre should be better. Thinking of Metro 2033 next. Wait, this one also seems to have problems and several low ratings. 'Shadow of Chernobyl' it is then, finally.

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