S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky (PC)
GSC Game World's S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky is a lot like hanging out with your relatives over the holidays: You find yourself having a better time than you expected, but every once in a while something happens that makes you think, "Why am I here?"
OK, forgive the lame pre-Thanksgiving analogy, but while this prequel to the 2 million unit-selling S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is for the most part a gratifyingly gritty first-person shooter, it suffers from a few glaring issues that can mar the experience.
Published by Deep Silver, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky once again paints a "what-if" scenario that surrounds a disastrous second Chernobyl nuclear power plant incident in 2006. In the year 2011, one full year before the events in Shadow of Chernobyl, you play as Scar, a mercenary who braves the irradiated sectors of the Zone to survive amongst warring factions and bizarre anomalies. Along with taking down rabid creatures and avoiding mysterious emissions called "burnouts," which look like heat shimmering off asphalt, you'll begin to interact with various factions and hear about their plight before deciding which side to fight on.
As with its predecessor, the game is played from a first-person perspective, which helps with the fear factor, and as with most other shooters you'll toggle between available weapons -- such as knife, pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, grenades, bazooka and sniper rifles -- with the mouse's middle scroll wheel or by tapping one of the numbers on the keyboard. But unlike the original game, Clear Sky offers a role-playing game-like twist that also lets you repair or upgrade weapons by visiting key people in their base. Early in the game, you also get a fancy PDA that displays info such as mission objectives, past dialogue and an overhead map that shows bases, enemies, points of interest and even the location of artifacts (think power-ups) that can enhance your performance in a myriad of ways. Some of this information might be too much if you prefer to explore and discover on your own, rather than be spoon-fed, but you don't need to glance at your PDA if you don't want to.
Most of the locations are outdoors and include swamps, wooded areas, abandoned farms, burned-out buildings surrounded by barbed wire, lookout towers, a demolished hospital, streets and heavily guarded bases. Some of these areas will be familiar to Shadow of Chernobyl players. Your main missions are usually assigned from within your faction base and will be fairly clear: escort someone to this point, stifle the resistance, take down the helicopter, or retrieve such-and-such artifact or other items. But you'll often come across a non-player character, perhaps on a darkened road, who may ask you to perform a task such as distract an enemy while others flank its squad, or trade information for a med kit.
The artificial intelligence is particularly good, as events usually don't play out the same way twice --you'll see this often if you don't save the game regularly (see below). Skirmishes can break out differently between rival factions, and enemies will try different ways to take you down (be it tossing grenades or running a half-circle around you while firing a rifle). Mutants will attack from different angles in one game or leave you alone in another. You might notice small touches, like allies who strum a guitar by a roaring campfire and then get up and walk around. There are some scripted events, but the majority of the game is free-form.
While the improved AI adds to the game's believability, it's also plagued with technical bugs that take away from it. Clipping and collision detection problems mean that a character might walk through another or through a wall, or slowly push another character across the ground as he walks into him. Characters will walk in thin air, about a half-foot above the stairs they're supposed to walk on. You can get stuck in odd crevices with no way to get loose.
But before you download the 56 MB patch to repair some of these graphic glitches, be forewarned: Installing this sucker will delete your saved games (I found out the hard way). This is too bad, because the game's DirectX 10-supported graphics are one of its strongest merits until you see someone with half a leg stuck in a rock or doorway. Therefore, take heed and install the patch before you begin to play the game.
Another issue is the lack of an auto-save feature; it's up to you to manually save the game in case you bite the bullet. And this can happen anytime, such as when you're peering through your binoculars and suddenly see yourself face-down on the ground in third-person, with the "You Are Killed" message. Great.
Clear Sky can also be played online with up to 32 players. Along with the usual Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are two other multiplayer modes: Capture the Artifact (steal the enemy's artifact and bring it back to your base) and my favorite, Artifact Hunt, in which players are split into two groups, Stalkers and Mercenaries, and you must deliver an artifact to your team's base before your opponent does the same. You can upgrade your rank by playing well in online games, and thus unlock better equipment, weapons and weapon abilities (faster firing rate, higher accuracy and so on). Earn money to buy items by fragging others, killing with headshots, finding cash, and (depending on the mode) bringing artifacts back to the base.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky isn't a bad way to spend $40, but you should probably wait -- as with the first game -- for a number of the bugs to be addressed, by way of downloadable patches, before picking up this impressive shooter. The clever RPG elements (mixed with tactical and survival horror elements), expansive environments and high replayability (with the ability to join a different faction each time) make this action game worth trying out for PC fans. It's just too bad it shipped before it was properly tested and fixed, which might hurt its chances of becoming a fall hit.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.