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 Stalker: Clear Sky is filled with Challenging Gunplay 
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Post Stalker: Clear Sky is filled with Challenging Gunplay
Stalker: Clear Sky is filled with Challenging Gunplay
by: Sandra Prior

The Russian barman, an employee of a sinister militaristic protest group, for, some reason unknown to me speaks with an assumed Jamaican accent. This is even more hideous than it sounds. He's unerringly cheerful, talks about smoking ganja and plays loud dub records. All this while dressed in an anti-radiation survival suit, as the howls of unspeakably twisted beasts echo in the dark night outside.

There are two possible explanations for this anachronism. One, the barman works in the Zone, a grim and vicious wasteland populated by murders and mutants. To drown out this sanity-sapping and utterly terrible reality, he's constructed for himself an elaborate fantasy that he's actually on a Caribbean beach, serving pina coladas to rich tourists, which makes a certain sense.

Alternatively, this sequel/prequel to the awesomely atmospheric FPS, STALKER Shadow of Chernobyl simply doesn't recognize what made the first game great: its atmosphere. It's riddled with painfully wacky humor and cartoon voice work like that incongruous Jafaican barman, ritually ripping the post-apocalyptic, survival mood right out of Clear Sky. It’s just one hint to a terrible possible truth: that perhaps it was American publisher THQ’s interference with Stalker’s messy half-decade gestation that saw it turn out so well, against all odds.

This time around, Ukranian developer GSC was relatively unfettered, and, well, perhaps fetter is better after all. Unhappily, Clear Sky is hugely inferior to Shadow of Chernobyl. First, context. Clear Sky was supposed to achieve two clear goals - to provide more backstory for the Zone, the Chernobyl-devastated swathe of Russia now populated by science-fictional horror. Secondly, it's supposed to return STALKER to its original design. Instead of turning out to be a straight stomp to the end with optional side-missions, Clear Sky would return the game to being an open world in which opposing factions vie for control of the Zone and its assorted treasures.

In fact, it's still a straight stomp to the end but with the optional side missions granted a little more purpose. It's also Clear Sky's most immediate and crushing disappointment - that for a second time the great STALKER talker promise has been broken. It kicks off with a battlefield-like territory-grab area, vying with bandits for capture points, but once you're out of it a fixed storyline kicks in. While STALKER'S plot managed enough mystery to be oddly compelling for all its botched translation and incoherency, Clear Sky's is bewildering and unengaging from the off. Narratively, it's a mess of 'go there, find him trudging around' and in terms of set pieces it plays out like a megamix of STALKER'S greatest moments, but here treated as cursory action moments with only a fraction of the thrill and terror of the original.

Because that's the thing. There isn't much stalking in this new STALKER. Survival horror has been replaced with relatively straight action, largely a result of the Zone now being too heavily populated. It's hard to go more than a few minutes without a fight, and while this can be taken as a riposte to snobby accusations by some that the first game should have been called ‘Walker’, it both impacts the creepy otherworldliness and makes for an exhaustingly difficult experience.

Clear Sky is too hard, in the way that mods touting to be more hardcore tend to be almost comically unfair. It's damned near impossible to survive being bumrushed by six Snorks at once, or facing off against 16 grenade-wielding bandits, without wearying incremental save game-grinding. GSC has claimed this is primarily for fans of the first game, and perhaps that resulted in a skewed presumption that all of those mystically became ultra-elite in the process of playing it. I know I didn't. So, between the reloads and the crashes to desktop (which increase in frequency the further you get into the game), an astonishing amount of your time will be spent staring at loading screens.


It's also wracked with balance issues and bugs. Chatting to a fellow reviewer of the game, he lamented that his progress through the campaign was stalled because he couldn't afford good enough armor, at least not without the thankless collecting and selling hundreds of looted pistols, sausages and vodka bottles. For my part, I was randomly gifted some decent armor by an NPC and so made it several hours further in, but was then stymied by a bug that corrupted all my save games past a certain point.

In terms of bugs and stability, Clear Sky's in a significantly worse state at review than STALKER was, and that's despite it being largely just a mod of the first game. The problems extend to the factional stuff, which continues past the initial zone as a sort of persistent side-mission. If you identify which faction you want to align yourself to (which may well be based on which NPCs annoy you least), you can join up after completing a few missions for them. Then you can head over to a contested area and attempt to snatch capture points within it from their designated rival faction. There's a new interface screen that shows precisely how well everyone is doing in neat bar graph form, and while it's suitably clear, again it undermines STALKER'S splendid atmosphere. It makes the faction war drearily mechanical and artificial, not the organic push-pull it perhaps should be.

Worse, it feels so insular and detached from the main game - and in my case ground to a halt at a certain point when my faction's Al broke down. This meant I was dead-ended on both the storyline and the faction sub-game, and left trapped in a loop of pointless side-missions and looting.

So, the below score is based on the assumption there'll be a pretty damned hefty post-release patch, as there was with STALKER. If there isn't, you can slice 10 per cent off and justifiably refer to Clear Sky as a disaster. It's certainly a mess - but a pretty one, filled with challenging gunplay and an interesting theme. It scores as high as it does because STALKER is at its heart, and thus there's a fundamental silver lining to the woeful design that Clear Sky can't entirely block out.

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Wed Sep 29, 2010 2:17 pm
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