S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky
The Sun Is setting on the vast, open marshland that constitutes Clear Sky's opening stages. It's a huge boggy mess, flooded long ago by a Soviet government far more interested in hydroelectricity than land management. And there you are, crouching in the windswept reeds, taking cover from a military helicopter sweeping overhead, when you spot a bandit patrol coming straight towards you down one of the bog's many narrow gullies - their brains powered by an updated version of STALKER'S astounding A-Life system.
One is mere feet from your hiding place when, suddenly, an almost invisible creature leaps 10 feet in the air from the growth opposite, grabs the bandit before again leaping away into the rushes to feast on its prey. This might sound fanciful, but anyone who's played STALKER knows the unexpected goodness its Al can conjure - this event can and will happen to the fortunate as they play.
When it comes to free-form FPS action, Far Cry 2 may have stolen the limelight from CSC Game World a smidge, but, while that game promises astounding things, it certainly isn't as brave. The Ubisoft guys are creating a wilderness in Far Cry 2. but they can't be arsed with the ecosystem.
Sure, they 'could' program in some lions, cheetahs, tigers and dinosaurs to hunt down those sprightly gazelles, but it isn't the focus of the game, so they're not bothering. STALKER though, STALKER is all about the interaction -the Al factions battling it out over the map, the creatures fighting each other and dragging carcasses into food stockpiles: the whole mess coming together in an unhealthy splurge of bullets, flesh and teeth.
Ray Of Light
Clear Sky is also a shadow of its former self - but in a good way. Noticeable progress has been made on the original STALKER, with some lovely volumetric lighting beaming down through clouds, being separated by foliage, refracted by window panes and generally looking utterly gorgeous in motion. Pedants, meanwhile, will be relieved to discover that the sun will pull a full rotation through the sky now (rather than its former rise to its apex and ensuing unlikely fall back to its morning position). But it isn't just light that CSC are in hot pursuit of perfecting - darkness is also on the menu. The idea is that as dusk settles and camps of Stalkers light fires, get their guitars out and dig in for the night, the darkness will Im? far more lifelike, and less easy to dissipate with traditional battery power. It'll be a proper inky blackness, far more frightening than the usual 'gradual dropping of brightness Ikir'. In fact, wheels are in motion to let yon saunter around with a flickering, burning torch held in your left hand and a pistol in your right - with wild animals circling you and backing off from the flames.
A Mercs Life
As we've written previously. Clear Sky will allow you to join one of five (out of a total of nine) warring factions and aid them on their ascent to greatness in a forbidden area where an unexpected blowout has essentially redrawn the map, causing no end of territorial bickering. The game's opening will have you (if you choose to) helping out the Clear Sky group - a relatively peaceful bunch suddenly drawn into the fray - to reclaim their marshland digs. Squads of Stalkers can follow your lead as you reclaim scaffold towers king through the murk, then aid you as you lie atop them with your trusty sniper rifle and attempt to hold off the inevitable Al counter-assaults. Because, remember, this whole thing will be playing out as a part of the revamped A-Life system - if you leave or ignore the conflict, the tattle will be endlessly fought to and fro in your absence.
With a less cluttered interface, revamped PDA, rethought gnn system and entirely friendlier front-end, CSC are clearly planning on making the new forbidden zone. well... a little less forbidding. Which is honestly no bad thing. I just hope that the way the game is currently being shown off (with a notable helicopter 'boss' battle) isn't indicative of GSC taking a few more steps away from their free-form dream of yesteryear. I sincerely doubt that this will be an issue, as the developers are more than aware that their game's greatest moments came in moments of fearful, unscripted solitude. Still, it's a concern worth noting.
Either way, STALKER: Clear Sky is shaping up to top its predecessor with both looks and smarts, which is no mean achievement in itself.
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Let's Face It. At first, Clear Sky is lieftily impenetrable. As with the first game, there's a good hour of acquainting yourself with the ways in which the game is playing you. The tutorial system isn't great the way the faction system works isn't immediately obvious in the opening marsh area, the shotgun feels a sipidge overpowered and it seems strange that you can turn up late to a battle to discover your allies have won the day without you firing a shot. Just as with SOC before it, rpy first hours in the tine had mefeeling nonplussed.
But then, after a beautiful sunset, darkness fell - and fell heavily. With it, that old Stalker vibe of solitude and nagging fear flooded over me. After what was disappointing opening, I was back in the Zone. There's a greater emphasis on man-on-man action in -Clear Sky, and the random faction flare-ups that you're called out to don't always gel as smoothly as I would have liked, but I'm convinced that this is a deep notch in the GSC bedpost. It's rock hard, I use my quickload facility more than I do my PDA, but just like SOC before it, Clear Sky is a rough diamond. As before, the more of yourself you put into the game, the more you'll get back.
Forget introductory SUPERLATIVES designed to ferry your eyes across this six-page review, it took just a single improvement to convince me outright that, with STALKER: Clear Sky, GSC have not only tactfully re-approached their original design brief, but listened to their constantly chattering fans' response to Shadow of Chernobyl: they've made nighttime pitch dark.
Stand in a field once the sun's gone down and you'll see nothing more than a vague outline of trees tearing a dim horizon across your monitor. Better yet, wait for a thunderstorm to arrive and you'll witness a spectacular light show, with flashes illuminating the landscape for fractions of a second. Distant campfires stand out as pinpricks of glowing detail, while enemy flashlights huddle like lost fireflies, prompting you to switch your own lamp off and hope to God they've not spied you first.
And when the sun eventually shows itself, vast columns of light stream over hilltops and long dawn shadows are chased away. The first change you'll notice here is just how stunningly beautiful the aw Forbidden Zone has become, through both a technical overhaul and a closer affinity to art direction. No longer will you have to endure a bleak eternal twilight, as the wastelands now swing from blistering afternoon sunshine to suitably thick and inky darkness.
So yeah, no more rubbish nighttimes and lots more pretty graphics. What else have GSC fixed with their sequel to Shadow of Chernobyl, a game that punched an RPG-shaped hole in the shooter genre, promising the world and delivering slightly less than that? New inventory screens, new locations, an arrestingly inventive and intuitive faction system that turns the game world into a something akin to a ongoing game of Battlefield 2, and an even more ominous and lethal environment.
By any measure, Clear Sky doesn't fix all of its forbears problems. Production values haven't shot through the roof for instance - it's still a dogeared loveable scamp of a game, peppered with almost endearing glitches - but what Clear Sky changes and improves upon is what made Shadow of Chernobyl such an appealing title to begin with. The combat is as rugged as ever, bolstered by a massively reworked A-Life system (one which makes grenades altogether more fun to play with, as everyone else uses them as well as you), and the weighty atmosphere, that aching Mad Maxian solitude, has survived the transition to this altogether more community-centric world.
We're still at the arse-end of the localisation machine, with some awful voice-acting spanning dialogue that seems to drag on far too long. And, outside of the dynamic faction missions, your objectives still seem to gravitate towards the 'go here' and 'pick this up' style of play. But that was eminently overlookable in Shadow of Chernobyl and it's equally forgivable this time around. You'll be exploring the same Forbidden Zone too, but one that's not only changed to allow access to some new areas, but become a far more dangerous place.
You could spend hours poring over what's changed and what's not, so I'll stop here and simply assure you that Clear Sky is a superbly dark, Al-led shooter set in beautifully realised landscape - a great deal closer to what GSC wanted the first game to be, and as a result more enjoyable.
Let's take the faction bits first Thrown into the game's opening arena, a vast marsh harbouring noxious puddles, scavenging mutants, overgrown grass and a handful of encampments, you initially find yourself fighting for Clear Sky, the faction that so kindly rescues you in the game's opening cinematic.
This places you in the thick of the game's new directive, the inter-faction warfare, a mechanic whereby squads of stalkers defend control points and send out assault teams to capture new areas, transforming the environment into a battleground whose fronts change constantly and unpredictable.
Distress calls crackle from your PDA, pleading for your assistance in dealing with the unrelenting bandit forces. One such cry for help leads me to a burnt-out farmstead and I encounter, by chance, an allied squad en route to the same objective. Reaching the charred buildings, the men move to cover and begin chirping orders at one another, ensuring that the first shot isn't fired until the squad leader (which is sometimes you, under various circumstances) says OK.
This isn't Ghost Recon or what have you, as the extent of Clear Sky's squad management goes no further than a simple cue to begin the attack. But that's not to say that squads aren't essential to capturing points of interest either, as on more than one occasion I've had myself saved from one of those stupid flat-faced radiation dogs by a last-second shotgun blast from a helpful squadmate.
The AI's ability to hide behind debris and corners occasionally has the irritating side-effect of nudging you out of said positions and into the crossfire -but for the most part the automated squad warfare is an impressive tactical spectacle, with displays of suicidal idiocy rare enough to be overlooked. Cover is bountiful too, with large squads assuming well-dispersed and believable shooting positions. Naturally, enemies are driven by self-preservation too, chucking themselves behind any cover they can.
In my particular case, the bandits' foothold at the farmstead proved too mighty for the Clear Sky squad - who were decimated by the rogue faction. I was left cowering inside a building - overlooked, rather brilliantly, by the bandits who seemed sure the skirmish had ended. This allowed me to stride triumphantly from the shadows, place a round in the back of the head of one of the unsuspecting bandits, and from there liberate the farm completely.
Carrying out these incidental faction duties earns you rewards from the respective faction bases. Back at the Clear Sky camp, where the game begins, the trader had prepared a goody bag for my return. New weapons, new armour, new upgrade schematics, rubles, you're never certain what you'll receive for helping out.
Factions will also offer guides, stalkers who act as Clear Sky's answer to fast travel by warping you from one location to the next. Guides will only take you along paths they feel safe, that is areas their faction controls - another incentive to ensure your favourite faction maintains a strong presence in the Zone.
Your PDA and inventory screens have been redesigned to accommodate this newfound political bent. Alongside your map and diary, your PDA now shows the balance of power between factions in your current area (based on the points controlled and resources available - more resources means bigger and better weapons), their standings in the Zone overall (essentially, their aggregated strengths throughout the game world), and your relationships with them (friend or enemy).
The opposing factions of Duty and Freedom make appearances later in the game, giving opportunities to enlist in either camp, but other, smaller groups are scattered throughout, and all of them k can be charmed or angered by your ft actions. Somehow, I'd managed to get on the good side of the bandits, until they saw fit to attempt to mug me at a crossroad, at which point our friendship was sadly and violently terminated. Can't trust those bloody bandits. Clear Sky loves to throw such semi-scripted spanners into the works from time to time, if only to lend some structure to the to-ing-and-fro-ing of allegiances.
This pendulum of loyalty drives Clear Sky from beginning to end, offering a constant and meaningful distraction from both the main plotline and the mini-quests you'll pick up from the Zone's inhabitants. All the old loveliness you may have enjoyed in Shadows of Chernobyl, such as the stashes hidden in the wilderness (whose location is only vaguely noted on your PDA - you've got to read the description and have a proper hunt for it yourself), make their return too.
But artifacts - those shards of irradiated stones that imbue the holder with boosted attributes - have taken on an interesting new guise in Clear Sky. No longer are these supposedly rare objects (the very things driving stalkers into the wasteland in the first place) strewn about the landscape like confetti. They've gone invisible, detectable only by using the appropriate tool. The detector given to you at the outset is a basic affair, a simple proximity beeper, which becomes increasingly excited the closer you come to one.
More expensive detectors improve your ability to hunt the shards, which can be a difficult task considering some artifacts are capable of moving about, oddly enough. This may seem a simple change of pace for artifacts, but in practice chasing down your prize is a game in itself - an often infuriating game for sure, but one that makes the sight of a glowing stone finally popping into visibility all the more rewarding. Certainly it makes the damn things feel a tad more special than in the previous game.
Also on the cards are the Zone's radioactive outbursts. Having seemingly become a semi-sentient chunk of earth, the Zone has been enraged by incursions into its most delicate regions (incursions by Strelok, if you're interested in the storyline). On a semi-random basis, horizon-spanning blasts of radiation tear through the landscape and, given no more than a minute's warning before these catastrophes, you're forced to seek cover or perish.
One such blast forced me to dump half my inventory on the ground, as I desperately needed the stamina to sprint to a distant bunker before my face was torn off by gamma rays. Such safe spots are marked up on your PDA during these blasts (Clear Sky calls then 'emissions', which sounds filthy), and they happen rarely enough to be an interesting and exciting occurrence, rather than an arbitrary annoyance. They look great too, turning the sky a deep red and causing birds to drop out of the sky like cooked chickens. Just watch your quicksaves -it's all to easy to fling yourself into a fatal dead end if you're in the wrong place.
Clear Sky's is a dangerous world, fully intent on killing you, and yet it's one you'll simply enjoy inhabiting. The new Limansk area even manages to transform the typically rural action into something more similar to Half-Life 2s City 17, allowing GSC to parade their AI's ability to effortlessly move through and make use of cover during massive gun battles. Enemies occupy street blockades as well as building interiors, meaning death can come swiftly, and from any angle. The path to Red Forest has been opened too, offering woodland terror, disorientating radioactive anomalies, and mutants capable of pouncing on NPCs, and bounding back into the wilderness, still holding their witless prey.
As mentioned, Clear Sky builds on Shadows ofChernobyfs strengths, but turns a seemingly blind eye to many of its problems. Clear Sky reintroduces old characters (though you'll struggle to remember who they are) and tries to force personality into new characters (a hash-smoking trader called Ganja is the only one who sticks in my mind - and that's because he was so laughably bad). NPCs essentially shovel impenetrable narrative into your face until you're simply driven to ignore it But not a single thing Clear Sky brings to the table negatively impacts on what's already there. The interactions of all its elements, the factions, the loyalties, the unpredictable AI, the open world, the threat of nuclear annihilation, they're fibrous strands of the most enjoyable sort of .rope. Clear Sky is a unique experience, so far unparalleled save for its predecessor.
That it's a successful melding of RPG-style inventories and an extremely solidfeeling shooter in a semi-free-roaming and original world is in itself enough to make it worth playing. But the added texture of the newly refined A-Life, and the engine's ability to deliver a uniquely surprising experience every time you play gives Clear Sky some incredible appeaf. This is the game Shadow of Chernobyl was meant to be.
All about Clear Sky's helpful mechanics
The weapon upgrade system has been completely reworked for Clear Sky, allowing you to not only repair weapons, but to upgrade them without needing attachments. Each mechanic knows of certain methods of upgrading certain equipment, improving its accuracy or recoil rate for example, and his repertoire of upgrades can be improved by bringing him the schematics you find throughout the game. Only one upgrade can be applied to any one part of a weapon (the barrel, for example), and combining them unlocks second and third tiers of upgrades. This allows for some hugely improved weapons, such as my trusty pistol, which could snipe the genitalia off an ant at 50 yards.
My HUD, what have you done to my HUD?
Clear Sky has a new way of displaying information about the environment around you - primarily through a series of needle gauges on your inventory screen. But more noticeably, indicators of how much noise you're making and how lit you are, have been scrapped. It's pretty much up to you to decide whether you're being a master of agility, or just scooting about the wrecked suburbs like a fat man on a moped. Stealth becomes a matter of common sense instead - crouch and your movements are concealed, walk in the shadows and you'll stand less chance of being seen. No really, you'll be fine. Trust your instinct. Feel the stealth Force.