S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky Preview (PC)

Released around the first quarter of 2007, the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl revealed itself to be pure gaming Marmite. Check any forum discussion about GSC Game World’s incredibly ambitious title, and you’ll find almost no middle-ground whatsoever. Some will criticise the game for being a confused, buggy mess. Others, on the other hand, will recognise it for what it is – a game that, despite its fair share of problems, is an idiosyncratic, atmospheric gem. Then, of course, there’s the depressingly large group of people who have never even played the game, having been put off by the talk of in-game glitches and bits of missing dialogue – a group I found myself in until very recently. The good news, though, is that a sequel is on the way, and it looks set to be everything the team wanted to achieve with the first game, and a whole lot more.

For the uninitiated, the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was set in and around the site of the infamous Chernobyl disaster in the 80s, but, in a Tom Clancy-esque move, it was set in the near future (2012, to be exact), giving the universe a familiar grounding whilst also giving GSC the chance to have a bit of fun with the setting – for example, claiming that a second nuclear disaster has occurred, as if things weren’t bad enough to begin with. The result is a no-man’s land surrounding the Chernobyl reactor (known as ‘the Zone’), not unlike the one you’ll find if you visit the area today – which makes sense, when you bear in mind that the team did a lot of research around the area when making the game – which is frequented mostly by scavengers trying to eke out a living exploring an area that most people wouldn’t dare enter. Casting the player as one of these scavengers, your time was spent exploring the Zone whilst fighting for your life against a variety of enemies – some of them familiar, many of them not – the usual objective being to bring back artifacts from the Zone in order to sell them.

So, what about the sequel? For a start, it’s set one year before the events of the original, and actually revisits a lot of the same areas – though not all of them will be quite as you remember them, and there are a tonne of new areas to explore added on top. If you’re a fan of numbers, you’ll be happy to learn that while the original’s open-ended marshland area featured around two million polygons, Clear Skies’ marshland has over six million – a testament to the area’s increases in both size and detail.

The player’s role in Clear Skies isn’t too dissimilar from the main character in the first game, only this time you won’t be spending so much time fighting by yourself. There’s a new emphasis placed on squad-based combat, and many missions will see you joined by a band of NPC mercenaries who you’re able to order around, though they seem fairly adept at looking after themselves if you haven’t got the patience for keeping an eye on them during a firefight. These temporary squad-mates aren’t the only mercenaries knocking around in the Zone – the player’s character is somewhat of a freelancer too, and you’re welcome to take missions from a variety of factions, though you have to be mindful of how this will affect your relationships with the other factions every time you help a certain faction out. Luckily, this is relatively easy to manage due to the game’s faction relationship screen, which gives you a summary of who’s friends with who, or who’s likely to try and shoot your face off if you take that next mission you’ve got your eye on. It remains to be seen how easy it is to balance these relationships when playing the game, but it seems to suggest a fair amount of replay value if you want to start again and align yourself with a different set of factions, thus bagging you a new set of missions as a result.

Clear Skies also features a new weapon and armor upgrading system, which is GSC’s response to the criticism that the first S.T.A.L.K.E.R. gave you plenty of opportunities to earn money, but few opportunities to actually spend it. Rather than being completely open-ended, though, it asks that you make tactical choices with your upgrades, so that each one becomes specialised for a specific task. So you can’t transform every gun into a hyper-accurate, super-powerful, rapid-fire laser death cannon. But you could, for example, carry two pistols that were identical to start with, but with one of them geared towards long-range combat, and another that’ll punch through anything so long as it’s no more than ten feet away. While not as obviously gratifying as being able to super-power everything in your inventory, it sounds like a system that’ll ultimately be more satisfying as you fine-tune your gear to make sure you’re covered in all situations.

Visually, the game is a huge leap from its predecessor, and includes a whole bunch of special effects for those of you who’ve coughed up for a DirectX 10 graphics card, including volumetric fog and some really impressive real-time rain effects. It’s often easy to think you’ve seen everything when it comes to visual effects in games, but when you’ve seen the rain begin to fall as you pass under a bridge, and see the game’s engine figure out in real-time where the rain would land and which areas would stay dry, it’s pretty damned impressive. Despite all this, though, we’re assured that the game will also run happily on machines still using DirectX 8 and 9, albeit without the more fancy effects, so those of us using less impressive rigs will still be able to join in on the fun – and from what we’ve seen, the DirectX 9 version is still pretty stunning to look at.

Despite the fact that it resolves many issues that alienated so many people from the first game, however, it seems that Clear Skies is just as daring and unusual as its predecessor. It might not set the world on fire at retail, but it’s different, and that alone is enough of a reason to check a game out these days. If you’re getting a bit fed up of the wave of me-too shooters over the last year or two, you could do much worse than keeping an eye on this one.

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By Kres (SI Elite) on Jun 20, 2008
Most excellent. I&#039;ll be playing this one. Played original STALKER and fairly enjoyed it though yes bugs and completely unpractical map mode drew me away from it. If they improve on those things, I&#039;ll buy their product.
By Wowerine (SI Elite) on Jun 20, 2008
I enjoyed the original, and I am looking forward to this one as well!
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Jun 20, 2008
The original already looks very dated, tho fun, and the frame freezes were a hassle. But the gameplay is fantastic, and this one I daresay will be even better.
By Oldgamer (I just got here) on Jun 21, 2008
Hi there, the original game was a decent good game and Clear Sky will be even better...I guess.

Thanks for the preview and greetz from Europe,

By Revan (SI Elite) on Jun 21, 2008
I was intersted in this game when I first heard of the first one. Of course by the time I heard of it, it was too late to get it. But I don&#039;t think I&#039;m gonna pass this one! All I need now is a graphics card. ;(
By jondragonpage (SI Newbie) on Jun 29, 2008
Did play the original, but didn&#039;t really think alot about, think it was hyped up to much b4 release, after watching the vid for the new 1 i am looking froward to playing it very much, locks fantastic
By warior (I just got here) on Jul 02, 2008
it looks better than shadow of chernobil.
By warior (I just got here) on Jul 02, 2008
it looks better than shadow of chernobil.:))
By Revan (SI Elite) on Jul 26, 2008
I think if anything will ever get me to buy that graphics card for my PC, this game will be it! \r\nAnd why the heck are those weird \"&#039;t \"ltters everywhere! Kres! Have you been slacking off!?!?? ;)