It’s a little known fact (actually, only known by me so incredibly little known) that this blog originally began its lifespan as a blog solely dedicated to S.T.A.L.K.E.R Shadow of Chernobyl, (henceforeth called STALKER as i cant be bothered typing in the dots every damn time). Back then, it was called inthezone.blogs.ie and contained nothing but stories of life in the exclusion zone as portrayed by STALKER. As expected, writing about one game constantly, no matter how testicle kickingly great it is, gets old faster than a Lee Evans stand up routine, and the blog was eventually shitcanned and anything salvageable became part of TFPG. But its a testament to just how great a game STALKER is, and how rabid its fanbase is (including yours truly), that people are willing to waste their lives dedicate entire blogs solely to the game.
So it was with anticipation, and trepidation, we approach the latest instalment, Call of Pripyat. The 3rd game in the series, and follow up to the much maligned Clear Sky, a game even the most die hard STALKER fan would be hard pressed to recommend. After the oppressive, bleak, and downright chilling atmosphere of shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky decided to go down an alternate development route, that route being “fuck everything fans liked about SOC, lets curl one out all over the series good name”. In Clear Sky, actual stalking, the thing fans loved about SOC, was eschewed for all out guns blazing action, thanks to the faction wars, which saw rival groups of Stalkers swopping hot lead for control of territory in the Zone. The zone subsequently felt less mysterious, less oppresive, and more like “Stalker: Shadow of Call of Duty”.
Combine this with performance issues, inappropriate and ill fitting attempts at humour, little to no mod support, and you have a game that disappointed critically, angered fans, downright depressed the fuck out of fanatics like myself,, and was possibly the worst sequel since Game of Death 2 (thats the one where Bruce Lee is on-screen for about 1 minute before being killed off, then his body is rather bizarrely stolen by a helicopter from the funeral mass, and the rest of the movie has a Bruce Lee wannabe in a terrible Bruce Lee wig trying to recover the body, fact fans)
The opening hour or so of Call of Pripyat doesn’t exactly instil confidence in you that you’re going to be going to bed with tears of joy streaming down your face at the triumphant return of STALKER. After a rather shoddy slideshow intro, explaining who you are and why youre in the Zone, the game unexpectedly dumps you right into the fucking game. You’ll be forgiven for assuming you accidentally pressed ESC and skipped a vital cutscene, but no, thats just how it starts. It’s also disconcerting to see how little has changed graphically since Clear Sky, and even more worrying that in parts, it actually looks worse than Clear Sky, and that a modded Shadow of Chernobyl at times actually looks better.
So around about this time, you’re probably thinking “GSC dropped the ball again”, or “Shadow of Chernobyl was a fluke” or plain old “fuck this shit”.
But that would be your first big mistake.
Because despite its inglorious introduction, once you spend some time with it, COP sinks its claws into you like a rabid Bloodsucker. It’s a slow start, you’re tasked with 4 simple missions. Investigate what happened to 4 downed helicopters. But like the best games of this type, Fallout 3, Borderlands, etc, by the time youre ready to turn in the first mission, you’ve picked up 4 more from random strangers that inhabit the post apocalyptic wasteland. And by then, the vistas, the eerie ambience, the beautiful sunrises/sunsets, the feeling of being alone in a wasteland filled with mutants, raiders and bandits, with nothing to protect you but a battered & worn out AKSU-74 sub machine gun, and the next thing you know, youre sitting in the dark, swigging vodka, a 5o’clock shadow cultivating nicely, circles under your eyes, praying you’ll come across some ammo worth looting, or a better weapon, something to help you before you next stumble across a roving bloodsucker or gang of Mercs.
COP is a game that succeeds in creating a wholly believeable, living world around it, much like say Grand Theft auto 4 did. It really feels like these fellow stalkers are here living out their own lives & stories, like you can just stand there and watch the game play itself at times. And its in moments liek these that the game’s AI and the A-life system really begins to shine. Investigating gunshots from beyond a hill will often find you stumbling across a group of stalkers under sttack from roving mutants, should you help them? Or wait and see if they get killed, finish off the mutants yourself, and loot the bodies? Or should you just put a bullet in the back of the next stalker you come across, an easy way to gain some ammo & loot for sure, but risk alienating the rest of the stalkers in the zone from you?
Its this moment-to-moment gamepaly that keeps you coming back, and the ‘stalker stories’ that happen in the zone are the kind of gaming bliss that only stalker can serve up.
For example, in my first foray into the zone, i was exploring an abandoned factory to the north of the swamps. As a rookie stalker, i accidentally stumbled into a section of the factory occupied by mercenaries. None too impressed with a stranger walking into their camp brandishing a sawn off, they politely told me to piss off out of their camp. My pissing off was sadly not fast enough, and they opened fire. I ran, tail between my legs, not a chance of taking them on with my feeble arsenal of a single pistol and a sawn off shotgun.
The next day, im poking my nose around their camp again, to see if there’s any chance i can bump off a lone merc and maybe grab myself a sweet Assault Rifle, when an emission happens. Emissions are lethal blasts of radiactive energy that emenate from the Chernobyl NPP from time to time, and the only way to survive, is to grab some cover in a designated area. My designated area? Right behind the goddamn merc base. Shit. This means i have to run into their camp grounds, the emission is getting closer as i try and sneak past them, i can see most of them fleeing towards the factory entrance, but one spots me, and opens fire. So now i have impending doom coming from 2 directions. I desperately return fire, hoping to distract him long enough to make it to the tunnel to take cover, but this asshole wont give up. A pitched gun battle later, and ive managed to take him down, and get to the tunnel just in time. As the emission ends, i can hear the rest of the mercs already coming to look for me. I reload my battered rifle, and get ready to run like a bitch before they can take me down, so i can return another night better equipped, and show these mercs who they’re dealing with…
THIS is why i love S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
And this is why COP is my nailed on candidate for game of the year. Its quite simply the best game in the series since the original, and in many ways improves upon it if not outright better it. With mod support already beginning to flow, this is also a game that has legs, much like the original, still being played enthusiastically by a dedicated fanbase some 3 years after release. It’s good to be back in the zone.