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Review: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call Of Pripyat
by Chris Hawke
Game Information

Basic information
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat
Developer: GSC Game World
Publisher: GSC World Publishing
Released: February 2010

PC (Microsoft Windows)

First-person shooter
Role Playing Game
Survival Horror

PEGI: 16+
It's 2:14 in the morning. I am not alone. A hunter, Grouse, needs help in tracking down a bloodsucker who killed his friend. It's raining outside. The occasional flash of lightning rushes through the windows of the abandoned substation we're in. I can hear my heart pumping blood around my ears. I raise my shotgun. For just the slightest second, two bright dots shine at the other end of the room. Then they're gone. I realize my palm are sweating, my left hand is quivering, I can hear the surreal heartbeat grow and grow. We stop. A faint branch snap comes from outside. By the time I've turned back round to view the room, it's too late; the screen goes red. I actually have to calm my physical self as I wait for my last save to load.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call Of Pripyat can be utterly incredible.

Call Of Pripyat is the third game in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R franchise; more of a Shadow Of Chernobyl (the first game) expansion than a full standalone title. The story is that, after you paved way into the center of the Zone in the aforementioned original, the Ukrainian government sent several military squads to try and seize the area. All the helicopters crashed. As an ex-STALKER (the collective terms for social outcasts and bandits who scrape a living in the Zone, the radioactive area around the Chernobyl Power Plant), you're sent in to find out the troops fate. At this stage, the story is disappointingly weak; while the military operation is played up to be a full-scale, massive invasion, it's really only 5 helicopters; unlike Shadow Of Chernobyl's post-Brain Scorcher act, where there was a real sense of your character and the recent events making a massive change to the world; where every single in-game NPC was involved and talking about it. Many STALKERs in Call Of Pripyat didn't even know the military tried to invade. You're told early on that you've been given a radio with which you can communicate with HQ - at no point in the game do the USS ever contact you through it. You might as well be a curious STALKER. When you're first thrown into the Zone, it seems like quite a shallow, quick-fix plotline to get the action rolling, rather than a sprawling epic of the first game, utilising the eerie powers of the Exclusion Zone.

So, after a brief 'cut-scene' introducing you, and informing you of what's been going on, you're suddenly let loose on the world. That's it. No tutorial, no hand-holding, no help whatsoever. Just a few objectives and a little hint of 'go to the nearest settlement'. This is easily the worst part of Call Of Pripyat - the first two hours or so. Totally lost, you'll stumble about getting torn apart by mutants, running into radiation and generally having no clue what to do.

But, please, I beg of you; stay with the game. Don't switch off. It may take a while, but after you've found a place to settle down and organized your objectives, the game starts to make more sense. To begin with, you're given five objectives to find the five helicopters. You can pick up side missions, but at this point, it still feels a little empty and cheap - no story-driven, twist and turns of the previous games, just a checklist.

What is good, however, is the much-improved side-quest system. Instead of the ever-repeating 'Get me 5 of X' quests, Call Of Pripyat has over 70 unique, clever and generally very interesting missions that can be picked up along the way. Your PDA usually tells you what to do, but sometimes objectives can be frustratingly vague - "Get tools for Nitro". Where? Where from, game? Tell me! Often, you're left on your own without a map marker to guide you, meaning you'll lose interest in the mission pretty quickly, or have to seek help from an online walkthrough. You dirty cheater.

What hasn't changed is the gameplay. Alright, there have been a few tweaks - new enemies, new weapons, some new anomalies; but the artifact hunting, weapon modifying and - y'know - shooting, remain the same. Which is a very good thing. It might not be most accomplished set of mechanics around, but the general feel of sniping a mutant, whipping out your detector and grabbing some artifacts remains brilliantly engrossing.

Of course, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. wouldn't be S.T.A.L.K.E.R. without Chernobyl, and the Zone. Call Of Pripyat uses an updated version of the X-Ray Engine, first used way back in '07. As a result, despite wonderful and improved effects such a the beautiful lighting and realistic water-textures, the game simply looks old. Outdated. Past it's time. It does well enough to hold the game together, but at some points (like the terrible grass draw-distance) you can see the duct-tape and glue desperately keeping all the cogs in place. Still, it gives a familiar feeling to fans of the series, who'll instantly seem at home.

So far, so average. But then, after the first map - which is little more than a checklist of objectives and a place to get accustomed to the game - when you move into the Jupiter section, things change. For the better. Suddenly, from nowhere, the story kicks in. It goes from repetitive, background noise to properly engrossing, didn't-see-that-coming twists and turns. While the very, very last mission is slightly clumsy, the transition from Jupiter (the second map) to the cold, dead city of Pripyat (the third map) is utterly brilliant - you'll have to make some end-changing choices, delve deep into the dark abyss of an underground laboratory and be dragged along in some pretty thrilling firefights. Everything starts to make sense, and even better, get interesting.

And it's with this new-found confidence that S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call Of Pripyat earns the 9/10. These fresh and engrossing objectives produce some of the best moments in gaming; right up there with the Bioshocks and Metal Gear Solids. No, honestly. At one point, in an underground lab, with nothing but a rusty shotgun and faint flashlight to help you, you suddenly hear the piercing screams of a baby crying. A chill runs down your spine, your chest tightens, your palms sweat. You forget where you are, what you're doing; you cower in a corner, hoping for the lights to suddenly kick in and flood the room. The characters are no bullet sponges, meaning only a handful of shots can take an man down, which leads to some incredibly tense peek-and-lean shootouts that have you on edge as to stave off bandits left, right and center.

The best example of mine comes late on, in Pripyat, tasked with restarting the generator in an abandoned hospital (you already know this is going to go wrong). Happy to take up such a seemingly easy task, I scamper off into the city. Just as I stop running, outside the grand doors of the building, I realise - night has crept up on me. It's pitch dark and I didn't even notice, swept up in the hauntingly beautiful architecture. Then the rain starts falling. Then the lightning flashes. To make matters worse, there are over 20 zombies (not the Call of Duty: World at War type - these are bandits and stalkers who've had their brains mushed by an emission) wandering the hospital floors. I didn't dare turn my light on, in case it attracted them. That feeling - with the sound of rain patting the leaves outside, and intermittent beams of light streaming through the windows as the moans of zombies carry you onwards into the dark - that feeling is something that no other game can match.

It doesn't stop there. Every single player has dozens of unique, haunting tales of their adventures through the Zone, whether this be seeking shelter from a deadly radioactive emission in a mutant infested underpass or swinging your torch round in an abandoned kindergarten in search of bloodsuckers, only to be scared to death by a massive mural of a creepy cartoon-ish lion (a true, paralytically frighting story). There's even a brilliant, Call Of Duty-inspired sniping mission, that, in many respects, feels better and more realistic than the famed outing in the '07 classic.

Newcomers to the series might feel a bit out of place, and you'll just have to grind your way through the first few hours of Call Of Pripyat. But once you do, you're rewarded with one of the most atmospheric and bone-chilling games in recent memory. The engine might be old and creaking, there's that unavoidable sense of deja vu, but if you just give it some time, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call Of Pripyat easily becomes one of the best, most unforgettable games this generation.



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- Chris Hawke

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