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Archive for August, 2010

Post-Game: Call of Pripyat

Posted by deckard47 on August 20, 2010

Stalker: Call of Pripyat

A bro, sitting on a wooden wheely thing.

Hey Bro! That’s how everyone in Stalker-land greets each other. Or perhaps “Hiddy Ho!.” Oh, Stalkers of the Zone. Never change.

I’m going through one of those stages where I’m out of new games and I’m not inclined to finish games I set aside midway through (Lost Planet 2, because it’s too foreign for my in-house co-op partner, Starcraft 2 because Jim Raynor’s face makes me depressed, and Divinity 2, because, you know…). Of course, my natural response to such a mood is to replay a certain type of game, the kind of game I’ve already played through and through. Thus, a new playthrough of Stalker: Call of Pripyat was born. Now, I’ve finished this game once already. GSC Gameworld added a feature that lets me play on after the credits have rolled. There are a few new quests, or something, to entice me back into the Zone. Of course, I restarted my game instead, partly because I like to restart games and play from the beginning, especially when leveling/upgrading schemes are involved (there’s nothing quite like being at the bottom of that ladder, is there?), and partially because I’m having trouble getting excited about my 2nd Mass Effect 2 run.

Call of Pripyat is by far my favorite Stalker game. Clear Sky had some fun ideas about how to do large, single player armed conflicts (read more about this in my next GSW column), and Shadow of Chernobyl, was the most unforgiving and brutal of the three games (and thus, the game that all Stalker games are compared to on the “super scary, hard, Stalker” Scale of Intensity), but both were badly broken and still are, patches or no patches. SoC has a nonexistent upgrade/barter system, making item collection and weapon upgrades feel haphazard and tacked on (you can’t repair things in the vanilla game!). Clear Sky has a slightly less flimsy upgrade system, but it’s lacking in that trademark Stalker tension. Call of Pripyat blends the best bits of its predecessors, and isn’t broken by bugs and glitches. How novel. As such, instead of flirting with it and then losing interest (as I did with SoC and Clear Sky), I played it through and loved it.

Call of Pripyat is at its best when it surprises players. This probably works best with new players, people who’ve never played a Stalker game. For these lucky souls, every bitter death, rationed bullet, and terrifying night-time excursion will be a new experience, unlike anything else they’ve played before. Nothing comes close, not Fallout 3 (easily Stalker‘s closest relative in the gaming world, which isn’t saying much), and none of the tired horror games we’re used to trudging through. For us seasoned Stalker devotees, the scares and tense battles are familiar, expected delights. Starting the game over, I encounter the same alarming, wonderful Firsts I discovered a year ago. My first confrontation with a pack of mutated dogs, leading to near-death and an empty shotgun. My first encounter with a snork, whose sudden, vaulting attack causes me to shriek. My return to the bloodsucker lair, creeping among tens of sleeping monsters. I’m still weak, at this stage in my playthrough: my guns and armor are upgraded to the first tier only. No high-grade optical sights, auto shotguns, and .50 caliber pistols here.

Stalker: Call of Pripyat 01

Sunrays, bro!

The transition to Call of Pripyat‘s mid-game is graceful. It doesn’t happen when I first travel to Yanov station (the second of CoP‘s three zones), nor does it happen when I get access to tier 2 upgrades. It’s a gradual process. It might be my first encounter with a telepathic, telekinetic dwarf, or a night-time Chimera hunt. I’m definitely into the mid-game when I start to actively seek out anomalies and nests of enemies (outside of quests). I may walk away from these encounters bloodied and short on ammo and supplies, but I always carry artifacts and new items with me. This section of the game isn’t quite as tense as the first section was. My stuff’s better, but so is theirs. Instead of one or two bloodsuckers, I’m asked to destroy a nest of three or four. Everything’s tougher and faster and meaner, just like me.

This exciting, ever-changing (new guns, new armor) portion of the game comes to a close as I cross the border between Yanov and Pripyat, crossing the boundary using the tunnels running from Jupiter Station to the ruined city from which CoP takes its name. Once I cross over into Pripyat, the game starts to lose its edge, for a few reasons. First and foremost, my guns and armor get fully upgraded. I’m a nearly-indestructible engine of death. Bloodsuckers bounce off me and even those zoomy telekinetic guys (they make you drop your guns!) are pretty ineffectual. Perhaps in response to this re-balancing of power, CoP throws tens of Stalkers at me at a time along with hordes of gun-toting (only in Stalker…) zombies. The first two thirds of Stalker are about forcing you to confront frightening, uncomfortable in-game situations, but those two thirds also carefully encourage players to explore and conquer. The final third is a long, hard slog: I’ll often enter an apartment complex or bunker and find the nearest closet or small room. Then I kill the nearest enemy, high-tail it to said closet, and slowly waste everything that pokes its head in the door. I’d rather not do this. CoP is best when I’m carefully bringing the fight to the enemy. In late-game CoP, there are so many enemies (and they cleverly sneak up from every direction) that open combat (or even sneaky combat) isn’t an option. It’s easier to sit in a hole and let my souped up auto-shotgun do the work for me.

Call of Pripyat has no cohesive endgame. Its main plot/mystery (why did a bunch of military helicopters crash in the zone?) is unexciting, and the endgame enemies aren’t as inventive or scary as the early bloodsuckers and snorks. Part of the problem lies in the city of Pripyat itself.  Most of the apartments and stores in Pripyat are massive, non-interactive boxes. It doesn’t feel like a city, it feels like a giant lego set, a cluster of nicely-textured rocks. Every once in a while (mostly when there’s a giant white circle on the PDA’s map), you can enter a building and kill its residents. Chances are, there will be 20 or so of them, an they’ll pour through the halls to get at you, walking into your steady, fully-upgraded fire. It’s boring, and it’s about as far from everything unique and interesting about Stalker as one can get.

This is mostly due to balancing issues. The enemies, missions, and anomalies in Pripyat are no match for a fully upgraded player (and it’s not that tough to get all of the upgrades). Still, the game also loses that signature menace and sense of isolation that make it so affecting during its first two thirds. If Call of Pripyat were to end as convincingly as it opened, it would have to introduce some actually mysterious, frightening new antagonists, and find a way to balance the combat so late-game battles weren’t giant shooting galleries. If Stalker 2 can manage this (and if it can create cities that aren’t full of our old enemies, the ever-locked doors), then it could surpass all of its predecessors.

Posted in Analysis, Post Game | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Updates: Everything’s Fine, Situation Normal

Posted by deckard47 on August 17, 2010

The Blacktooth Keep! SO SCARY.

The Blacktooth Keep! SO SCARY.

I’m fantastically busy, so I thought I’d touch on the various (exciting) things that I’ve been doing recently.

I’ve been playing a ton of fantasy-y, TBS games recently, like King Arthur: The Role-Playing Wargame – The Saxons (see, y’all this is why you don’t have a long silly name with a colon for your game), King’s Bounty: The Legend (again!), and Dawn of War 2. That last isn’t really a fantasy game, but A) it’s pretty damn close, and B) it’s a lot of fun. I’ve also been playing Risen (let’s pause as some of our regular readers make ugly faces and go somewhere else), and I just re-installed both Divinity 2: Ego Draconis (Aaaah!), and Stalker: Call of Pripyat.

So, really, there are just too many damn colons in videogame names. Returning to these games, I’m struck (sometimes for the first time, often for the somethingth time) by how all of them have interesting, different-feeling worlds and tones (aside from DoW 2, which couldn’t be more conventional if it had tried). Risen may be Fantasy, but it’s weirdly depressing, rainy jungle isle, pseudo Eropean Inquisition and horrible repression Fantasy, which appeals to me. It’s also as awful and difficult as it always was, which still appeals to me. Divinity 2 is not quite as bleak, but it’s Fantasy stuff is still pretty unique, if not (when examined alone) particularly memorable. The leveling system is a bunch of fun though, so I’ll wend my way back through it, if only to make annoying comments about it to Simon when I see him next.

Dawn of War 2 is only up on that list because I was driven to it by Starcraft 2 (more on that later). It’s less offensive narratively, and for all of the tricks up Blizzard’s sleeve gameplay-wise, Chaos Throne‘s loot and excellent squad play are the more exciting brand of RTS, for me. When’s the next one, Relic?!

Epic. But not an RTS.

Epic. But not an RTS.

King’s Bounty and King Arthur are both vibrant and, but Arthur really nails a kind of creepy, Old World-y approach to fantasy in the British Isles that games don’t give a shit about. I love deciding whether or not my king will spread Christianity or worship the old gods. In the Saxons it’s easier to go Christian, but in the original game paganism is by far the more amusing option. King’s Bounty is well known for its bright, exciting world (full of weird quests worded weirdly), but Arthur‘s England is about a million times more verdant and lush than the real thing (even it’s Winters and Autumns seem more full of life). Plus, you can recruit ogres!

I suspect I’m going to be writing a bunch about King Arthur and King’s Bounty. Both games I’ve played through, in another life, though I’m playing the Armored Princess expansion to KB, and The Saxons expansion to KA, so they’re new games, honest. I also suspect that this hypothetical article will be about games that mess up their play with story crap, and that it’ll be on Game Set Watch, so that’ll be exciting.

Speaking of which, I’ve a new column up at Game Set Watch, about Starcraft 2 and its wretched story (duh), and how it does more to mess with the surprisingly entertaining Single Player gameplay than you’d initially expect. An excerpt here, for consumption:

When I have to sit and watch my units talk, I accept that the single player portion of the game needs a reason, a purpose, for all of that toing and froing (more properly, gamers need these things). Likewise, there’s a certain pleasure to be had in watching quick mission briefings: I’m a commander, and commanders get briefed, or brief people, right? Starcraft 2 goes ahead and makes a significant portion of Wings of Liberty about upgrading a dude’s sweet ship, and about upgrading ingame assets using resources (rather incomprehensibly) earned from previous ingame missions.

Starcraft 2’s upgrade mechanics are mostly lifted from upgrades previously available ingame in Starcraft. If you want your marines to have stimpacks, or want to build medics without having to build a Barracks add-on, you must unlock those capabilities in the Armory. Percentage upgrades to damage and race-specific combat (damage to Zerg only, for instance) can be unlocked using research points collected in the field, and the lab lets players upgrade their forces using alien technology. It’s all here in the beautiful Hyperion, and it means that I’ve spent hours outside of the game proper fiddling with NPCs and upgrades.

Right. It’s pretty awful, and it makes the game bits worse, in a somewhat unavoidable way. The whole post, linked here.

Mafia 2… The music is all purty and old timey, the suits are so crisp, and the gunplay is a sight better than that which is provided us by Rockstar’s various megahits. The acting and writing (in the demo alone) are also better than GTA and RDR‘s affected junk.

That’s it. More on the Kings of fantasy strategy soon?

Posted in Impressions, Random | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »