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.
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.