Excellent game, gritty, creepy, and misanthropic
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl is one of the most criminally underappreciated games of all time. After years in development, it delivered an excellent FPS/RPG experience like no other. It was a great mixture of exploration, horror, and first person shooting delivered with a creepy, gritty, atmosphere and a misanthropic attitude. Still, its bugginess and rough edges left some room for improvement. Call of Pripyat is a superb follow-up. It is more excellent than its predecessor and just as overlooked. It addresses the shortcomings of the first game almost perfectly while maintaining everything that made it great.
If you are not familiar with this series, then you should go back and play Shadow of Chernobyl, because it is a great game and it gives you a lot of background that comes into play with this game. If you'd rather just jump into this one, then a little primer is in order. It is the near future, and there has been another major catastrophe at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The disaster has created a massive zone full of radiation and scientific anomalies where the laws of nature are bent. Ambitious treasure hunters, known as "Stalkers", explore The Zone in search of valuable artifacts – little objects with special properties that science cannot explain. All kinds of dangers – bandits, mutants, and environmental hazards – claim the lives of countless stalkers. Rumors of a legendary "wish granter" fuel stalkers' dreams of power and riches. In this game, you play as a member of the military sent into the zone to investigate a series of helicopter crashes. You explore the zone, solving this mystery while taking on side jobs, collecting artifacts, and defending yourself against all kinds of dangers.
The gameplay is intact from the first game, but improved. You still have a limited inventory that allows you to carry just a few weapons, the ammo and supplies you need, and some body armor. There is still a huge zone to explore, and the game is still somewhat open-ended. Your weapons and armor wear down and need repair, but this time, you can also pay a technician to upgrade your guns and armor once you find some special tools. The shooting leans heavily towards realism. Shooting enemies usually requires stopping and aiming. Firefights tend to be thrilling, short-lived, tactical affairs. Your handy Geiger counter and anomaly detector help you avoid all kinds of dangers, and when an anomaly is nearby, you chuck bolts in front of you to make sure that you do not walk into one. In this game, you also have an artifact detector that helps you find treasures. Periodically, you return to Stalker hangouts where you can sell your loot, buy stuff, and get new missions. The formula is unique to this game, and it is implemented wonderfully.
Where Call of Pripyat improves substantially over Shadow of Chernobyl is in its design. Shadow of Chernobyl felt a lot like a sci-fi simulation. The layout of the zone was realistic, but this realism came with a cost. Namely, walking around was time consuming and boring. It was the biggest problem with the first game, and Call of Pripyat improves upon it so much that it changes the feel entirely. Call of Pripyat is much more focused as a game. For example, The Zone's layout is a lot more game-friendly. Interesting locales are spaced much closer together, which means that you won't have to hold down the "W" key for five minutes to get anywhere. There are three huge areas in the game, each of which has a somewhat centrally located hub where you can shop, take on quests, and get your equipment repaired. The indoor areas are also more tightly designed, making them better first person shooter experiences. Every location has something that makes it worth visiting – it might be an artifact surrounded by dangerous anomalies, or valuable equipment guarded by deadly mutants. Speaking of artifacts and mutants, there is a greater variety to them this time. Every artifact has at least something useful about it and the really good ones are appropriately rare and hard to find. This game is brimming with creativity, unconventional gameplay, and a neverending sense of adventure as you wonder what awaits you around every corner.
The beauty of this game's better design is that it irons out a lot of the first game's bad quirks without getting rid of the good ones. Call of Pripyat never sacrifices the unpredictable, unexplained, and extremely dangerous alien feel that the first game introduced. The Zone feels like a playground for an evil god, with the people in it little more than toys to be tormented and played with. Nor does the game sacrifice the sense of realism in combat or the atmosphere of unease everywhere you travel. Call of Pripyat manages to be creepy even when you are outdoors in broad daylight. You never know when you will stumble into an unscripted encounter with some mutants, or when you will be forced to take cover from a dangerous emission (a huge radiation storm that kills everyone left outside).
Call of Pripyat has much more interesting quests than Shadow of Chernobyl. Gone are the numerous randomly generated fetch quests that would involve getting junk artifacts or collecting trophies from respawning monsters. Most of the quests are either story-related, or they are unique experiences that are important to someone. The quests don't sound interesting on paper. They usually involve finding an item or killing something, but they are fun to complete, thanks to the bizarre challenges that you always encounter along the way. The quests often have some lasting value besides money. For example, one quest leads you to a new weapon that is broken. You bring it back to your technician and he gives you a new quest to find documents about it. As your reward, he fixes the weapon and you get to use it.
The graphics have been improved over Shadow of Chernobyl, thanks to some subtle polish and a little more eye candy here and there. The outdoor gray-skied vistas look as foreboding as they ever have and some of the crazy zone effects (like the emissions that turn the sky red) paint an excellent picture of just how bizarre the Zone is. Call of Pripyat looks good, but you can see the engine starting to show its age. Weapon models are still good, but NPCs are average, at best, by today's standards. The mutants look especially outdated.
The story in Call of Pripyat is among the game's few flaws. It is hardly a story. It is more like a huge mission without much interesting drama. Your job is to investigate helicopter crashes. You find out as much of a scientific explanation for it as you can, and then you leave The Zone. The reappearance of the factions and a few characters from Shadow of Chernobyl add some nostalgia value, but the game still feels like a 20-hour side quest. The game doesn't help you get attached to your character or any of the NPCs. You find some allies, but no friends that you care about if they get killed. Ending vignettes show you what happens to each major NPC, but chances are, you won't care. The game doesn't make much attempt to give them good dialog, and when it is voice-acted, it is done poorly in English with Russian accents. This game, more than any, should have come with the ability to listen to the original Russian audio with English subtitles. Taunts and battle cries are still done in Russian, which means that some NPCs will switch back and forth in the middle of the game. Call of Pripyat gets away with these flaws though, because the rest of the game is so good.
With S.T.A.L.K.E.R. -- Call of Pripyat, GSC Gameworld has come up with another excellent game. In the three years since Shadow of Chernobyl came out, there hasn't been anything like it -- until now. With improved design, new gameplay elements, and fewer glitches, this game feels like the ambitious masterpiece that the original game was intended to be. It is a challenging experience aimed at old school PC gamers who are looking for more depth and complexity with a little less hand holding. I don't excpect it to show up on many "Game of the Year" lists, but Call of Pripyat deserves to be mentioned when we look back on the greatest games of 2010.