Friday, February 19, 2010

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat Review

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, developed by GSC Game World and published by Viva Media.
The Good: Large game world with many missions, realism requires tactics to survive, numerous weapons and items to modify and upgrade, less restrictive than previous titles, intelligent AI, nice use of the setting, multiplayer
The Not So Good: High level of difficulty in a lethal world, vague objectives, lots of walking, interface could be improved, inconsistent game performance, terrible flashlight
What say you? Another return to Chernobyl brings a tough but rewarding tactical first person shooter and role-playing game: 7/8

While America has been taken over by the plague known as consolitis, Europe is still a proud beacon of quality PC-first development. I always look forward to getting quality imports from across the pond. One such import is the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of games (you are legally bound to use all punctuation), now in its third iteration with Call of Pripyat. Chernobyl has been a nice setting for the game, allowing for some radiation-induced craziness to surround the shooting and role-playing elements. The first version got reviewed almost three years ago and was typical of Russian-area titles: rough but some nice ideas. How has the game improved since then?

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat features generally the same graphics as the original game: outstanding three years ago, but more average today. That’s not to say that the graphics are terrible, however, as there are some very bright spots to speak of: Pripyat is convincingly rusty and buildings can be quite detailed (especially if they are an important part of the main storyline). There are also some nice time-of-day and weather effects (especially lightning), and the anomalies are appropriately creepy. Character models are done well, though a bit repetitive as you are limited in how varied gas masks appear. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat features a significant amount of stuttering during the game; this may be due to loading times and I never encountered the issue while in the middle of a battle, but it’s definitely present. The game continues to hold its own in the graphics department, although the competition has caught up. The sound design is what you would expect for a foreign: campy English dialogue. Each character gets some canned phrases, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat does not have fully voiced dialogue. Some of the original Russian dialogue is preserved in non-important banter between NPCs, adding to the immersion (and it’s more realistic that way). Most importantly, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat delivers a plausible setting with no significant deficiencies in graphics or sound design.

In S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, you are a military man assigned to investigate a helicopter crash in the Zone of Alienation. Or something like that; I skipped the intro movie. Apart from the main mystery in the game, there are tons of side missions you can (and must) undertake in order to make money and recruit people to your overall goal. Pripyat is a large area and traveling around involves a lot of walking. You can warp to a destination with an NPC character or pay for transport, but you’ll still have to walk back, encountering various beasts along the way like mutated dogs and whatever this thing is. The missions can have some very vague objectives, thanks to your PDA map that fails for show whether locations are above or below you. Because of the frequency of tunnels and multi-level ships and buildings in the game, confusion soon sets in. After you are done, you can continue to play the game in a free-form mode; unfortunately, there are no dynamically generated missions to keep you busy, which would have been cool.

There are several difficulty levels to choose from, ranging from “difficult” to “impossible.” This high level of difficulty is exacerbated by the infrequent auto-save system; you will need to make liberal use of the quick save button (F5) in order to reduce reloading. It should also be mentioned that S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat offers no tutorial on the controls, assuming you either played the previous titles or read the manual (ha!). Multiplayer seems like an afterthought here, with unoriginal deathmatch and team deathmatch that doesn’t really lend itself to the game well. There are two variations on capture the flag, substituting an artifact (one per team or neutral that can be detonated) in its place. Weapons are acquired by purchase (similar to Counter-Strike) instead of pick-ups. You need a low ping in order to enjoy yourself, though, as the European servers introduce too much lag.

As I alluded to earlier, the interface could use some minor improvements to make accessing the game easier for new players. Your PDA displays objective locations, but doesn’t zoom in far enough to differentiate close things and doesn’t indicate whether locations might be above or below you. Your minimap counts the number of nearby humans using a PDA (but not monsters) so you can assess incoming threats, in addition to displaying your concealment and noise. Icons are displayed for nearby hazards like radioactivity and fire, and current warnings are shown (like hunger, damaged armor) so you can take care of them at your earliest convenience. You are also given four quick access slots for things like med packs and food for fast healing. Still, the interface alternates from informative to vague.

It’s important to equip yourself properly for ventures out into the radioactive unknown surrounding the town of Pripyat. First off, you might not want to die, so a sturdy armor is important for protection against bullets and other hazards like fire and chemicals. You might also want to dish out some pain using the assortment of weapons available: pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, grenade launchers, and sniper rifles. Each weapon is rated according to accuracy, rate of fire, damage, recoil, and condition. Weapons degrade quickly over time with use (due to the harsh conditions in Pripyat) and must be repaired to replaced often. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat relies on upgrading your weapons and armor instead of simple stat increases like more traditional role-playing games resort to. There are extensive upgrades to purchase, like magazine size, recoil, weight, accuracy, and hazard protection, most of which require toolkits found scattered out in the field. Ammunition also goes very quickly, necessitating constant replenishment from the caches of fallen enemies. Most of the weapons behave quite conventionally, although grenades cause people to fly around (awesome) and the flashlight is complete garbage, shining all of two feet in front of you.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat has a number of features that add to the realism of the unrealistic situation. The game features a continuous 24-hour world, and your character is required to sleep and eat in order to stay in tip-top shape. Health is more exaggerated than in real life, though not by much; S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat really requires cautious and planned action to stay alive. The large game world must be traversed mostly on foot, except if you can afford paying for transportation; you can run fast but only for about ten seconds at a time. Important are anomalies, dangerous areas that can contain artifacts, which grant a bonus protection at the cost of being radioactive. Artifacts are randomly replenished after each emission event (don’t get caught outside!), so you can explore the same location multiple times. Artifacts are a great way of making money, using your anomaly detector to find interesting things in the game world.

Along the way to objective or anomaly areas, you will run unto a number of mutants that will attempt to eat you. They have distinct patters and behaviors and each offers a different challenge, whether it be invisibility, speed, or telekinetic powers. Humans can also be hostile, although they are more likely to be neutral here than in previous S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games. Human opponents will flank your position and split up in order to kill do dead: rather impressive and usually not scripted. Either type of enemy takes a ton of bullets to bring down, increasing the need for lots of ammunition and more choice shots. NPCs can also offer trades and they fight amongst themselves, producing a very believable setting that goes a long way towards making S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat a quality product. The realism of the game requires real tactics in order to survive, and fans of more challenging games will find a lot to like here.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is exactly what you would expect to find in the third game in a series: the most complete and polished experience. If you enjoyed the previous titles or have a desire to play a survival first person shooter with role-playing elements, than a trip to Chernobyl should be on the agenda. The setting of the game is fantastic, with lots of intelligent NPCs to interact with that have schedules of their own, creating a plausible game world. Radioactivity and other weirdness are also put to good use, producing artifacts that can reap profits or personal stat bonuses (with the unpleasant side effect of radiation poisoning) and emissions that kill anyone left out in the open. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat also features the most varied assortment of side missions, far beyond the simple “kill this guy” assignments from the first game. The environment is also more open for exploration and discovery, extending the life of the game beyond the main campaign missions. Time of day and weather effects also make Pripyat a more realistic setting. The difficulty is still very high, forcing players to play more tactically instead of run-and-gun. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat doesn’t have regular RPG character progression, instead opting for a more realistic method of upgrading your weapons with modifications and a less realistic method of holding artifacts. This is a challenging game, with good AI opponents that will utilize cover and ranged weapons and monsters with tricky abilities. The interface could use some work, specifically the map that shows vague objective locations (not indicating whether they are above or below you). Multiplayer is also nothing special, save for a variation on capture the flag where you can blow up the flag. Overall, though, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is a satisfying third edition to a quality unique PC franchise.