The difference between clever and cunning.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

In Soviet Russia, Zone Alienates You

The Stalker series of First Person Shooters has always had potential. For those of you unfamiliar, the premise holds that something strange and terrible happened in Chernobyl after the reactor melted down, creating a so called “Zone of Alienation” where natural laws are warped or suspended entirely. Enterprising adventurers, known as Stalkers, brave the dangers of the Zone to hunt for the pseudo-magical artifacts that form there.  Unfortunately the first two entries in the Stalker series (“Shadow of Chernobyl” and “Clear Sky”) have had a reputation of being held back by bugs and general lack of polish. In Call of Pripyat the series has finally found its groove.

The story has you, an agent of the Ukrainian Security Service, sent into the Zone to investigate the mysterious crash of a flight of military helicopters. You’re undercover as a Stalker, one of the titular freelance adventurer/scavengers, and more or less on your own. Tracking down each chopper crash and any survivors provides a basic overall mission structure, and an excuse to turn you lose in the Zone to thrive or perish.

The skies above the Zone can be breathtaking.
Gameplay is a tightly tuned version of the FPS/RPG hybrid already established by the Stalker series. The game builds a credible open world and then gives you interesting and difficult choices to make in it. While better guns certainly help, you’re dependant on your own aim and reflexes to get your bullets where you want them. Combat and movement function as a First Person shooter, but like any good RPG Call of Pripyat lets you choose where to explore, how to interact with the characters and creatures you meet, and what gear to equip and tweak.

The game world is split across three expansive areas. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but each area has its own distinctive terrain and hazards. Locations of interest are marked on your map. You’re free to visit or ignore them in any order, though many of the Zone’s dangers can prove lethal without proper equipment. The levels feel large, but you’re rarely more than a five minute sprint from home base.

Each area features a central hub populated by friendly NPCs where you can resupply, repair and upgrade your gear, and pick up optional missions.  These run the gamut from standard kill-this-fetch-that, to hostage rescues, to sneaking through a lair full of sleeping mutants. Stealth and/or negotiation are occasionally options. A few missions offer opportunities to align yourself with one group or another. There’s not really a “Faction war” mechanic like in Clear Sky, but your actions do determine which characters live or die.
Flocks of crows circle overhead. What draws them to the Zone?

World of Desolation

The world of the Zone remains a terrifying and desolate place. Buildings and objects crumble and rust from exposure and neglect. Natural (and unnatural) forces slowly reclaim the works of man. The skyscape overhead is breathtaking and moody, even on clear days, and is frequently home to dozens of ominously circling crows. In quiet moments you hear the baying of dogs in the distance, and sometimes what sounds like the whisper of far-off voices.

Like the rest of the Stalker series, Call of Pripyat manages to be truly frightening at times. Even when there’s nothing lurking in the dark the abandoned buildings and tunnels across the Zone are intensely creepy. The empty city of Pripyat itself is especially eerie, with rows of vacant housing blocks, blind empty windows, and wind-swept playgrounds.  Night in the Zone is pitch black, lit only by the circle of your flashlight or the washed out green of Night vision. After a nocturnal encounter with hunting mutants I found myself heading back to the nearest friendly camp when it started to get dark.

You never know what might come lunging out of the dark...
Day or night, the Zone pulses with a life of its own. Even without your presence the people and creatures that live there pursue their own goals. Stalkers band together for protection and search for Artifacts, bandits attempt to prey on the un-wary and mutant packs forage for food. It’s common to come across encounters between different groups already in progress. You can pick a side, opportunistically loot the fallen, or just keep moving, but you’re constantly reminded that the world isn’t reacting to you and you alone.

Life and Death in the Zone

Combat is a tense, high risk affair. Human opponents reward use of cover, headshots, and long range accuracy. Both you and all but the most heavily armored characters are fairly fragile, and the AI is good at trying to creep around to flank you. Call of Pripyat has decent stealth mechanics, but Bandits and Mercenaries are almost improbably alert, even in the dead of night. While hard to take by surprise, enemy aim and grenade use never feels unfair. Speaking of which, the Stalker series really needs to get with the times and include a hotkey to toss grenades while keeping your current weapon equipped. I understand this isn’t intended to be Halo, but switching back and forth remains clunky at best and suicidal at worst.

Battling mutants is less tactical and more visceral, often boiling down to waiting for just the right moment to unload your shotgun at whatever is bearing down on you. The unnatural creatures birthed by the Zone are a diverse and disturbing lot. Packs of blind dogs circle you, yelping to draw your attention and charging when you turn away. Ghoulish once-humans crawl across the floor, still wearing tattered gas masks, before flinging themselves at your throat from across the room. Squid-faced abominations stalk you unseen, cloaked by some mysterious power, becoming visible a moment before they strike. And then there’s the really dangerous and horrible things found in the deepest depths of the Zone.

Shhh. They're sleeping. Don't make any noise.
The creature design is top notch. Whatever happened to the people and animals taken by the Zone looks painful, disturbing, and at times even surprisingly biologically plausible. Mutants drop nothing of value when slain. Given how dangerous and resilient many specimens are a clever player will learn to evade and escape, rather than stand and fight every radioactive monstrosity they meet.

The Things You’ll Carry

The game strikes a nice balance between challenging realism and concessions to smooth gameplay. You need to eat and sleep periodically or face increasing penalties to accuracy and endurance, but not so frequently that it is obnoxious or disruptive. You’re vulnerable to bleeding wounds and radiation sapping your health, but convenient and customizable inventory hot slots let you slap on a bandage or gulp anti-rad drugs and forge ahead. Medkits heal you quickly but not instantly. The more weight you carry the less you can sprint, so balancing your inventory is an ongoing tactical choice. Those extra pounds of loot aren’t going to help if they let hungry mutants run you down.

The sheer variety of weapons and equipment you can scavenge and buy is almost daunting. Most are modeled after real world firearms, and all have pros and cons that make picking your arsenal a complex decision. The relationship between weight and endurance ensures every ounce is important. Do you go with a steel helmet to deflect bullets or a gas mask to better cope with toxic and radioactive hazards? That heavy shotgun is great for fending off mutants in tunnels, but will be so much dead weight in an open field skirmish against bandits. A silenced pistol is light and easy to find ammo for, but won’t help against heavily armored foes.

Upgrades are cheaper if you ply the technician with enough Vodka first.
Guns and armor can be upgraded, provided you have enough cash and have brought the technician NPC the appropriate tools. The system works like an RPG style skill tree, each upgrade unlocking the next tier. Many upgrades are mutually exclusive, forcing you to choose between two tempting options. Some enemies and attacks can knock the gun out of your hands, and it’s always fun to have to decide between combing through toxic mud for a prize weapon and making a break for it. That mutant boar won’t give you much time to think.

Breaking the law (of physics)

The Artifacts that drew everyone to the Zone are closely tied to the Anomalies that pose one of the Zone’s greatest dangers. Anomalies are highly localized areas of un-natural heat, electrical activity, radiation, and other lethal forces. No two are alike. Fireballs swirl around a searing hot ring of baked dirt at the aptly named Circus Anomaly. Gravitational distortions create surreal bulges and depressions in the toxic water of a swamp. A perfectly straight scar gouged a hundred meters into a hillside hums with brain melting Psi activity. Each Anomaly poses a distinct hazard that you can prepare for with the right protective gear and supplies. Most are marked on your map, and the Artifacts that are your best source of wealth and unusual abilities are only found inside.

In gameplay terms navigating an Anomaly requires patience, close observation, and reflexes. Most Anomalies slowly drain your health and damage your armor as long as you stay in them, and contain intensely dangerous points that cripple or kill directly. You can throw metal bolts to find a safe rout, and hand-held detectors help you track down Artifacts and warn you by beeping and crackling as you approach a dangerous spot.

Braving an Anomaly is always tense and dangerous, but Artifacts are valuable. In addition to being worth a lot of cash they have unique properties, like increasing your strength and endurance, protecting you from specific types of damage, or satisfying hunger. It’s not quite super-powers, but Artifacts allow yet another layer of customization and tactical choice. Each armor suit only has a limited number of slots to equip Artifacts, and most of them slowly irradiate you in addition to whatever benefit they offer, so making use of them is always a trade off.

As if the Zone needed more ways to kill you there is also the threat of Emissions, spectacular and dangerous events that occur about once a day. When one begins the air crackles with energy, and humans and mutants alike flee. You only have a few minutes to reach a cave or sheltered building, because anything caught outside when the Emission reaches its peak will die. The nearest shelter is marked on your map as soon as an Emission starts, although there’s no telling what might already be living inside or follow you in seeking cover.

If the sky turns this color, get indoors.
Whatever the case, it’s preferable to being outside during an Emission. The earth rumbles and the sky turns a steadily darker shade of red. As the Emission builds the screen rocks and fills with static, and then there is a blinding flash, followed by the patter of dead birds dropping out of the sky.

Ghosts and Echoes

Call of Pripyat has a generally high level of polish. Its stark environments looked good and ran well on my machine. I didn’t encounter any of the weird event and scripting bugs that plagued the first game. When the story had me fighting alongside NPC allies they kept up and did a good job of defending themselves. The only technical complaint I can think of is that a few optional areas had very tight geometry that made it possible to get stuck. While we’re quibbling, the ability to put my own notes and navigation beacons on the map would have been nice too.

Most of the game takes place in the larger free-roaming environments, but a few story missions send you into more scripted and linear areas. Stand outs include leading a team of Stalkers through a network of tunnels flooded with toxic gas, and an underground lab that’s been warped into a nerve wracking radioactive haunted house. I found these an interesting and challenging change of pace, but other players may find them frustrating as your options to evade enemies and resupply are limited.  
The city of Pripyat, abandoned playgrounds and all.

Call of Pripyat suffers from a weak central plot, but that’s hardly crippling. As mentioned previously, it’s mostly an excuse to turn you lose in the Zone and spur you to travel deeper in. The numerous side quests and characters feel like the meat of the narrative anyway. Things pick up in the last hour or two, tying the story back in with the rest of the Stalker series. The final mission is a frantic running battle across the city of Pripyat, and is one of the highlights of the game. Hopefully you’ve been keeping the other characters alive, because you’ll want all the supporting firepower you can get. In a nice touch you can choose to keep exploring in Free Roam mode after finishing the last mission.

I was also pleasantly surprised by Call of Pripyat’s epilogue. Far too many games end with a two minute cut scene that doesn’t resolve anything and jump to credits. The epilogue goes into detail about what happened to each of the areas, factions and characters you met in your adventure, and how your actions (or lack thereof) affected them. It wraps up the story nicely, and reinforces that the choices the player made have consequences in the world of the Zone, for better or worse.

Reasons to play: The vivid, terrifying world of the Zone. The game constantly presents the player with interesting and meaningful choices. High level of polish and fun.

Reasons to pass: Weak core story. Players who prefer a more linear, trimmed down shooter may find themselves lost and frustrated.