The trilogy is complete – Clear Sky was a prequel to the first game and Call Of Pripyat is the sequel. After the first four hours of playing CoP, and having played both the previous games, I am impressed – CoP is one helluva game and it seamlessly integrates the best elements of its predecessors. Shadow Of Chernobyl reinforced the feeling of being alone, and you interacted with people rarely, mostly only in camps and bases. When exploring the zone, there was hardly any company. Clear Sky messed this aspect up a bit adding team elements and active factions, thereby reducing the feeling one had of being a lone operative, which worked wonders for what is a survival-horror-fps. Clear Sky wasn’t without merit though, for it introduced the welcome element of upgrading and repairing weapons and armour thereby adding an added dimension of gameplay that saw players scrounging up on cash for the converting their peashooter into the ultimate weapon.
CoP brings back the feeling of being alone – but not unrealistically so, for the zone is teeming with life. Even more realistically the game does not always place you at the forefront like the two previous games. The living, breathing zone is captured even better and stalkers can be found moving very realistically around - looting dead bodies, surveying and exploring anomalies and even engaging mutants. You will come across small roving bands of stalkers exploring, others will be camped around small fires or makeshift shelters. Everyone seems to have a purpose, and they’re not just waiting for you to come along. Very few people are hostile towards you, and even mercenaries and bandits will not show up as threats – this makes the game more realistic, for in the previous games, one always got the feeling that these factions were added as an afterthought to keep things busy.
The protagonist is Ukrainian security agent Major Alexander Degtyarev, and your primary mission is the reconnaissance of five military choppers that crashed in the zone – causes unknown. You will start in Zaton, which is a blend of swamps and rolling hills with shacks and abandoned complexes dotting the grassy landscape. Although there are only three maps, including Pripyat, each of the maps is much larger than ones in the previous two games. There’s plenty more to do as well, and each map has a lot of interesting points to investigate. Noteworthy points are marked on your PDA map, so find your way around is never an issue.
The degree of NPC interaction with the environment is a lot more and this makes for a lot of fun. You’ll come across small groups of stalkers huddled around campfires, but more often you’ll come across groups of three stalkers scouting areas or patrolling. Mutants attack frequently, and you’ll often have to lend a helping hand. At times hanging around the fringes of a firefight is more expedient, especially if you spot a powerful weapon on one of the stalkers. While you’re keeping your fingers crossed that some mutant nails him and you get a free weapon, just make sure you’ve thinned the mutants’ ranks sufficiently before they run out of targets. Upgrading weapons and armour is very involving, so much so you’ll be doing it a lot. Weapons get tangible benefits while armour becomes more rugged, resistant to the zones elements and improved night vision that makes midnight jaunts safer. Everything is relatively cheaper than before, so you can actually afford have three fully upgraded suits and four fully upgraded weapons if you’re thrifty. You have to be clever enough to choose a pretty good weapon loadout though, for you don’t want to be upgrading an AK74/2 when you might come across a GP37 a bit later, this also involves making a decision – do you go with a close-range assault rifle like the Tunder S14 or a medium range weapon like a GP37? If you can carry enough, you can actually go with two weapons. I ended up with a fully upgraded military exoskeleton and was able to carry three fully upgraded weapons – a GP37 for medium range, a Dragunov SVD long range sniping and a Tunder S14 for close combat along with a hard hitting sidearm – pretty impressive huh? Dough is easy to come by – complete side missions, sell equipment taken off dead stalkers and artefacts. The latter is a really profitable venture, for these fetch a dear price, and they don’t weight much – you get the picture. Also after blowouts occur, artefacts respawn in anomalies. In a group, you need to be quick to loot, for other stalkers will just as soon pick a body clean. Exploration in the zone is rewarding, caches can be very valuable and you can pick up good weapons.
Many of the side missions can be really interesting; some have many parts to them and most are a lot of fun in addition to adding to your reputation with factions and your loot pile. Creeping through an underground room full of sleeping bloodsuckers, only to return later to gas them with toxic gas you need to retrieve is immensely satisfying. Recruiting stalkers to form a squad to accompany you through the underground tunnel system to Pripyat is another lengthy mission but involving mission. You will actually try to keep your team alive – the game is clever enough to make you give a damn about something other than your own hide. The main storyline picks up very slowly, but the side missions and interesting parts of the maps will keep you occupied.
There are a couple of new, powerful mutants – the burer and the chimera; the former attacks telekinetically and can even yank your weapon out of your grasp, while the latter is nocturnal and can go invisible like a bloodsucker, but is also capable of powerful leaps.
The XRay Engine 1.6 is showing its age and some of the textures could use reworking, but the intricately detailed environments, realistic weaponry and effects overshadows the visual blemishes. The audio component remains unsettlingly spooky and will keep you whipping around frantically at most sounds. And this is the primary thrill of playing this game – it keeps you at the edge of your seat, perhaps not as much as the original game though – Shadow Of Chernobyl had lengthy underground sequences, CoP is slightly tamer on the “edge-of-your-seat” factor. The game is not difficult, but it’s far from being a gun-slinging run – you need to use cover and your weapon wisely. Tactics are rewarded, though at times you’ll come across the odd opponent who stands by and does nothing as you annihilate his squad – obviously the AI is buggy, but this is rare.
CoP is a better game than Clear Sky, and much more stable with very infrequent crashes, which is an immense relief. It’s at par with SoC, better in some places, slightly worse in others and if you’re looking for an immersive, atmospheric experience you’re barking up the right tree…correction – the only tree, for nobody does atmospheric quite like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.