Survivalist games are few and far between, with one of the more recent being S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl.
This latest game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky, is a prequel and it is set in the near future, where you take on the role of a mercenary (or Stalker) to uncover the mysteries of Chernobyl.
The disaster at Chernobyl has left its mark on the surrounding countryside. Differing bands, or factions, seek to control their piece of this twisted landscape in the hope of unlocking its secrets. The strange energy pulses that spread out from its centre, and the areas of anomalies where the very fabric of matter is twisted, have left equally twisted beasts and humans. In the story, after escorting some scientists, you are hit by one of these pulses but miraculously you survive. Rescued by one of the factions, you embark on a journey to discover what is at the centre of this mystery, and more importantly to find out what the pulse has done to you.
At its heart this game is most definitely a shooter, however you would be mistaken if you think you can run in with all guns blazing. For a start, the zones you explore are free ranging, and you can travel just about anywhere on the map. It is an environment that is forever changing and persistent. Clear an area of one faction, and the vacuum you leave allows another to move in. Mutants roam free over the map, and where once you thought a town was safe it can quickly change sides.
In true survivalist fashion you start the game with a minimum of equipment and knowledge. The basic gear is your backpack, a pistol, and the trusty shooter staple, the shotgun. To help you find your way around you have your PDA, which is essentially a map that shows you your primary and secondary quests, and also gives an up-to-date view of the power struggles between the various factions.
Travelling anywhere is dangerous. The biggest and most constant danger is the radiation. Whilst bearable in most areas, certain spots have abnormally high amounts that can easily kill you.
As in the first S.T.A.L.K.E.R. title, your detector emits alarming clicks when you are getting near a dangerous area, and your health will rapidly decrease until you can administer an anti-rad injection or drink a bottle of vodka (strange, but after drinking a whole bottle we theorise you are pretty much immune to anything). There are also the anomalies that appear as unfocused areas that swirl and pick up the unwary and literally rip them apart.
If the environment does not kill you then the inhabitants will. There are the local animals, which consist mainly of dogs and things that perhaps were once dogs. Both types hunger for flesh (mainly yours). The human foes are the more cunning, as the various bands that rule over portions of the map will either help or hinder you. They guard specific quest nodes, and how you interact with them will dictate what quests are available in the zone. It is possible to ally with a faction, and this decision can alter the challenges you face in the game. The replayability of the game is significantly enhanced by this. Quests usually involve the basic finding of specific items, finding specific people and killing stuff. This is unfair though, as they are each soaked with the underlying story, never seem tedious, and are always challenging.
As you explore you quickly start to accumulate new weapons and ammunition. They are in abundance, and you often find yourself spoilt for choice. The weapons run the full gambit of the small arms of N.A.T.O. and the Soviet Bloc. At faction bases these weapons can be exchanged for credits to purchase additional equipment, repairs, and upgrades to your gear. Your weapon is highly customisable - you can add extra ammo capacity, sight rails and sights, grenade launchers, silencers, and more. Eventually you can build up a a bag of tricks for every occasion.
The enemy AI is pretty good and you need to use cover at every opportunity. Exposing too much of your body mass invites a burst from an AK47 that will have you quickly reloading your save point. The humans are no easy beasts, and they can easily out-flank you and make use of cover themselves. The dogs are hellishly difficult to target as they move so fast, whilst the mutants in the later game only become visible when they are almost on you. Some of the ambient life can be equally terrifying, as you creep up on you foes and suddenly a bird flies noisily over your head.
The environments are fantastic. They're definitely not postcard material, unless you like rotting buildings, rusting machinery and a wilderness that is slowly morphing into something that seems to be a living entity. The game is hugely successful in portraying this post-apocalyptic world. The blowing grass, the dreary foreboding of once occupied buildings and the eerie moaning noise that emanates from who knows what all add to the atmosphere. It's creepy, but when night falls in the game, and all you have is your flashlight or night vision scope, it raises the terror level even more. Some players find this aspect of the game hard (there is a mod available to let you sleep through the night phases) but we found the heightened intensity one of the really challenging and enjoyable aspects of the game.
Unfortunately, there are issues with the game. In the first instance when you install it, it immediately patches to version 1.01. Fair enough, you say, but this patch does nothing to resolve the crashes that plague the game, and only with some hunting online can you find patch 1.5 that solves the majority of the issues. We've mirrored this now on GP Downloads - patch it immediately to this level as previous saved games become unplayable after patching (another issue not fully resolved from Shadow of Chernobyl).
One other irritating aspect is the lack of bag space you have. It seems that with only a basic load of kit, you have very little room for any loot you might find or remove from a body. It can be a long trip back to base to unload. Fortunately there is quite an active mod community and we recommend the bag mod that increases your capacity significantly as a must have. There are other mods, including weapon sounds, graphic improvements and realism mods (be aware even in novice mode it is very easy to get yourself killed).
If you are tired of the online hackfests and want to play something at your own pace then we can highly recommend S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky. It is scary, exciting and challenging. Its technical flaws are disappointing and inexcusable, but once past these there is a truly remarkable and compelling game underneath that deserved better quality control prior to release.
Want more? We have three trailers for S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky mirrored at GP Downloads.