S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky's predecessor, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, was released early last year to a mixture of acclaim and slight disappointment. Anticipated for a long time before its release, it didn't quite meet its potential. It was annoyingly buggy, it required a high specification PC to run, and to many it felt frustratingly hard. Well guess what, it's very nearly deja vu all over again. Clear Sky certainly needs patience but there are rewards for getting through its quirks; however that doesn't necessarily mean all that play it will persevere.
Clear Sky is the prequel to Shadow of Chernobyl, set in the same danger zone surrounding Chernobyl shortly after a second nuclear incident there. However there are now the additions of certain factions that can make the open world a lot more violent than in its predecessor, it also makes things a lot more interesting which we'll investigate later. Initially life is a little bit uncertain as you start out as the only survivor of a nuclear emission, saved by the Clear Sky faction of Stalkers. As is often the way, you quickly discover that you are the only known human to have survived direct exposure to an emission, which makes you just a little unique really.
The first few tasks are a little monotonous, nothing more than showing you around the Clear Sky camp, but once given the opportunity to explore the areas around you, the openness of the wilderness becomes strangely claustrophobic. It makes a welcome change from the usual enclosed spaces often used in FPSes, although it provides nothing new to veterans of the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game. Of course, this zone is far from empty. It is literally teeming with mutants, other factions and anomalies all out to kill you. This is where one pitfall becomes apparent - its no easy game. Even on the easiest mode of play, it is very simple to be killed. Those expecting to be able to blast their way through the game will be very surprised.
The difficulty level is no big deal in theory; it's great to have a challenging game that takes a fair while to complete. However often it can feel extremely frustrating and unfair to die. For example, the enemy's accuracy with grenades is near perfect every time. The game greatly focuses on surviving the Zone rather than feeling like an overpowered hero; don't expect to breeze through this game or to feel hugely empowered either.
One useful feature that gives you a better chance of survival is the addition of rival factions. They also mix up the game's aims too. Some tasks are simply delivery jobs, others can be as dramatic as full assaults against other faction’s strongholds; and these set pieces are particularly spectacular. All of these tasks can help you in the long run greatly, for one thing if your faction rules an area of the map, it makes it safer to travel through besides the obvious rewards of items and precious ammo. Another addition is the character customisation option, it's essentially a very basic RPG element that allows you to improve your weapons and armour to your liking. To be able to do that you need artifacts, which are nowhere near as simple to acquire as in the first game. This time round you need a detector to spot them as they are invisible and you have to get incredibly close to them to detect them in the first place. Still, at least it means you feel a huge sense of achievement finally upgrading your items. Pity, the game can take them away from you later on - thus somewhat ruining the point.
The main problem with Clear Sky is it's not very easy to get drawn into the world the game tries to create; just as you start to be enveloped by it, you're reminded just how fake it actually is. With features like the PDA that show you where you are at all times, it also shows you where mutants are, reminding you instantly that despite the idea of the land being uncharted, it's actually just been created by a games designer. To add to the ruining of atmosphere, random bugs get in the way. Faction fights aren't triggered when they should be seemingly because of random bugs that really should have been noticed in testing. Although I haven't experienced it myself, there have been reports of save files being corrupted and the game randomly crashing. Thankfully there has already been a patch released for it but the reports of corrupt save files are still appearing, and worst of all any save files before patching do not work once patched - which is frankly ludicrous, forcing players to start over again on a game that should have been fully working to begin with.
So, you've probably reached that point where you can't actually tell whether I dislike this game or recommend it. And that's the problem, I'm not actually sure. Much like the original, it has a charm about it that makes you want to like it yet it is hugely flawed, with its many reported bugs and performance problems. It doesn't quite deserve the term 'flawed gem' but nor does it deserve to be discarded either. The latest patch doesn't appear to have helped sufficiently but hopefully in the future, other patches will finally make this game worth playing. Simply put, if you managed to put up with the flaws of the original, you will enjoy this despite its issues. If you couldn't face the original, then you probably shouldn't go anywhere near this until it has been patched sufficiently. In conclusion Clear Sky deserves some attention from you, as well as from its developers... nobody's perfect after all.