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What You Want is Here, Stalker: a S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat Review
None could have predicted the enormous upset that GSC Game World ushered in to the PC gaming industry with the release of the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl in 2007. First announced in 2001, delayed several times over the course of its development, rebuilt and restructured mid-development, and released with numerous stability and performance issues, many had thought the title to be vaporware and many more had doubts about the game's viability. Behind the bugs and memory leaks and crashes, however, was a game with immersion properties unlike anything else at the time, and as issues were addressed, performance improved and hidden elements discovered and reactivated S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s popularity exploded. GSC Game World had struck gold and what might have once been a one-off title was destined to become a major franchise.
Shadow of Chernobyl was followed in 2008 by prequel Clear Sky, which further explored the mysterious forces behind the Zone and served as a testbed for new gameplay elements and restored resources from Shadow of Chernobyl. Though making several marked improvements over its predecessor, Clear Sky never quite reached the popularity of Shadow of Chernobyl. Clear Sky's lukewarm welcome would be of little worry to GSC Game World, however, as 2009 marked the release of Call of Pripyat, chronological sequel to Shadow of Chernobyl and last of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. trilogy. Building upon the mechanical and content improvements of Clear, Call of Pripyat is a mechanical magnus opus that refines and distills the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. gameplay to a purity unmatched by any other installment of the franchise.
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GSC Game World has clearly learned a great number of lessons from their work on the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Franchise, as the gameplay improvements ushered in with Call of Pripyat are nothing short of amazing. The franchise's signature anomalies, once treated like physics-defying landmines indiscriminately scattered across the Zone, now exist as personalized landmarks that dot the terrain, warping the world around them in accordance to their type. Weapons and weapon ballistics, an issue that has been a constant topic of discussion and modification for the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Series, have finally found the sweet spots many mods have tried and failed to reach and gunplay is tight and effective. The much-touted A-Life system has received a considerable boost to performance, and bands of mutants and Stalkers alike now roam the wilderness of the Zone in search of precious artifacts and fresh prey.
Not everything new in Call of Pripyat is new of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., however. Of particular interest is the reintroduction of two enemies from Shadow of Chernobyl that were initially removed prior to release. The Burer, a mutated humanoid with psychokinetic powers, is capable of assaulting players with energy waves and loose objects in the environment and specializes in snatching weapons out of the hands of weak players. More impressive is the Chimera, a beast best described as a hairless, two-headed mutant bear, which stalks the Zone by night and can leap a dozen meters or more in a single pounce, ripping through armor and flesh in the process. Combined with the continued refinements of Clear Sky's repair and upgrade and Guide Systems, the gameplay changes of Call of Pripyat create a title that is lean, mean, and fantastically functional.
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Interface & Controls
Call of Pripyat's interface isn't particularly special in any way. As far as FPS interfaces go, it's rather run of the mill: a mini-map/clock/noise meter/visibility meter combo in the upper-left corner, ammunition, health and stamina information in the lower-right, and color-coded pips that appear along the right side of the scene to indicate issues such as low weapon and armor condition, radiation poisoning and encumbrance warnings. Looking at the map gives you information on important landmarks and leads to crucial points for active quests, and the PDA provides a variety of information regarding player statistics and conversations.
What makes Call of Pripyat's interface so highly-scored is the interface is completely and fantastically functional. While other games and plenty of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. mods have tried any number of tricks regarding the interface to try and make it more minimalist or immersive or whatever buzzword the developer decided to use, GSC Game World has focused on creating an interface that is informative and responsive. A few clicks of the mouse are all that's needed to do just about anything, and an entire score of tasks can be accomplished with a quick combination of the mouse and keyboard. The removal of certain interface bumps and jerks and the addition of four customizable quick-use buttons for easy item access make Call of Pripyat the most smooth handling of any S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game yet.
The vanilla key layout is the standard first-person shooter fare, a WASD-centric setup that places all important and oft-used keys within easy reach of the primary movement hand. More specialized keys such as ammunition type selection and the flashlight are left to the right side of the keyboard to prevent accidental activation. Each of these keys can be quickly and painlessly reset to suit player preferences.
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The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise has always been incredibly ambitious in terms of graphics and artistic design, and though lacking the raw and brutal capabilities of graphics powerhouse Crysis, the series has managed to capture minds and hearts through excellent use of lightning and environmental design. As third in the series and with version 1.6 of GSC Game World's X-Ray engine under the hood, Call of Pripyat has nearly a decade of development and refinement behind its design and the result is an immersive feast for the eyes.
Call of Pripyat is one of the first titles capable of exploiting Microsoft's DirectX 11 Application Programming Interface, and on a computer with sufficient hardware the effect is considerable, if not subtle. Chief of these new additions is Hardware Tessellation, by which low-density polygons on curved models can be divided and re-rendered in real time to increase visual detail and added fullness to otherwise-minimal model aspects. Though not easily discernible in the heat of combat or the concentration of anomaly navigation, this boost of detail is nevertheless positively jarring when its presence is finally realized. Combined with the numerous visual advancements developed in Clear Sky such as visible sun rays, depth-of-field and motion blur, and soft water and dynamic wet surfaces, the visual power of Call of Pripyat is almost startling when compared to to the then-stunning offerings of Shadow of Chernobyl.
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A central part of what makes the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise so alluring and effective as a game is GSC Game World's superb use of direct and ambient sound to immerse players in the Zone of Exclusion. Much like its predecessors, Call of Pripyat is rich in detail when attempting to recreate the radioactive wilderness of an alternate-universe Ukraine. As weather patterns shift from clear skies to windy overcast to torrential rain, an ever-enveloping to borderline-oppressive ambiance accompanies the player to give life to the situation, and the immersion effect is simply incalculable.
Where Call of Pripyat truly distinguishes itself from its predecessors is the most interesting turn that background music has taken in the franchise. Whereas precious titles featured a minimalist soundtrack designed to work in harmony with environmental sounds, Call of Pripyat bolsters this presence and makes music a much more distinct entity, but does so in such a way as to maintain the aforementioned ambient harmony. The soundtrack is an interesting chimera of a sort, music but not quite music, blending traditional strong structure with an interesting choice of instruments and sound effects that creates an unearthly atmosphere that fits the nature of the Zone with absolute perfection.
Voicework in Eastern-European games has always been a hit-or-miss issue, and Call of Pripyat is unfortunetily no example. Given the nature of this sort of localization, some of the voicework sounds as though the actors were hamming the work up for all they were worth, in some cases to the point of making a dramatic scene outright laughable. The overall effect is unique, to say the least, and if nothing else the localization team of GSC Game World has made for an extremily memorable and mematic
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Story & Plot
Where Call of Pripyat differs from its predecessor is the stuff and substance of its plot and story. While on the surface it looks no more unusual than the hooks of Shadow of Chernobyl and Clear Sky, Call of Pripyat's plot is a much more smooth and level entity, lacking many of the peculiarities and utter mind-screws seen in previous installments of the series. There are few grand reveals or exposition sequences, and while those already familiar with the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. universe with certainly gain some insight into what took place within the Zone of Exclusion, there's little that's completely new and alien as was the case of Call of Pripyat's predecessors
This is not at all to say that Call of Pripyat is lacking in story. While the main plot itself is a more trim and lean beast compared to those of earlier franchise installments, much of the story of Call of Pripyat is told through the numerous side quests players can undertake: indeed, the vast majority of the ending presented to the player at the conclusion of Call of Pripyat hinges upon these side quests and how the player completes them. Whereas in previous titles these opportunities were little more than barebones "kill/fetch X" quests, GSC Game World has spent great time and effort to make these quests unique and memorable affairs. Many of these quests are bound to one another to some degree, and the result is a number of micro-arcs that chronicle some aspect of life in the Zone, be it man's struggle for survival against the elements, for understanding of the Zone, and for dominance as various factions struggle for material and ideological supremacy.
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For a franchise as noteworthy and impressive as S.T.A.L.K.E.R., no other title can possibly match Call of Pripyat as a fitting sendoff to GSC Game World's trilogy of first-person survival simulators. Packed with refinements and responses from years of development and feedback, Call of Pripyat is a shining example of how to break the mold of traditional first-person shooters and one can only hope that future developers will take note of the peculiarities and processes of Call of Pripyat and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise as a whole when considering how to make their future titles stand out. With S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 due for release in 2012, Call of Pripyat is hopefully an excellent indication of things to come.
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