S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat announces its arrival as the third game in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise, a series of first-person shooter games made by Ukranian developer, GSC Game World. Instead of being an all-guns blazing linear affair, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games have always been about more realistic combat, which is set in a world that's more akin to a western role-playing game.
The story takes place shortly after the end of the original game, as the government have decided they're going to try and re-take the Chernobyl nuclear power planet. They send in numerous helicopters to scout the area to make an assault more viable, but despite meticulous preparation, communications are lost. In an attempt to salvage the mission, they decide to send in Alexander Degtyarev, who players assume control of. His job is to infiltrate the Zone (the area surrounding the nuclear plant) and investigate the crashes. However, to infiltrate, he must disguise himself as a Stalker.
It's an interesting setup, but the game really disappoints in this department. The story is told through dated cutscenes and the narrative is hardly going to keep players on the edge of their seats. To compound things further, the story also takes quite a long time to actually get going, which could serve as a deterrent for those not willing to plough through. The NPCs that are encountered throughout the game are equally uninspired and wading through the dialogue options does get a bit monotonous.
Fortunately, Call of Pripyat has other strengths, like the atmosphere and extreme attention to detail. The environment available for players to traverse is extremely large, and it's just waiting to be explored. The beauty is that there is so much personality - don't be surprised to see other NPCs waging their own personal battles for survival, or to be jumped by some deformed mutant hybrids. There are also plenty of anomalies scattered throughout the landscape, which can be explored. Although, sometimes this may cause more harm than good.
To further add to the realism that the game tries to promote, new features have been added like, bleeding and maintenance of equipment. It's also possible to load bullets to guns manually, and unlike most other games, reloading with a half empty clip results in losing bullets. Fortunately, traders can be found throughout the world, or in safe havens, and they allow goods to be exchanged. However, unlike in previous games, traders prefer to trade for merchandise that actually works - no more pulling the wool over their eyes. Sometimes items can also be obtained for helping "fellow" Stalkers and they can also upgrade items they possess too, if they have the required parts. It means that Call of Pripyat has a much more lively feel to it. Other NPCs are much more integral to enjoying the full experience of the game, and while they are still optional, it would be silly to avoid their services.
There are a few gripes though, one of which comes with the AI. Despite being modified for this iteration, it still doesn't feel overly natural. Enemies are exceedingly accurate, even ii the most hostile of conditions, and they also apparently have eyes in the back of their head. There are also some other weird elements, like instant-death coming as the result of stepping in a small camp fire. It's elements like this that really promote the usage of the quick save, and quick load features. It might feel like cheating a bit, but without it, the game would become quite frustrating.
The game uses the XRAY Engine, much like the previous games, but this time it's version 1.6. This means the game supports a wide range of DirectX, including DirectX 11, but the engine is really starting to show its age. Character models and textures are quite poor by today's standards, although it does manage to promote visual effects quite well, like lighting. Sound design is also quite poor, with many sounds lacking any real quality - most of them, especially when walking through water, are just the same sound effect repeated constantly. There hasn't been any real attempt to change the pitch or frequency to make it sound a bit more realistic. There are sure to be numerous mods that help to enhance the game though, like improving the draw distance.
The game offers a few incentives to play, such as the mulitplayer modes. However, the gameplay doesn't translate overly well to a competition scenario and the game's quality - it's exploration - doesn't really come across that well in a frantic deathmatch. In terms of the single-player campaign, there are multiple endings to see, which are caused by undertaking different actions throughout the game. It's also possible to enter a free-play mode, whereby the player is free to explore the Zone.
Despite the improvements that have been made to this iteration of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it still doesn't really do much to make it a hugely compelling experience. There is a lovely sense of atmosphere and exploration, but it's slightly marred by dated presentation, which really hampers the story - something that's already on the weak side. There is a multplayer component and there are numerous endings to enjoy though, so it's a game that could soak up some time if people are willing to slog through the boring initial story to get to the good stuff.