November 26, 2012

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call Of Pripyat

When taking a break from my music, steampunk literature and artsy European cinematography, I enjoy the fine polygonal madness of videogames. It’s surely a deadly habit, because it contributed to my slow transformation from the handsome high –school quarterback to the chubby 19-year-old chain-smoking misanthrope that I am today. Anyway, since Chester had the guts to break the ice and post a videogame review,  I might as well do the same. It’s not that I admire my fellow critic wannabe to such an extent that I follow and copy his every move, but I felt the need to try something different. So here it is, folks. Hope you enjoy it and expect more randomness in the future, because I have some pretty good books I wanna share with ya guys.

I was in rare form.
 S.T.A.L.K.E.R., as a series, is a rare gem.  The first installment, Shadow of Chernobyl, was called by the videogame community a ‘’flawed masterpiece’’ : great setting,  intriguing storyline, a well crafted atmosphere and majestic post-apocalyptic landscapes, sadly overshadowed by the countless glitches and bugs, retarded enemy A.I.  and  klunky weapon mechanics.  I felt content with it, but not fully satisfied.  The second installment in the series, Clear Sky, fixed the afore mentioned issues but lacked story and depth, which was a real bummer for me because it basically exchanged one problem with another.  Then Call of Pripyat was released, and boy was I fucking happy with it.  

Call of Pripyat takes place in and around the deserted city of Pripyat, which was evacuated after the first explosion of the Cernobyl nuclear plant. Yep, you heard me right. During the epilogue of Clear Sky (which is a prequel to Shadow Of Cernobyl), we learn that a second explosion has occurred which turned the whole area surrounding the plant into an endless wasteland plagued by  aggressive mutants and dangerous anomalies which, oddly enough, spawn valuable highly-radioactive artifacts that are in high demand all around the world.  No one knows what actually happened, but no sooner than later, the newly born Zone quickly drew the attention of scientists, government and military officials and, the main focus of the games, the stalkers.  Every stalker has his own purpose of coming to this dangerous area, be it in search of adventure, to escape the authorities or to pursue their get rich fast schemes.   
Gotta pick up some milk on my way back home or my wife will kill me.

This time around  you play as Major Alexander Degtyarev, an agent for the Ukraine Security Service and, supposedly,  a former experienced stalker, explaining his above average knowledge of the Zone. You are sent undecover  to the plagued wasteland to investigate the dubious crashes of five STINGRAY military helicopters and find out what caused the said malfunctions.  At the start of the mission, you are dropped near a stalker camp with a basic stalker suit, a poorly maintained AK-47, a weak and ridiculous looking pistol which is as threatening as a chopstick-wielding midget and a few cartridges of ammunition in order to prevent you from being singled out as a goverment operative.  Obviously, during the course of the game you can go from being dog food to the fucking baws of the Zone, but that takes patience and a careful management of resources.  Unlike its older brothers, CoP benefits from giving you a wide range of decisions to make, all leading to one of the multiple endings.  Listening to the epilogue at the ending telling you how one decision or the other affected the Zone and the people you encountered will make you feel proud or ashamed, depending on how lawfully good or ruthless and mischevious you have been. It’s all up to you.

Being an (sortakinda) open-ended FPS, you have the whole Zone at your will to explore, admire and,  eventually, fill up with piles of dead bandits, stalkers, soldiers and mutans who had the guts to cross you.  The area divided  into three major playable areas (hubs) known as Zaton, Yanov , and the city of Pripyat itself, each with its own surroundigs and shit to do. While Zaton and Yanov are large rural/industrial/portuar areas and are, consequently, more open and relatively safer, making your task of escaping angry hoardes of mutants easier, Pripyat is more a of a closed area, giving you a feeling of claustrophobia and suffocation.  How can you feel safe from those horrible radioactive shitheads when you’re surrounded by tall buildings with smashed windows and open sewer entrances? Shiiiit, man. 

The Zone itself offers some of the most impressive and absolutely beautiful landscapes in videogame history – endless steppes with lonely, crooked trees in the distance, abandoned factories, partially demolished houses,  empty gas stations who haven’t enjoyed the company of a car for a long time, shadowy apartment blocks whose only friends are the piles of concrete that have fallen near them due to their advanced state of degradation, empty infirmeries and so on. It’s a shattering and heartbreaking simphony of desperation, loneliness and uglyness. It shows what horrors man is capable of and it is even more shocking since the game is set in a near future.  The stunning lightning effects, carefully paced ambiental music and weather dynamics all make for an eerie and mysterious atmosphere, encouraging you to explore the Zone and unravel all of its secrets.

 The game world isin’t that hard to traverse, and it usually won’t take you long to get from one end of the map to the other... if you ignore all the bloodthirsty mutants and don’t get easily distracted by the surroundings, like me.  Once you do that, you can seek shelter in one of the three major stalker camps. Before taking a well deserved rest, you can stick around and admire how natural and realistic the place feels.  Stalkers are people first and treasure-seaking maniacs second, so you’ll often see them enjoy a warm camp fire, drinking at the bar, sharing stories, eating, telling jokes or playing the guitar ( I once heard a stalker playing Smoke on the Water :) ) .  

The camps, besides being a safe haven for traumatized stalkers, provide you with medical kits, ammunition, anti-radiation drugs and food.  A new addition CoP brings the ability to customize and upgrade your weapons or armor at the local technicians.  The upgrades can vary from increasing the weapon’s accuracy, firing rate, and how much damage your armor can take from bullets or enviromental hazards before it degrades. You’ll have some tough decisions to make, and choosing between an armor that provides protection against radiation but is weak in combat or viceversa will influence the game experience.  You’ll also find out that not all upgrades are available from the start, some taking different kinds of tools (or loads of vodka, dependending on the technician J ) which are pretty hard to find. The gunplay is, well, satisying for those who seek realism in combat.  You’ll find out that the guns empty really fast, so you’ll have to preserve your ammunition and resources. Of course, nothing comes cheap in the Zone, so in order to obtain even the slighest sense of safety you’ll have to invest loads of cash. One way of obtaining money is to search for arctifacts in anomalies using your detector and sell them to the local trader. It’s not as easy as it sounds because, hey, there are three or four types of detectors and they don’t come cheap either.  Make sure to buy a good artifact dector early on, otherwise you’re fucked.  Also, take food with you on long raids. Stalkers are people too, you fucking bastard.

Did I tell you that hilaaaaaarious story when I almost got killed by a bunch of mutant dogs?
GSC managed to create a great game, with superb atmosphere, story and gameplay. Sadly, all good things come to an end and I almost cried when I found out that the studio closed its doors and canceled the much anticipated S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2.  On the bright side, they left us three masterpieces and gave me hope in the dying game industry which has been in the past few years overloaded with mediocre pieces of shit that lack depth and passion. Thanks a bunch, guys.  You are my heroes.

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