Return to the irradiated land around Chernobyl as a Stalker in search of downed military helicopters. This proper sequel to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl combines the best elements of the previous two games to produce the best chapter in the series so far. It's not perfect, but Call of Pripyat's atmosphere and action are stark, scary, and seriously entertaining.
- Drenched in atmosphere
- Great combination of action and RPG elements
- More polished than previous episodes
- Incongruous, bad English voice acting
- Dense, off-putting quest text
- Multiplayer doesn't stand up to solo game
Welcome back to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Movies can make the darker corners of Russia seem frightening and this series of games makes the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl seem like the loneliest place on Earth, where life and death are as cheap as the brass shell casing that holds a bullet. So why does this chapter make the hardscrabble life in the Zone more appealing than ever before?
Back in the Zone
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is a direct sequel to the original game, Shadow of Chernobyl. Packed with a balance of atmosphere, action and RPG elements it makes a strong case for becoming the pinnacle of the series.
As in the prior games, Call of Pripyat takes place in The Zone, an irradiated, dangerous 30km area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. You're cast as security agent Alexander Degtyarev, tasked with investigating a set of military helicopters that went down in the Zone during a scouting mission. While searching for answers, you encounter Stalkers who search for artifacts produced by regular blasts of radiation emitting from the power plant, and mutants created by the same radiation.
Clear Sky, the last game in the series and a prelude to the events of Shadow of Chernobyl, went a bit overboard with respect to new ideas. There was a lot shoved in there -- a system of warring factions, an exuberant and overly-accurate enemy AI, and a cluttered PDA interface that presented some info about the Zone that reduced the underlying tension of the game rather than enhancing it.
Righting Past Wrongs
Many of those mistakes have been rectified. In Call of Pripyat's Zone, the factions have been simplified, and for the most part you won't have to worry about the conflict between them. The PDA, which presents the world map and waypoints for objectives, has been redesigned so that there's enough information to make progress, but never so much that you feel as if you're being handed a victory on a platter.
Though we've recently seen sequels for Mass Effect and BioShock that excel at creating a unique world, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s world-building feels truly distinctive and accomplished. The oppressive atmosphere of the Zone is built just as much from what you don't see and hear as what you do. It's a desperate, unpredictable place, with just a touch of ambient music floating on the air, distant animal cries and the percussive echo of gunfire that pierces the night. You'll explore underground tunnels and bombed-out structures that recall the feeling of the prior games, but there's such a sense of genuine, lived-in locale to the Zone that it doesn't matter.
The story takes some time to build, but as you gather gear, make relationships with other Stalkers and scavenge tools so that engineers can upgrade your weapons, there is much sick pleasure to get from exploring the Zone whilst under-prepared. Giant anomalies hide treasured artifacts, which can be sold for heaps of cash to help load up on good equipment, but exploring them while you feel vulnerable and exposed is the sort of rare entertainment that only a genuinely creepy game can deliver.
Be Afraid of the Dark
It's so easy to buy into the feeling of being alone and endangered in the Zone. The deep, almost impenetrable dark of night helps drive that tension. Out of that darkness, you might encounter new enemies, like the twisted, mad dwarf Burers, which bear down upon you with telekinetic might. And a general lack of ammo and light makes a midnight attack by the new Chimera or a chance run-in with a group of bandits equally dangerous.
Call of Pripyat is not a high-octane lap around Chernobyl. The pace starts off slow and takes quite a while to ramp up, and even once you've completed enough missions and side quests to really be integrated into the world, you won't be fighting off waves of mutants. You take your time, and calculate, and conserve ammo, and be twitchy as hell when chaos does erupt.
And really, that’s as it should be. One of the most satisfying aspects of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is strategizing, whether that means camping out on a hill while other humans and mutants pick each other off in the distance, or balancing your gear just the way you like it, or exploring the upgrade options of the tech tree. This is a shooter, yes, but more than ever S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has satisfying RPG components that help you carve out just the right corner of this weird world.
Be More Afraid of the 'Bros'
The game's immersion threatens to dissipate when some of the characters speak. Many characters run around saying “bro” and talking like they're hanging out at the party keg. It's incongruous, to say the very least. Granted, much of the incidental dialogue is in Russian, and that adds to the ambiance. With the Russian voice acting, tone of voice tells you enough; there's no need to know everything that some of the characters say. But those direct bits of English dialogue are terrible. Bad writing (or bad localization) and bad voice acting undermine the game's best efforts to create a world.
The plentiful quest dialogue could also use some work. The extensive dialogue trees are presented in a perfunctory style that is at odds with the loving detail evident in the rest of the game. Reading massive blocks of dialogue in a small, static window doesn't add much to the experience.
And while Pripyat is far more polished than past releases, don't be too excited by promises of a bug-free experience. Yes, this release works better out of the box than the previous two games. But there were still a few crashes. And, it must be said, only the most devoted players are likely to find much satisfaction in the multiplayer game, which lacks the atmosphere and tension of the solo game.
Come for the Artifacts, Stay for the Art
When S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat starts to fire on all cylinders, those problems start to seem minor. Some of the cheesy dialogue might even become endearing. Ultimately, Call of Pripyat is a welcome respite from big-budget shooters that have every rough edge and intriguing idea filed down to a nub. It opens a window to an ugly, unforgiving world filled with tension and suspense, and while you might hate some of the inhuman acts that start to seem commonplace while stuck therein, it's a place many players won't want to leave.