Considering the troubled development period behind Shadow of Chernobyl, it was surprising to hear that Deep Silver planned to follow it up only one year after its release. Developer GSC Gameworld had trouble converting its open-world vision into something that satisfied publisher THQ and as such compromises were made in Shadow’s design. With a new publisher in tow, GSC had another bite at the cherry with Clear Sky. Unfortunately, it seems as if the game it wanted to make may not be quite as good as the game it released the first time around.
Clear Sky is a prequel to Shadow and the player takes on the role of a new protagonist, Zone mercenary, Scar. What sets Scar apart from the rest of the motley crew that populates the Zone is his resistance to the deadly ’emissions’ – mysterious waves of energy that emanate from the Zone’s centre. Following one of these emissions, Scar is rescued by the Clear Sky faction, a group studying the nature of the Zone. He is tasked with tracking down a Stalker named Strelok (sound familiar?) who somehow ventured too close to the reactor and may have prompted the emissions. Basically, Clear Sky offers up some background to Shadow and attempts to throw a different light onto its story. Thus the game world is a mixture of tweaked environments from the first game and some new areas.
Fans of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise will be pleased to know that the Zone is once more the star of the show. The sprawling, oppressive setting is still S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s greatest achievement. GSC has managed to create an environment that is as beautiful as it is bleak and hostile. However, Clear Sky’s Zone is a little different to Shadow’s.
According to the narrative, the emissions destroyed the equilibrium of the Zone and now the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. factions that once coexisted are at war with each other. The faction system, originally intended to be included in Shadow, is the major change in Clear Sky. The player has the option to join one of the warring factions and lead it to victory, capturing strategic points from the enemy. The idea is to make the player feel as if they are in the middle of an ongoing war that they can influence. And to an extent, it is successful. From the very beginning of the game, you’ll find yourself drawn into some intense battles between factions as you fight for territory with allies at your side.
The concept of being caught up in a continuing struggle between factions sounds great, but in reality it feels a little underdeveloped. It doesn’t really feel like the factions are pushing for territory so much as wandering about randomly and shooting each other. It would have been impressive to see large groups of Stalkers fighting tooth and nail over territory but, much of the time, it’s a few men assaulting a well-defended area and it’s easy to predict the results. Yet, the main problem with the factions is that it’s difficult to feel any affinity with any of them.
Like its predecessor, Clear Sky is pretty short on strong characters. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. concept (and its literary origin) is fascinating but it just hasn’t been well-implemented in the game. The plot is pretty flimsy in places, the dialogue is often terrible and the characters lack depth, none more so than Scar. Whilst you can choose what Scar says in conversations, his words don’t really build much of a character and this isn’t helped by the fact that you don’t get to hear them. Stalker deserves a protagonist and a story that are in keeping with its stunning backdrop. It should draw us into the lonely, terrifying world of the Zone but it simply fails to achieve this.
This is not just down to the storyline, however, as the gameplay is equally to blame. Clear Sky is a punishingly hard game even on the easier difficulty settings. This is largely because in order to survive in the Zone, you need a good suit and good weapons. Both of which cost money. It isn’t easy to accrue the sort of money you’ll need to equip yourself properly and the game design offers no help. Between the factions and the mutants, you’re almost constantly being shot at or bitten and this gets even worse at night. You may as well forget about going for a wander past sundown unless you have a powerful weapon, decent armour and a boatload of med kits. And should you manage to acquire these, there’s every chance you’ll have them all stolen from you by a bandit during what initially seems to be a regular conversation. You don’t even have the option to refuse the bandit’s request for all your stuff, forcing you to reload the last save. Which is something you’ll do a lot. The difficulty will undoubtedly cause a lot of players to abandon the game before they have a chance appreciate the better aspects of Clear Sky.
The A-Life AI system, for instance, has been overhauled with impressive results. This is most noticeable in combat as enemies take cover and move strategically. On more than one occasion I lost sight of an enemy, assuming he’d gone, only for him to pop up behind me a few seconds later. It is this improved AI that adds a welcome new dimension to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s combat. However, GSC almost spoiled it by allowing enemies to throw grenades with a ludicrous degree of accuracy. Where’s that reload button again? The RPG elements of Clear Sky also help it to stand out from your average FPS. The equipment upgrading system is well implemented and, if you have the money, you’ll reap some real benefits from tweaking your kit.
At its heart, Clear Sky is unmistakably a Stalker game. Whilst it may have lost a little of Shadow’s atmosphere (the sense of exploration and dark adventure is undoubtedly diminished), there’s still a lot to like. There’s definitely something compelling about S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s mix of survival horror, open-world setting and RPG elements. Clear Sky is brilliant at times, frustrating at others and generally consists of good ideas never fully realised. The high concept deserves gameplay to match and here’s hoping GSC doesn’t abandon the Zone just yet.