One of the games that I was given on Christmas was S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Skies, the prequel to the awesome S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadows of Chernobyl title that came out last year and in which I sunk way too many post-apocalyptic hours into its immersive world. Originally intended to be a content patch for the first game, Clear Skies grew with so many improvements and new ideas that the developers decided to make it an official prequel. Now fans like me have faction wars, upgrades, and improved graphics to look forward to.
There’s also the insane difficulty. SoC was hard when I first started the game, but eventually, I managed to survive long enough to see the end. In Clear Skies, I was lucky to survive with enough patience to even get out to see other stalkers. Some players may get a kick out of this kind of ‘realism’, but even when graded against the real world, some disagree with its interpretation. Several factors that I can already see as design decisions made to enhance the realism of the game, others in order to address particulra shortcomings, such as certain things that modders wished was in SoC and had made some of it available through their own work. The problem is that some of these changes no longer make the game as much fun as the first.
Weapon jamming is now pandemic across most firearms to a degree that if a modern army were being fielded with the assault rifles from Clear Skies, it would lose whatever war it would go into. Weapon jamming is a real world concern, and I’ve read on forums where players try to explain it by saying “the radiation did something to the guns” or “they’re not kept as well as if they were owned by soldiers”.
My first assault rifle in the game was from a soldier, that and every other version that I’ve used so unless that soldier was the worst soldier in his squad and had touched every weapon I had used, this doesn’t make much sense. I’ve read posts elsewhere from people that have actually fired weapons like these (or their real world equivalent) can’t believe how awful they function in the game. It’s fun when it happens as a gradient over time, but not four or five times in less than a minute when the indicator shows that it’s practically in pristine condition. And that happens often enough to make me think the Zone is one huge beta testing group for firearms. The only other impression that I got from this was that it was a heavy handed response to the work modders did and the criticisms leveled at it from the modding community. If they were going to take what they said to heart, they could have at least put the vehicles in, too.
There’s also the bleeding thing. Yeah, I hate that, but you can tell that in Clear Skies, it gives the player something new to do with their money which was a problem in the last game since it didn’t give you enough things to use it for unless you modded it. But even here, it was implemented with an eye to selling more stock in Johnson & Johnson. With all of the first aid I’m buying, I’ll probably be lucky to hang onto a few thousand given how often I bleed from every shot. Difficulty levels in the game won’t change this, either, so you’re stuck bleeding like a pig from every bullet.
Is it realistic? Yes, that’s normally what happens when you get hit with a bullet. Is it fun in a game? Only if you’re expecting this to be the same as Ghost Recon, which it isn’t since it’s more focused on in-your-face action and adrenaline charged set pieces. I’ve played Ghost Recon and have gotten killed from one shot often, but it was a tactical shooter with the idea that it is possible to survive if you are smart with your squad. In Clear Skies, it isn’t so much a matter of skill as it is in the fact that the enemy has X-ray vision, precision aiming, and bulletproof faces at even the easiest level. And yet, they’ll sometimes stand around and get shot anyway as the AI seesaws from being unforgiving and then daydreaming despite the bullets ripping into them from around the corner.
When I left the Swamp area by helping the Clear Skies faction, I came out next to the military outpost. Sidorovich, the merchant guy from SoC, chimes in on your headset and says good luck trying to get past it. What he doesn’t mention is that the minigun guy stationed there has unerring accuracy with his machine gun in the dark. In fact, most enemies in the game have incredible accuracy and can take a full clip from an AK-74 in the chest at less than five feet before dying. At least in Ghost Recon, when you shoot a bad guy with a bullet, you don’t have to worry about them and it only takes one as long as your aim is true. The machine gun guy didn’t even have night vision, or at least, not from what I could see. Clear Skies still doesn’t allow you to loot armor that could help you so if he had it, it wasn’t there or had been embedded into his skull.
I can already hear “But it’s body armor so it’s realistic that way!”. Then explain the head thing? The only thing that seems to work with a headshot is a shotgun at point blank range. When it doesn’t, the wiz-smart AI usually just stands there while my next ten shots mysteriously miss as badly as Greedo’s did at Mos Eisley because of the enhanced ‘realism’. Go to a shooting range, watch a proving ground documentary, or watch a demonstration and see how someone proficient can group their shots with a variety of firearms and not have a bullet fly at 45 degree angles as soon as it leaves the barrel.
My guy is supposed to be a merc, this is game that supposedly puts you in his shoes, but the only degree of separation that it gives you from the real world is his face. In a title like Ghost Recon, your men are professionals but you still need to line up the shots and take control of the situation. But you don’t need to nurse maid everything they do, such as their their ability to handle the weapons that they’re given allowing you, the player, to feel like a professional within its rules. It’s a degree of separation there that still enables you to feel as if you are doing something without compromising the fun factor. This is why a title such as COD offers deadly realism at Veteran difficulty as opposed to dishing it out to novices. Infinity Ward and Treyarch want you to enjoy the experience, not be punished from the start because they don’t want to be criticized for being too soft.
Clear Skies feels too much like an attempt to transplant too much of the real world into its gameplay without compromise, but with such a heavy handed approach that it can be too frustrating to be enjoyable. I’ll still try and plug my way through this one, but right now…I’m having less fun with it than I did with vanilla SoC. On the plus side, the it does look good.