Originally intended as a big content patch for its predecessor, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky eventually mutated into its prequel which explains why a lot of it may feel like a retread of the first. Even the story is basically the same thing, but with one of those enigmatic endings tying into the first game leaving newcomers to grapple with its weirdness.
It’s the year 2011 and the player plays the role of “Scar”, a mercenary that survives a blowout…a storm of strange energy that occasionally erupts from Chernobyl, the center of an area that is called the Zone. Although the military tries to cordon off the Zone from undesirables, many still make their way into this area to ply their trade and make their fortunes off of the anomalies that Chernobyl’s strange condition has created. Mutated monsters and aberrations in space-time wait in the wilderness to split the atoms of the unwary but the potential to strike it rich with one lucky find is too much a temptation to resist the post-apocalyptic landscape.
But no one is supposed to survive a blowout out in the open, but somehow you did after being rescued by a group calling itself “Clear Sky”. Dedicated to figuring out the Zone and why it exists, they help you to get back on your feet and soon let you go off to find out the truth of your condition before it deteriorates with lethal consequences. Simply leaving the area isn’t an option.
Stalkers coming in from Shadows of Chernobyl will find the gameplay familiar and the scavenger filled environment just as unwelcoming, but perhaps even moreso than before. The game starts players off in a swamp infested with mutated dogs and vicious renegades intent on killing anything that moves. Shadows of Chernobyl didn’t quite dump players into the mix so soon after arrival, but Clear Sky ruthlessly cuts its player base deep with its brutal hazing. Even more deadly surprises await afterwards such as an attempt to run past a military checkpoint protected by an omnipotent machine gun with night vision. There’s no other way around it, either. Players will just have to deal with it. If you haven’t given up yet, the rest of the game is somewhat more forgiving although not by much.
Many of the tweaks were undoubtedly put into place to answer some of the criticisms that made money from the last game almost worthless to have. Players will find themselves living by the skin of their wallet as they loot the dead, selling guns and taking jobs to earn enough cash to keep themselves above water when it comes to buying bandages and healing packs. Armor and weapons will also receive wear and tear, often requiring you to head back and pay for someone to fix them up for you along with any upgrades that might tickle your trigger finger.
Bleeding is especially worse in Clear Sky and veterans will find themselves turning into mummies because of how often it occurs. Granted, it makes sense from a realistic standpoint. After all, your skin isn’t bulletproof. But it may come as a shock to players used to SoC’s relatively kinder approach as it did not make it as much of an issue. Bleeding is obnoxiously common in the game ensuring a steady income for merchants stocked with enough band aids and kits.
One of the more welcome uses for money in the game aside from purchasing stock in health services are the upgrades that you can improve both your weapons and armor with. Many weapons can be updated for less recoil, better bullet trajectory, or even to change the caliber of ammunition that they can be loaded with, making use of all of those NATO rounds that you might have been saving up. Add ons such as scopes and grenade launchers can also be purchased and attached when needed. Armor can be toughened up with kevlar plating, new slots added to hold more of those beneficial artifacts that you may discover in the Zone, or enhanced with better night vision. The upgrade trees are also one way and careful planning will unlock higher tiered improvements, but only in combination with other enhancements making it a challenge to pick which ones you want to live with.
As hard hitting as it is, the game isn’t for FPS players expecting to rush the enemy and then hide behind an obstacle to magically regenerate. Death can hit you in seconds from several well placed shots and the enemy loves to serve up grenade spam. Setting the game on ‘easy’ isn’t much of a reprieve from its hardcore approach to getting killed, either. The Zone hates you and if you aren’t getting irradiated or torn to pieces by accidentally walking into an anomaly, there are enough mutant surprises to keep you company in the meantime. It’s not as creepy as SoC, but for action junkies, it serves up plenty of targets to keep the lead flying.
Difficulty aside, the game presents its world with as much polish as the first. That is, on machines that can run it at the highest detail settings, it looks even better than SoC. Shadows, god rays, improved textures and lighting make the game prime screenshot material for players that want to show off what their rig can do when they head through the abandoned city of Limansk or make their way through the claustrophobic tunnels of an abandoned, Cold War laboratory teeming with leftover experiments. The sound effects are just as good as the first and quite a bit of new dialogue has been recorded for fans to chuckle at when the NPCs complain for staring at them while you’re looking through your inventory.
The introduction of actual faction wars was touted as one of the larger changes to its formula. SoC had factions, but most of these basically sat around and gave you missions that didn’t do much to actually change much of the game world. Clear Sky rectifies that by allowing you to track their progress on your all-knowing PDA which also tracks the reputation earned with each. Certain missions may allow the Freedom faction to secure a new checkpoint, or random actions such as simply standing back and watching a group of Duty soldiers get mauled by mutants may push them out of a particular area entirely. But it isn’t all about watching these guys head out into the countryside to start shooting each other since that apparently never happens.
There really is no point to the faction system other than in watching one group take dominance over another one in the game which only changes who is actually at a checkpoint, but none of them actually go out and kill each other in the wild as often as you might think. Many of them maintain their positions and occasionally fend off a random attack, but these are particularly rare and occur only in specific areas. None of the faction-crossing chaos that you’d normally associated with this much freeloading ever happens as often as it implies. Blowouts occur more frequently than faction wars.
You can eventually join any one of these factions if you’re in good standing and be rewarded with a kit of equipment which usually includes armor, a weapon, and some ammunition. But their services, such as their armorer and weapon upgrade technicians are available from the outset to help you out taking away some of the incentive to actually join any one side…unless you’re really hurting for equipment.
It also shares one other thing with its predecessor and that is the number of bugs that infest the gameplay. You may want to download and install the latest patch in order to guarantee that you don’t begin crying when you realize that your save game might not be compatible anymore…just like in SoC. Even with the patch, I ran into a bug with the upgrade system for one of the weapons in the game where it was supposed to improve my zoom by 4x only when I purchased it, it didn’t do anything. This is apparently a typical issue that requires manually editing one of the weapon data files to get it to work right, but will Joe Public buying this at Best Buy know how to do this?
There are also no multiple endings this time around, only one, and unless you’ve played SoC, it will leave you in the psyche ward if you try and force yourself to understand it. Even if you ‘get’ what the ending is playing at, it’s a pretty poor ending regardless making the journey there the only important joy that you might get out of the game. Multiplayer is almost a joke considering how lagged it is and the dearth of servers on the North American side of the world doesn’t help. It looks fun from a spectator’s perspective, until you get into a game and realize that you need to be somewhat prescient for your bullets to hit anyone.
If you love SoC, Clear Sky might be something that you may want to pick up in order to relive most of the same thing without having to add in so many mods to challenge yourself with. New areas like the bigger and more dangerous version of the Red Forest, the abandoned city of Limansk, and more side quests alongside the faction wars might entice you into getting back behind the Irradiated Curtain. Newcomers, especially those coming off of other FPS titles such as Call of Duty, will be in for a brutal surprise if they are expecting more of the same. It’s not a terrible game in that respect, nor is it as engrossing a sequel as it could have been because of that and its the issues it carries over from SoC. It’s fan service for veteran Stalkers and if you fall into that category, Clear Sky will be like a homecoming….with booby traps set beneath the welcome mat.