Late to the Party: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat

I finally managed to finish S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat over the weekend (completely vanilla save for a vegetation mod). As fans of the series told me, it improves upon its predecessors (I decided I didn’t have time for Clear Sky) the way a sequel should. It takes a few steps in the direction I wanted to see S.T.A.L.K.E.R. go but didn’t get all the way there, which only increases my disappointment about what happened to its developer.

All the basic things I liked about Shadow of Chernobyl are obviously here in Pripyat. More than ever it feels like a first person shooter wrapped in a western RPG framework, which is a kind of game I wish was much more common, perhaps even standard in this industry. Even if these games lack the visual polish people expect on consoles, mechanically I think they solve a lot of the problems today’s narrative-driven shooters run into. Pripyat furthers the open-world part of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. formula, if only slightly.

After hearing about the series I was shocked at how linear Chernobyl is much of the time. Its world map is really a bunch of wide corridors linked end to end (sometimes with alternate exits). A lot of emergent events happen in those corridors, but they don’t really feel like an open world. Pripyat still doesn’t, but get’s a little bit closer. Instead of going full-blown open-ended adventure like Bethesda, GSC Game World tried to strike a balance between the linear campaign and the sandbox, striking it in different places with each game. Pripyat has fewer but larger maps, but also more AI running around doing more emergent things.

It even deliberately shows this off the first time an “emission” — a violent storm periodically killing anything not indoors for people who haven’t played this game, forced like 20 non-player characters into a building I’d just entered. It’s an initial moment that sells the world as “alive” to you in Pripyat. One time I walked outside right as a battle started between several squads and maybe two dozen zombies. I decided to start looting corpses as they dropped before other characters got to them.

One thing I really wanted to see in Pripyat was a greater emphasis on open-ended quests where I’d just get an objective and figure out my own way to complete it. The few that are really like this gave me a refreshing feeling of agency. Trying to sneak into a mercenary camp at night to steal documents but running away through sewers in a hail of gunfire. Trying to negotiate someone’s debt to some bandits and ending up trapped in a house during a shootout with the whole gang. Starting a surprise assault on another bandit camp before they have time to execute a hostage. These are the kinds of player-driven adventures I wish could happen in more first person shooters. Here and there Pripyat even still manages to script some good linear action sequences. This is a balance games like Far Cry 3 could learn from.

The only thing that really feels “off” to me about Pripyat is that despite being a more polished game than Chernobyl, it doesn’t really have that game’s spirit in its atmosphere. Chernobyl pretty much constantly feels bleak and dangerous between its barren landscapes, industrial ruins, and abandoned laboratories. Pripyat pretty much has the same kinds of environments but with an oddly brighter and maybe more sterile atmosphere. Maybe it just doesn’t look as unique as Chernobyl. Though, I am happy Pripyat has only one of those horror-themed labs. The whole “destroyed beauty” atmosphere does begin to return towards the latter third of Pripyat when you reach the titular city.

Maybe all that might feel different if you play S.T.A.L.K.E.R. with all the mods people say are essential. I wanted to play these games in their (mostly) original state firstly so I could have a frame of reference for what the mods do to them, and secondly because I’m not sure I’ll even have the time to run through them again. This is a kind of tragedy that occurs when you have such a massive backlog: when you find a game great enough to enjoy multiple times, you still only have time to blast through it once before moving on to other games. Upon finishing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. I’m wrestling between reinstalling ArmA and finally getting down to Just Cause 2.


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