No matter how much you (or we) like the STALKER series, there’s no getting away from one incredibly simple fact about the games – that they generally aren't that stable or easy to get into when they are first released. The games are often quick to improve, as you can see by comparing our initial review and later re-visit to STALKER: Clear Sky, but poor translation and oddly clumsy game design have become unfortunate hallmarks of the series for many.
They are great games, but for every fierce and powerfully kinetic fire-fight there’s an insta-death event, bug or some shoddily translated quest dialogue that leads to hours of confusion. The good news for this latest title is that there are a lot fewer bugs and performance issues than there were in Clear Sky. The bad news is that the actual design of the game is still riddled with more holes than a saloon door in a John Wayne movie - not that that will stop stalwarts of the series.
The third game in the series, Call of Pripyat, is a direct sequel to the brutal, bleak and unforgiving Shadow of Chernobyl. In fact, the game starts only hours after the first game ended, and has players exploring the repercussions of Strelok’s actions. That doesn’t mean that the first game is something you’ll need to have played, as Call of Pripyat opens with a gentle introductory cutscene that brings you up to speed on the plot rather quickly – even if the subtitles don’t match the voiceovers.
How many pockets does one man need?
Once more set around the Chernobyl power plant and the remnants of Pripyat, Call of Pripyat assumes that players destroyed the C-Consciousness at the end of the first game. Explaining what the C-Consciousness was and recollecting the confused events of the first game would take far too long, but suffice it to say that the events of the canonical ending have massively destabilised the already delicate, alien ecosystem.
The Zone itself, which is a massive, radiation-saturated area filled with mutants and physics-defying items that command a high price in the outside world, has been restructured as a result; the lethal emissions and anomalies that barred the way to the centre have been shuffled around too. The path to the centre of The Zone, which is rumoured to hold a wish-granting treasure vault, has been opened, and a wave of hopeful Stalkers has gone in search of the prize - followed swiftly by the military. Lots of people have gone in, but nobody has yet come back out.
Securing a share of the supposed hoard isn't the aim of your character, though. Instead, you’re sent in by the government as a scout in search of the military's missing helicopters, which fell to Earth before the army could get access to The Zone’s centre. Wise to the notion that using helicopters in Zone airspace isn't the best idea, you’re sent in to find out what you can – though your bosses are so mistrustful of technology that you’re only equipped with a half-broken AK-47 and a winter coat.
There's not a lot to do in Russia
That last point is one of the most annoying things about Call of Pripyat’s unusually straightforward opening; that the army sends in a single soldier on foot and doesn’t even bother to give him decent armour or weaponry. We can understand that players need to start at the bottom of the tech-tree and work their way up, but a little bit of explanation would be nice. It also makes the early stages of the game, where you’re grinding through simple missions just to save up enough cash for a rifle scope, an exercise in frustration – especially since the balancing in Call of Pripyat still massively favours scoped weapons over everything else and the rifle you start with is so measly you could fold it in half and use it for a pillow.
Call of Pripyat’s opening, and the fact that you’re literally just abandoned on a hilltop with only the barest information, will make the latest STALKER instalment incredibly difficult for newcomers to the series. This is especially true if you're expecting a standard FPS template, because that's exactly what Call of Pripyat isn't. STALKER is an RPG shooter series like few others, and that’s always been a large part of the appeal; that it genuinely captures the against-all-odds feel of being in an alien, survivalist situation. STALKER games typically aren't easy to pick up, or understand, or play (even on the lower difficulty settings), and Call of Pripyat is no different.
Call of Pripyat isn't just going to tax STALKER virgins though - there are plenty of new features and ideas that will tax series stalwarts, though unfortunately some of them also suffer from the same problem of not being properly explained to players as they encounter them...