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S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky Review

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky pack shot
Developer:GSC Game World
Publisher:Deep Silver
Genre:First Person Shooter
Platform:PC
Official Site:http://cs.stalker-game.com/en/
Release Date:September 15th, 2008 (UK)
Reviewer:Craig Laycock (Cragtek)
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I have a bit of a soft spot in my heart for wide open, expansive games that are a bit rough around the edges. There is something to be said for the creative design ambition of games like Stalker that deserves some form of recognition, even if the execution is a little off-key.

The original game reminded me a bit of Operation Flashpoint. Heralded as a vast simulated world at the time, Flashpoint (or Flasho as I like to call it) offered a degree of realism that hadn’t been seen before. If you play through it again, you will note a multitude of bugs, animation problems and physics glitches that will frustrate and disappoint – but the degree of freedom and realism offered to the player had to be applauded and completely dwarfed the glitches into near-total insignificance.

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Stalker was never quite as revolutionary, but offered intense and realistic fire-fights and a vast gameworld that more than made up for its shortcomings and glitches. You only have to read the comments to my original review for Stalker, though, to see how it divided the gaming community.

Stalker: Clear Sky is the prologue to the original game and is set in 2011. If you were reading the box, you’d have difficulty finding out much more than this as it’s clearly been written by someone whose first language is not English. Just one example, of which there are many: "The entire levels vanish in the outbursts of anomalies". The entire levels? Does that work? And just why are they talking about levels? I thought I was meant to be imaging this was real. It makes sense, just about, but the stilted text is a grim foretelling of what’s to come – oodles of crap English and a disjointed, ill-considered storyline.

I’m going to get on my soapbox here for a minute, so please indulge me. There is a worrying trend in the industry to cut corners when it comes to writing. Pithy dialogue, it seems, is deemed a secondary concern to gameplay and in smaller teams, more often than not, writing is done in-house by personnel who are perhaps not best qualified to do it.

Good writing can make a game, I firmly believe that. Portal would be just another puzzler if it were not for its extremely clever characterisation and snappy, humorous dialogue. The Half Life team also understand the importance of good writing. Deus Ex still stands out as being genuinely memorable for its writing and plot/subplots and I can think of a dozen quotes from that game off the top of my head.

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So why, pray tell, do others choose not to prioritise it? Stalker: Clear Sky’s writing is abysmal, as it was with its predecessor. I can think of countless other games that have fallen into the trap of being poorly written and it’s often a fatal mistake. Clear Sky’s dialogue is at best gibberish and I can’t help but feel deeply let down by it as it completely undermines the game in my eyes. I could forgive the team once, but not twice.

Yet I dearly want to. Stalker at its best is an unforgettable experience. It draws you into its world and makes you feel genuinely like a scavenger – that your decisions affect this living, breathing world in a very tangible way. This is why I get so annoyed when some Muppet comes along spouting gibberish. It completely kills the illusion, and you instantly remember that you’re sat in front of a PC, not scouring the woods for fodder.

So what are the fun bits? A new feature that works particularly well is the ongoing war between various factions in the game. By joining a faction, you can see where battles are going on with other factions through access to radio and PDA frequencies. Although it’s a bit of a side-line, you can pick up some valuable rewards by answering distress calls over the radio and coming to the aid of your comrades.

Clear Sky plays to the strengths of the original game – a lot of the maps you play through are identical to those in the first game, with a few tweaks. But that’s OK, because they were pretty good first time round. Fire-fights have been improved further still, which is great as these were my favourite aspect of the first game. Furthermore, weapons can now be repaired and upgraded; meaning a whole new tier of strategy comes into the frame.

Summary

Overall, Clear Sky isn’t a bad game, yet I’m still giving it a lower mark than I gave the original Stalker. Rough around the edges I don’t mind, but in places Clear Sky is shoddy. In others it’s beautiful, but the rough seriously undermines the smooth. Not all will agree – the rough-around-the-edges nature of the game will perhaps appeal to some, but the way I see it, Clear Sky was a great opportunity to show some polish in the series – instead, it’s just more of the same.

The bottom line
7.5 / 10

Good stuff

  • Fire-fights rock
  • Weapons can now be upgraded
  • Still as open-ended and atmospheric as before

Not so good stuff

  • Irksome language and voice acting
  • Rough/shoddy around the edges
  • Wasted opportunity to really shine


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