The goal of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is not to investigate the disappearance of a military group in the Zone. The real goal of the game is to survive The Zone, a post-apocalyptic futuristic area surrounding the Chernobyl accident. Radiation has leaked out, leaving a world dangerous and unpredictable but also one full of profitable secrets and scientific marvels.
As you discover what went wrong with the military operation, you’re faced by a series of constant obstacles. The most dangerous is the zone itself. Highly radiated pockets and dangerous anomalies make something as simple as traversing the world a risky proposition. Get too overeager or quit paying attention for a second or two and you’ll stumble into a death trap.
Also, from time to time the zone itself erupts in a radioactive emission, meaning you’ll have to seek shelter. These emissions have a way of popping up at the worse possible time and add an extra sense of intensity and desperation when the countdown begins.
This already hostile world is inhabited with a number of mutated creatures, zombified soldiers and bandits who shoot on sight. Unlike most first-person shooters, a few bullets or a couple of bites from a radiated dog will kill you. The best defense is a good offense, which means scraping the world for the best weapons and enough ammo is essential.
This introduces a modest RPG inventory and upgrade system. You have a limited inventory based on a weight limit, meaning your can usually only carry a few weapons and a moderate amount of ammo at a given time. Also, weapons degrade over time and must be repaired by mechanics who can also upgrade your weapons as well as your armor.
Also added onto this is the use of artifacts, helpful anomalies you can find through the zone that boost your stats. There are one of the key reasons people come to the zone as they are worth a lot of money. However, in the actual game they often provide minimal benefit.
A lot of the RPG elements come into play with the plethora of side missions you can pick up throughout the game. The entire game consists of three moderately sized open-world maps and each section has a hefty number of side quests. It’s cool to have these chunks of the game that are quite large, but it also means that the game loses a lot of focus.
The story gets lost amid all the sidequests which prove far more compelling and memorable than most of the main mission quests. In fact, the main quest is restrictive and feels far too forced by the end to fit into what presents itself as an open world. Even worse is that the most open parts of the main storyline are in the underground labs, which actually end up making them easy to get lost in, especially given how dark and claustrophobic they are.
It’s worth looking at Call of Pripyat in the overall context of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of games. As the third installment, it’s the most technically refined of the three, with little to no bugs, the most impressive visuals and the most refined set of gameplay elements. However, Shadows of Chernobyl, the first installment of the series, surpasses it due to the well focused overarching narrative and a sense of freedom in the actual missions that Pripyat lacks. Pripyat is clearly a step above Clear Sky: the most ambitious title, but also the one plagued by the most underdeveloped gameplay concepts and the most buggy.
While Call of Pripyat is still in the shadows of the original, it still proves to be a fascinating game, building off the RPG elements of the original. It also must be said that for fans of the series a new addition is always welcome. There simply isn’t another game out there that blends the core FPS gameplay with the light RPG elements as well as this series. Throw in the great sense of survival horror and the open world structure and it’s one of the most unique, compelling and rewarding modern gaming experiences.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing