Welcome to Stalker: Call of Pripyat. The game opens in a field after a long and badly dubbed intro. There I am, staring out at a wooded plain. There’s nothing around. Just…woods.
Up pop five objectives, but I haven’t been trained to use identify or set them yet. Having played many modern AAA games, I’m used to a short tutorial on the game systems, so I sit there for several seconds, hoping some friendly guy will come over and take pity on this sad, stupid man who’s just appeared and explain what the hell is going on. I’m not sure if it’s an eastern European thing (the developers are Ukranian, I think), but this game just drops you in, and leaves the systems up to you. Welcome to the Zone, stalker!
After the jump, splashing around in the deep end
So off I go. Within 10 minutes there’s a little green armor icon off on the right of my screen. I think it means my armor is degrading. It popped up when I’d been nosing around an anomaly area. These are dangerous, unstable areas marked by nauseous disturbance waves in the air and a tendency for my screen to get red. Warning. So up it popped, and I got suitably concerned that I’m getting weaker. But I can’t select that little armor icon, and there’s nothing in the armor description that says it’s damaged. I don’t even know why it got damaged.
I’m up to the challenge, I think, but it’s a damn sight different than other modern games. There’s not much hand holding here. I am, however, a likely candidate for enjoying this game. I have played both the other Stalker games, the first to completion and the second for about 10 hours, so I know my way around. I’m also a fan of open world games, first person shooters, and slightly crunchy game mechanics. If we have to place ourselves on a continuum, I tip slightly into the ‘hardcore’ side of things.
Here’s a bit of background: Stalkers are part of a strange economy that’s sprung up in the Zone since the 1986 accident at Chernobyl. A large Exclusion Zone has come into being around the reactor, home to a strange ecology of irradiated beasts, weird ‘anomalies’ that give birth to artifacts with useful properties, and all the sorts of men drawn to areas rife with danger and potential profit. There are also traders who cater to the stalkers, mercenaries sent on grim missions, and bandits who prey on the weak or unwary. Luckily, most stalkers in this game are neutral to you, at least early on.
So you start out in a field. Off in the distance are some guys wandering around, being all stalkery.
If you remember which key is activate (and it actually tells you in a prompt when you get close enough! Usability!) you can go up and talk to them. Well, only one of them, but the only indication of which of the three I can talk to is up on the mini map. It’s a star. This stalker is a star!
I can ask him several things, including the whereabouts of some crashed helicopters (which are apparently my first objectives), and where to find other stalkers. So I get some targets on my map, and I’m off and running. Within a half hour I’m already surprised at how few human enemies there are, have been knocked over, visually, at least twice, and am thoroughly absorbed in exploring the Zone.
I’m enjoying myself. Now that I’ve run around a bit, helped a dude who almost fell into an anomaly, and found the awesome old rusting ship that serves as a base for the local stalkers, the game seems more streamlined and user-friendly than the previous two. There are new and helpful usability tweaks, such as a hotkey bar you can use for your medkits, bandages and more, replacing frustrating individual keys distributed far and wide about the keyboard. The changes are appreciated, but you’re still thrown in like a chump.
They do give you a decent gun to start with, at least. It hasn’t really showed me around much, but it doesn’t have to. Call of Pripyat had me from hello.
DoomMunky is also Mick, a theater and voiceover actor in the Bay Area. He bikes everywhere and recently became a pretty damn good pie maker.