Sometimes I can be such a wimp.
I'm walking around in the radioactive zone of alienation that surrounds the Chernobyl nuclear plant that S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is set in. This morning I don't really have a particular reason for playing, the game is big enough and invites you to explore on your own, so my plan is just to run around and capture some nice screenshots for this review. On top of a hill I pass a couple of burned out buildings, which feels perfect for some moody pictures, and I catch sight of a detail through a window. Two red buttons are glowing inside the building, so I decide to check it out.
It turns out that they were not red buttons on a computer or some other kind of technological equipment. Soon I'm hunted by a blood sucking mutant with the ability to turn itself invisible. In front of my computer I'm bouncing around in my chair, adrenaline pumping. I don't get any proper screenshots, but I've included one of them anyway. Which one it is should be obvious.
There's never been anything wrong with GSC Game Worlds' vision, to create some kind of hybrid between a first person shooter and roleplaying game set in the forbidden zone around the ruins of the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl. There's already been two games in the series, and Call of Pripyat is the third. The problem is their lack of resources to take the concept all the way. Bugs, collision problems between characters and a rather bulky user interface can get in the way of the whole experience of the zone.
Luckily, problems like that don't make S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat a poor game. First of all it is not nearly as buggy as the old games of the series, during my hours in the zone the game does not crash once, which is some kind of record for a S.T.A.L.K.E.R.-game. The graphics might not be the most advanced in the world and is mostly brown (on the top of my notes I've actually scribbled "brown, brown, brown"), but they still work perfectly to create a depressing mood and a sense of danger and isolation.
Pripyat is the name of the city that was completely emptied when a reactor at the nuclear power plan exploded back in 1986. Ever since it's been completely abandoned and nature has taken over. It stands as a constant reminder about what happened here and the kind of foot print humanity can leave on its surroundings. You will get to visit the town, an eerie relic of the Cold War, during your mission to find out what happened to five military helicopters that mysteriously crashed while flying over the zone.
Call of Pripyat is a continuation of the first game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. The main character this time is an ex "stalker", a person who lives in the abandoned zone to look for rare artifacts to sell. The hunt for the five helicopters might not be the most exciting storyline in a game ever, but if you only go for the main story you'll miss the most exciting parts of the game - the weird, semi-functional society that the stalkers have built during their stay in the zone of alienation.
The amount of detail is staggering. All background dialogue is in Russian (the text and dialogue between you and other characters are in English, luckily) and the game has a daily cycle and weather effects that has a huge impact on the game. The zone is very dangerous at night, since it's hard to see that mutated dog or bloodsucker before it's too late, so when it's dark the stalkers tend to stay home or in a make-shift bar. When morning comes they leave their shelters to search for treasures. It feels a bit weird to say this about a game where I get attacked by invisible mutants, but in a sense S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat feels strangely believable compared to most other first person shooters.
There is a whole bunch of side missions you can get involved in and often you get to choose sides. For example, early on in the game you get a mission to sneak up on a stalker camp during the night and steal their assets. You can either do what the mission says, or you can tell the stalkers and turn on your employer. When you're out exploring the zone you might end up in the middle of a fire fight between two rival gangs. Then you can either decide to get into the fight (either choose side or just kill everything that moves) or simply wait until it's over, giving you the opportunity to loot the dead bodies.
Call of Pripyat is mostly a game for the fans, though. It won't give you any tutorial or time to get used to the harsh life in the radioactive wasteland. No introduction, no one to hold you by the hand. You get your mission, then you're on the ground without a clue where to go or who your friends are. The first question you will probably ask yourself is "are those guys over there, carrying guns, friends or foe", a few seconds into the game. Want to play it safe and open fire, or just wait and see what happens?
If you are a newcomer to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and deal with these issues you have an epic and different gaming experience in front of you. Call of Pripyat might be a bit rough around the edges, but it's a daring game that mix first person action and roleplaying in a landscape that at times make Fallout 3 look like a holiday in the sun. I can get annoyed by characters that stare into a wall, or that keep colliding with others when trying to walk across a room, or the sometime terrible voice acting. A few more colours would have been nice, or a less clumsy user interface. But I guess running around in the area around Chernobyl is not supposed to be easy or happy.
So, what happened to the blood sucking and invisible mutant? He did, unsurprisingly, kill me. I got my revenge on him and his friends later, by sneaking into their nearby lair armed to the teeth. Justice is quick and hard in the zone.