Wednesday 3 March 2010

Chernobyl Fallout

Early in STALKER: Call of Pripyat I’d taken on a job to provide some extra muscle for a squad of stalkers who were breaking up a weapons deal. Creeping up to the rendezvous in the twilight I switched off my torch and scanned the place with binoculars; the deal was in an old industrial building, I could see the weapons broker in the doorway talking to his bandit customer, a couple of mercenary bodyguards and other bandits were patrolling the area, there were bound to be more inside.

Creeping closer to join the squad I was supporting, I had to position myself carefully. A solidly constructed outbuilding offered good cover, with windows overlooking the warehouse for an excellent firing position. My flimsy body armour was barely up to stopping pistol shots, so staying out of a hail of assault rifle fire seemed like a pretty good idea. My battered AKM wasn’t exactly a precision weapon, but I could snap off a few shots in the general direction of the bandits, stay pretty safe, let the rest of the squad do the hard work and report back for the payment.

That wouldn’t do at all, though. The exit of the outbuilding faced away from the warehouse, it would take too long to get out and cross the ground once the squad went in. I couldn’t just hide out of the way, I had to stick with the rest of the guys, so I formed up and waited for the squad leader to give the signal. At a wave of his hand the stalkers opened up: a mercenary fell straight away, the rest dived for cover and wildly returned fire. Our squad pressed forward, someone chucked a grenade to clear a couple of bandits from behind a pile of pipes, I saw my opportunity and sprinted forward to do what I was really here for: stripping the corpses of weapons and other useful stuff before the other stalkers could get to it.

I’ve really been enjoying Call of Pripyat. I played the first of the STALKER series, Shadow of Chernobyl, rough edges and not-compatible-with-save-game-patch and all, but never quite got around to the second, Clear Sky. A couple of weeks back Steam popped up a “loyalty offer” of a fiver off Call of Pripyat if you owned either of the previous games on Steam, and though I’d originally bought the box of the first game it was also part of the complete THQ pack, and that was all the incentive I needed to hit “Buy Now”.

Like the original, life is harsh when you’re first chucked into the Zone. If you’re not being savaged by the mutated wildlife you’re stumbling into radioactive or chemical hazards, or being chucked around by gravitational anomalies. The first time I started the game I looked around a bit, got up to make a cup of coffee or something without pausing it, and when I got back to the PC there were frantic radio messages telling me to seek shelter as there was a radioactive emission on the way, and even as I started sprinting for cover the screen flashed white and my first foray came to an ignominious end.

Though you’ve got an over-arching mission to track down five military helicopters that crashed in the Zone, you need to spend a while building up your resources to be able to find them all (and survive for more than a couple of seconds in their vicinity), and that early part of the game really shone for me, where you’re scavenging every old weapon and bit of ammo you can, to either use or (if in decent enough nick) sell. NPC AI isn’t exactly going to cause worries about Skynet taking over, but it’s realistic enough that stalkers and bandits wander about, pick up decent guns if they’re lying around, engage in firefights with each other or hostile wildlife and generally make the place seem lived-in. You get missions like the one I opened with, where you’re definitely fully committed to stamping out the bandits/mercenaries/rogue wildlife, but the bloke you’ve been sent out with has quite a nice weapon, and… well, obviously it would be unsporting if you shot him yourself, but if he happened to come a cropper, and you happened to snatch up the gun from his not-yet-cold dead fingers… it’s what he would have wanted.

Call of Pripyat has quite a strong Oblivion/Morrowind vibe; Fallout 3 is a natural comparison, only instead of a slightly kitsch 50s-America-in-the-future providing the background to the apocalypse it’s grim ex-Soviet concrete tower blocks. In both games I could happily spend a while looting an area, ferrying as much as my carrying capacity would allow into temporary caches, then back to the rough tin box that counted as home (though that probably says more about me than the games), slowly building up and upgrading an arsenal of weapons, ammunition and armour. Call of Pripyat doesn’t exactly sparkle in the text dialogue (I’m not sure if it’s a slightly weird sense of humour or gap in translation that makes you sign off half your conversations with “fugedaboudit”) or almost-trademark rough voice acting, but it’s efficient enough to send you off to do various bits and pieces around the Zone, and there are some nice set pieces here and there.

The last third of the game was a bit of a disappointment; once tooled up with an upgraded assault rifle and suit of armour you don’t really need to scavenge any more, and the missions in Pripyat were a bit linear, though there were a few neat shoot-outs and a spooky underground lab to explore. The very final mission was a real anticlimax, I was expecting a brutal fight for survival but it was a comparative walk in the irradiated park. Still, it didn’t take too much of the gloss off the rest of the game, and I’ll definitely have a search to see what mods are out there and give it another go sometime. Two slightly radioactive thumbs up!

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