The Magic of Pripyat – What did S.T.A.L.K.E.R. do right?
The Steam Sale did not evade my attention. I was hunting for some good bargains, but for some reason none of the big titles caught my attention, or my wallet for that matter. Then, I noticed that S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat was on Sale, and at a ridiculously low price as well. I was a fan of Shadow of Chernobyl, as well as Clear Sky (until it went missing from my room, with an entire suitcase), so I saw it as a logical next-step to buy the latest title of the series. What is so special about the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series? For me, it was the freedom. Freedom combined with incredible scenery, strange flora and fauna, and an almost genuine feeling of being an artifact scavenger in a very hostile world. In Shadow of Chernobyl the graphics were not beautiful, yet sufficient. The selection of weapons, especially later on in the game, was rich enough for anybody to find something suiting their style.
After installing Call of Pripyat, and launching it, I was struck by somewhat mediocre looking terrain, so I immediately downloaded the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Complete Mod. This Mod added a lot of fixes and some additional content, creating much more satisfying gameplay, at least in Shadow of Chernobyl. I was not certain what to expect from Call of Pripyat at the time. What is it, that eventually made me fall into a trance with Call of Pripyat, until I felt I finished the game? Read on.
The Magic of Pripyat – What did S.T.A.L.K.E.R. do right?
I played Shadow of Chernobyl before I read Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. When I read the Story I saw a resemblance, but the game was slightly detached from the original. We had the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s, Artifacts, Military and Researchers. On the other hand, the feeling of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. left no doubt in my mind that I would find my place here. Aside from the “Loners”, who formed the majority of the Artifact gatherers, we also have other small factions. The Bandits are in the zone to rob everybody else off their hard work. The Mercenaries perform a multitude of jobs, and they might be both friendly and hostile, depending on whether you get in their way or not. Then we have the Duty and Freedom. Two opposing factions that fight over control of the Zone. Duty wants to destroy the zone, or at least stop its secrets from reaching the outside the world. Freedom wants the zone to be open for all. Two extremes, and both of them are more or less correct in their views. We have the Scientists, who do not care about the faction wars, they just want data. Lots of data. Finally, we have the Monolith, a religious fanatic group which wants to hide the Zone’s secrets from everybody, and protect it.We also have the Military, but they usually stick to keeping key military installations, and the border around the zone secure.
In the middle of all of this stands you. In later installments you had a much bigger influence over the faction wars, and who came out better and who did not. In Call of Pripyat this becomes very clear, since a lot of the missions influence the ending of the game. In Shadow of Chernobyl and Call of Pripyat the feeling of being a scavenger was very appealing to me, not only because it brought home the bacon, but for another important reason.
Flora and Fauna
I do not know what would the game feel like, if not for the incredible surroundings the player is often put through. You have missions in the wilderness, inside buildings and underground. During the day and night. While it’s sunny and warm, as well as when it’s wet and stormy. In Call of Pripyat, with the Complete Mod I was met with something that never happened to me before, in any game. I was afraid of the thunderstorms. There were moments during the game, when I had to traverse an abandoned research facility in complete darkness. I turned on my flashlight but it only helped so much, and with the obscuring rain and constant flashes, which caused strange shadows to appear everywhere, I had a mix of feelings. Should I continue on, or turn back and wait for daylight? It did not help when everything was eerily calm. Not a single foe, and every howl or rustling of the bush made me freeze for a moment while I tried hearing over the storm whether the noise came from nearby. Another time, when I reached Pripyat, the thunder storm was so harsh that my night vision goggles became useless from the bright light. To make matters worse I was meant to discover the reason for a squad not responding to calls. Terrible weather, combined with darkness and an unknown foe make for a terrible combination, considering that, for all I knew, I could be facing Snipers, or worse.
The enemies you end up meeting in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. are rich and varied. At first you will meet mutated dogs and pigs, perhaps a wild boar or two. Later on you will learn to fear such beasts as Controllers and Bloodsuckers. Because of the more demanding beasts I always carried plenty of explosive to chuck at them, if I ever was forced to fight them. Bullets can damage them, sure, but when some psychic monstrosity pulls away your weapon, or throws half a ton of debris at you, you prefer to chuck grenades, rather than face them in an honest fight.
Another part is the artifact hunting, and often strange locations. The wondrous anomalies became landmarks I would pass by on a regular basis, and simply gaze at them, before checking if I missed any artifact among the deadly anomaly traps. On the less hazardous side, when you enter an abandoned buildings, and find only scraps of what might had been once a living apartment complex, you will have that sensation, of hidden treasure waiting for you. I searched every corner for hidden bullets, weapons or artifacts. Every building became a possible treasure trove, no matter how uninviting it looked. Perhaps one of the buildings that I least wanted to visit was a Kindergarten. The damaged paintings of laughing bears and other creatures on the walls did not build up my confidence, when I was aware there was a mutant hiding around the corner.