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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Once More Into The Zone - STALKER: Clear Sky (Clear Sky Complete Mod) Review

As I've said a bunch on this blog anyone who reads what I write knows I love Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. I've played SOC countless times, Vanilla and with Mods installed. I absolutely love everything SOC brings to the table but I have never played any of the follow up games, Clear Sky or Call of Pripyat. I decided that was extremely uncalled for and decided to right this wrong and finally play both games.

Just moments ago I finished Stalker: Clear Sky with the Clear Sky: Complete Mod installed. I had previously tried to play Clear Sky but was met with glitches, bugs and other assorted crap keeping me from playing the game. The biggest one I encountered was early on where I just randomly died as I hit the quick save key. Well guess what happened? Yep, the death was in the quick save. I would of lost a lot of progress if I reloaded the auto save so I decided to just forget Clear Sky and go play Shadow of Chernobyl again.

Why did I wait until now to try playing this with a Mod installed? I like to play through games the first time as pure as possible or vanilla as some people call it. Even if I'm playing some really old game that needs a source port to run right on modern PCs I try to get one that doesn't change the base game at all. Complete is a series of mods that does this very thing. You can find a Complete mod for all three Stalker games and I figured if I was going to go through the buggy mess that is Clear Sky I should try Complete with it, so that's what I did. How does this notoriously glitch filled game handle with this mod and how is the game overall? Well read on to find this out!

Clear Sky is the second game in the Stalker series but it's a prequel to Shadow of Chernobyl taking place immediately before the events of the first game. You play the role of a Stalker named Scar. In the intro you see Scar leading a group of scientists through the Zone when an emission hits, killing all the scientists but leaving Scar alive. He's rescued by a group called Clear Sky and after awakening is told he has a connection with the Zone and further emissions will cause his central nervous system to break down and eventually kill him. From the outset that is your mission, to find out what is causing the Zone to lash out and put a stop to it. I won't go into it much more as it can ruin the story of SOC if you haven't played that yet as the two games do go together.

Clear Sky plays a lot like Shadow of Chernobyl which is to be expected but they did change up some of the mechanics, some of these changes are great and some are done so poorly they distract from the overall game. You go through the game in a first person view shooting at enemies and looking for loot to survive. You can access an inventory and equip Artifacts but even this has changed a little.

The biggest game change is the upgrade system, all weapons and armor can be upgraded through NPC characters in the major camps in the game. Weapons can be made to shoot faster, have better accuracy or even accept a different caliber of ammo. Armor can be made to offer better protection, add a gas mask or better night vision and you can increase the amount of Artifact pockets you can have. Unlike SOC in Clear Sky you start out unable to equip any Artifacts. You have to upgrade your armor to hold more and even that number can vary. Some armor while offering a better base protection do not have the ability to hold the maximum amount of Artifacts. The upgrade options for both weapons and armor are actually pretty deep with some upgrades cutting you off from others and so on. I really liked that I had to think about the path I wanted to take while upgrading and it actually made a difference in the type of gun I was wielding or the armor I was wearing.

The next biggest change are the way you find Artifacts. In SOC they were just laying around waiting for you to pick them up, that is not the case in Clear Sky. You have in your possession a detector which helps you find them in the Anomaly fields. You'll come across large fields of various Anomalies and this is where the detector comes into play. You use it to pinpoint where in the field the item is then go in after it, avoiding the Anomalies and trying to get out alive. This was a really nice addition as it makes you feel more like a Stalker having to survive in these dangerous fields to get the prize and make the Artifacts way more valuable.

Faction Wars, what's a Faction War? It's the worst freaking thing in this game and nothing but a pain to deal with. You have warring factions in Clear Sky, The Loners, The Bandits, Duty and Freedom. You can choose to join any of these groups and fight on their side but from the way they always need your help you'd think you're the only good fighter they have. I went with the Loner faction which is just made up of Stalkers and they were fighting against the bandits. At first it was okay just a little fighting here and there, kind of fun and a new addition. Then it all goes down hill. You will be called constantly to help out and if you don't you fail and the other side gains the upper hand. I don't know the breaking point for failing these that will make you get a game over or even if it's possible to get a game over from this but it still sucks. Hold a territory for your faction let's you get through much easier, here's an example. Early on in the game you go to the Garbage. If the Bandits hold the entrance you will get robbed when you enter and loose all your money. If you fight off the Bandits enough in the Cordon the Loner faction will get into the Garbage ahead of you and clear the entrance allowing you go through without paying. Stuff like that is a neat little touch but it ends up just being busy work.

I mentioned two locations above the Cordon and the Garbage. You may remember them from SOC, you'll be seeing a lot of the areas from SOC in this game. It makes sense because you're kind of leading up to the events in the first game and the Zone is only so big. At first I thought it was a little lazy to see so much reused but it adds to the element that Scar knows his way around the Zone and you do too as you've done it all before. I did think it was nice to see these areas like they were before Shadow of Chernobyl, like Freedom holding the Dark Valley and some sections of the Cordon actually inhabited beyond the Army base and the Rookie village.

I really liked what the Complete Mod did to this game. The first thing is the improved graphics. While Clear Sky vanilla is a better looking game than SOC this makes it look even better. All the redone textures are just amazing and help bring the Zone to life. Textures are all new, a new weather system has been added, the lighting is redone and that part just looks amazing. As the sun rises and the beams of light come through the windows or trees it's a really cool effect. The sound has been changed too adding in themes for each area and adding in a lot more guitar and vocal tracks for the NPCs who play guitar. Visually and auditorily this mod makes the entire game a million times better and I highly recommend you use this same mod if you decide to play through Clear Sky.

This wouldn't be one of my normal reviews if I didn't have a bug or glitch to complain about and it's time for that. Most the way through Clear Sky I didn't have any problems but the one bug I encountered was a nightmare and I almost gave up playing because of it. I was near the end of the game. You end up having to go through the town of Limansk to continue the story. Getting there isn't an issue but I was there for about 2 minutes and I was killed. No biggie, I'll reload and be fine. Nope! Crash to desktop, again not a big deal, the first time through SOC it crashed to desktop twice so I can give this "buggy mess" at least one crash. Well when I tried to reload my save it crashed again and again and again. Eventually I went with the beginning of the level auto save and that one loaded but the game crashed and so on and so forth. I looked online and read that this was a problem caused by the Complete mod making the game crash and that it only happens in the first part of Limansk. I was going to remove the mod and play through Limansk without it but then I read it's a problem with the base game and I could get the crash even without the mod. I did read that if you make it to the Construction yard in Limansk without crashing you're okay. After a few more crashed I eventually made it through the level and was able to finish the game without incident. This is a bad place to have to worry about dying as this is when the game get's crazy hard and I went through a ton of medkits and bandages getting to the end of this level so I wouldn't end up dying.

And this brings me to the last thing I want to say about Clear Sky and that's the difficulty. I know Stalker games are suppose to be difficult and I don't mind that but this one just all of a sudden get's super hard near the end, I mean the difficulty curve just rams up. I don't mind challenge but I can't stand when games do this and this one is no exception.

Overall Clear Sky was an okay game. I really liked some of the mechanic changes this game had which made me feel more immersed in the world. Faction Wars and the above mentioned bug almost ruined the game for me and I doubt it will be a game I replay anytime soon. My initial views on the vanilla game are probably still there but the polish Complete adds more than make up for the past issues. If you play this make sure it's with Complete, DO NOT PLAY VANILLA!

Stalker: Clear Sky - 7 out of 10

Link to download Clear Sky: Complete - http://www.moddb.com/mods/clear-sky-complete You can actually follow this link to get the Complete mods for Shadow of Chernobyl and Call of Pripyat also.

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