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S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky

A gloomy forecast

Perhaps it was an accident that the original Stalker game, Shadow of Chernobyl, was as compelling, terrifying and atmospheric as it was. GSC certainly haven't managed the same feat this second time around. 18 months after Shadow we have another excursion into the Zone that remains rich and visionary, provides both a story and an open-ended faction war, and yet lacks some vital magic.

This review will largely ignore the fact of the game's staggering system specs and occasional instability. These are bugs which can and will be ironed out, or facts of technology that will be moderated by our simply having better PCs in the months to come. What cannot be so easily smoothed away are the bad design decisions.

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Once again we're heavily entrenched in shooter territory, with some mild RPG elements.
As you play you pick up better weapons, modify your character via the inventory screen, and unravel a Zone mystery. The Zone has been altered from the last game, with a couple of entirely new territories to explore. The path you take through the story is linear, but your adventures in the Zone are not. Your interactions with the various factions will decide exactly how the fighting progresses, and who you will spend the most time shooting at. Although there were factional elements in the original, this time it has been brought to the fore, with the struggles between the various bodies made explicit in your interface, and in the decisions you later face.

What Clear Sky tries to do is create a sense of rolling conflict across the wondrously ominous Chernobyl Zone. From the start you're asked to participate in the territorial conflicts between the various factions that inhabit the different areas, and you gain credibility with a faction as you help them secure vital chokepoints and camps across the map. It starts with some promise: in a battle across a swamp you help the Clear Sky faction against a pack of vicious renegades. These fights are mostly exciting, and are conducted in beautiful new environments. Later on in the game you'll be given the opportunity to join up with one of the other factions, and you can then utilise their supply depots with a greater range of things for sale, at a reduced price, as well as getting involved in their battle for dominance.

Joining a faction also opens up the 'faction war' tab on your PDA screen, which allows you to track the course of your particular conflict. Capture enough of the strategic points in a given area and you'll eventually be able to assault the enemy headquarters and win the war. Most of the time you're fighting on your own, but it's in support of the bands of soldiers sent out from the enemy HQs that you'll really have to make your skills count - they're the ones that will be staking out new territory and enabling you to push onwards towards your enemy. This entire process is supplemental to the overall story - the singleplayer, linear narrative that leads you inexorably towards the ever-present radioactive heart of the Zone - Chernobyl itself.

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The main problem for Clear Sky is that the faction warfare is simply no fun. There are a number of reasons for this: one is the way that it is presented. The fact that this is quite clearly a game, with stats and points of interest marked out on your PDA map, removes any mystery the Zone might have held. Rather than hiding the mechanisms of how your battle is progressing, or what a particular faction thinks of you - as the original game did - it's all laid out so that you can see it failing to work. This objectification - game-ification, if you will - does Clear Sky no favours. It shatters the atmosphere, and dissolves the idea that you are in some kind of uncharted wilderness. Hell, it even marks 'mutants' on your PDA, as if the anomalous horrors of the Zone were just another tick-list attraction to be marked off and then killed on your ballistic tour of the area.

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