I am terrified. I'm standing in the total dark of 2:00am on the rusted deck of a decades-old barge. My gaze is fixed on the line of bushes
obscuring the nearby swamp. Five, six, seven sets of bright yellow eyes emerge from the gloom, then sink back into it. I'm exploring the unearthly heart of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and I'm terrified.
It's not the first time. 2007's Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl was GSC's first attempt at crafting a disquieting, alien landscape in the Ukrainian countryside. A hybrid shooter borrowing a light quest format from RPGs, it was followed by Stalker: Clear Sky. But while the developers' first two bites of the radioactive cherry produced some impressively creepy moments, it's Call of Pripyat's Zone - set closer to the epicentre of the disaster - that stands as the ultimate realisation. By turns haunting, lonely, aggressive and sad, the Zone is the most evocative environment of any game, save BioShock's Rapture.
This time, filling the boots of an undercover special forces type, I'm braving mutants, bandits and eerie anomalies to uncover the fate of five helicopters sent into the area. Additional missions are provided by the Zone's inhabitants, the itinerant Stalkers who've moved in.
The action takes place in three regions, each with distinctive visual cues and their own major dangers. Underpinning them all is a constant, radioactive hum, imparted by fantastically creepy sound design and a radiation warning whenever you venture close to metal that's absorbed the blast's nastier effects.
Danger is hard-wired into the Zone, where even standing next to a broken-down tractor is enough to melt most of your face. The landscape, not happy with simply imbuing everything nailed down with lethal, invisible badness, is peppered with anomalies: rips in normality caused by the disaster. There's the abandoned train and the globe of pure electric charge that travels its length every few seconds, or the 500m gouge cut into a valley face, covered with a floating haze like a road on a hot day. I stepped into this trench once, and immediately the screen turned blue - the cause of this monumental scar on the landscape revealed as massive psychic pressure. My vision blurred, thumping sound and the draining of my lifeforce the sole reward for stumbling into such an place.
But come to an anomaly prepared, with a sturdy suit and the right kind of sensor, and you can find artefacts. The Zone's unique by-product, these sell for thousands, or provide weird bonus effects when plugged into a suit. I made sure to keep a selection of these unnatural lumps on me at all times, switching health regeneration artefacts for those that halved the radiation I absorbed frolicking in irradiated barns, or that reduced psychic damage, letting me explore the brain-trench in peace. Finding these items is a tense game of risk/reward in itself: stocked with health-kits, I wandered anomalies with an artefact detector flipped open like a Soviet-era mobile phone. It's a low-rent, ultra-deadly version of a scavenger hunt, but pays a good wage if you bring artefacts to avaricious collectors. I found myself setting time aside every day in the Zone to poke around unearthly spots of the landscape.
Exchanging artefacts for cash is a vital part of Call of Pripyat's economic cycle, but it's not the only part. Everything in the Zone has to be kept in constant balance, topped up to prevent you succumbing to imminent death. In other RPGs I've given up looting corpses after a few hours, overstocked with supplies. Here, I scour each and every body - zombie, bandit, mercenary - to scrape up enough bandages and morsels of sausage to keep me sustained in a wilderness that wants me dead. The hunger mechanic remains vital but unobtrusive: don't eat and you'll take longer to recover your stamina bar, needed for lifesaving sprints. Or put another way: if you don't eat, something will eat you.