‘S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat’ review:

Geiger Counter-Strike?

| Cadenza Reporter

The setup

For sanity’s sake, let’s get the hyphens and acronyms out of the way first. “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat” is an open-world, first-person shooter with heavy RPG elements. Done? Great. It’s the third game in the bleak, buggy, yet somehow sublime “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” series. All three are set in a fictionalized version of the real-life Exclusion Zone surrounding the city of Chernobyl, infamous for the disastrous nuclear reactor meltdown that took place in 1986.

Set directly after the first game, “Shadow of Chernobyl,” the newest game puts the player in the military boots of one Major Degtyarev, who is sent to the Zone to examine the wreckages of five military helicopters and track down the cause of the crashes. The crash sites are strewn across three vast areas: the marshes of Zaton, the warehouses of Yanov and the desolate city of Pripyat itself.

It was a stark and stormy night

When you play a “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” game, you play for the atmosphere. Despite running on the ancient vodka-fueled steamboat that is the X-Ray Engine, “Call of Pripyat” still manages to convey an impressive sense of verisimilitude. Some landmarks are strikingly believable, such as the ship Skadovsk, half of which was destroyed by some unknown force, with the remaining half serving as a makeshift stalker camp. But by far the most memorable location is the fully explorable city of Pripyat that the developers modeled on photographs of the deserted city. The resemblance is uncanny, and it stands out as one of my favorite areas in any game. Adding to the atmosphere is the series’ unmatched dynamic weather system. Sprinting toward an abandoned elementary school verisimilitude in Pripyat while a thunderstorm rages overhead is an experience that only “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” can deliver.

Brutal living

The Zone is an impossibly brutal place, and at its core, “Call of Pripyat” is about raw survival. Radiation blankets most of the areas you trek across, sapping away health until you take anti-radiation drugs, or a swig of vodka if you’re particularly desperate. If the radiation doesn’t kill you, the heat waves, chemical exposure, psi-emissions or electrical shocks generated by other anomalies will. Or perhaps you’ll be caught in one of the Zone’s emissions, a daily occurrence resulting from the distant Chernobyl nuclear power plant ejecting its radiation.

During my exploration, I felt as if I was an unwanted trespasser in the Zone, and it was trying to expel me in any way possible. By the end of my first night in “Call of Pripyat,” I realized that it wasn’t the case that there are plenty of ways to die in the Zone, but rather that there are plenty of ways for the Zone to kill me. It’s a dark thought, but it’s also a profound success for a game so meticulously built around its atmosphere. Because the Zone is such a remarkable location, it becomes more than a setting, and actually begins eliciting a response.

Let’s make a deal

One mission saw me negotiating with bandits on the behalf of a fellow stalker who had been overcharged. I met with the bandit leader at the bandits’ base, an abandoned gas station, where he told me that 7,000 RU would be enough to call off his men. When making moral choices in games, I’m always the first to jump at solving problems with words instead of violence. But this time, I didn’t. “Shooting you is free,” I said, and the bandit opened fire. I was hit—and bleeding—but I survived and quickly took him down with my shotgun, bandaging myself afterward. By now the entire camp was hostile, and I ended up killing a dozen of his men on the way out of the gas station. After making sure the area was clear, I looted their bodies for extra supplies.

I knew I made the right choice, because in the Zone, there is no morality. There is only survival. I knew that my armor could help me endure a gunfight if one broke out, and I needed that money for upgrades. I had no sympathy for the bandits. They shouldn’t have been surprised by my act of violence—it’s their area of expertise. I sold my scavenged supplies to the trader, healed up at the medic and informed Vano of the bandits’ fate. “Call of Pripyat” made me feel like a stalker, and that meant doing what was necessary to survive.

One part boring, two parts awesome

It’s unfortunate that my pointless anecdotes and frantic gushing won’t change that the “Call of Pripyat” is a highly acquired taste. The story is flimsy, with a finish that manages to be anticlimactic while wrapping up all loose ends. The slower pace will put off those looking for a nonstop man-shoot, and though some may embrace the more realistic features such as degrading equipment and bleeding out, there are just as many who aren’t interested in a survival simulator.

It doesn’t help that “Call of Pripyat” looks dated, even for one of the first DirectX 11 games. Despite the spectacular environments, the characters are blocky and the animations jerky and stilted. The guns sound like someone stamping on a hollow wooden floor, and as is the case with most games developed in the Eastern Bloc, the English voice acting makes me want to drown myself in borscht. But in a miraculous turnaround, “Call of Pripyat” bucks the series’ trend of being unplayably buggy. It didn’t crash once during my playthrough, nor did I experience any quest-breaking glitches.

Despite it being arguably the best game of the series, “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat” is not a game for everyone. Indeed, it may not even be a game for most people, given how unabashedly unforgiving it is. It is, however, one of the best-realized worlds in gaming, and for players who enjoy a bit of atmosphere in their games, Pripyat is calling.

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