Friday, December 14, 2012

Now Is The Winter of Our Downloadable Content

A glance at my Steam profile confirms that most of my game time over the past couple of weeks has been split between Assassin's Creed III and STALKER: Clear Sky.

AC3 is good, though all of the usual nitpicks apply. As always, it is supremely ambitious, at times seeming to bite off more than it can competently chew. As has been the norm, though, I still enjoy playing it, warts and all. I've been taking this one at a slower, steadier pace than I did the Ezio trilogy. As I recall, I played the first game in the series in a similar fashion; coming to it here and there, I let the plot points and setting changes the series is so fond of percolate for a bit before moving on. Even with the dreaded 12/21/12 approaching both in-world and IRL, I feel no rush to blitz through this iteration. I'd rather hit it leisurely and not stress the well-worn mechanics so hard. I wonder what Ubisoft's future plans are for the series, and whether they're going to continue putting them out at the breakneck pace they have been. It seems riskier and riskier every time, and at least with media types, they seem to have come very close to disaster this year. For what it's worth, I think the series ambition and devotion to offering unique and interesting settings and conflicts are more than worth overlooking some sloppiness, provided they don't let it get too out of hand.

Speaking of games released in a bit of a sloppy state that hide unique and compelling qualities, I've been playing more S.T.A.L.K.E.R.!

Clear Sky is the second in the trilogy, and widely regarded as the red-headed stepchild of the bunch. At release there were a number of issues with the game causing it to be excruciatingly difficult or even outright unfair, to hear it told by game reviewers. That, dear reader, is why you should be glad that we live in a world where enterprising fans have taken it upon themselves to compile the series of Complete mods for the Stalker series. Don't enter the Zone without them! In addition to fixing bugs and altering mechanics to make the games more firm-but-fair than outright broken, they also implement a number of graphical enhancements and in places even restore content cut from the original releases.  I played Shadow of Chernobyl with the Complete mod from the word go, and I'm doing the same with Clear Sky, and I'm happy to report that I'm having nothing but a great time in the bleak, desolate, and unwelcoming Chernobyl exclusion zone.

There is simply no other series that does what the Stalker games do. The closest analogues I can think of would be Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3 (and perhaps their sequels), though neither of those could really be considered similar beyond superficial features. The Stalker series offers up an engaging mix of survivalist scavenging, treasure hunting, FPS action, faction-based warfare, mysterious supernatural phenomena, and horror in a world that is at once more hostile and vital than any other in gaming.

In Clear Sky, you play a stalker called Scar who, after surviving an unprecedented blast of energy out of nowhere, wakes up in the care of a faction of stalkers called Clear Sky, who are devoted to the careful scientific study of the supernatural happenings in the Zone. You know only that you need to track down a group of other stalkers who are rumored to have made their way to the center of the Zone, and who are probably at the heart of why it has been acting so erratic lately. If that sounds like personification of the Zone, that is because that is precisely what is going on, here. The men of Clear Sky think that the Zone is acting, through seemingly random emissions of power capable of frying anyone else, to protect whatever is at its core.  And off you go.

If you've played the first game, you know who it was that made it to the center of the Zone, and what they found there. Clear Sky is actually a prequel to the events of Shadow of Chernobyl, and runs concurrent to Strelok and his group's trip past the Brain Scorcher that leads into the first game.

I'm about 10 hours in, as of this writing, hot on the trail of a stalker called Fang, one of Strelok's group, looking for answers. I can hardly wait to play more. So far I've seen a lot of the same areas of the Zone as in the first game, with the exception of the starting area, the swamps. From there the game moves on to the cordon, the garbage, and the dark valley. I think there are a couple of other new areas later on, too.

Clear Sky introduces a faction warfare system, so now you can join the groups of stalkers like Duty, Freedom, Clear Sky, and others, though I haven't really been compelled to do so, just yet. I've fought alongside a couple of them, but only to my own ends, thus far. This game also introduces a weapon upgrade system, which is cool, but sadly takes away the global stalker rating system SoC had. In that game, a list was kept of every stalker NPC in the game, and your stats, as you played, measured up against them. It was artificial, but cool nonetheless.

No comments: