The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series has always been something of a unique game. Sure, each element of its gameplay has been used in other games before, whether it's the shooter gameplay, the bleak atmosphere, the equipment upgrades, or the free-roaming, mission-based gameplay. But few games have really put all of those elements together in a single package before. Shadow of Chernobyl, released in 2007, was an interesting, albeit somewhat flawed title. Call of Pripyat, the third in the series, fixes a lot of previous issues in the gameplay, while expanding on what the previous two games in the series offered.
The game takes place, as always, in the Zone, an alternate-universe version of Chernobyl, where a massive, secondary explosion after the nuclear plant's meltdown introduced a variety of hazards and anomalies to the area. In addition to deadly radiation and strange events that could kill a man simply because he was in the wrong place, artifacts appeared, valuable things which had a variety of uses and effects such as stitching wounds like magic, purifying radiation, and protecting the user. With the discovery of these treasures came those who would try to make a profit from them, the stalkers.
In the events of the first game, an ambitious stalker looking for his past managed to shut down the Brain Scorcher, a device that would fry the minds of anyone approaching the center of the Zone. With the area now open, the Russian military sent in a number of helicopters, meaning to secure the Zone's core. However, things went wrong, and that's where you, Alexander Degtyarev, come in. With a mission to investigate the cause of the problems and little else, you're sent into the Zone undercover.
There is something about the Zone which is alien and foreign, yet oddly familiar. Ruined buildings, unnatural creatures, a dark and oppressively grey sky, and haunting sounds that echo across the landscape combine to give Call of Pripyat (as with all of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games) a thick, dark atmosphere that draws you into it. Few games can give you a fully automatic machine gun, pistol, hundreds of rounds, body armour, and a flashlight and still make you feel like crouching up against a corner and hoping that nothing comes by. And yet the series manages to pull it off excellently. This is a game where you do not want to venture out at night. There are things in the Zone, things that come out especially at night. And when all you have is a flashlight to light the way, you do not want to be caught alone.
But then, there's always the fear of an emission, a Zone-wide burst of fatal radiation, keeping you near cover. Because when the warning hits your radio that one is about to hit, the last place you want to be is outside. There's little as fascinating in this game as an emission, something that can tear the sky in two, colouring the landscape red. Being outside is fatal (unless you take the right drugs), but it's hard not to want to look through a window as the world lights up in a terrible, alien light, brightening up even the darkest night sky before fading away back to darkness.
The artificial intelligence in this title is greatly improved over the rest of the series. Stalkers will patrol areas, helping you if you have helped them before, while returning to base when finished or when an emission is on its way. They'll search for cover if under attack, loot corpses when not, and head to your last known location if fighting you, allowing you to circle around and take them by surprise. My complaint is there pseudo-omnipotence in regard to hostility. If you take out one of a group of stalkers, even if your target has between him and his group three feet of concrete and you're using a silenced pistol, the rest of the group will immediately become hostile towards you. It makes stealth approaches not very worthwhile, and makes taking out groups of enemies a complicated affair.
The AI of other creatures in the zone has been improved as well. Mutants will use different strategies against you, forcing you to keep an eye on some of the quicker ones lest they circle around you (especially those that can turn invisible). Creatures will try to surround you and take you on in packs, and nighttime means that their numbers are increased. Fighting these things is no longer confined to dark corridors and run-down buildings; there are creatures in the night, and they can hurt. It makes going out in the darkness a much bigger decision to make. You might manage to get to where you're going, but if you can't run the moment you hear a snarl near your ear, well then you might want to stay inside.
The game's mix of first-person shooting and role-playing elements are always fun to play with. There aren't any traditional RPG stats to speak of here, nor is there experience or anything like that. What you deal with in Call of Pripyat is your equipment; that determines how long you can survive. Completing objectives and missions usually earns you equipment, either immediately or via the coordinates for a stash hidden somewhere in the Zone. Money can also help you, as traders are more than willing to barter for whatever weapons, ammo, food, or artifacts you can find in your travels. In addition to getting better and better armor/weapons, you can also upgrade your equipment, though often you're going to need to find tools for the technicians to do more than just cursory upgrades.
But upgrading your things makes you feel a lot better about the equipment you own: no longer is that pistol you're holding merely a pistol - it's a pistol with a modified silencer, bigger ammo clip, steadier aim, and so forth. Finding the tools can be a bit of a pain, however, especially since each new technician you meet will need another set. And storing the things you find has its own share of issues. While each area you visit has a storage box for you to put things in, the boxes don't share items, which means that if you stored a really good gun in one area, but travelled all the way to another base, you're going to have to trek all the way back to get that weapon. This is aggravated by the unnaturally long load times that occur when you transition between areas. The transitions don't come often - you'll probably spend more than a few hours between them - but they're long enough to be annoying regardless.
Technically speaking, Pripyat is definitely the most stable of all of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. While the other two titles were plagued with bugs, some that crashed the game and others that just messed up quests, Pripyat, so far, seems to be relatively free of them. I've had some weird things happen: a rag doll-ed corpse has spazzed out completely, stretching itself out over dozens of meters; a medic for a base has just completely vanished into thin air; and the game has thrown me to the desktop twice. Still, quick-saves and an auto-save system that does its job after almost every landmark (completing quests, receiving quests, changing areas), makes these little more than minor nuisances.
Call of Pripyat manages to do a lot of things right, especially more than its predecessors. It's form of gameplay probably isn't well suited for everyone though. Things can sometimes get a little frustrating, especially since you can be taken down quickly with a well-placed shotgun blast or assault rifle burst. But the gameplay can be pretty engaging when you manage to lose yourself in what the Zone offers. Following your map to find the next objective, taking a detour to rob a few bandits or scrounge through a deadly anomalous area for artifacts, Call of Pripyat rewards the adventurous. It's much-improved over the previous titles, and while it probably won't win any converts, its many improvements mean a game that fans of the series will definitely enjoy.