Clear Sky takes place several months before the events of STALKER. This can be rather disorienting and is even poignant at times. Because the Zone as we find it in Clear Sky is not the ruin that you find in STALKER, and the future is a cloud that hangs over the entire game.
In the Cordon you meet a visionary stalker leader, Father Valerian, who has launched an uprising against the Army and the bandits. Sidorovich dismisses him and his followers as men who are playing at Robin Hood and His Merry Men. You find them set up on a farm north of the railroad embankment, and Valerian speaks of his plans for the future. More stalkers show up every day to join his forces. He has already forced the army out of the Cordon and collected some insurance against their retaking it. Everyone you meet is inspired by Valerian’s rallying cry: the Zone for the stalkers. Soon, he promises, they will begin expanding their control and make the Zone a safe place for honest stalkers.
But we know that when we come to the Cordon in STALKER, the army has a chokehold on the territory and Father Valerian’s fortress-farm is a decaying ruin overrun by wild animals. There will be no traces and no memories of Valerian’s rebellion.
Later, when you come to the Agroprom Research Institute, you find that the Duty faction has made the rambling Soviet structure into a powerful and efficient fortress. The motor pool is full of armored personnel carriers, and a Hind attack helicopter is fueled and ready on the helipad. On the other side of the Zone, in the Dark Valley, the rival Freedom faction has occupied an old maintenance center. Both are running massive, paramilitary operations out of secured strongholds. In STALKER, both these strongholds have become terrifying hell-holes. Agroprom is stripped bare and overrun with mutants when it isn’t being occupied by passing bandit gangs or Special Forces detachments. The Dark Valley is completely hostile, Freedom’s old base fallen into ruin and occupied by a bandit army. The rest of the territory is awash in mutants.
The Zone in Clear Sky is hardly an Eden, but it is nonetheless headed for a Fall. Everywhere you look you see tomorrow’s ruins. The Clear Sky faction is working feverishly to head off some impending catastrophe. The Duty faction is slowly but surely being ground down by deadly mutant attacks, and Freedom has been ravaged by the work of a traitor in their midst. Valerian is treading close to hubris. Rumors abound of an elite stalker faction that has suddenly vanished. Clear Sky is deliciously full of portent.
Yet its thematic success works against the setting. In the original game, the Zone is a lonely and forbidding land. There are small pockets of relative safety. The rest of the world would prefer to shoot you or eat you. From the time you leave the Stalker village in Cordon until you reach the Duty outpost on the northern end of the garbage dump, you are in mortal danger with every step.
Clear Sky, by contrast, seems crowded, small, and noisy. Everywhere you go, there is a base full of friendly stalkers. Sometimes a base and a couple outposts. You can’t go ten feet without stumbling over a friendly patrol. The dissonance overwhelms the game. In the Dark Valley, you are given a dangerous mission to go kill a pseudodog that has been terrorizing the Freedom base. You go out the back entrance to the base, you walk about one hundred fifty yards, and you’re attacked by the pseudodog. If you turn around, you can still see the guards at the entrance, just standing there chatting while you’re flinging hand grenades and blasting away at spectral wolverines.
When you come down to it, the Zone was never really that big. STALKER seemed expansive because it made you feel small and alone. If safety is a kilometer away and there’s a dozen mortal threats between you and it, that kilometer will seem like the distance between here and the moon. But when GSC packed the Zone full of friendly NPCs in Clear Sky, they called attention to fact that you are playing on a relatively small stage.
To some extent it was inevitable that a second trip to the Zone would begin to feel a bit confined, especially as GSC re-purposed assets from the first game for use in this one. To explore the themes they wanted to in this game, and there are several interesting ones, they had to provide more opportunities to meet other characters and spend time soaking up the different vibes of friendly encampments. There simply are not that many places in this world where you could plausibly have those encounters, and I very much doubt GSC had the resources to create a lot of new, convincing spaces to explore. The Zone is their studio backlot, and sometimes it shows.
On the other hand, there is a lot of tedium in these early encounters. The entire Freedom section should have been scrapped. It brings the game to a screeching halt while the Freedom faction sends you on missions that are the STALKER equivalent of “Run into the gas station and get me some cigarettes.” The encounter with the pseudodog is startling, but everything else is just marking time. The early scenes in Garbage are likewise a waste. It’s not until you reach Agroprom that things start picking up.
Clear Sky has an absolute mess of an opening. The introduction is mishandled and, with the exception of the fighting in the Swamps, it never approaches STALKER for excitement and atmosphere. It seems like Clear Sky doesn’t really care whether or not you keep playing.
But it has a card up its sleeve: Lake Yantar, and a totally unexpected and utterly brilliant zombie apocalypse.