Posts Tagged ‘ GSC

Clear Sky – Things Fall Apart

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.

The sight that greeted me after a long night of killing

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 best laid plans of mice and men...

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.

Clear Sky – The Cordon

STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl fell apart in its last act when it started throwing up roadblocks that required thorough foreknowledge to pass. If three guys sporting Gauss rifles just teleport right in front of you when you enter a room, they are going to kill you unless you already know where and when they will show up. I got through the end of the game by saving and reloading with every step.

When I arrived at the Cordon in Clear Sky, I realized that the same problems persist in the prequel. You emerge from a tunnel that connects back to the Swamps, and you receive a warning that you just came out near the army guardpost. I knew the location well from the first game, and figured it would be no problem to sneak past.

After going thirty meters down the ridge toward the outpost, a siren keened and then someone on a loudspeaker snapped, “Stalker detected!” I wondered how the hell they had seen me (motion sensors on the perimeter?) and ducked down behind a large tree. That helped, but not as much as I hoped it would: a heavy machine gun opened up in front of me and started blowing through the tree trunk. My mercenary crumpled to the ground, torn to pieces.

On the next run I hid in the tunnel until the alarm stopped. Then I headed back downhill. I reached the tree, and the machine gun got me again. The next time I tried to sprint my way to safety. Killed in the gulch at the foot of the hill. And the next three attempts saw me get killed before I even got that far.

I tried bouncing from cover to cover. Didn’t work. Hiding amidst some boulders sheltered me from the machine gun, but the moment I tried moving again it blew me to hell. It always knew exactly where I was. It tracked perfectly, as if I were tagged by a laser. If it didn’t get me, soldiers did. So I tried to stay in cover and deal with the soldiers first.

That failed miserably: heavily armed and armored, they soaked up rounds from my Kalashnikov until it ran dry, at which point I had nothing but small-caliber weapons at my disposal. Even if I was making progress at mowing them down as they approached, one or three of them would hurl grenades at me from fifty meters away, all of them arcing perfectly until they landed at my feet. If I left cover, the machine gun got me. If I stayed, the grenades exploded and killed me. Little known fact about the Ukrainian army: all their soldiers have their right arms replaced with mortars.

After twenty or thirty attempts, I alt-tabbed and went to Youtube and looked up some walkthroughs. Turns out that there’s a bunch of hits for “clear sky cordon machine gun”. Half the internet thinks this is bullshit. I watched a video walkthrough (which helpfully told me to stop whining and go do it) that showed the character race down the hill, through the gulch, under a tree branch, and clear through to safety. Spamming the medkit hotkey the whole way. I tried to match the guy in the video about twelve more times. Never made it.

At least two hours had passed since I first encountered the machine gun. So I went to plan B: go back through the swamps to the other entry point to the Cordon, this time farther north. However, this breaks the game’s scripting. I came into the Cordon on the other side of the railroad embankment, and when I tried to move through a checkpoint stationed by friendly stalkers, they attacked me. So I ended up having to use a maintenance tunnel farther west, where I massacred a half-dozen neutrals. Then I could finally walk to the bunker where my contact waited. He gave me a mission to go through the railroad embankment and said he would put out the word to let me through. Which they did, forgiving my bad manners twenty minutes earlier when I killed a squad of their friends.

It’s crap like this that dooms STALKER to cult status. When journeying within the Zone, observing its ecosystem and battling through random encounters and side-quests, it’s one of the finest games I have ever played. But when GSC attempt to funnel the player into scripted encounters, the results are usually disastrous.