S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky

Clear Sky has been the black sheep of the series for a long time. Its reputation was such that I actually hadn’t given it much thought or time until very recently, when I decided to give it another shot on a whim. Turns out, it’s a fine entry in the series, on par with both Shadow of Chernobyl and Call of Pripyat. But it has its own identity and feel that sets it apart, and I think the fundamental dislike people have for the game is based on unfounded assumptions and a failure to understand this identity and take it on its own terms; I intend to try to explain why it’s worth playing, and clear up some misconceptions. It’s my belief that Clear Sky’s commercial failure and its harsh judgement by fans resulted more from the timing of its release than anything else.

In order to better explain Clear Sky’s tone and gamefeel, it’s helpful to contrast it against SoC and CoP. SoC, being the first game in the series, was rough. It had many beautiful, expansive environments and a lonesome, wistful sort of feeling in between brief bursts of action. It is a difficult game, but its shooting mechanics are relatively straightforward for an FPS, leaning a little bit toward realism, but not taking into account the full extent of ballistic physics. Call of Pripyat, on the other hand, had much smaller and fewer environments, but with more densely-packed content. It contains many quality of life improvements over SoC, and its narrative and progression is much more focused. Much of what CoP improves over SoC was taken directly from Clear Sky, however, the ballistics model was toned down to be more like SoC again.

In Clear Sky, we have something of an experimental game. It has the big environments of SoC, and much of the same level design, but with a much greater emphasis on local tactical choices, with many small locations packed with bits of cover, with several approaches and angles of attack. The ballistics model is highly realistic, taking into account acceleration, drop, and scatter. And the overall game flow is centered around an ongoing war between factions, which the player takes part in. At the time the game was released, nothing like this had ever really been seen before. Hyper-realistic military shooters were still a very niche product, and most FPSes had hitscan weapons where you click on the enemies to delete them. Games like Rainbow Six Siege, which demands hyper-awareness of your surroundings and lines of sight, and taking into account bullet drop and other factors, were still about a decade away.

Players just coming from Shadow of Chernobyl, who you would think were better equipped than Call of Duty plebs to handle a realistic ballistics model, were nevertheless endlessly frustrated by the ballistics in Clear Sky, leading to rumors that (for instance) the game would randomly make your bullets disappear, or that combat was “all luck”. I’ve watched video reviews of people making this complaint, and it’s often over top of footage of them trying to plink away at people with a pistol or SMG from long range, too scared to get closer. Other reviewers have complained that enemies are bullet sponges, because apparently they’re aiming for the torso or using flechettes on heavily-armored targets that can be dropped by a single pistol shot to the head.

Guns in real life, particularly old and/or poorly-maintained guns, are not point-and-click devices. Bullets don’t go exactly where you point the barrel every single time, no matter what video games have trained you to think. They take time to reach their target, and they’re constantly buffeted by physical forces like wind, air resistance, and gravity on their way there. If you’re spraying and praying from mid-range with a submachine gun, you might as well be shooting straight up into the air for all the good it will do. You have to protect yourself, move carefully, be aware of sightlines, and make every shot count. This reality is reflected in Clear Sky.

The tone and core game loop of Clear Sky is also different from the rest of the series. The faction war, especially in the first area where your faction is at an extreme disadvantage at first, has you running around much more actively than SoC, which encouraged you to take lots of downtime right from the start. Once things click for you with the combat, Clear Sky is akin to a MOBA or an MMO FPS, with you running to the aid of whomever needs your help, analyzing the local tactical situation and jumping in for surgical strikes with care and precision, then running to the next objective. There is still downtime, the Zone will still blow you away with its beauty, but it takes place while waiting for counterattacks or reinforcements, or in the times when your faction has locked down an area, or before you join up with a faction in a given area and are wandering around trying to get a foothold for yourself.

Combined with the extremely realistic ballistics model, I think a lot of players simply didn’t know what to make of the game when it came out. They were frustrated that they couldn’t hit anything with their usual careless tactics, or that the enemy used grenades to flush them out of cover (how dare they!). Veterans of the Zone cranked the difficulty up to Master (knowing it makes the game much better), and would die even more quickly than in SoC. People were running around carelessly, feeling buffeted by the constantly-shifting landscape of war, unable to grasp the larger strategic picture. They felt powerless and ineffectual, and concluded that the game was flawed or made up excuses as to why they were having a hard time.

I want to urge you to give Clear Sky another shot. It is a beautiful, expansive, gloomy, intense, ruthlessly difficult, and extremely well made game. It richly deserves its place in this venerable series. I only really have one complaint about it, and that’s that they removed the hunger system for some reason. It was re-implemented in CoP, but in Clear Sky, food is just for healing small amounts.

That’s it. Get out of here, Stalker.

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