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My thoughts on Call of Pripyat (sort of a review but not)
I recently replayed Call of Pripyat for the millionth time, the last of the great stalker trilogy, and *very debatably* the best stalker game (I'm not saying it is, just that its in close competition with the other games because of how good it is). But where to start with a review of CoP. The best place would be something that all the games are known for, the bugs and instability of the X-ray engine.
Stability and Bugs
Generally the stalker series is known for its jankiness. It's ragdolls and loud object collision (whenever a burer tries to throw a barrel at you, and it collides with a wall repeatedly, it sounds like a fucking train is passing from two feet away) and it's crashing and freezing and buggy missions. However... Call of Pripyat is the least buggy game in the series BY FAR. No more bullshittery with missions not completing or starting, no more random crap stopping your game in its tracks, and no more insane crashing, kinda. Because ironically even though this game had less bugs than the rest, it crashed more for me, now that being said half the crashes occurred from one specific situation where my adjustable zoom would wack out and it would crash the game, so relatively, its more stable, and this is a huge step up, because like bad UI design or bad menu layouts or stuff like that, if they're there, its noticeable, and it detracts from a game in every way, even if it only effects one thing, but if they aren't there, it's less easily noticeable, but you need to focus on it, because in a day and age when companies pump out games after one year and they are bug ridden on day one with horrible game breaking lag, it's good to look at stable games and congratulate them on not fucking it up. But this game has other problems they traded for a stable game, like the difficulty of the game.
Difficulty and overall gameplay - Intro
Another thing stalker is known for doing is having pseudo-realistic difficulties and in the case of clear sky slightly less realistic difficulty where everyone carries a 20 pack of grenades and is also an mlb pitcher. But a perfect balance of difficulty is needed (similar to SHoC's mid game), and after clear sky's disastrous difficulty spikes and grenade aimbots and unfair one shots, I think GSC reeled it in and the result is a... slightly disappointingly easy game for a number of reasons.
Difficulty - Economy and Monetary exploits. - trust me, it needs its own section
In a game with a money or trading system, economy is essential to a game's difficulty being successful, and with the previous games they struck a good balance where the player would receive the big boi gear as they got deeper into the game, and money farming was ineffective in getting enough cash to purchase good gear. Also the good gear was only sold when the player got into better standing with people and better gear was slowly opened to the player as they proved themselves to the traders around them in the late game. But in cop, they royally fucked up, and I don't mean it in a way like it's slightly bad and good gear is unlocked a little to early, NO, to put into perspective, by my 4th hour of playing SHoC, I got an AK, a good pistol, and a stalker suit, pretty standard right? By my 4th hour in this playthrough of CoP, I had an Exo, an FT2000M, and a black kite pistol. WTF, you might be asking? What kinda super drugs are you on, what kinda mods do you got installed, what difficulty are you playing, and to that I answer in order of the questions, just cocaine LSD and some zone brewed "potions", no gameplay mods just absolute textures, and I'm playing on the chad difficulty, master. The secret lies in two ingredients that work together to break the economy, artifacts, and sleeping, with these two properties on your side, you can garner unlimited power and rubles. You see, if you sleep for two weeks, (after sleeping for these two weeks just pop one bread or sausage and you've filled up for the whole week... good game design GSC) and then go to all the anomaly fields in Zaton, you will acquire around 80k rubles worth of artifacts, sell them, repeat, and by the first month of in game time (or as I previously stated around 2-4 hours of irl time), you can order an FT from nimble, an exo from nimble, and a nice pistol or smg for shredding dogs. The reason this works is because emissions cause artifacts to form and by sleeping through a bunch of emissions, the anomalies will have made a treasure trove of artifacts. You couldn't do this in previous games because
A. The anomaly fields were not marked and were not as heavily concentrated as in CoP
B. You couldn't sleep to pass emissions rapidly
C. Damage wasn't as low as it is in CoP, meaning you would get sparked out instantly for one mistake.
By now you've realized the problem, money is worth too much for its relative IRL Time spent - amount acquired ratio, and because AI isn't good at artifact hunting and they'll basically never acquire anything its left all to you. Now some people out there will go, "so what, don't use this strategy if you don't like it, loot corpses for shitty guns like us chads out here" and to that I say, even if I can ignore an op strat, doesn't negate its existence and its effect on the game, when I can acquire top tier loot on my first day of playing IRL, we have a problem. A side effect of this "exploit" is that it renders any form of looting after a firefight completely worthless, because why do inventory management and weight - benefit analysis if you can just spend 10 minutes farming artifacts for a 100x better reward, it also trivializes many missions, why hunt a chimera in the dark if all you get is rubles and cheaper prices, I can just farm a little longer to make up for the money I lose by not having the cheaper prices, you see the problem now right? It affects everything and it just puts a stain on so many parts of this game, even more than what I already mentioned, the economy is broken, it affects parts of this game you wouldn't expect to be affected, and it's a damn shame.
Game Difficulty - Damage, balance, difficulty of specific sequences and enemies
Even if the economy is bad, and you can get top shelf gear in the first section, if the game is brutal, with pseudo-realistic damage values, it shouldn't matter right, well, yeah, but that isn't the case with this game, this isn't another clear sky where grenades rain from the heavens and bullets make you bleed like a chicken with its head chopped off, it's more reined in, lesser damage values, less bullet sponges relatively, and if the economy worked, this game would have had the best damage values for this type of game, probably rivaling the gameplay of SHoC. But for this section lets assume you aren't exploiting or farming artifacts or trying for money, and you get everything as you progress through the game at a steady rate. Then the balance works quite well, enemies in zaton early on carry at best IL 86's or chasers or aks, which works for lower level combat, then as you do missions for the loners or bandits, those respective factions get stronger, and late game stalkers can be seen with at best vintorez's and sgi's and spas 12s. This works, and it makes Zaton more fun to come back to later, instead of just as a place to get artifacts easy or talk to cardan about item 62. This wasn't the case in SHoC or CS, cordon would stay the same and coming back to talk to sidor was a chore instead of anything fun at all. Many people have fond memories of SHoC and getting scared by bloodsuckers and mutants in X-16 but as someone who recently replayed it after a while, I have distinct memories of running across cordon and garbage to fulfill quests that expired in a day and gave me little to no reason to complete them. Something I believe they fixed in CoP but I'm getting of topic, anyway difficulty rightfully scales into the endgame, and in some of the more difficult sequences you are pitted against many skilled monolith fighters with powerful snipers and Tunders/As vals. This gives replay value to the game and it makes staying in the zone a bit more fun, as you can engage tough enemies in unscripted encounters more often.
But as we all know, stalker has two enemy types, stalkers, and mutants, and the mutants in the game are super difficult, and make up for the faults in the difficulty of firefights. New additions include the burer, a higher difficulty poltergeist capable of not only throwing crap at you, but also hitting you with powerful psy blasts, pulling your gun out of your hands, and throwing up psy shields to block your bullets, they also throw back grenades but whatever I guess. Yeah if that sounded hard it is, burers just combined too many of the abilities of other mutants, the kinetic abilities of the poltergeist, the psy blasts of controllers, and the relatively high resistance to bullets of mutants like the pseudogiant (stemming from their ability to block damage, their actual health is more like a controller's health). Another mutant is the Chimera, a terrifying acrobatic melee based mutant capable of leaping a huge distance to attack the player, shredding health and dropping players in close to two leaps. They act much like snorks but with increased damage, maneuverability, and a lot more health, requiring the player to use snipers or shotguns or even rpgs/grenades to kill them (rpg is my personal favorite, the damage was just perfect). Each mutant tells its own story with its appearance and much can be assumed about them before the disaster, its interesting and the new mutant additions both spice up the gameplay and difficulty, and also add to the extensive stalker lore. The returning mutants don't do anything new but stalker never messes up the scary moments caused by bloodsuckers and controllers and the like, but obviously its expected from a stalker game. Although something I noticed is that snorks seem to be really op in this game? Like they can jump miles with incredible accuracy, good health, and they do lots of damage, I had more trouble with snorks in this game than with chimeras, probably cause I only saw three of the latter, and only fought two of them.
I didn't know of a section to put this so its on its own. But rightfully so, as SHoC and CS both used the same maps and map design (I'm aware CS added more maps, but they are very similar to the maps in SHoC in terms of design) they weren't as unique in that regard. But CoP mixed up the formula for maps, whereas the previous games had much more linear maps, with very few open maps, like army warehouses and great swamps being the outliers in my opinion. But was this change good? Did it positively affect immersion and gameplay, my answer to this is a resounding yes. I've always been fascinated with open worlds, they can depict a location in its entirety, and really immerse me in a world, so it disappoints me when I run into fences or forced barriers in a game about a real life location. That's also why I'm so excited for stalker 2, where they say there's no greyed out areas or blurred areas and everything goes into everything else directly without loading screens. So in CoP they opened up the map, and from the way the locations were set up, its very rare for the player to lose their immersion from running into a fence. However, the immersion is sometimes broken in locations like the cement factory, from which you can literally see pripyat over a fence, and could totally walk to, but, its the end of the boundary. But most locations in the map were in open places that didn't make me think, hmm, why can't I leave this place, compare this to a place like cordon, where every bit of it is locked off by hills and fences, it makes me feel like I'm in a game, or a shitty call of duty level, not a world, not a zone.
Side Missions and their drastic improvements
So something I always found annoying about the previous games was that the missions were boring to play, they were something that got you money that was it, you go to sidor, he tells you words, and then you go do what the mission asks, no story, and if there was one, it was basic, the dogs bother the local stalker? kill them! This guy is scamming harder than the great scammorovich? cant be having that, kill him! And fun as the shooting is in these games you need either a reason or something of interest to immerse you in the game and give you the motivation to blast people with shotguns and aks. This was also what annoyed me about the faction war system in CS and got me really uninterested in it, you did nothing besides shoot enemies and wait for your friendly troops to move their fat asses to the point you were defending, it wasn't very fun or interesting, and its the exact opposite in CoP, no mission (besides maybe the small missions at the waster processing plant and the one in substation workshops where you give the guy food for the tools) has a bad and not engaging story, and even if they did, this game offers something more, connectivity between the missions, take vano's mission for example, simple, talk to the bandit leader and negotiate (or blast) your way out of the checkpoint, then go back to vano and get his thanks. So you might be saying, that's not a good or engaging story, vano's not even funny, and yeah, I guess you're right, but think of it like this, his mission isn't explained in one dialogue box, it does something more than just shoot a guy or get a weapon or item, it isn't repeatable and it contributes to an achievement (which adds really good positive modifiers to your character) and it ties into another mission, where you can recruit vano to go with you to pripyat. That's what's so awesome about these missions, the heart of the oasis mission contributes to good standing with the scientists (which gives a good ending and an achievement when you have good enough standing) who will then let you take a closed respiratory suit for sokolov to go with you to pripyat as well. Almost every mission in this game has purpose and structure as a mission, you aren't running someone busy work for no reason, you're doing something that will both help in the long run and in the short term, that's good side mission design, tying back into the main missions and main content. However, that doesn't mean they should remove radiant quests, beard does offer a rudimentary artifact collection quest that's radiant, but besides that there's no reliable way to acquire money through missions, and as much as I jerk off missions with stories and tie ins to the main questline, radiant quests do add a way to make money through a reliable way that isn't hunting down every other stalker, but then again, hunting down every other stalker is pretty easy with how the faction system is.
Factions are a series staple for stalker, they provide side missions, different ideologies, gameplay changes, and were, and still are, great ideas. So how are they handled in this game, well, pretty poorly if I'm honest. Now obviously we can't have the Major join a faction (he more sides with them, he doesn't hardcore become a member of one of them), he's there on a mission, not to help out with the squabbles of the zone. But it seems stupid that he would ever join freedom as they hate the military and are "anarchists and bandits." I dunno, its a nitpick but no matter what he's a military man, not a freedom loving anarchist, he'd probably actually join Duty or stay out of the conflict. But that's just from a story and lore standpoint, what about from a gameplay standpoint? Well, this is another thing that hinders the difficulty, in every stalker game there are always those that are hostile, in this game obviously you can't be hostile to the military, but there still has to be plenty of shooting hostile faction members, if I side with duty obviously I should be out there blasting freedomers and they should be blasting me, but sadly, the faction system is weird. Do you remember shooting a bandit in CS as a pure kneejerk reaction from all those times you shot them in SHoC? I do, and I also remember that for the rest of the game the bandits (rightfully) hated me and I could not join them later. That sucked, but I liked that I had something to shoot at for the rest of the game, but do you want to know something cool? If I shoot a bandit squad, the whole faction doesn't come after me, EVER, and no matter how many of a neutral faction you shoot they will not engage you on sight and be angry all the time, it sucks and really dumbs down what I consider to be a series staple the choice between having the benefits of siding with a faction and having to sometimes fight off enemy faction members, it also makes the game, you guessed it, incredibly easy, and that's just another thing to add to the already large list of things that make this game easy. But there's more faction trouble, even if we say that shooting neutral guys doesn't matter to overall standing, what if you do missions that take down duty or freedom, surely then they'll hate you right? Well yes, but actually not always, you see in the list of achievements one of them is diplomat, that causes factions to respect you more and it raises your friendship with them just enough that even if you get to be a "friend of (your faction name here)," the opposite faction is still neutral to you, so remember back in this post when I said that enemies would stay challenging so that it made sense to return and fight enemies in the previous zones? well disregard that now, because if you get diplomat, you don't have much incentive to return to previous parts of the zone because the enemies there (usually mercs as in the case of Zaton) have been killed or dealt with in other ways, and now the factions just won't mess with you, so the only threats are mutants, which are usually just fleshes and dogs which aren't fun to fight or hard to fight. Again, they made a game that has so many advantages to free play modes, you can immerse yourself by hunting for artifacts, the shooting mechanics are awesome, the graphics and most importantly the sound design make you more immersed than before. But they also put so many obstacles to stop you from having this fun, now I hear you all scream, "just don't do the diplomat achievement you idiot!" yeah, I usually try not to get it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist, its still bad design imo, not using a game mechanic because it's bad doesn't remove it from existence, especially when it's something you literally get by doing two missions the right way, not exactly something you would get out of nowhere. So the faction system isn't that great in this game, and it becomes clearer and clearer as you play the game, because as soon as you get to Pripyat, where no one is your friend, and most mutants and stuff like that are really powerful, you see how much easier it was before, walking around the zone and not having enemies is like playing a mario game without enemies, yeah you could still fall into a hole or die by missing a jump, but the tension of dying is significantly lower and so is the difficutly.
Now, we come to the series' strongsuit, atmosphere, and yeah, I love this game's atmosphere, its probably one of my favorite aspects of this game, seriously the sound design in this game in particular is super good. The zone constantly "whispers" at you, you'll hear echoey pieces of dialogue, monster noises in the distance, gunshots from far off battles, but my favorite of these is definitely the whispers, they are creepy and they flow into the eery background music, making the player feel constantly on edge, and that's a great effect, but unfortunately the whispers get turned off by an achievement and its annoying. I hear a lot of people go on and on about the atmosphere of clear sky but honestly, I never saw it, perhaps it was because I was so focused on the gameplay the atmosphere fell away, it didn't seem that much better than SHoC's and imo gameplay is just as important to atmosphere as visuals and sound design. I know I ragged on the economy breaking artifact exploit but think about it, thats exactly what every stalker does, they sit inside, then they go out and take artifacts to sell them and progress, and really that's the most important thing about that mechanic to me, I feel like a stalker, wandering the zone and acquiring any artifact I find, then selling it and living a looter's lifestyle, its atmosphere building at it's finest. Horror is also really prevalent in this game, especially in pripyat, and in every zone there's a section dedicated to horror, for Zaton, there's two main ones, the first is a completely off the grid encounter, no mission marker, no zone marker, no nothing, small cave in the cliffside houses a controller and the human he killed to take the cave. As you enter a harsh voice speaks to you and tells you to leave, this chilled me hard, but I went in anyway and as soon as I heard the signature high pitch of the controller's influence, I nearly shat my pants and ran. The other moment of horror is the bloodsucker lair, and the specific moment of walking into the room full of 10-12 sleeping bloodsuckers, that also got me good. SHoC was also really good at moments like this, but I felt the general eeriness of the environments in CoP made it beat out SHoC for scariest subsequent playthroughs for me. Obviously nothing can top the labs (scary as all hell, amazing part of SHoC), but for most of SHoC, there wasn't much ambience or real fright for me, but that's just me, many standby CS and SHoC as most atmospheric, me though, I just don't feel it in those games, although I see how they could be perceived that way.
... I'm sorry I can't defend this utter catastrophe, because its, well its truly fucking abysmal, want me to summarize it for you? Major goes to 5 places to look at broken bits of crap surrounded by anomalies, he then does random shit for another dude of questionable voice acting talent, while learning the same shit we already fucking new and slightly expanding our knowledge of how the gauss rifle works and how someone is controlling the monolith (never explained tho cause fuck you that's why), then he leaves the zone, and we play a google slides (its a damn good one though I'll get to that). Seriously that its, we don't get any lore expansion, relative to the other games, and it's sad really, although it doesn't affect my enjoyement much, I kinda just see the helos and main story as an end goal, and the fun is in between, not ahead, that's compared to my playthrough of SHoC or CS, where my endgoal felt much more hyped up while the gameplay deteriorated into non relevance as I struggled to reach the end cutscene. And for me, I enjoy the former style of gameplay. And on that note, some of the story sections are the best parts of the gameplay or interesting moments, when you activate stingray 1, a horde of mutants is attracted, and you engage in a sort of tower defense game for the next minute as monsters rush you, and you use the mines that litter the area to deal with the first mutants. But of course that's not the best, because GSC finally figured out how to do an end section, only took em 2 games. In previous games the end sections lasted for fucking ever, think about SHoC at least, what you can do is basically head back after clearing the scorcher, and then fight through the rest of the game, you know, TWO WHOLE FUCKING AREAS WITH ONE SET OF CRAP, even if you pick up fang's exo and grab a spare gun and 2k ammo, you're still not guaranteed success as you wander through the halls of the CNPP, taking on over 100 different people for the best ending, plus snipers and rpgs. How about CS? Same thing, minus the guns being able to break, because squad leaders in CS could repair your guns, nice job GSC, thanks for removing the worst part of SHoC's ending, the feeling of shredded armor. In CS though, you probably fight through more people almost on your own, you go to red forest, shoot at bandits like you're playing the bridge section in COD:MW2 (the parallels are hilarious) but instead of 5 minutes its 30 minutes of non stop renegades who are supposedly the weakest faction after their collapse, but suddenly they muster up the half the zone to stand you down. And after that you still have to fight through Limansk, then Hospital, then the final bossfight, and that bossfight can also glitch out and become unbeatable but we don't have to talk about that. So from a gameplay perspective, what does CoP do? Well first of all it lets you start it on your own terms (relatively) instead of doing one mission and oops now you're thrust into the end sequences without breaks. The end sequence is also very short and sweet, one final push through monolith territory to leave the zone, its quite triumphant really, and if you took enough people with you in pripyat 1 (which is coincidentally also one of the best story gameplay moments) you have an easier time extracting with all of your men, its sort of the game's final hurrah, where you face off against the zone's toughest, aka snorks and a 30 man group of monolith and around 20 zombies, but its not constant, there's moments in between the action so you get build up to the fight. It was really good, but, ironically it was a bit short for an end sequence, because the whole sequence is track a signal, talk to strelok, then do extraction, maybe a section where you thinned out monolith forces or took out their *cough cough* RPGS AND GAUSS RIFLE USERS, that definitely should have been attacking the choppers as they landed, but I guess they were all doing other stuff I don't know the monolith's ways. This way the section wouldn't have felt as rushed as it did, you're basically just doing stuff and then, poof strelok appears and tells you the answers to all your problems and then you leave, ya need something to pad that out a little bit.
Miscellaneous gripes and great parts of the game
Repairing makes a return, with the upgrading mechanic returning in a much more fleshed out way: you get the three tool boxes and you can upgrade, although some upgrades are unique to the clear sky bro novikov, some are unique to Nitro and some are unique to cardan. This makes it a worthwile venture to get all the tools and the research for novikov so you can get the very best things. I like how you find them, I like the logic behind their placement, its great, and compared to CS's system where you find individual usb drives for the individual upgrades its really good, because CS's system required you to look it up or buy every single stash location from everyone then search every single one to find the correct upgrades. A small gripe I had was the lack of guidance on how to become friends with the different factions, most of the quests have little to do with helping the faction except for the warehouse underground, but that PDA (morgan's pda that starts the quest) is a really stupid idea to have as a quest starter, like most people who do that quest either haven't gone to Yanov yet and won't know that the other factions are even there, or they'll just sell it to Owl without recognizing it's importance, and the main problem is picking it up doesn't start a quest, it doesn't do anything of note, but it directly influences your ability to get strider as a companion, and he's pretty good, so it's annoying that some faction specific quests especially the one that requires you go to a specific location in Yanov and pull a svarog detector to open a spacial anomaly, but if you do that its actually pretty cool quest and gives good world building and lore. Modding is important in the grand scheme of stalker games, they help a lot with bugs, graphical issues, and can even create whole new experiences, so its nice to know that many mods stem from CoP and getting CoP gives you access to cool mods, and it also has the biggest array of mods for itself in general. Another thing, why does strelok show up, why can't the problems be solved without strelok telling us all the answers, why can't we do it. Something that showed up out of nowhere, was the powerpoint presentation that they had replacing the beginning and end of the game, as well as some cutscenes in between. These presentations are actually super cool, the one at the beginning of the game is both voice acted well and has good visuals, it also wraps up the plot of the previous games for us and any new players, its nice, and I like how the ending can show different things depending on the decisions you made and the missions you completed. I love it, a great artstyle a great idea, I want more slideshow stuff in the next game GSC.
By now you're probably saying, "dude you say all the time that CoP is your favorite, but you sure got a lot of shit to say and talk down about it," and yeah, but its because I love it so much I want to criticize it, its important to see flaws and point them out so that they will be remedied, and drawing sever attention to them creates a sense that they need to be fixed, even though, in my opinion they really aren't that bad. And truly its all down to player choice, recently there was a poll about which game was your favorite and it seemed even between SHoC and CoP, with CS trailing behind, which kind of encapsulated my experience with those games. However, I want to stress that it's definitely all down to player choice, these were based on my experiences, and I expect I'll have to fight tooth and nail to defend the atmosphere in this game because I love it, but most dislike it or prefer the other games' atmosphere, and it only a testament to how good and fun the gameplay is that the poorly designed economy didn't ruin it for me, a game where you earn something too fast and without skill or great thinking is usually a big turn off for me, I like a tougher economy, its why I loved Anomaly's economy, and it's also why I'll probably check out Misery after this and do a sort of review on that, because there seems to be a lot of argument around how fun the mod is and I've heard its tougher. In my opinion the story of this game isn't important, nor how the character's react, its about atmosphere, and gameplay, in fact the stories in the other games were not so great themselves, sure CS had a mildly interesting one, but it's more about the lore and the world for a story like this, and the other game's definitely did well in that section. Now here's my final thoughts on the series as a whole:
SHoC - Amazing start to a series, good graphics for its time, a decently made story, great horror sections and bursting with atmosphere in a world that while it looks dated now still immerses the player in its world. That being said I see this series as a sort of 3 stages of a cocaine high, SHoC is the beginning of the high and the weird attention to some things and neglect toward other things is prevalent, for instance the quests all have a day long time limit, that's tight if you want to complete more than one quest at a time
CS - In my opinion this is when the crash from the lack of cocaine kicked in, many bizarre changes to difficulty and overall balancing left the game in an odd state, coupled with the fact that the game was incredibly unstable and buggy at launch (and still today it is) it predictable flopped in the eyes of most fans, however, despite the shit I throw at this game, I recognize it's importance, because the mechanics birthed the refined mechanics of CoP, without CS, CoP would have had horrible mechanics, a bad engine incapable of many things (actually the CS engine was really good, just take a look at the new animations) and unfinished mechanics, in my eyes, CS was not the success I had hoped for, but that doesn't mean it wasn't both important and loved by many fans, and I won't be the one to argue your enjoyement of it, just my own.
CoP - Now, fresh from their cocaine high and crash, GSC pulled together it's ideas pooled from the previous games to create another one, with the most refined mechanics and idea implementation, but I'm a firm believer that mechanics don't make a game good, just their usage in the gameplay, which, to some, lacked the difficulty of the previous games, its like GSC relaxed from it's harsh difficulty to deliver a game that felt more safe, and that's both good, and bad.
Well that's that, to be clear my personal favorite is CoP, if yours is different, say why, don't just rant about how I don't know anything, because I'm already well aware of that, but seriously even if you just like it and can't explain why, great, if a series has one set thing that everyone likes, the devs never innovate, so it's good when people support different games.