S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat Review

You may have heard of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. before. If so, you’ve certainly heard about the games cult-like following. You may have heard that it’s not for everyone. You’ve also likely heard the endless comparisons to Fallout and Metro. However, drawing comparisons and chalking it up to be another open world, post-apocalyptic Fallout clone? – it’s just not the best way to describe it. Having put a few hundred combined hours into both the vanilla experience and its many mods, I have a lot to say about this game – so step into my office. Let’s talk about S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat.

An Unpolished Gem

The most apt way to describe S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is jank – not just Call of Pripyat, but the series as a whole. The entire series is a unique breed of janky. Each game runs on an engine held together by popsicle sticks, duct tape and a splash of vodka. It’s a series known for AI with an IQ equivalent to an empty bottle of vodka, and friendly AI that’s about as useful as one. A series so full of bugs, glitches and crashes that it would make Bethesda blush – some being comical, others being infuriating, all similar in the sense that the community lovingly refers to them as anomalies of the Zone.

All of these problems and yet the game still has a die-hard following that will defend it to the bitter end – me being one of those followers. You may ask, after hearing all of this, “What reason could anyone possibly have to love this game so much?” Well, I’m glad you’ve asked.

Call of Pripyat is, objectively, the best entry in the series – at least, in terms of base quality. That isn’t saying too much considering it’s still on the old, dilapidated x32 bit X-ray engine, but it’s a start, and is one of a few reasons this is the best game to analyze when considering why the series is so loved. It’s about as polished as this rough diamond is going to get.

The Many, Many Issues

This is not a game known for having a good story – yet, it has one, so I suppose it should be addressed. It only really serves as a simple guide throughout the Zone – the playable area – for people who would prefer a more linear path from area to area, rather than the more open-ended experience S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is known for.

This lack of a well-made story wouldn’t matter much if the missions themselves were fun to play – but most of them aren’t. Many of the of the quests are downright tedious and repetitive. Many story missions have ridiculous difficulty spikes. There are, of course, exceptions – it just so happens that to reach some of those exceptions, you have to wade through a sea of dull, repetitive tedium. Thankfully, it’s made all the more bearable by a world oozing with atmosphere and dripping with dynamics. More on that later.

Something else vanilla S.T.A.L.K.E.R. isn’t known for is having a well-made arsenal. Many of the vanilla weapons feel weak and wimpy, with embarrassingly out-of-sync sound effects and clunky, unnatural reload animations. Their damage output is equally pitiful – though, somewhat remedied by playing on the highest difficulty, Master, in which damage to and from all sources is increased considerably.

Of course, there are countless bugs. Too many to list. From simple UI issues to utterly broken missions, this game has it all. On top of this, the engine is incredibly unstable and and is of poor quality in the performance department (even for its time), and instills a habit of saving constantly and always expecting a crash.

Every issue I’ve listed is easily remedied, to some degree, by mods – there’s even a mod (Anomaly) which allows the game to run on a x64 bit version of the engine. But we’re here to review the vanilla game, and despite all of these issues, there’s plenty to love about it.

The Good Stuff, Blyat

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat’s greatest assets are its environments and the atmosphere within them, along with the dynamic gameplay they present. One simply can’t help but become immersed with the desolate Ukrainian wasteland in front of them, every nook and cranny waiting to be explored and experienced for every second of gameplay they’re worth. The simple act of holding ‘W’ to reach point B from point A can be a gripping experience in and of itself.

It’s hard to truly do this game’s atmosphere justice in mere words on a webpage. It’s something nearly unrivaled by any other series out there, the one likely exception being Metro in most fans books. You don’t play this game for the story. You don’t go in with a specific goal in mind. You go in expecting an immersive experience that crafts itself before your eyes. Every environment is full of sights that make you want to stop and stare – and trust me, you will.

The world of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is unpredictable and dynamic. At any second, the alarms for a blowout from the Chernobyl NPP could sound off, causing you to drop everything and run to the nearest safe area – only to find that it’s surrounded with zombified Stalkers, forcing you to desperately claw through them in order to reach safety. You could be traversing the land at night in the middle of a storm and walk right into an ambush, forcing you to heavily rely on muzzle flashes and the quick, intense bursts of light from lightning strikes to locate enemy positions. Many other things have happened in my time playing, but those are the two I remember best.

It’s truly a world where you make your own stories – not in the way most modern, structureless, lazy open world games say you can – and the greatest thing about this is that they come in droves. The smallest of interactions can have the biggest of effects on the world around you and how you play the game. There’s always something happening on some scale, and it’s all a joy to experience.

This game is an experience – one that is only amplified greatly with mods, may I add. Mods are very much at the core of the Call of Pripyat experience, so let’s talk about them briefly.

Great Made Greater

You probably noticed I mentioned mods several times in this review, and even named one – Anomaly, a standalone experience that doesn’t even require you own any S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games and is free. It incorporates numerous mods into the experience, including one that brings together every single playable area from all three entries in the series, and even some of its own that were previously cut from the game, and uses that to create one massive map.

Mods are how you make this great experience even better. The modding community in this game isn’t teetering on the edge of insanity like many others – it is almost purely made up of people who understand what makes this series so great, and use their talents to amplify its strengths and outright fix its weaknesses. Take E.Nigma42’s Arsenal Overhaul, for example – one mod that adds over a hundred new weapons and replaces every single vanilla weapon model, out-of-sync sound effect and clunky animation with a new, higher quality one, making everything feel exponentially more powerful while simultaneously introducing plenty of new weapons that feel just as good or even better. If you plan on playing any S.T.A.L.K.E.R. title, mods are more than worth looking into.

In Conclusion

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is, in my humble opinion, a series that any fan of open world or post-apocalyptic games should experience. Every title deserves to be experienced in vanilla – even if just for a few hours before you go off and add a ton of mods. If you don’t want to spend anythng, there are still plenty of ways to experience all it has to offer for free.

The aforementioned Anomaly mod, Dead Air, and even Call of Chernobyl – the foundation for most overhauls that is responsible for bringing the maps of all three games together. A clean slate you can mod as freely as you’d like.

This may be a review for Call of Pripyat, but it’s also a passionate endorsement – I urge you to go out and experience all that this game has to offer, vanilla or modded. It may not be the best looking game and, while a classic, requires a ton of polishing for it to become the truly amazing experience it has the potential to be – but it’s still one of the best games I’ve ever played. It will likely remain so for some time. So get out of here, Stalker.

Step into the Zone.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat can be found on Steam and GOG.com.

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