This week Zero Punctuation goes in the zone to nuke S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky.
I don't think I would do very well in a real-world combat scenario. I hate being shouted at, and I can't run very fast while wearing a backpack the size of a cow. Before I would willingly enter a gun-fight, the enemy are going to have to strap big, glowing, red arrows to their heads and promise to stand next to windows loudly vocalizing every thought that crosses their minds. And by the time my comrades has persuaded them to do that I'll have remembered that I'm a massive coward and legged it. Reality is a cruel and unintuitive place with frustrating gameplay mechanics, which is why it's so odd that games try so hard to resemble it.
With that in mind, here is Stalker: Clear Sky, or to give it its proper title Ess Tee Ay Ell Kay Ee Arr: Clear Sky. If you go into Ess Tee Ay Ell Kay Ee Arr: Clear Sky in the mind-set of, say, Half-Life 2 and run full-pelt into enemy strongholds gleefully spraying bullets, then your corpse will be strung up in their garden being used as a bird feeder before you can say “reload, Doctor Freeman!”
You know how in most FPSes you're some kind of hybrid of man and refrigerator who can take an entire munitions dump to the face, while the enemy all have armor made of whipped cream and skulls made of cake? Well it seems going into this game everyone got their character sheets mixed up. The player can't survive more than a measly handful of bullets ripping through their flesh, while the armored enemies can take so many rounds to the torso you'd think there'd be nothing left but a spinal column and the corn flakes they had for breakfast. They can spot you in pitch darkness even with your flash-light off, and they can shoot you from half-way to Neverland, because their guns have magic accuracy that evaporates the instant you get your hands on them. I had to press quick-save more often than the fire button and this was on medium difficulty. I dread to think what the hardest setting is like. They probably give you a water pistol and replace all the enemies with fire-breathing golden lions.
Ess Tee Ay Ell Kay Ee Arr: Clear Sky is set in the area surrounding alternative post-disaster Chernobyl where the power station apparently ran on fairy dust before the meltdown and released a cloud of magic instead of boring old radiation, which transformed people and animals into super-powered mutants, as opposed to corpses, and created localized space-time anomalies that can do impossible things. Like make Atari release a decent game for once.
The zone's now the number one hangout for dudes with anoraks and acoustic guitars, who are all voiced by the same heavily-accented man, and who occupy their time by either shooting at people in slightly different-coloured anoraks and stealing their baked bean stock-piles or showing each other the best routes to get to people in slightly different-coloured anoraks to shoot at.
The player character is just one of many of these types, but every faction wants him to do jobs for them because he has mastery of the zone's most effective temporal anomaly: the mystical quick-save key. Actually the various factions don't always seem to be totally clear on exactly how important you are. Especially early on in the game, missions sometimes have this alarming quality of solving themselves. There was this bit where my allies were yelling my ear off telling me to help defend some control point somewhere, because black anorak wearers were closing in and our occupying forces numbered one guy in a wheelchair and a sock puppet. But halfway there I was suddenly congratulated for successfully seeing the blighters off, and by the time I arrived the wheelchair man had already installed a bar and croquet lawn. It's good that they're not totally dependent, but my impression was that my attention was urgently required, and I was kind of in the middle of shaking down corpses for baked beans.
Don't think this means you can actually rely on your allies, though, because it seems like their IQ drops 50 points when you can actually see them. Performance anxiety, perhaps. Come to think of it, there are a lot of things you can't rely on. The player uses some of the guns to store his chewing gum, so they jam with incredibly poor timing. Your character interprets “crouching” as ducking his head slightly, so it's very hard to effectively get behind low cower. Lying prone only drops your eye level another inch or so, so your character is either extremely fat or uncomfortably well endowed. Probably the first one, judging by how often he had to stop for a breather and a sausage roll while running cross country. And of course there's no way of knowing that you're blundering into a high-radiation zone until you've already been sterilized and grown an extra face.
But having now whinged myself inside out I have to say that I find Ess Tee Ay Ell Kay Ee Arr weirdly compelling. This is probably pretty close to how I personally would do in a real-life post-apocalypse scenario. That is, embarrassingly badly. Sure it's hard, but it hurts us because it loves us! We've all been made complacent by tutorial levels and health regeneration. It's up to games like Ess Tee Ay Ell Kay Ee Arr to remind you that you're going to be just as useless after the downfall of society as you are now, nerd. Plus running around forests at night with a flashlight on makes me feel like I'm in The Blair Witch Project. So it's quite an immersive game once you adjust for the steep difficulty curve. It's just a shame it's also got more bugs than a crack-whore with the sniffles.
The mystical quick-save key is a dark and mischievous power that can change the very fabric of reality. I was ambushed by a bunch of jerks on my way somewhere, killed one or two, hid behind a rock, and quick-saved. But then three of them all threw grenades and I ended up with a cloud of shrapnel instead of a face. After I quick-loaded, though, they suddenly didn't seem to care. I was able to walk up and affably chat to them about how their day was going. One of them even offered to guide me through the forest, but halfway through he ran off yelling: “That's him! Take him down!” I couldn't see anyone else around, but it seems he was talking to my processor, because at that point the game crashed. They'll probably patch that at some stage, but they won't get any points for it in my book. You couldn't get away with releasing a buggy game in the cartridge and cassette days – you'd get sentenced to a trampling under the company brontosaurus. But I'll tell you the worst part ab-worst part-the worst part ab-worst part ab-worst part ab-worst part ab-worst part- (Windows shutdown dialogue box)
"This program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down.
Angry policemen are en route and resistance will only make them angrier."
(TV test card) (static) and whistled for a baboon!
Can see clearly now the rain is gone: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I imported Silent Hill Homecoming to review next week WHOOPS LOOKS LIKE YOU LOSE MICHAEL ATKINSON
What you call formulaic I call reliability
(outro music also starts stuttering and triggers a Windows crash dialog box)
"This program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down.
If problems persist, sing gentle lullabies and lovingly stroke its hair."