Whatever its unintended anomalies, a chance to return to the Zone is one worth taking. Stalker’s uncanny corner of the world, full of howling mutants, improvised creeds and dark intrigue, holds undiminished power in what is, unsurprisingly, a troubled prequel.
A new character in a familiar situation, you awaken in the Zone’s calm south while in the north, beyond the silhouettes of towns, the Chernobyl plant pumps out death and myth for the consumption of all around it. Trespassers have their brains melted and prowl the land as zombies. Explorers are burned and electrocuted by mere changes in the wind. Those brave or foolish enough to sleep are given heart attacks by their dreams. If these and other ghost stories, told at great length around a great many camp fires, sound like your cup of tea, then you’re already in love with Clear Sky.
A heavily revised ‘faction war’ system succeeds in both overpopulating and animating the Zone from top to bottom, tracking clan resources and giving each the chance to raid and conquer its rival. Forging an alliance now tunes you in to your clan’s radio frequency, providing a background buzz of siege and defence missions you can engage at leisure. It is, in what brings out the best of this game, just another excuse to lurk indefinitely in the Zone, bedding into its society and learning how to survive.
Still a brutally hardcore RPG, Stalker casually slaughters run-and-gun heroes and fatally irradiates careless ramblers. A true survival horror, it’s a game about finding value in all things, turning salvage into something indispensable. In Clear Sky, you’re encouraged to repair and customise a single weapon in a world positively littered with them. Despite tweaks, your inventory again forces you to decide whether to throw away treasures or brave the Zone under load, stopping constantly for breath. And if you neglect your weapon for just a few firefights, it’ll jam on the first shot as something feral leaps into your torch beam.
Therein lies the frustration and, to some extent, weird appeal of Clear Sky. Here you have a game smart enough to let you dawdle in its world before being sucked, through an increasingly linear series of missions, into a black hole. Its world is second to none, so captivating and deep that its ‘seamed’ landscape, identical NPCs and infrequent loading screens feel entirely natural. Its combat is obsessively real, its sense of lurking horror crushing. Yet it’s overambitious, the most noticeable bugs seeing soldiers attempt to shoot through walls, snapping wildly between idle and defensive states. A newfound love of grenades, meanwhile, makes a fierce fight of even the lowest difficulties. This is still a quicksave shooter, full of calamities that strike out of nowhere.
Clear Sky is a stunning, intoxicating portrayal of life as a post-apocalyptic vagrant, then, so long as you know where to forage. As easy to misunderstand as it is to break, it again turns the best and worst of PC gaming into something extraordinary.