S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat

When asked “if you could vacation anywhere, where would you most like to go?” Probably very few people answer “the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone”. Well, I am one of those very few. I’ve been obsessed with the Chernobyl story since I first learned about it in grade school: a cataclysmic nuclear fire that caused an entire region to be evacuated, now reclaimed by feral beasts and mutated catfish feeding off the reactor cooling pool effluence (this part of the story is true). A 1980s era Soviet city, Pripyat, frozen in time. Train cars stuck on the tracks with no hope of passengers, huge dock cranes abandoned amidst their daily work, now posed like ancient extinct skeletal beasts stuck in time, over the horizon. Realistically, it’ll be a tough trip to do and with each year “the Zone” becomes more tightly controlled and hard to tour.

Thankfully, the PC game “S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat” gives me the next best thing. “Stalker” is actually the third game in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series, and was released in 2010. The game plays like a “budget Fallout 4” wherein it’s a first person shooter with RPG and survival horror elements. Call of Pripyat had a lot going for it, it just wasn’t very mainstream. It was developed by obscure Ukrainian developer CSG Game World and did not have much of a marketing budget to speak of. I only heard of it when I stumbled on it, Googling Chernobyl looking for an online tour or interactive experience

The game turned out to be an extremely pleasant surprise! To discuss STALKER, you really need a quick primer on the basics of the game. You play Major Alex Degtyarev, a former STALKER turned Ukrainian agent. STALKER, refers to groups of treasure seekers who prowl the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Why? Because in the story a second catastrophic accident leads to reality bending (and dangerous) “anomalies” scattered around the area. These anomalies spawn artifacts, which are essentially valuable new types of minerals which give you slight powers. You can keep many on hand to stack their effects, but mostly they’re to sell.

Major Degtyarev is dropped into Zaton, one of four real life districts in Chernobyl to try to understand where and why five Ukrainian helicopters crashed en route to the center of the Zone, the Chernoybl power plant itself. That’s the main goal of the story, but you’re welcome to explore and take the game at your own pace. The exploration is the part I loved, the games designers really tried hard to recreate Chernobyl as well as they could including many iconic places. For one district you go to is dominated by the Jupiter factory – a gigantic real life factory that was modeled inside and out as realistically as possible. I’ve looked up real Jupiter photos…And they did a good job in the game!

The game itself is cool because your character can’t actually “level up”. The only way he gets stronger is buying, scavenging, trading, or stealing better weapons and gear. Everything needs to be found: you start off with a military issue pistol and submachine gun, a little bit of ammo, and are simply dropped in a forest alone to orientate your way and complete your mission. The pacing is very good, with interesting and unique side missions. It starts off with a bang: Zaton is the best district in my opinion, I will never forget walking out of the forest to see two beached freighter ships on the bottom of a now-drained lake. Then above them, the shadows of the gigantic Zaton dock cranes, like silent goliaths peering over the whole region. I was hooked right then and there.

The game series itself is inspired by a famous Soviet era science fiction book called “Roadside Picnic” written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in 1971. It’s similar, involving STALKERS searching for artifacts in one of several “zones” after aliens make a brief pit stop on Earth causing major shifts in our reality. I own the book, but have some other stuff to read first. It will definitely be reviewed here later!

In the meantime, STALKER is available on Gog.com and I definitely recommend it to anyone who likes 1.) Cold War stuff and 2.) first person shooters with horror or RPG elements.

If you want to be amazed by the Chernobyl port cranes, like I am, the video below will show you why they’re so amazing. Skip to about 11:00 to see what it’s like to have them first loom out of the horizon…

 

BATTLETECH – First Impressions Review

BATTLETECH, a turn-based tactics strategy game released this week, was a game I had pre-ordered and been waiting for with a lot of excitement. The game was developed by the original creator of Battletech/MechWarrior Jordan Weisman. Weisman, still spry in his late 50s, wanted to create a computer game that mimicked the original board game he created in 1980.

My thoughts on Battletech so far as I write this are complicated. Do I enjoy the game? Absolutely, I’m having a blast so far and it’s definitely worth the money. The reviews are glowing so I’m not the only person feeling this way. Across the board the opinion is that Weisman has delivered a magnum opus, a carefully crafted, and definitive, MechWarrior experience.

However, there are a few glaring issues when it comes to reviewing the game – even a first impressions review such as this. It comes down to the word “accessibility“. BATTLETECH is a very complicated, deep game, and it has a gigantic if not outright cruel, learning curve for those unitiated to the Battletech universe. The game’s tutorial section, a small 5 minute interlude to the campaign, teaches you only the basic mechanics of how to play the game: move, shoot, jump. It doesn’t teach you anything else and for the unitiated, given the difficulty of the first mission, I could see people getting frustrated and giving up on the game immediately!

Accessibility...See, the game assumes you know, what Matt knows. Matt has been playing MechWarrior games since he was 14 years old. I know when my mech has a “LRM 15, AC 2, SRM 5” exactly what those mean. They represent different weapons to be used in very specific situations (and not used in many others). I as a long time player, know when and how to use those weapons and it’s very comforting, like slipping my hands into an old glove, as I play. But the game teaches the new person absolutely nothing about those weapons. In this game wasting ammo is a big deal and you will not only waste ammo but overheat your Mech by shooting all your weapons at once. I think many new players will get caught doing that: and they’ll pay for it dearly. The game is TOUGH, I knew what I was doing and I still failed the first mission the first time I did it.

Additionally, the Battletech universe has long-established the Mechs that exist in it. Part of the fun for established players is using, and fighting, Mechs developed way back in the early 1980s and through the 1990s, dozens of popular chassis exist. The problem with this is when Matt encounters a Catapult Mech, I’ll know to bum rush it right away, knock it to the ground, then target its critically-weak cockpit and fry the pilot alive with my lasers or autocannons. If I encounter a Clint, which I did, I will immediately target his left arm because it holds a very dangerous PPC cannon. I will defang it, then destroy the rest of it at will.

But see what happened there? It was my knowledge of those Mech types gained over 20 years with this franchise that allowed me to beat them. If you think this game is going to tell you that Clint has a PPC on his arm or that the Catapult is only good at long ranges and has a weak cockpit, you’d be wrong. As I alluded to earlier, this is a very difficult game and I think it would border on unforgiving for new players. This carries on in the game once you get to the point where you have to outfit your Mechs with equipment and weapons. This is a tough process because the game doesn’t hold your hand. You need to balance the amount of heat sinks with the various weapons but you’re not going to know what heat those weapons generate unless you know the universe of MechWarrior well like I do. You’re not going to know why you need to stack weapons in your chest and shoulders, not your arms. New players won’t know why they need to keep ammunition dispersed in the vitals of their Mech.

Lastly, and unrelated to stuff above. The game seems to have poor performance. My gaming PC runs red hot playing the game only on the medium setting and to be honest the graphics aren’t that great. I am surprised and disappointed the game so stresses my system for mediocre results whereas other games I’ve played with way better graphics (World of Warships, Resident Evil 7) do not tax my system nearly as much.

So my verdict at first glance? BATTLETECH is a hard-core experience that rewards long time fans with what they want. We have our old Mechs and tech/weapons we grew up with, it’s familiar, just in a new type of game with a new story. However, the game is punishing to newcomers and may dissuade new gamers from the Battletech universe entirely, which would be a tragedy for how good these games are with their original designer still proudly helming the ship 38 years since its creation. I’d give Battletech a “B+” grade on first glance.