Tales from the Exclusion Zone
You know what I like most about STALKER: Call of Pripyat? It doesn’t hold your hand.
I think we’ve become rather too accustomed to hand-holding within the last ten years or so. These days you’d be hard-pressed to find a game that doesn’t want to walk you through the first hour or two of the game, telling you what all the buttons do, introducing you to an array of gameplay mechanics, doing its best to shoehorn some exposition (or even keep the plot moving!) as it does so. Some games do this a little more invisibly than others, but that hand-holding phase is still there.
Call of Pripyat grabs the comfortable crutch of the tutorial phase and snaps it in two over its knee. You get a brief FMV sequence that serves as the intro to the game before you’re thrust out into the world, given six vague objectives to get you started, but are otherwise left to your own devices. Granted, there’s a major plot line you can follow, if you decide to focus on the yellow missions, but there’s a huge array of optional side missions that really allow you to see everything the game has to offer.
Regardless of whether you doggedly stick to the main narrative or embark upon an intricate web of tangents, one thing quickly becomes abundantly clear: you’ll need resources in order to survive. Once again, the game doesn’t really give you any pointers as to where to locate these resources. It’s up to you to decide where these are to be found and how much risk you’re willing to take on in order to claim your reward. You won’t get very far in the game unless you manage the essentials: ammo, food and medicine.
Call of Pripyat isn’t one of those games that scatters these resources around like cheap candy. You need to find them, work for them, trade them. For the first five or six hours of the game, you’ll be hanging onto every bullet for dear life, painfully aware that every bullet that doesn’t hit its target is yet another resource being thrown down the drain. Carelessly wander into an area of high radiation, without adequate protection, and you’ll be cursing yourself when you have to use one of only two or three notoriously expensive anti-radiation kits. Similarly, if you take a bullet and start bleeding, you’ll wish you exercised more caution before you needlessly exposed yourself to enemy fire, reluctantly using up one of your rolls of bandages or precious medical kits.
But the game is fair. After a while you’ll start hammering out your own particular trade routes between locations, know where certain resources can be found, how to stockpile the useful items and sell off the ones you’ll never use. You’ll become more adept with your weapons of choice, learn to make every bullet count, and know which risks are worth taking. Eventually, those narrative-progressing missions that previously seemed unattainable will eventually fall into your reach, taking you to a new, foreign region of the map in which everything you’ve previously learned may not necessarily hold you in adequate stead.
So here I am, edging around the perimeter of the Jupiter Plant, on a wet, grey and windswept morning. Thunder rumbles ominously overhead as I edge round the crumbling concrete facade of this apparently derelict building, knowing only that somewhere inside is a clue about where I should head next if I want to remain on the trail of the military convoy that disappeared somewhere into the heart of the Zone. I’m well prepared: I have adequate medical supplies, enough ammo for my shotgun, scoped-rifle and back-up pistol to see me through a major skirmish or two. All my equipment has been repaired and upgraded with a few enhancements. I have enough drugs and anti-radiation pills to see me through one or two minor mishaps, and plenty of food should hunger strike. Anything else I need will have to procured along the way; I may be lucky enough to stumble upon another Stalker’s cache, or I may have to resort to salvaging what I can from dead bodies.
Other than the booming thunder and lashing rain, the outer perimeter of the Jupiter plant remains eerily quiet. I peer around the corner of a pillar, hoping to gain some sense of what lies before me. A flash of lightning and… was that something moving in the wild grass that has sprouted from the cracked asphalt of the courtyard? I risk another glance. There they are: two wild dogs wander across the abandoned concrete plateau. I remain still, aware that any sudden movement could alert them to my presence, watch them as far as I can without moving from my vantage point, attempting to make a mental note of where they could be heading. I may need to make a dash across that courtyard should an emergency arise.
But for now I’m heading into the building via an open doorway. Darkness looms within. I turn on my flashlight, switch out my rifle for the shotgun and cautiously proceed inside. I can only pray that I’m adequately prepared for whatever I find within.