Following on from the mysterious events of the previous two games, S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat sees a return to the radiated and hostile wastelands surrounding Chernobyl. This time you play part of an undercover Ukrainian expeditionary force, sent in to discover the secrets of the zone and investigate the mysterious disappearance of the last bunch of guys who were sent in. Call of Pripyat manages to feel both oddly comfortable and unsettling at the same time, capturing as it does the exploratory nature and palpable fear levels of the original game whilst never straying too far from the original in terms of gameplay mechanics.
The countryside around Pripyat is one of trees, swamps, hills and wasteland, dotted with the ruins of radiated settlements where both friend and foe alike seek shelter from each other's attacks and the oppressive weather of the zone. Atmosphere is the name of the game here and when exploring the outside expanse a sense of tension and a fear of the unknown is never far away. But although often deadly, exploration is worth it, for hidden away in the various wrecks and lairs that litter the zone are rare and powerful artifacts that can be sold with traders for loot or used yourself to increase your survivability in the harsh landscape. It's the allure of these artifacts that tempts the game's many stalkers into the zone in the first place and radioactive anomalies that surround them are the reason why most don't make it out. It doesn't take long to learn that deep trips into the zone are rarely successful without stocking up first on plenty of ammo and anti-rad drugs.
In the various settlements along the way, you'll meet characters who can sell you gear, buy your loot or upgrade your weapons for a price (vodka in some cases) as well as furnish you with a variety of side quests to keep you busy when not plunging deep into the heart of Pripyat. Although filled with conversation, the characters in S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat aren't really that engaging and have a hard time inspiring anything more than apathy in my concern for their fates. Though the side tasks they unlock are a great way of exploring new areas and getting new equipment. Generally it's fair to say that the best moments of the game are those spent 'crouching in a gutter in the dusk, hoping the prowling mutant doesn't spot you as you've never seen one like that before and have no idea how to kill it plus, you've only got a little bit of health and really need to get back to somewhere safe before it gets any darker, oh my god its getting nearer, it's getting nearer...' than those spent chatting with the zone's more talkative residents.
Graphically S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat is looking a bit dated. Cutscenes show the most signs of the game engine's aging although scenery and weather effects still manage to wow. Furthermore this aging is apparent in a lot of the game's feel. Rather than a stride into the unknown, the game feels more like a comfortable rework of the previous S.T.A.L.K.E.R games. A spot of combat improved here, better upgrading system there, easier navigation and less crashes and there you go, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R game we always wanted. Obviously these improvements are no bad thing and the development team has done a great job refining these elements to make this the most playable and enjoyable in the series. It's just that apart from a collection of new and terrifying new beasts it's hard to feel truly that you are stepping into the unknown, especially if you've played either of the previous titles before. But then again, the zone still is genuinely one of the most atmospheric and exciting places to spend you gaming time and a place I would heartily recommend that unfamiliar gamers explored (with obvious due caution).
S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat is a worthwhile purchase for anybody who wants a gritty yet intelligent shooter. Finally, all the elements and ideas of the stalker universe have gelled into a satisfying and cohesive whole, it's just shame that it took three games to get it right.
7.5 out of 10