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Thursday, May 24 2018 @ 09:15 PM -08

STALKER: Clear Sky - buggy as hell but still fun

My problems with S:CS start on its main menu. No, that's not a joke. The currently selected menu item lags behind mouse movement so badly that unless you wait for it to catch up before clicking, nothing happens; or - worse still - the wrong menu item is activated.

This kind of sloppy and unrefined programming permeates S:CS. Of course, being essentially an RPG, this is hardly unexpected. Aside: why is it that RPGs as a class of game seem to be the buggiest? Many of S:CS's bugs have been squashed or ameliorated by way of patches, but many remain.

Here's just a small sampling:

The savegame feature crashes the game. When this happens, the saved game is usually corrupted and attempting to load it will cause the game to again crash. This is doubly frustrating and I'll wager that this issue alone caused a large number of players to stop playing completely. It's doubly frustrating since clearly you intended to save recent progress only to have the savegame feature do the opposite: lose that progress and even more, going back to your previous named save. So now you have to invent a new savegame system that works around the game's problems. The quicksave feature, since it wipes out the previous quicksave, is like Russian Roulette, so unless you like danger, don't use it. Instead, take the far more laborious approach of using named saves, and make sure to save regularly.

Of course there are the usual quest bugs: quests that you are given but then become impossible to complete; a main storyline that can also get stalled; endlessly repeating quests; overlapping quests; quests that are impossible to complete from the start; and so on.

Sometimes, for no apparent reason, the ability to switch to grenades by pressing the '4' key stops working. Since this key is in fact the only way to select grenades (EDIT: actually, the 'G' key works as well), discovering this in a firefight is colossally annoying. The only fix I've found is to drop a grenade (any type) then pick it up. So I've added to my prep list when about to enter a fight: check grenade functionality.

Similarly, for some bizarre reason I am unable to switch ammo types for my shotgun. Pressing the 'Y' key shows animation of me working the mechanism but nothing changes. I suspect that this is related to the fact that I can no longer use shot shells in the gun because of an upgrade I performed (UPDATE: nope, that's not it). Still, a very easy thing to fix from a programming standpoint. The only workaround is to unload the gun from the inventory screen, then reload it from the first-person view. This will load it with the next valid ammo type. Weird.

Other keyboard issues abound. For instance, some keys that select firearms and other handheld items override all similar keys, and some do not. For instance, pressing "3" to switch to your main weapon seems to work in all situations. Pressing "O" to switch to your anomaly scanner only works if you're not already holding something. So switching to the scanner involves two steps, for no good reason. And of course, the default keyboard layout makes it impossible to heal yourself without moving your mouse hand to the keyboard.

Like most of the interface, the map is clunky at best. Perhaps its worst defect is the lack of place names. "Go to blah blah and do yah yah, and hurry up!" my PDA bleats. But where is blah blah? If there's an obvious destination on the map, you're okay, but that's not always the case. Again, user mods address this issue, but really, isn't this an obvious (and simple) thing to include? And there are some places that have multiple, different names.

The faction conflict is very interesting, but oh so broken. Moving up and down the ranks in a faction, in terms of how much they like you, is seemingly random. Actions that should make you a faction's sworn enemy may have no effect at all. Running endless errands for a faction may have no effect at all. And so on. All I can say is that you need to experiment and use plenty of savegames.

Another indication of sloppy programming becomes apparent when you get stuck: in scenery, behind AI controlled units, blocked by AI units in tunnels, and so on. Good thing we're already using a lot of savegames.

Mysterious situations, while frustrating for the most part, at least add to the apparent randomness of the environment. For instance, there is a fast travel corridor between two areas that, for a while anyway, disappeared when I got close to it. It showed up on the map, but when I arrived at the starting point, there was no way to use it. This problem cleared itself as mysteriously as it showed up.

Collecting hidden stashes is usually fairly mundane, but sometimes it degenerates into a pixel hunt, as in the case of a safe embedded in the floor of a building. I wasted a good chunk of time on that one. There's at least one stash hidden in a tree that I have yet to collect. Apparently there is a trick to climbing trees in S:CS, but I sure can't make it work.

There's not a lot of sense in some of the more annoying limitations. Vendors are often limited in terms of what they sell or will buy. Worse, technicians (and there are precious few of these guys) often work only on a few selected items. Yay! Time to travel across the whole map just to find out if I can upgrade my armour. The only solution to this is to keep notes. Bleah.

Both the main character - the one you control - and all the computer-controlled NPCs have a lot of trouble being close to and moving near other units. I've witnessed an NPC shoving a group of other NPCs (who were sitting around a campfire originally) all over the place. NPCs often shove me out of good firing positions during firefights. I haven't yet been shoved off a building, but it's only a matter of time.

But enough of the bad stuff. Here are some of the good points:

The enemy AI is better than average - at least for an RPG. Enemies use cover, crouch, relocate when fired upon, see you coming and react by opening fire. Unfortunately their aim and success rate with firearms is often supernatural, so they can hurt you badly with sawed-off shotguns from 100 yards in some cases. However, there are mods that address this issue.

But overall, and perhaps surprisingly (given all the problems), this frustrating game is also quite fun. The combat can be challenging but very rewarding. The scenery, natural and manmade, indoor and outdoor, realistic or supernatural is immersive, varied and interesting. You can have fun just wandering around. For instance, I like doing that at night. Many players, judging by various posts I've read, prefer not to venture out at night. I like it because the bad guys are somewhat less likely to see me. With night vision enabled, that means I can sneak up on them more easily.

The monsters are creative, interesting and downright creepy, as they should be in this setting. They move too darn fast, but are at least predictable enough that I can kill them if I stay cool with swarms of them around.

Still, it's difficult to recommend this game. If you find post-apocalyptic settings fascinating; if you love shooting zombies and other creepy monsters and like hearing Russian jokes and folksongs around campfires, and can put up with a few annoying glitches, this game is for you. Otherwise, stay away.

Platform usedWindows
TypeRPG, open, unscripted
Engine???
In-game advertisingno
Overall6.5
Graphics7.5
Sound7
Music7.5
User Interface4
Control3
HUD5
View9
Animation7
Effects6
Physics6
Voice acting6
AI7.5
Cleanness/quality/detail4
Stability4
BugsMany and varied, including quest bugs and crashes
Gameplay7
Variety7.5
Toys8
Fun7
Replayability7
Immersiveness8
Playtime10
Multiplayer???
Co-op multiplayer vs. botsno
Map editor???
Copy protectionTages
Classic blundersSave game feature often crashes