"Flawed masterpiece". That's how Tom described S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl in his review last year. Seems like Ukrainian developer GSC Game World took notice, because it's not doing a proper sequel right now. Instead it's doing a prequel, called Clear Sky, and, according to the company's PR director Oleg Yavorsky, it's all about making things right.
"There were a few things that were new about S.T.A.L.K.E.R.," he says. "The first was this concept of artefacts, stalkers, anomalies, we had the Chernobyl zone. We felt that we needed another explanation to the players of these things, how they work, before we do something big next like a sequel story.
"Secondly there was this Strelok guy who was the main character from the original game and his story was also strange and not very well explained. Through the course of the game you find out that he made several trips to the zone centre and as you play it's his third campaign, but what happened during his first two visits? You don't know. So this is something we wanted to explain with a prequel and at the same time give an alternative look into Strelok and his doings there so players get an understanding of the place and what's going on."
Strelok's an interesting one, because this time instead of playing as him you'll be going up against him as a mercenary. The game is set once again in the Zone, the site of the fictitious second Chernobyl explosion S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s story centres on. There are 12 locations in total. Half of those will be totally new, the rest will be locations from the first game given a sprinkle of magic graphics dust and redesigned to fit the new story.
Clear Sky still focuses heavily on open world MMO style FPS action. From what we saw of Oleg's live demo of the game, speaking to NPCs, gathering quests and venturing out into the wild will form much of what you'll be doing in the game. The difference this time however is that instead of following a somewhat linear plot you'll be able to interact with up to five factions, one of which is called Clear Sky. (Oleg reckons Clear Sky packs in about 20 hours of gameplay if you concentrate on the main story only, and plenty more if you explore the open world).
The factions are much more developed this time around. Each faction will have a fully fledged base with a leader, trader, barman, mechanic, guides and a tactician. These bases will be the main hub from which you pick up quests. Oleg shows us the Clear Sky base, a simple, run down set of structures. Around camp fires people sit and sing, play musical instruments and share anecdotes. And yes, vodka drinking is in the game.
Clear Sky are scientists that were part of the experiments that led to the creation of the Zone. They believe that scientific study will help find a solution to the chaos. They reckon the Zone has reacted to something that has entered its core and the prime suspect is Strelok himself. Clear Sky want him stopped before the Zone blows out uncontrollably. This is your primary mission throughout the game.
In the last game, says Oleg, money was easy to earn but there wasn't much to spend it on. Clear Sky will have a much greater incentive to spend cash on upgrading your weapons from a redesigned inventory screen. You'll be able to create up to 16 upgrades per item. Oleg shows us the Clear Sky mechanic, an NPC modelled after an actual mechanic from the real Chernobyl Power Plant. "A friend of ours" he says.