Call of Pripyat is easily the best-looking STALKER game to date, but it's still a little older looking compared to other games released this year. There's some new effects and textures, but the models are still recognizable from the original game. The general quality of the visuals, from the fidelity of the models to the design of the weaponry and levels, is better but not drastically so. The audio is much the same way, with music and sounds that feels straight at home in the first game. One disappointment is the lack of voice-acting in some areas, where others have voice-acting but no subtitles. You can't really play the game with any distractions, otherwise you might miss out on something important.
The game starts you out by dumping you in the first of three zones with little but a directive to find three helicopters. Most games preach about open-world gameplay, but Call of Pripyat delivers from the very beginning by simply setting you in the center of the zone and telling you to figure it out. While this abrupt introduction to the game can be jarring for your average gamer, it's heaven to those that didn't like the linear nature of the first game and the disjointed story of the second. This dedication to the open-world methodology leads to the best suggestion we can possibly give for STALKER: save early, save frequent. You will die a lot while you figure out the game, and saving every time before you launch an attack or engage in a high-risk mission will keep you from having to backtrack. The game will also autosave for you, but it only autosaves at important junctions, which may not be as frequent as you need, depending on the difficulty level.
Each zone has one main town in which you do everything important. These towns house most of the mission-givers, have shops for you to sell goods at, have a personal stash to store items you don't need, and offer you a safe-haven from bandits and monsters. To enter a town, you must holster your weapon, otherwise the door will not open. However, in the immediate area outside a town, you are welcome to have your weapon out. Gunfire towards another human in the area will cause a town to lock itself up, though, so fighting around towns is generally bad. After a while, the town will calm down and you can return, although factions may be hostile around the town depending on who you attacked. You can never be attacked inside a town, thankfully.
Missions in Call of Pripyat are completely freeform, with only a few being essential to the progression of the game. This almost complete openness makes it a sharp contrast to the other games, which drift between linear and open. Most missions do three things: give you a mission reward (normally cash and supplies), give you the location of a stash, and increase your reputation with that faction. Some missions also have multiple completion conditions, such as siding with one faction over another or completing an objective in one of a few ways. One downside to the missions is the lack of any sort of coherent mission journal. While the game does display mission objectives for each mission, there's no summaries and you can't take notes on the mission. Given the open-world survival focus of STALKER, this lack of note-taking is really disappointing, although it's hardly necessary.
Reputation is another return from Clear Sky, although it's not quite as necessary towards completing the game as it was in Clear Sky. There are several factions you can earn reputation with: bandits, Duty, Freedom, scientists, military, mercenaries, and loners. Each of the factions has a global reputation, which affects an NPCs initial reaction to you, as well as individual reputations, which are improved through helping out that specific NPC. The exception to this are loners, which have a purely individual reputation. The combination of group and individual reputations make it easy to become attached to both a group and the people within it. Thanks to the A-Life system, there's a good chance you'll run across NPcs outside of the towns they are in, which means that reputation is quite important if you do not want to be attacked.
Trading is relatively the same as it has always been. There's four kinds of traders: general, equipment, medical, and specialty. You can also trade with friendly NPCs in the wild, but they have limited cash and items, which only makes it worthwhile if you are overburdened. General traders sell things like food, and tend to buy anything except equipment. Equipment traders are the exact opposite, as they only sell ammo, weapons, and gear. Frustratingly, equipment traders will only buy things in good condition, forcing you to repair something before selling it to the trader. There's already a mod out to change this, but it's still irritating that you have to spend money to sell damaged goods to a trader instead of just getting less money. Medical traders sell medical supplies and drugs, and they purchase general items like food. The specialty trader is unique in that he doesn't buy things from you. Rather, you pay him a fee to find you an exceptional piece of equipment, which he then retrieves over the course of a day or two and brings back for you. Specialty equipment is always much, much better than equipment of the same type found in the wild or at an equipment trader, but costs exponentially more.
Repairs are done at the mechanics in the first two zones' major towns. These mechanics sometimes offer discounts, but, more importantly, they can modify your equipment for you. Modifications to equipment include things such as replacing the springs, changing the action, or even switching the ammo types. The first mechanic you run across can only do modifications while drunk, while the second one does them at any time but for more money. Modifications are incredibly important, as your guns are quite inaccurate otherwise.
The combat is the same as it has always been. Guns are extremely inaccurate, but quite damaging. Enemies take a number of hits to kill, but you only take a few (comparatively). Status effects include burdened, bleeding, irradiated, and hungry. There's no built-in statistics, with things such as damage or psionics resistance being determined entirely through your equipment. This means that combat is not so much dependent on grinding or getting the best equipment, but rather being skilled and knowing how the game works. It's a nice change of pace if you are used to other RPGs.
The A-Life system that was touted in the first two games has finally been drastically improved in Call of Pripyat. You will see animals moving and fighting with each other, NPCs running around on their own business, and other such signs of life. This also leads to prime opportunities for scavenging. For example, if you find two NPC groups in the wild fighting each other, you can simply sit back, wait for one side to kill the other, then loot the corpses. Emissions from Clear Sky also make a return, and NPCs will flee the wake of an emission just like a human would. While the system has been improved a lot, there's still some issues. While the NPCs go out and do things, they don't scavenge often or even eat, which means that they act little more than roaming battles. Some NPCs, like bloodsuckers, don't do A-Life stuff at all. It's a step in the right direction, but hardly revolutionary.
Call of Pripyat is the first game to have multiplayer, but it's nothing revolutionary. In fact, it's pretty much your standard FPS multiplayer, with only a few modes and not much to differentiate itself from others except greater realism. Those that are looking for a post-apocalyptic themed multiplayer experience will love it, but the lack of any sort of freeform multiplayer is disappointing. Even small-scale stuff, like the multiplayer found in Freelancer, would've been very fun.
The latest STALKER entry may not be quite as tightly focused on the story as the first one, but it's the first game of the series to approach what gamers were originally promised. The overhaul of the A-Life system, the increased priority of the open-world aspects, and the general improvement of elements seen in previous games makes it a must buy. At $30 ($20 if you own a previous game), it's an absolute steal. For a budget-priced game, there's not many that you can get better than Call of Pripyat.