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Analysis: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Defense - The Hybrid Results

In this Gamasutra analysis piece, Tom Cross looks at GSC Game World's S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky and its odd combination of FPS, RPG and tower defense game, examining the art of gameplay hybrids.

September 1, 2010

10 Min Read

Author: by Tom Cross

[In this Gamasutra analysis piece, Tom Cross looks at GSC Game World's S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky and its odd combination of FPS, RPG and tower defense game, examining the art of gameplay hybrids.] Uber Entertainment's new XBLA title Monday Night Combat is set to introduce the shooter to the Defense of The Ancients-inspired Tower Defense genre in a big way. The former is a new, exciting genre, whose early successes have been mostly relegated to the realm of RTSs, from League of Legends to Demigod. Here and there, mods and lesser-known indie games pop up that attempt to do what Monday Night Combat is doing. What no one seems to realize is that while MNC may be the flashiest entry to the first and third person action shooter tower defense genre (an impermanent name, I hope), it has a strange, unsuccessful predecessor in the form of GSC Game World's Stalker: Clear Sky. Stalker certainly isn't a franchise that screams tower defense. The original Stalker game, Shadow of Chernobyl, is an open-world immersive sim. It's set in the ruins of Chernobyl (as are the other games in the series, Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat), where mysterious anomalies, mutated horrors, and scavengers (called "Stalkers") fight for breathing space and primacy. My first playthrough of SOC remains one of the more frightening, unique experiences I've had in a game. The open valleys, ragged settlements, and deadly horrifying tunnels and warrens of The Zone (as the blasted area is called in-game) are home to deadly, dark, and meticulously realized encounters with murderous forces. SOC is also an unforgiving military simulator. Your Stalker collects weapons, food, armor, and artifacts, and cobbles together a small arsenal over the course of the game. By the game's end death isn't quite as immediate as it is during one's first minutes in-Zone, but it's still an old, dangerous companion. Everything in SOC has weight and significance. Every trip underground found me overburdened, forced to leave behind precious supplies and ammunition to get out alive. It's a first person survival horror game that's happy to mix in upgrade mechanics (for guns and armor) and an open-world quest system that feels like it stepped out of the original Fallout (many quests have unforgiving time limits). It's not for the faint of heart, much like the third game in the series, Call of Pripyat, which did its best to improve on its forbearer, even as it moved the action to area surrounding Pipyat. Clear Sky is a strange beast. It shares the world (in fact, its Zone is identical, architecturally, to the Zone seen in SOC), enemies and basic gameplay of SOC. Clear Sky does add a more fully-realized upgrade mechanic (that would only truly become a fully-functioning set of mechanics in Pripyat), but that's not what sets it apart from its brothers, and not what's earned this middle child so much animosity from Stalker's loyal fanbase. clearsky9.jpgIn Clear Sky, different factions (of Stalkers) vie for control of the Zone. Freedom, Duty, the Clear Sky faction, the Renegades, and others all fight for territory. Players can ally themselves with whichever faction they choose, and there are several moments throughout the game when the player will begin working for a new faction out of necessity. Faction wars occur all across the massive zone, from the swamps, to science stations, to military facilities. In general, an area will have several key locations, places that factions can occupy. In the swamp, burnt out villages, an old church, and a run-down machine yard all serve as faction emplacements. The acquisition of these unassuming targets takes a lot of time and effort: I've spent at least half of my time ingame fighting for these strategic locations. I didn't fight alone, however. Once I'd allied myself with the Clear Sky faction (as one must, when starting the game), I was tasked with joining Clear Sky troops on the front, fighting back against Raider incursions. From time to time, I could accept a mission (to assault an enemy location) and take as my backup a group of stalkers. This happens rarely. Most stalker squads are there to buy and sell stuff, and go about their business: assaulting other stalkers. No matter what players do, there is a constant push and pull along the front lines of the various faction wars in Clear Sky. I spent too much time resting and repairing my weapons in camp, on one occasion. Upon returning to the Zone, I found that my faction had lost one strategic location, but had acquired another. Likewise, the final enemy base in the first swamp zone was taken without me, but only because I had lead the charges that had captured the church, machine yard, and farmstead hours before. Factions in Clear Sky aren't that powerful. They regularly send squads out into the Zone to kill and capture, but these moving units (represented by a slightly different shade of dot on the strategic map) don't always succeed at capturing their targets. For assured victory, they need the Player Character. It's almost a given that if I lend my shotgun to the cause of the Clear Sky faction, they will win every battle I'm a part of, save for the more than likely occurrence of my untimely death. clearsky2.jpgFor the first 10 or so hours of play, the battles that rage back and forth across the Zone are brutal and exciting. By the time I'd helped Clear Sky faction regain control of the swamp zone, I'd made a generous amount of money, upgraded my pitiful starting arsenal to something slightly less pitiful, and collected a few useful artifacts. I felt reasonably competent, powerful, and sure of myself. True to form, Clear Sky changes things up as it unlocks new zones to explore. Stalkers and mercenaries populate the next zone, and an army base guards the only path to safety from the passage between zones. It's a cruel, relentless sprint from the entry point to safety among the Stalker faction, the military hounding you every step of the way. I died many times here, cut down by a heavy machine gun I couldn't see. Immediately following my escape, I was enlisted by the Stalkers to help them take several enemy locations. Again, the new weapons and increased numbers of my foes lead to my death, again and again. It's in these situations that Clear Sky looks to be a brilliant mixture of tower defense and classic Stalker survival horror shooter. Locations borrowed from the first game are chock-full of deadly new enemies. New items and weapons are no match for the ever-ready forces of the zone, but if I help the Stalkers kill enough military units and mutants, I might be able to buy new items, weapons, and armor. Maybe then I'll be able to join up with Freedom or Duty, make some real money, and participate in the huge battles that are the highlights of the late game in Clear Sky. clearsky8.jpgSo, Clear Sky is a tower defense game set in a giant, sometimes frightening open world, though at every turn it undercuts this interesting new take on this interesting new genre. It's impossible to upgrade or enhance factions: the Stalkers who join your battles cannot be outfitted with new weapons. Factions feel divorced from the player, as do the mechanics in place to facilitate player-faction interaction. The only way to effect ingame events is to help Stalkers kill other Stalkers. Many of the tower defense elements that are in the game are broken. In the late game, I helped Duty attack and capture a large enemy outpost. Delighted, I returned to base (across the Zone in Duty territory) to replenish my supplies and prepare for the next phase of Duty's assault. Maybe this time we'd drive Freedom out of the Zone entirely. Instead, when I looked at my map, I saw that the Freedom base I'd just cleared out was now repopulated with Freedom troops. Worse, aside from a cash bonus, nothing about the Zone had changed. Freedom and Duty continued to send their forces against each other, and no doubt I'd be tasked with leading another base assault in the near future. There's no permanence to the faction warfare in Clear Sky. The first swamp zone can be fully conquered (aside from a few pockets of resistance), but it's impossible to completely destroy or capture an enemy faction. I might as well have spent all of my time killing mutants and pursuing side quests: they're just as rewarding from a financial standpoint, and it's easier to kill dogs and snorks than it is to kill men with guns. Stalker has always been an incredibly unforgiving game, no matter the iteration. Clear Sky may be the worst of the bunch. Soldiers can drop grenades on me with unerring accuracy. Whole squads will attack me at once. It's the kind of merciless, deadly play that leads to two things: cheap, sneaky tactics (I'm quite the master of sniping stalkers from various positions), and reload screens. Unfortunately, when I load back into the Zone, often my mission objectives have changed. More often than not, the various enemy and friendly squads nearby have disappeared or relocated. Unless I quick save in the middle of a firefight, it is entirely possible that a battle I heard across the swamps no longer exists. This happened every time I quick-loaded a game, or loaded an older save. The game is completely incapable of recording what was taking place in the Zone at the save game point. There might as well not be a quicksave (or regular save) option. Checkpoints would be just as helpful for recording ingame activity and minute-to-minute occurrences. This makes the punishment for death more than just a tax on my time. There's nothing more galling than getting this close to successfully helping my squad take a key point, on orders, only to reload and have that objective disappear. In Clear Sky, your superiors will only pay you in items and money if you attack designated targets on the map. It's pointless to attack enemy emplacements at random. I won't get paid for my troubles, and I'll probably die. clearsky3.jpgIt's incredibly frustrating to realize that I can't actually treat these stalkers as enemies, or take objectives as I please. It's even more frustrating to realize that unless I'm extremely careful, I'll lose all of my progress (or money, or my squad) thanks to a simple glitch. Clear Sky is a broken game, like its predecessor. It also never fully commits to its tower defense pretensions, which is a shame. The RPG mechanics of the Stalker games (where your guns are your stats), the unforgiving and frightening Zone, and the basics of tower defense make for surprisingly entertaining play when combined. It's unclear whether GSC Gameworld will reintroduce the faction warfare mechanic to the recently announced Stalker sequel. These elements were completely excised for Pripyat, the series' third outing, and it was the better Stalker game (if not a better tower defense game) for it. I sincerely hope someone pursues this line of design. The mix of RPG, open-world shooter, and tower defense is one that doesn't really exist right now, outside of Clear Sky. It's an exciting genre that deserves better than this. Clear Sky is quite the opposite of the original DotA and the newer Monday Night Combat. Clear Sky applied the tower defense genre to a persistent, frightening game world. It's an application that makes victories and losses feel like more than just one more round. It's too bad the game can't even remember these (non) persistent advances and retreats, because conquering the Zone faction by faction would be a unique, rewarding experience. [Tom Cross is a managing editor at Rules of the Game, writes for Popmatters, and blogs about games at Delayed Responsibility. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]

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