This review contains spoilers

For everything bad I have said and still feel about Stalker.: Shadow of Chernobyl, I still found myself with that patented Stalker itch after finishing it. So about a week later, I started up my first playthrough of Stalker: Clear Sky as well. I rarely go back-to-back with games from the same franchise, so make of that what you will. It helps that these games are actually rather short if you decide to focus on the main story mostly. Though the reason for why I managed to beat Clear Sky in just 11 hours is that for the final few missions, I chose to activate god mode, as, yes, I once again had a hard time enjoying this one once the main story structure just got completely ridiculous.
First, let's talk about the positives. As with the first game, I enjoyed the atmosphere in this one. It's something the series is praised for a lot, and I agree, it's the series best feature. I also liked the enemy variety and some characters in this game, both new and old. From the changes since Shadow of Chernobyl, I thought the most notable immediately was the improved graphics. The textures actually look pretty good in this one. New weapons were added, which is cool, artifacts are now much rarer and harder to track (nice, but all I found was one) and an upgrade system was added, which I thought was awesome, if not all too advanced. Also, the enemy AI is of course pretty good once again, mostly, and that allows for some tactical battles. Finally, the soundtrack in this game was much better than in the first in my opinion. Especially in Garbage, there is a track that plays that has a really eerie and mysterious-like vibe to it, which I really enjoyed. But that's where the positives end. Once again, it becomes clear quickly that this game aims at a more hardcore audience. "Realism" is a big keyword here, so I feel like saying something negative about it will almost always come with the counter that "I need my hand to be held to enjoy games". While I do appreciate more streamlined games, I can't say that "realism" always has to come together with "less fun" and "more miserable", while at the same time, I also can't say that the game is as realistic as it tries to be.
There are many instances I could think of regarding this. For example, a lot of weapons you get like to jam. A lot. To shoot 30 bullets with one of the first AK's you come across will require you to reload about 7 times if you use burst fire like I do. However, the dead enemy you picked this weapon off from had no trouble unloading his whole ammo on you with no jamming problems. In addition, random bandits also have no problem aiming at you from 40m out whilst your aim is entirely unpredictable, despite the fact that you're playing an experienced mercenary.
Or, the most well-known problem of Clear Sky, where enemies spam grenades and hit you with dead-on accuracy every time. It happens regularly that 4 grenades fly in my direction at the same time, and all detonate right next to me. Even if I move once the grenade is thrown, it still somehow manages to trickle in my direction. Let's not even forget that random poor bandits having unlimited supply of grenades makes no sense.
There are also the dozens of instances where I help out an outpost to fend off attacks, leave after the "task is complete", only for a "help defend the outpost" task to re-appear once I am 20m or so away from the outpost. Don't go back there and your buddies will die and the tasks you got from them will be cancelled.
Or just in general the fact that you're supposedly able to singlehandedly mow down dozens of fully armed military soldiers. Not that I can do that without reloading 18 times, but the fact that your mission givers keep expecting this of you as if this would ever work realistically.
It doesn't help that I am running around for the first 10 hours with a broken suit that gives me 0 protection because any armor I want to buy costs me almost all of my money, whilst traders give you almost nothing for all those weapons you bring them. Weapons that take great pain to deliver because you barely have any carry weight. And to make matters worse, there is a part in this game where you are knocked out by two random bandits, and they steal all your stuff. Go find them again, kill them, and grab all your items. However, when you get all your items back, you don't get your money back. Apparently this is some sort of bug, so I found myself down 14000 Ruble in the middle of my playthrough. Looking it up online tells you that "yeaaah, you should spend it all before you run into them". Well gee, thanks.
There are also some areas this game throws you into where you genuinely cannot survive unless you keep quicksaving and reloading over and over again, because these situations are just that ridiculous. Example 1: Early on, you exit a tunnel and find yourself near a military base. You have to run past them, which means they open up fire with near-perfect accuracy. I died 6 times before I somehow made it out alive with a tiny bit of health. Why on earth would you be thrown into a situation like that?Example 2: At the Garbage, I walked up to a bandit camp with about 15-20 bandits situated there. They tell me to leave, I plan on doing so to strategize, but as I turn my back, they start shooting all at once, with high accuracy and damage output even from a distance, and multiple perfect grenades thrown at once. The only way to defeat them is to retreat hundreds of meters and to pick them off one by one as they stupidly run after you. Finally, the story in this game is not great. Apparently Clear Sky is a prequel to Shadow of Chernobyl, which I'll be honest, I didn't get from the conversations I had, and that's because the story is pretty much the same as in Shadow of Chernobyl. I'm not really sure what the point of making this a prequel was if this is how the story turned out.
So anyway, here is my conclusion after ranting for a while: I don't think this is a good final product. I think A LOT about it is great and has a lot of potential to be more fun in the upcoming sequel when there are fewer technical issues (hopefully) and some QoL concessions for newcomers to the series that undoubtedly will exist, but I also think that a lot of what these games do is try to be very realistic and make it not fun in the process, at least for me. Considering that many things about these games are indeed not realistic, I don't understand some of the fetishism, especially with things like weapons jamming constantly. If I had a wishlist for STALKER 2, it would definitely be to have more of the non-scripted stuff to actually work (how many times is mission progression blocked and broken forever because some important NPC is preoccupied with something stupid going on?), to have enemies be less or more skilled depending on who they are (bandits having aimbot on is just weird), to be able to actually bring buddies / hire people so that I don't have to face 30 soldiers on my own and with that, for the game to be less quicksave dependent. I want to actually be able to sneak up on bandit groups and I don't want 15 guns insta-aimed at me once a single person spots me, as if they all immediately know where I am. Basically, if the game is so enamored with "realism", I want it to take more steps toward that.
In reality, we will probably see Stalker 2 be pretty much the same as these three games, which would be great for all of the many fans the series has, but that means it'll probably not be for me. We'll see. Red Dead Redemption wasn't for me, while RDR2 turned into one of my favorite games ever, so maybe Stalker 2 can make a similar series-turnaround for me. I'd hope so, because as I said, there is a ton that I really like about the series. There just is more that I don't.

Reviewed on Jan 22, 2023