What I find most mindboggling is that fanboys love rambling about how awesome SoC is while at the same time dissing CoP most of the time. The reason I find this mindboggling is because CoP represents a step forward, and in many cases a huge fucking leap forward, in almost every department. It is, to put it simply, a better game. So I thought it would only be fitting if, making a review that pointed out all of SoC's flaws, I would also note how they were fixed in CoP.
In my benevolence I will be completely ignoring Clear Sky because it was a complete waste of everyone's time and the only good thing in it was the Bandit polka. No need to thank me.
1. The Story
There is nothing particularly wrong with SoC's story, but there is something very wrong with the narrative. Simply speaking, there is no narrative in SoC. The main quest line is just a series of fed-ex tasks. Which wouldn't be that bad in itself, but...
- Bring Sid the USB drive from Nimble. You can't read the drive, and Sid doesn't tell you what's on it.
- Get the military documents from Agroprom and bring them to the Barkeep. You can't read them and Barkeep doesn't tell you what they're about.
- Get the documents from X18. You can't read them and, yes, Barkeep doesn't tell you what they're about.
- Turn off the thingy in X16 which as far as I'm aware doesn't relate to the rest of the game in any way whatsoever.
- Flip the Brain Scorcher switch.
And that's it. Here's the real problem: nobody tells you anything in SoC and there is no motivation to go forward other than the fact that you can and well, this is a videogame so it has an end so let's go there. The NPCs treat the player like a retard who wouldn't understand the mystical intricates of what's going on anyway or simply a disposable muscle to do shit without asking any questions. So you know nothing through the entire game and then when you open the Secret Door in the NPP and get the whole story in ten minute long monologue of a ghost pensioner - noosphere, who made the Zone, why, when and how - it feels almost like a bunch of random bullshit and deus ex machina despite the fact it makes perfect sense and there really aren't any plotholes in it or anything.
You might think the whole "Kill Strelok" sub-plot somehow makes the narrative more meaningful or deep or whatever but you'd be wrong, because it doesn't change a damn thing. The fact that you are Strelok has literally no impact on the game whatsoever. If the hideout door where the decoder is located - an ordinary wooden door - in Pripyat weren't locked with a Plot Key and indestructible, you could find the hideout and get the decoder to the Secret Door in NPP just by exploring the place! As if that wasn't enough the Strelok sub-plot is literally forced down your throat and follows the main quest religiously, breaking away only once when you need to backtrack to Agroprom to meet Doctor. You'd have to be a console ADD kiddie to miss this. I know you did.
So how is it better in CoP? Well, for starters there is a narrative. You have a clear goal. You inspect the crash sites, get evacuation zone coordinates, explore those, join the military in Pripyat, help them survive and escape. When you find documents you can either read them or you get a short summary what they're about, either in the inventory or with a short cutscene. At any point in the game you can ask yourself "Why I'm doing this?" and get a clear and immediate answer. Not a Pulitzer material to be sure but it's bare fucking minimum, something SoC couldn't achieve.
2. The Zone
One of my biggest original complaints about SoC was that there are way too many people in it. Despite supposedly being in a super dangerous cordoned-off-by-the-military-shot-on-sight no-man's land you spend significant majority of the game shooting and being shot at by other human beings. Most players don't even realize how bad this is, so here's a quick reminder:
- Cordon: Bandits guarding Nimble, several bandits guarding the way to Garbage
- Garbage: Bandits as you enter, Bandits attacking the car junkyard, Bandits on the way to the hangar, Bandits in the hangar, Bandits on the way to Agroprom
- Agroprom: Soldiers in northern complex, Bandits in the underground, Soldiers in the underground, Soldiers in the southern complex, Soldiers guarding the way out once you grab the documents
And so on, through almost the entire the game, sole exception being labs and Yantar, which has zombies who are ten times as scary as humans even though they're probably least threatening enemy in the game. You can't open a Tourist's Delight in SoC without murdering a dozen people. As if the pre-populated locations weren't enough, because of a timer bug everything in the game respawns instantly as soon as you load the game or enter the level, so you'll be doing some serious overtime clearing out random camps as well.
Now you might say: "Koki you dumb fuck, it's a first person shooter, it's about shooting dudes". Well in a way, yes, but there is a problem with fighting human enemies: it's very common, very normal, and everyone's been doing it since Wolfenstein 3D. There is a reason why horror games use monsters and not people with fire axes: human enemies, even fanatics like the Monolith, represent a well-known element that any FPS player over the age of 12 is so used to that it almost feels like home. And the reason this is bullshit in STALKER is because the main theme of the game is the unknown, alien, hostlie Zone. So on one hand you have all these new and fascinating but also scary and/or dangerous things like mutants and anomalies, and at the other - you're constantly bombarded with humans, who reduce it all to the level of any average run & gun FPS. Mutants, mutants and more mutants should be the main enemy through the game. Dozen Monolith soldiers? Pffft, who cares. Pack of Blind Dogs? HOLY SHIT GET TO THE HIGH GROUND
Picture this scenario which happened to me on my first playthrough: I was exploring the abandoned lab/bunker under the Antennaes looking for a way to turn off the Brain Scorcher. The lab/bunker is completely empty save for a few Bloodsuckers and I found the place genuinely creepy - like most labs. But as soon as I flipped the Brain Scorcher switch and the cutscene ended, my "Stalker Counter" next to the minimap went ping-ping-ping-ping as the whole lab/bunker was instantly repopulated with Monolith soldiers. And I remember thinking to myself, at that very moment: That's good. At least I don't need to backtrack to the entrance all alone now.
Isn't that the very fucking opposite of what you want to achieve when designing a creepy location?
Making humans the main enemy through most of the game creates another problem - sooner or later the player is going to ask himself a simple question: "Why am I not dead yet?". Like when Barkeep sends you to your first lab, which involves killing 30+ Bandits and their leader in an abandoned industrial complex to get the key from Borov. As you're slaughtering your way through your fellow men, which is nothing short of a chore(see below), sooner or later you stop and ask yourself: did the Barkeep really just send one guy against thirty as if it were nothing? After all, like the enemies, you're just a human with a gun - likely same as they're using - yourself. Unless the game estabilished that the player character is special or unique in some way - and STALKER really doesn't, all you have is a bad tattoo - then the immediate and correct answer as to why you're still alive is "because I'm a player in a videogame so I have more HP and my weapon does more damage and the AI is stupid". Which, of course, instantly kicks you out of the game and atmosphere is ruined until you get back in again.
So how does CoP manage to fix all that? Well, first of all there are much less camps/active groups in the Zone in general and they wander in smaller numbers(I believe the max is 3 people per group, except Zombies). Second of all, because Bandits are not inherently hostile to the player, there aren't many "random" fights against humans in general. Making Bandits neutral was a ham-fisted way of solving the issue, but it did the job. Finally, in CoP the developers weren't afraid to leave some locations simply empty. For example, the entire Jupiter plant is empty except for a pack of dogs and two Psy Dogs, which is wonderful for the atmoshpere of the place when you're spelunking it for documents. The same location in SoC would be packed full of Bandits/Military/Monolith who completely incidentally just happened to occupy the place where you needed to go.
As for not dying to bullets, whenever you actually fight other humans in CoP you usually have either AI support or an option of AI support. Not only this makes the game more believable(no more one-man-army approach) but allows the devs to make AI more competent and dangerous. After all if you're expected to attack the enemy camp alone the AI must be either weak or dumb, otherwise the game will be too hard. But if you give the player a supporting force and never purposefully put him in a situation where it's him vs. the world, the AI can be made semi-competent with weapons that actually do damage.
3. The Shooty Bits
As someone who made a weapon mod for SoC I can say that it features one of the most advanced firearm mechanics I've ever seen in an FPS, and not only ye olde run and gun FPSes but also half-sims like Operation Flashpoint. In practice you will never appreciate many subtelties of these mechanics because entire gunplay in SoC has been dumbed down immensely to follow the linearity of the game: You start with piss-poor weapons and as you go deeper and deeper into the Zone you find better ones. This results in most of guns in the game being about as accurate and damaging as rocks and their intricate system of stats simply ruined for the sake of this artificial sense of progress. Significant majority of firearms are just stepping stones on the way to the 2-3 end-game weapons that actually shoot in a straight line and kill people. Which is just mindboggling considering how many different firearms there are in SoC - and almost all of them are useless. Furthermore, because the damage on them has been nerfed to accomodate for the end-game weapons, most enemies in the game end up as bullet sponges until you get the end-game guns. All this - bullets that do little damage fired from weapons as accurate as slings - makes the firefights nothing but a chore until endgame.
So how does CoP make this better? By making the world much more open and 2/3 of it accessible right from the start. This means the devs are freed from the constraints of designing an artificial progress meter and weapons can be designed to not be better or worse but simply different. The CoP weapons also do more damage to enemies and are more accurate overall, plus they feature a pretty extensive upgrade system in which almost everything but the damage can be modified.
And unlike SoC they can be repaired. Who the fuck thought about introducing breakable weapons and armor in the game and not give the player any means of repairing them, other than using an engine glitch?
4. The Anomalies, the Artifacts
Anomalies in SoC are points on the map which make you lose health when you come in contact with them. Yeah, one looks like green goo and other like static electricity and another distorts air around it but they all work exactly the same way and they are all harmful to the player and should be avoided. How unimaginative is that?
Additionally, anomalies in SoC are not just points on the map, they are literally points on the map. They're almost completely random and most of the time just out of place. Some field and some gravity anomalies. Why gravity anomalies? Why there? How? It's as if they made the maps first and then just sprinkled them with fancy graphical equivalent of a pitfall. Oh wait, that is exactly how they did it. Too bad that after doing this they forgot to make NPC Stalkers avoid them and they walk into them at sightseeing pace like complete retards.
Artifacts are fine for the most part - though magic rocks that all weight the same and take same amount of space is about as unimaginative as the anomalies - except for the ones that protect you from the damage. Okay I can accept an artifact which wears off your muscle tissue faster or makes your blood clot quicker, but when you introduce stuff like "protects you from bullets" or "protects from scratches" that's just bullshit and we're suddenly in Elder Scrolls. No amount of pseudoscience will explain that. And why are all the artifacts just lying around on the ground? Is that it? It's amazing to see Bandits fight Stalkers - presumably for their artifacts - in a location that is full of artifacts just lying on the ground. And once the battle is over, nobody will bother to pick them up because nobody at GSC coded that it. Marvelous.
In CoP the -damage artifacts have been simply removed from the game. Can't say I'm a huge fan of "it doesn't work, so let's remove it" but that's a lesser evil here. Artifacts stay as universa sizel 0.5kg rocks, sadly.
The real overhaul in CoP was done to the anomalies themselves. Now they're grouped into fields and integrated into the level. The examples are so obvious I won't even bother - almost every anomaly field in CoP is part of the level geometry rather than just a bunch of deathtraps lumped together or scattered around. The downside to it is that you can run everywhere like a Forrest Gump wannabee without worrying about throwing bolts, but I can't say walking everywhere constantly throwing bolts in front of you until you memorize position of anomalies along most frequented paths was a great gaming experience anyway. We even managed to get one beneficial anomaly in CoP - which only scratches the lid on the Box of Ideas for anomalies, but is nonetheless a step in the right direction.
5. The Trading
Two shops in the game. Other Stalkers only buy Vodka. Good fucking luck backtracking two maps to sell all your shit, especially since everything on the way respawned already and you'll have to fight it again. Yeah, CoP has two shops as well, but it has only three open maps total so it's a non-issue, and other Stalkers are interested in almost everything.
6. The Inventory
There is nothing wrong with the inventory limit itself. I'm not one of the twerps who need to edit the value to carry 10000kg because their OCD makes them pick all the trash they see. But, as many things in SoC, the weight limit is a good idea gone bad. Specifically, it's other ideas gone bad - unrepairable weapons and armor that force you to carry spares, weak/inaccurate weapons that make you carry at least 300 rounds for your main gun at all times, etc. - that ruined the weight limit. When playing with one armor, one-two main weapons and carrying just few spare mags of ammo the inventory limit is more than enough. But that's impossible in vanilla SoC. It is possible in CoP.
Another nice idea executed in the most retarded way possible, in SoC the Stashes don't exist until someone tells you about them effectively DISCOURAGING exploration. Found a cleverly hidden box in this ruin surrounded by deadly anomalies? Tough luck Chuck, come back when someone tells you about it and when finding it will be no challenge at all to collect your reward! Yep, CoP fixes that again, you can pick any stash you like at any time, which makes it actually worth it to keep an eye out and look around.
8. More like h8 amirite
All that sounds pretty damning, but really represents only half of SoC's problems because many of them don't work individually but create synergy with each other and double the trouble. Some of the synergies have already been mentioned(weak guns require a lot of ammo, which weights a lot, which limits normally generous inventory space for example), some didn't(now that your inventory limit is blocked by ton of ammo and spare weapons/armor, combine that with only two shops in the game), but they all make the game even worse than it already is. And it already is pretty bad, I'd give SoC 5/10(not counting bugs), which considering it's ambition, size, semi-believable world, atmosphere - when it works - and amazing setting really is a horrible score.
It should also be noted that many of these shitty "features" have been fixed in fan patches. That is true, and Complete mod alone is enough to make the game 8/10. But a game's quality cannot be judged by third-party mods; otherwise the devs might as well put nothing but C++ in the box with a note "MAKE THE GAME YOURSELF, ASSHOLE".