Haven’t I been here before?

Atmosphere with a capital ATI love the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games.  Ever since I first stepped in to the Zone in Call of Pripyat I’ve become totally enthralled by the atmosphere, exploration and harsh environment of these spectacular open-world games.  Having completed Pripyat (twice) and then enjoying the original Shadow of Chernobyl just as much,  I’ve been playing through the slightly less well received STALKER:Clear Sky over the last week or two to complete the trilogy (albeit, in completely the wrong order).  Clear Sky blurs the line between add-on (or DLC, if you must) and full game by having the vast majority of the game take place in the exact same locations as Shadow of Chernobyl, and that got me thinking: Does revisiting an old location from a new angle add something to the game and the world it’s created?  Or is it just a player-jarring cost saving measure by a developer keen to milk every penny from an expensively created environment?  I’d love to know your thoughts on this too, but here’s what I’m thinking:

In Clear Sky it works.  It really shouldn’t but I think GSC got it right here.  One of the great features of STALKER, and any open-world game, is the feeling of exploration as you venture to new parts of the map.  Seeing a grey blob on the satellite image map and carefully heading there through the hostile landscape not knowing whether you’re going to find a giant radioactive lake infested with monsters, or an exploded government bunker (…also infested with monsters) is one of the best thrills STALKER has to offer.  To know that was going to be removed in Clear Sky where 90% of the locations were already familiar from a playthrough of Shadow of Chernobyl  had me prepared for a big disappointment.  What I hadn’t prepared for, though, was how GSC were going to change the character landscape that rests on the physical one.

Hmm, is it Deja Vu....For those that haven’t played it, Clear Sky’s main unique selling point was the ‘faction wars system’ in which different NPC factions fighting for control of the zone could help or hinder your progress depending on your allegiance (or hostility) to each of them.  Ultimately the system was widely derided for game-ifying otherwise simulation-based gameplay, and for frankly being a pain in the arse, but this shift in focus to the human conflict within the zone meant that, where before all but the most secure strongholds were devoid of human beings (of the unmutated and non-zombified variety, anyway) and crawling with terrifying monsters, in Clear Sky areas you expect to be a struggle are a guided by armed-guard walk in the park, and areas you once strolled through are now an inch by inch gun-battle through the territory of a faction you had the misfortune of pissing off.

I guess what I’m trying to say is Clear Sky doesn’t feel like a rerun of the same environment because you still don’t know what to expect as you retrace “the marked one’s” steps through the zone.  The meaning of exploration is in finding out what lies over there and as soon as you realise it’s not going to be what you found in Shadow of Chernobyl that feeling of exploration returns.  Add to that the dynamic weather and passage of time, the atmosphere of a place can be completely different the second time through.  Like when an abandoned industrial site that was once the location of a fear-filled artifact hunt in the dead of night with only a torch and lightning flashes to light the way becomes a pleasant meeting with the head of a friendly faction, complete with reggae music echoing through the concrete halls and shafts of sunshine beaming in through the windows.

Stupid Map. THANKS SHOWING ALL THE BADDIES AND RUINING ALL THE TENSION!I’ve enjoyed Clear Sky, not as much as the other STALKERs, but it’s still a good game.  What it lacks is not a new environment but that feeling of being let loose in a barren, hostile world.  It’s too careful to highlight what you should and shouldn’t do via the enemy markers on the map and the faction standing meters on your PDA.  It feels too much like a game and not an experience.  What I’ve really liked about it, though, is that feeling of following in the footsteps of someone great, heading towards something cataclysmic.  Another layer of tension is added by your knowledge of the previous game, both in the locational sense and the story.  It’s something I’d like to see more of in games, especially games where you can pick and choose your actions.  I’d love to follow in the footsteps of my Fallout 3 or Witcher 2 character in the eyes of, say, an assassin or a detective tasked with capturing the person you once played.  To see the trail of destruction your original character left, which at the time seemed necessary, but through the eyes of your pursuer seems wanton, and to form new opinions of your own actions would be a really interesting mechanic to explore.  It’s not something I’m aware has been done yet, perhaps I’m wrong?

...I could swear I've been here beforeOther series’ have reused locations, especially with DLC.  Rockstar’s return to Liberty City in the Grand Theft Auto IV DLCs The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony works well because the city was only ever a canvas for the story to be painted on.  Again a slight shift in gameplay focus, from cars to bikes to helicopters, matches the shift in narrative focus so you get to experience Liberty City from a new perspective both literally and narratively.

The wonderful Opposing Force add-on for Half-Life let you see Black Mesa through the eyes of an infiltrating Marine, rather than an escaping scientist .  Gearbox created mostly new environments within the Black Mesa facility for the add-on to take place in, but the occasions when you saw a familiar locale, or crossed paths with Gordon Freeman added an overarching feeling of being part of something greater.

I guess that’s perhaps the issue with reusing locations:  If it’s a sprawling open-world like the Zone or Liberty city, there’s scope to force players to revisit with a new story or gameplay mechanics attached and it still feel new.  Something more linear like Half-Life and Bioshock are always going to struggle to create a ‘new’ feeling when you’re venturing down the same corridors to the same areas, which is why their add-ons and sequels have always demanded new locations to be built, even though players want to return to Black Mesa and Rapture.

At a time when procedurally generated 3D worlds are a possibility, like the infinitely constructing Minecraft world, what locations would you like to revisit?  Or is it best to tell each gaming story in a new location?  Let me know your thoughts or if I’ve missed any good examples of revisited locations.

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