Like its predecessors, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is all about stretches of chilling stillness and thick dread, punctuated by the tense thrills of menacing mutants and the rush of discovery. If you've played either of the first two games of the series, you know that The Zone is a harsh mistress, and exploring it requires patience, thoughtful planning, and plenty of ammo. But it's also erupting with rewards as long as you know where to look. This shooter/role-playing hybrid oozes ambience by the bucketful, whether you're traversing marshes or skulking through dark crevasses, and the dread that accumulates makes encounters with all sorts of grotesque freaks feel all the more suspenseful. These compelling moments don't inspire every aspect of the game, however. The story does little to draw you in until the final hours, and the visuals are showing their age despite some welcome improvements to the graphics engine. But Call of Pripyat is an excellent return to form after the uncomfortably buggy, awkwardly paced Clear Sky. Prepare, once again, to face impossible odds as you trudge your way across one of the planet's most dangerous expanses.
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