Crytek's Jack Mamais on Crysis

Far Cry, the ambitiously nonlinear tropical shooter released in 2004, was an uncommonly strong debut effort for German outfit Crytek. In stark contrast to most popular shooters at the time, Far Cry--particularly during its technically impressive wide open island coast segments--eschewed the heavily scripted, narrative-driven gameplay mentality largely championed by World War II-based games striving for cinematic immersion. Far Cry often put players in enormous, lush sandboxes, faced with a number of enemies and no predetermined method to take them out or avoid them. Partially as a result of this structure, and partially because of some heavily stacked situations, the game gained a reputation for being at times unforgivingly difficult. As for the sparse and barely-explained story, it had something to do with genetic mutation experiments, a b-movie Dr. Moreau kind of thing. That didn't much matter; the game's appeal was its open design approach, framed by extremely cutting-edge visuals. Far Cry's approach hasn't been much duplicated since its release, but fortunately for those who enjoyed the unique if flawed shooter, Crytek is back with Crysis, which the company claims will take Far Cry's inventive properties and ratchet them up another order of magnitude. During last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to meet with Crytek's Jack Mamais, lead designer on both Far Cry and Crysis. Mamais, whose prior credits include production, design, and QA on several MechWarrior titles as well as cult classic Interstate '76, spoke on Crytek's design philosophies and goals with Crysis.

Like its predecessor, Crysis takes place on a sprawling tropical island. As Crysis is not a sequel to Far Cry, I was curious as to the thinking behind this decision. Mamais was insistent that despite the similar locales, Crysis will not be a retread. "It is set on a tropical island, so you're not going to get away from that," he admitted, "[but] every mission basically has a different feel to it." He went on to describe the game's initial scenario to illustrate his point. "You start the game at night, something you haven't seen yet in the game," he said. "So there you drop in, and when it hits dawn you have thirty days. [Update: Further statements indicate that Crytek is still unsure about the in-game length; it is probably unlikely to reach 30 days.] It'll get darker as you get into the game. So in the first few missions, you might see some real nice beaches, and we've got a lot of locations. There's a lot of diversity in the missions." Some of the locations mentioned include a quarry, a harbor, mines, swamps, river area, and, as seen in a trailer from last year, the inside of an alien ship.

But what's the fascination with tropical islands? "It just so happens that we like tropical islands," he replied. "They're fun to build, they're pretty." Again, however, Crytek is striving to differentiate the game from Far Cry. It has a day/night cycle, uncommon in first person shooters. "The only thing really similar to Far Cry is that they're both set in a tropical area," noted Mamais, adding, "If you want to be semantic, Far Cry is set in Micronesia, and this is set in the South China Sea." The more you know!

These environments are rendered at what can genuinely be called a mind-boggling level of visual fidelity. Crysis may very well be one of the most--if not the single most--technically impressive fully playable game from a graphical perspective that we have yet seen. Running on a beefy DirectX 10-capable NVIDIA 8800, the game was never short of gorgeous. There were moments when, for a split second, my brain suggested that I may in fact be watching some kind of on-location modern combat documentary. Effective graphical touches include actually animating the player character picking up weapons or items, which can then be thrown to deal damage proportional to their weight and size. The game's subtle and well-implemented motion blur just pushes everything over the top. It is hardly worth describing in detail what can be demonstrated many times better in the screenshots and videos linked in the sidebar. Of course, even on the highly capable machines installed in Microsoft's Games for Windows booth, Crysis demanded a lot. The game looked to be running at a fluctuating framerate in the 20-30fps range--which, to the game's credit, was noticeably better than it was running when I last checked out the game in May 2006 at which time it frequently bordered on unplayable. It is also worth pointing out that a lack of foresight in booth design had led to all the display machines being cooped up in drawers barely bigger than the PC cases themselves, without sufficient airflow, which led to constant performance issues and crashes across many of the games on display. Plus, you may be interested to know it was being presented in a ridiculous resolution of 2048x1536.

Like many readers surely are, I was somewhat skeptical as to how scalable Crysis will be for those without top-end rigs. "Even more so [than Far Cry]," assured Mamais. "A three year old graphics card should be pretty good. You'll have to turn things down--shadows, particles--but people who get the big machines want to have everything so we're going to be really jamming on those big machines. But for the guys who don't have that kind of budget, they'll still have a really good experience and have fun. It won't be cutting edge with the graphics but it'll be super good. The gameplay is everything." Still, long time PC gamers are likely to be well familiar with the fudging that tends to go on with the minimum spec requirements printed on the side of the box. It remains to be seen how far down Crysis will scale, but it's probably safe to say that many gamers are going to be looking at an upgrade if they want to get the most out of the title when it launches some time this year.

Turn the page for more on Crysis' gameplay.

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In addition to looking nice, Crytek's vast outdoor environments seem to be a fitting place for its brand of unguided gameplay. Mamais spoke regarding Crytek's thoughts on nonlinearity, as well as how to balance the concept with story. With Far Cry having frequently heavily criticized for its campy plot, Mamais claimed that the company has put new effort into that particular area. Crysis tells the near-future story of American agent Jake Dunn, who ends up facing off against North Korean forces, as both nations converge on one of the Spratly Island to investigate--and, presumably, lay claim to--what appears to be an alien UFO. Like Far Cry, it doesn't quite come off as high art, but Mamais stated that players will be much happier with the narrative this time around. "We've worked really, really hard to make a good story," he said. "We've hired writers, we have a couple of Hollywood guys working on the story with us now doing good stuff. We've rewritten the story two or three times before we've gotten it right. We have good characters, we have good narration."

Of course, that can't come at the expense of open-endedness. "We hate linear stuff," he reiterated. "We might have some parts where you hit a certain point and do something for narrative purposes, but if you liked the nonlinearity of Far Cry, this goes way farther." Some of this is due to the various character abilities granted by Dunn's advanced nano-suit. "By adding the suit adjustments in there, you have way more options for nonlinearity. In Far Cry you just had Jack Carver in a Hawaiian shirt, but here you've got the nano-suit--you can cloak yourself, or you can go with armor [enhancement] and be Rambo, or you can [enhance] speed to put yourself in tactical situations. I don't like linear gameplay, I think it's bad. It's not fun. You might as well watch a movie. Interactive means interactive. We like it to be player-controlled. We give you waypoints, but you don't have to go the obvious way--you can steal a helicopter and do what you need to do. We always build multiple paths in every scenario."

At the beginning the game, the player already has access to all of the suit's abilities, and keeps them throughout the game. They never "level up" or develop--they are tools to facilitate gameplay style, not character growth. Only one can be activated at any given time, meaning players must weigh their options in each situation. Other enhancements include strength, which gives players the ability to jump great distances and even punch through structurally unsound walls to ambush enemies indoors, and the chameleon-like active camouflage, which actually physically adjusts the color of various parts of the player's armor to match the surrounding surfaces. Crytek hopes people will be creative with their sequential combinations of the various abilities. "For instance, if I run really far with speed then jump over a hill, I can turn on armor so I can land [without taking damage]," he described. There are also a variety of weapon upgrades, such as silencers and scopes, as well as different types of ammunition.

Adding to the player's options are the wider range of vehicles--jeeps, tanks, helicopters, several types of boats, and so on--which are more organically integrated into the environments this time around rather than periodically appearing as gifts for the player. "They're throughout the game," said Mamais. "Enemies use them all the time so they're always available, but sometimes you might have to steal one--they don't hand it to you, they're part of the world. You can use them as much or as little as you want."

As noted previously, one frequent frustration that many players expressed about Far Cry was its intense difficulty. I recounted an anecdote from E3 2006, during which I was speaking to a Far Cry developer who admitted that he himself was unable to finish his studio's own game due to its level of challenge. "That wasn't me," laughed Mamais, and spoke on why that occurred and how the company plans to rectify that in Crysis. "What we found in Far Cry is that at times we encouraged the user to take a stealth approach, which made the action tough, but they will try to play it like other linear FPSes. Of course it's going to be different. In other games, it's different because you do it one time then you know Bozo 1 is coming through here and Bozo 2 is coming through there," he explained. "Here, we have a difficulty setting that's much easier, so we are addressing that. We're also putting quick save in. Those two things will make it easier for people who want that. But we were aiming for a certain type of experience, basically, that we wanted a fully immersive twist on an FPS. So that's what Far Cry was. We're a relatively young company--I've been in the business for fifteen years--but most of the company was younger and learning." Chuckling, he added, "So we made a few mistakes, but they've been rectified now."

Turn the page for information on Crysis' multiplayer and mod support, as well as Mamais' closing thoughts.

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Far Cry's multiplayer scene never quite reached critical mass, so Crytek is putting more time developing an unusual mode that its developers hope will attract more players to the game's online component. Entitled Power Struggle, the game type features strategic layers, pitting an attacking side and a defending side against one another, operating out of bases that can apparently be drastically different from one another. "You might have a submarine down in the water, and a base on land on the other side," said Mamais. "The submarine can generate rigid inflatable boats, it has a little factory for those. The factory might be a war factory, which produces different types of tanks, anti-aircraft guns, stuff like that. There are several types of tanks: light tanks, heavy tanks, gauss tanks, and a tank that shoots alien weapons."

That alien tank is what gives Power Struggle its context in the single-player campaign. Crysis' multiplayer is actually an epilogue to the core game, taking place in a situation where human factions have discovered the alien technology and are seeking to control it for their own ends. "What you have to do to get the alien technology is get to the alien ship on the map, [obtaining] an alien capacitor and drawing on the alien power to allow your factory to generate alien weapons." Eventually, one side will obtain a tactical tank, capable of launching a nuclear weapon. At this point, the existence of the tank will be announced to all participants, and its owner must maneuver the slow-moving vehicle into a position from which it can take out the opposing base.

The currency of Power Struggle is Prestige, awarded for a variety of actions benefiting one's team. Mamais explained: "Everything you do gives you prestige points. If you shoot a guy you get prestige points, if you repair a vehicle you get prestige points, if you take your binoculars and scout out guys you get prestige points. Those points are spendable. You can buy weapons, you can buy ammo, you can buy airplanes, and obviously the game ramps all the way up." Eventually, of course, these are used to acquire the tactical tank.

Other than Power Struggle, Crysis seems to include only two other multiplayer modes, deathmatch and team deathmatch. Perhaps surprisingly, the studio hopes that modders will step up to the plate and deliver other favorites such as Capture the Flag. "We really wanted to concentrate on perfecting the unique mode," Mamais explained.

With Far Cry, Crytek made a point to become involved with its mod community, and according to Mamais the company plans to step up its support significantly with Crysis. "We did crymod.com, which is not publisher-supported. We run it in house," he pointed out. "We help people with models, we talk to people on the phone, we bring mod guys in. We love all those guys, and we've had some great mods for Far Cry. There are thousands of maps out there, even hundreds of single-player maps. Some guy just released a whole new episode that takes place after Far Cry. With [Crysis] we're going to get more aggressive. The tool is easier to use, it's more powerful, we've added a graphical scripting system called a flowgraph so that people can really visually say, 'I want you to go this and do this and go here.'" Mamais was quick to note that two mod teams have already assembled in preparation for the game's release. "We know [that attitude] helped Far Cry live, and our multiplayer this time is much better so it should draw in more people as well," he said.

As a final note, Mamais confessed that he and his team take issue with those who see Far Cry and now Crysis as tech demos rather than gameplay-driven experiences. "It kills us when people call it a tech demo. This started off as a game design document, then we built the engine to accommodate the game design. It makes me frustrated," he said frankly. "I mean, I'm the lead designer of Far Cry."

He went on to comment on Crytek's overall goals behind its now-signature gameplay style and the inevitable pitfalls that come with realizing it. "We were really trying to push for an evolution with Far Cry--but if you want to make an omelette you might have to break a few eggs. We hope we've helped evolve the genre with Far Cry, and we want this to do it even more. Otherwise everything just gets watered down, for goodness' sake," said Mamais. "When Deus Ex came out, they showed the way, but nobody listened!"

Laughing, he added, "We listened, though, and hopefully now people will listen to us."

Electronic Arts plans to ship Crytek's Crysis later in 2007.