Crysis Single-Player Hands-On

"Crysis is the most advanced game ever built," declared an NVidia representative at a recent Electronic Arts-hosted event showcasing Crytek's impressive followup to Far Cry. Held aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in Alameda Point, California, the event allowed invited press to play through a level of the single-player game as well as spend some time with its two multiplayer modes. We have already spent some time with Crysis' "Power Struggle" multiplayer mode via the in-progress multiplayer beta, leaving the bulk of that day's impressions to center on what is undoubtedly the focal point of Crysis, its single-player campaign.

So does Crysis live up to the title of most advanced game ever built? It's a weighty claim--and in terms of the game's technical graphical accomplishments, presumably the area of merit for a video card manufacturer, one that is tough to contest. Generally, the indiscriminate pursuit of realism in video games is a trend to which I am at best essentially neutral. With Crysis, however, many of Crytek's considerable attempts at recreating reality--at least as much as is reasonably possible within the admittedly limiting scope of a first-person shooter about a nanosuit-enhanced super-soldier--feel not indiscriminate but instead concerted attempts to work alongside the game's overall design aesthetic and, in a few cases, dispense with some nearly ubiquitous video game abstractions.

She Was Cold as Ice...Paradise
I played through a level entitled "Assault," a conspicuously Far Cry-esque jungle mission tasking my nanosuit-armored protagonist with destroying three anti-aircraft artillery tanks. While Crytek has shown plenty of evidence that Crysis breaks away from its predecessor's iconically tropical locales (check out our brief hands-on with the level "Ice"), most of the substantial preview time has been dedicated to the wide-open island environments for which the studio is known. According to Crytek co-founder and president Cevat Yerli, who was present at last week's event, the alien spacecraft integral to the game's plot will have a growing effect on environments as the plot progresses, resulting in the cryogenic wastelands seen in much of Crysis' media.

Last week, though, it was North Koreans in jungles. The game starts out with an in-engine, first-person sequence in an airborne transport, as a fellow soldier wielding a nanosuit and a gruff British accent trades banter with one of the less-exorbitantly equipped conscripts sitting by your character. The level of detail in the characters is truly ridiculous, and fortunately their visual style, dialogue, and voice acting remain convincing throughout, never approaching the supremely dumb level of B-movie cheesiness that permeated Far Cry.

Upon landing, Far Cry's heritage--the good parts--become much more evident. The three main objectives are simply scattered across the map, with the route to reach them all up to you, be it by foot, by jeep, by boat, or some combination. This is one of those games that, provided a powerful enough machine, makes you constantly check at first that, yes, you are the one who is actually controlling this in real time and, yes, the things on the screen are actually happening because of the way you are moving the mouse around. Even as a Far Cry aficionado, I had to continually remind myself that it was possible to stray far off the beaten path for any amount of enemy flanking of conflict avoidance. For the most part, video games are not this uncompromising in both the level of top-notch visual fidelity and the level of broad geographical freedom; more of one tends to come with less of the other.

Suffice it to say, it all looks absolutely gorgeous. With a delicious color palette and plenty of contrast, a day/night cycle so subtle and effective I hardly even noticed it was happening at all until significant time had passed, and a lack of overreliance on many of the "next-gen" graphical tricks that developers often hammer on in realistic games simply because they can, Crysis avoids falling into the trap of being muddily realistic at the expense of having a style.

Rebuilding the Fourth Wall
Along with its notable stabs at graphical realism come some interesting facets of gameplay. For one thing, simply as a result of the game's high level of detail and subtlety of texture work, enemy camouflage in many cases works as intended--at one point, a North Korean in combat fatigues was standing several feet in front of me (I could see him on my radar!). While he couldn't see me because of my advanced nanosuit cloak, I couldn't see him simply because he blended so well into the foliage. Firing my shotgun blind straight ahead resulted in a cry of, "Argghh!" and a slumping corpse.

One of Crysis' more uncommon design goals is apparently to try and graphically represent, as best as currently possible, what the player character's hands are actually doing at any given time. If you pick up an object to throw, you will see your character's hands grab it and hold it, then throw it naturally. If you climb a ladder, your hands will actually climb each rung, one by one, grabbing each rung at the correct height. Most crucially, if you pick up ammunition or weapons, you actually reach down and pluck them off the ground. This kind of blatant disregard of a core FPS abstraction in place since at least Wolfenstein 3D has been done by a couple of other games before but feels particularly at home in Crysis.

Building a Better Suit
Contrary to what Crysis' marketing videos might have you believe, your power-granting nanosuit does not turn you into an unstoppable killing machine. Crysis, like Far Cry (though hopefully not too much like Far Cry) is a difficult game. Using your nanosuit well is what will help you stay alive, not something that will allow you to trample over foes easily.

To some extent, Far Cry pushed the notion of allowing players to set their own paths in achieving certain objectives, and Crysis' nanosuit is actually an extension of that philosophy. Crysis attempts to refine and expand on that formula, and the suit, with its one-power-at-a-time functionality, allows the player to essentially amplify a particular angle at any given time.

If you're taking the stealth route and infiltrating a camp of enemies, turn on your cloaking. If you're rushing in to grab a lone enemy by his neck and drag him away, activate enhanced speed. If you want to act as a sniper from a convenient vantage point, boost your strength to jump up to tall rooftops and steady your zoomed-in aim. On top of that, your angle is further facilitated by being able to change your weapon attachments on the fly, with multiple types of scopes and equipment such as undermounted grenade launchers.

You can even use the suit to help deal with the game's approach to picking up weapons ammo--if you need some bullets, it can be dangerous to run out into an open street and have to individually grab the useful loot strewn around on the ground, whereas in most games you could simply run straight over it and be replenished. Here you can run out with super speed, toggle on your enhanced armor, and dash out again, avoiding staying in the line of fire too long and getting some extra protection while you're there.

She Blinded Me with Science
In addition to its sense of visual realism, Crysis attempts to push useful in-game physics as well. Just as the manual pickup mechanic ties into the game's power system, so do its physics interactions. Though it cannot be described as any kind of fully destructible world, Crysis does make a concerted effort to allow your strength-augmented fists to punch through roofs and walls, and provide plenty of splintering wood and shattering glass. Foliage will also splinter and shred when perforated by bullet fire, and you can even pick up the realistically-broken branches.

Because Crysis is a video game, there is still plenty of asshole physics--objects tend to have that bizarre floaty quality that seems only loosely based on actual physics. And it is, oddly, apparently possible to do more damage to a soldier by hitting him with a box so flimsy that it utterly shatters on impact than you might do with a direct hit from a high-powered rifle--this concession to Video Game Reality is likely a deliberate design choice intended to encourage the player to experiment with as many world interactions as possible, rather than an oversight by the physics team.

All that said, it is quite fun to beat down the sheet metal wall of a ramshackle command structure, taking its inhabitants by surprise, or ripping away a roof to throw a grenade down into a hut--and grabbing guys by their necks and beating them senseless always makes for good times. Plus, with enhanced strength enabled, you can throw tanks around!

It's Like a Tiny God
Much of this, at least on the visual side, is contingent on owning what must border on military-grade computing hardware in order to get the full experience offered by Crysis. For the first time in my various extended hands-on experiences with the game, everything was both visually jawdropping and running at a silky smooth framerate. I'm not sure what the systems on hand were running, but judging by their massive, imposing appearance and unholy processing capability, they were surely powered by some kind of tenuously contained nuclear fission reactors.

Hopefully, the game is scalable to some extent, but Crytek has made no bones about the game's intention to ride not only the cutting edge of PC hardware, but probably some more enthusiastic stabbing and bludgeoning edges as well. This is a game that should be played on beefy machines for the full experience--but, with what appears to be careful integration of visual ambitions with overall design themes, that is a goal that seems to be unusually justified.

Still, hope remains for those with less monstrous PCs. Back in January, Far Cry and Crysis lead designer Jack Mamais told us that Crysis would be "even more [scalable]" than it predecessor, though surely that comment is relative to the years in which each game is released. "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," he said. "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."