Crysis Review

Today, Frankfurt, Germany-based developer Crytek releases its second game, Crysis. Former publisher Ubisoft owns the rights to the company's debut effort Far Cry, and has developed several console title derivatives with a numbered PC sequel on the way, so Crytek started over with a new property, a new publisher (Electronic Arts), and a new policy of owning its own creations.

Not everything is entirely new. Crytek hasn't strayed too far from the impressive-but-imperfect design of Far Cry. Crysis is a large-scale, mainly jungle-set shooter with a relatively linear progression on primary and secondary objectives but an incredibly open attitude towards gameplay. It is not a revolutionary game in the face of Far Cry; the two games are clearly of the same stock. But neither is Crysis a rehash in the vein of most of the neverending string of World War II shooters.

"Maximum Game"
Crytek has adopted the company slogan "Maximum Game" for the promotion of Crysis--it's a great marketing line, perhaps a bit grandiose but fitting. It also handily sums up Crysis' relationship to its predecessor. Crysis is the "maximum game" take on Far Cry; the version that largely sticks to the same formula but tangibly improves upon it in every way; the younger brother that handily outshines his otherwise-talented sibling across the board.

The ambitious open-ended Far Cry formula is one that is rarely attempted at all in the pure shooter genre, so PC gamers probably wouldn't have complained too much if Crytek had simply made another Far Cry and given it the pristine coat of paint that we know Crysis to have. Instead, Crysis is evidence of a studio whose work ethic and drive towards perfection is paralleled by few in the industry. Every aspect is an order of magnitude or more over its predecessor: the grandiosity, the variety of environments, the storytelling, the customization of play style, the multiplayer offerings, and, of course, the visuals.

The biggest new fundamental gameplay element of Crysis is its protagonist's nanosuit, which gives the player the ability to boost strength, speed, or armor, or activate an invisibility cloak. You can only have one of these active at any given time, and each one uses up rechargeable energy in order to prevent overuse. Basically, what the suit does is amplify your gameplay choices--if you're a stealth-oriented player, you'll be cloaking a lot. If you're a sniper, you'll be using strength to leap onto high vantage points and steady your hands while aiming. If you want to take a more straightforward approach, armor is your all-around helpful attribute.

Then there's the weapon modification system, which allows you to outfit your guns on the fly with different types of ammo, scopes, attachments such as grenade launchers, and more. It all just works towards providing an extension of your own style of play.

Tell Me a Story, I Guess
Those who played Far Cry will know that to say the game's story-related elements have improved is such faint praise as to be essentially meaningless, but Crysis' plot and dialogue really are fine by shooter standards. Crysis is influenced by the Half-Life narrative method, never breaking from the protagonist's perspective except in the optional third-person vehicle control. Although it does feature some lengthy non-interactive first-person cutscenes (they're skippable if you want!), the overall product is done well and remains immersive.

The plot itself involes a military operation on a small North Korea-occupied island, where an apparently groundbreaking scientific discovery has been unearthed. Aliens get involved too, blah blah blah, who cares? You shoot stuff.

The Power is in Your Hands
No, it's still not about the story. And it's really not all about the graphics either. Really. Crysis is about the gameplay. It's about being put in the middle of a dense jungle, being given an objective, and being told, "Get there however you want."

You have to be willing to actually do that, though. You can play Crysis as a bullet-ridden version of connect-the-dots, in which case it will feel like a fairly average shooter. If you find yourself in this mentality, just take a step back, look at your island map, and remind yourself that you don't need to pick the straight line between points A and B. It's not always the fastest or easiest, and it's certainly not always the most fun.

In most games, if the guy telling you stuff in your ear (you may previously know this guy from approximately half of all story-driven non-WWII shooters ever made) says something like, "I recommend taking a vehicle and sticking to the road," it really means, "This game will only allow you to take a vehicle and stick to the road, unless you lose or destroy the vehicle, in which case you will be walking along the road." In Crysis, it means just what it says--it's a recommendation, and nothing more. Upon receipt of that particular directive, I completely ignored my overseer and took a shortcut through a swamp.

Due to our fairly extensive pre-release coverage in the months--even years--leading up to Crysis' release, I had played through certain parts of the game several times by the time I finished my review, even without taking into account the occasions when I replayed sections of the final build.

At one point, I chose to enter a highly-fortified encampment from what I knew was the road I would later drive down upon leaving the base. It was quite out of the way, and required both swimming and foot-slogging. As I approached, I ran into a small squad of North Koreans traveling on the road in the opposite direction, aboard a large armed transport. I quickly picked off the gunner, then tossed a grenade underneath, which just barely toppled the vehicle and sent it tumbling over a cliff as I dealt with the soldiers who had leapt out at the last minute.

I don't know if that encounter was scripted, or a genuine result of AI enemies going about their business, but I don't really care. There is such a plethora of possible permuations, and the environments so open, that you are certain to get a divergent set of experiences if you actually attack your objectives in different ways.

The next time through, I traveled the same route, but cloaked myself as the truck passed me and eventually drove out of sight. I infiltrated the base stealthily, rationing my cloak energy and taking out my foes with silenced tranquilizer darts. I eventually snuck up into a watchtower while cloaked, quietly strangled the stationed guard, and stole his sniper rifle. Then I went to town.

It may not be particularly efficient or expedient to carefully eradicate a large open communications base swarming with enemy soldiers, without ever allowing them to figure out just where you are at any given moment, but it is nothing if not deeply satisfying.

That works both ways. Once, I was holed up in a small wooden HQ building, sitting in the window and alternating picking off enemies--scanning while cloacked, squeezing off a headshot, then ducking out of sight while my shield recharged, feeling very pleased with my stealthy self. I swear to you, when an enemy grenade rolled up and blew away half the building, leaving me exposed to a group of now very pissed off North Koreans, I nearly shit my pants out of sheer surprise and shock.

The extensive destructibility and world physics have attractive aesthetic elements as well. I love throwing grenades into densely wooded areas, not just because they are great for dispersing and panicking enemy troops but because of the natural way they cause nearby trees to sway back from the force of the explosion.

Crysis' open-ended nature unfortunately means its checkpoint-based auto-save system will very often let you down, because the route you choose to get to your objective may be considerably more involved than simply drawing a straight line between point A and point B, which means you might go a very long while without the game saving for you. This leads to an unfortunate reliance on quicksaving, something that a bit outdated in this day and age. Undoubtedly it is not a straightforward design issue given Crysis' huge amount of geographical freedom, but it does seem like a more versatile solution could have been reached.

If, like I do, you tend towards a careful, tactical style of play with a payoff that comes after meticulously managing a delicate situation, this can be tragically heartbreaking. Beware--save early and often.

Turn the page for more on Crysis' single-player campaign.

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The Very Attractive Elephant in the Room
I have deliberately avoided using the bulk of my words in this review on Crysis' graphics, because Crysis would be a great game even if it didn't look so damned good. It cannot be denied, however, that many are most attracted by its visuals, and this is little surprise. So here: Crysis looks really, really good--if your rig can handle it.

There will be times when you cannot help but marvel in awe at the unbridled grandiosity of the epic environments being rendered on your screen. The inspiring feeling that comes with cresting a hill in a game and being presented with a vast, gorgeous landscape is not unique to Crysis, but seldom has it been done with such a superbly--and subtly--tuned sense of natural beauty.

You don't really need me to tell you this. You can view any number of screenshots and videos and rest assured that, yes, Crysis can theoretically look like that on the proper hardware. I played the game on a PC with a Core 2 Duo 2.4GHz dual core CPU, an nVidia GeForce 8800GT video card, and 2GB of RAM. The game recommended maximum settings across the board, with a resolution of 1024x768; I was able to bump the resolution up and keep the game at acceptable framerates by turning down the demanding post-processing graphical option and the anti-aliasing.

It really is hard to overstate how impressive Crysis looks. So many facets of reality are well-modeled. It goes beyond the jungle, too. Though everything takes place on the main island, later levels delve into bizarre architecture and spaces that share absolutely nothing in common with anything like what was seen in Far Cry. Some of these sequences are among the most visually surprising in the game.

Fair Warning
Of course, the downside of Crysis' intense dedication to intricate realism is that the game is not very artistically scalable. It really demands a fairly high-powered PC to coax the full, proper Crysis experience from its processor-pushing code.

Some games have a highly defined, self-sufficient artistic direction that is partially, if not heavily, independent of the game's technical demands--titles like Team Fortress 2, BioShock, and even the Half-Life 2 line come to mind on the PC side.

Crysis is not one of those games. Its artistic merits are intrinsically tied to its technical ones. This is not an inherent flaw; it is an unfortunate necessary byproduct of trying to push the envelope of realism so far, but it does have the effect of delivering to some users on the low end a stripped-down experience that doesn't represent the core of what the game's visuals has to offer.

So it's a good thing Crysis isn't just a tech demo, as many snarky internet armchair pundits have cynically declared prior to the game's release. It's also a good thing the affordable 8800GT just came out.

Still, the steep requirements hurt. Running the game on lower settings does have more of a negative effect on Crysis' immersion than it would for most games, because it's easier to tell what you're missing, and the game is intended to supply so much detail that there are a lot of jaggies and off-looking areas when it's turned down. Some later levels become even more demanding, which led me to have to turn my settings down at cetain parts. (For the record, I also found that after playing the game for several consecutive hours, I would start losing performance anyway; restarting the game generally remedied this.)

Art Imitates Art
Crysis starts out a little like the movie Predator--in the midst of an armed conflict, you move warily through a dense jungle, continually finding your squadmates gruesomely eviscerated by some unknown, likely non-human, force. In a bit of what is probably unintentional parallelism, you can completely turn the dynamic of the game around and become the Predator itself.

Juggling the cloak, the silencer, a high-powered rifle and scope, enhanced strength to steady your aim, grenades for sowing confusion, enhanced speed to stay on the move, and dense undergrowth for cover when not cloaked, you can silently and satisfyingly take out one enemy at a time, leaving fellow enemies to discover their comrades' bodies but unable to locate the killer.

You can't play through the whole game as an invisible, invincible sniper, however. Crysis features a range of gameplay that is much broader than what we saw in Far Cry, with some sections that are much more linear and consistently intense. There is even some inspiration taken from the WWII genre; one mission drops you directly into the middle of a nighttime warzone, with massive shells exploding left and right, aircraft being blown out of the sky, and enemies everywhere. It's a more directed experience than much of what had come before it, but still within the context of Crysis' open-ended framework, which is impressive.

Much like Far Cry, there is a point at which the game largely shifts. In Far Cry, it came when the mutant Trigen took center stage; in Crysis, it's aliens. Along with that shift in enemies comes a shift in gameplay. Past that breaking point, there is a good deal less of the open-ended, large-scale gameplay that defines the first two-thirds of the game or so.

First things first: it's a lot better this time around. For one thing, the environments actually change thematically in an interesting way as that happens, and in some cases the gameplay veers off into completely unusual avenues (a zero-gravity segment is one of the most unusual bits of gameplay, and one of the most visually well-conceived). It doesn't feel like the rude shock that I, and many other gamers, had when Far Cry pulled the same stunt.

The Other Caveat
That's not to say it's all brilliant. Crysis is undoubtedly at its best when Crytek is doing what it does best: large, open environments. The more directed, most plot-driven, closer-quarters sections later in the game are well-produced and for the most part very entertaining, but not nearly as impressive or robust in gameplay terms as the earlier parts.

I imagine it would be difficult to really ratched up the pacing and narrative as the end of the game approaches while sticking to a somewhat nonlinear gameplay, but that doesn't change the fact that those bits just don't feel as thrilling in the end.

I also rarely enjoyed extended vehicle sections. Using a jeep or speedboat to speed up a journey from one point to another as part of your own self-planned route is fine and dandy, but levels in which vehicles are the centerpiece, or in one case are absolutely mandatory, were considerably more frustrating than fun for me. The goal was clearly to mix things up, but the controls and overall tightness need some work.

So That Bit's Over With
In the end, despite a few frustrating levels, Crysis is an amazing experience. Far Cry was one of my favorite shooters in recent memory, but it seems now more like a rough draft in preparation for Crysis.

Those who play through a game once and are done with it forever will find a shooter that is likely to somewhat adapt itself to whatever style they naturally gravitate towards--after all, it still plays just fine as a standard shooter.

Gamers who love replayability will find they are able to play through many of the game's missions over and over and over again, trying entirely new styles of play. The world physics, the ability-enhancing suit, the gun modifications, the destructible environments, the wide-open environments, and everything else combine to provide an impressive gameplay canvas that can be painted over again and again.

A closing tip: save your missiles for the helicopters, and you will be saved a whole lot of grief.

Turn the page for notes on Crysis' multiplayer mode.

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One of the more surprising things about Crysis is how much effort has been put into its multiplayer component. There are two modes, and they are as different as can be: one is a standard deathmatch with four maps available, and the other is an incredibly involved team-based objective game called Power Struggle with five maps available.

Power Struggle has each team attempting to destroy to the opposing headquarters, either with a nuke-equipped vehicle or with captured alien technology. This is done by capturing a tech factory or alien crash sites, and is augmented by capturing auxilliary factories that produce other useful goodies such as tanks or boats.

Meanwhile, you gain points which to purchase personal weapons and equipment, in a Counter-Strike-like fashion. Items can be bought at spawn points, which are also generated by capturing bunkers on behalf of your team.

It's all quite deep, certainly moreso than I expected. It may almost be too deep. In most of the matches I played, I felt that there was much more being offered than my team was able to competently use in any realistic way. It feels like if it were a bit more focused, like the similar mode in Unreal Tournament 2004, it would be less overwhelming. I was rarely able to play a game in which my team had meaningful coordination.

There will surely be a contingent of players that gets deep into Power Struggle, because the potential is there. It is a very fleshed-out multiplayer mode, and one with a lot of opportunity for rewarding teamwork, but I suspect it will be a bit daunting for many players.

The fact that the playerbase will be somewhat fractured by DirectX version will not help the community overall: while DirectX 10 players can join DirectX 9 servers, the reverse is not true. This is due to a variety of gameplay-affecting graphics and physics features only enabled in the DirectX 10 version of the game.

Deathmatch has largely the opposite problem; it feels too simplistic and standard. It's what you would expect: a bunch of players are dropped into a map and given a time or frag limit. This is fine, but little details like the game not checking for enemy proximity when spawning you in often turn deathmatches into nonstop spawn-kill-fests, and the presence of the nanosuit doesn't really add enough to the overall multiplayer dynamic to make Crysis' deathmatch more attractive than any number of other big-name multiplayer offerings this season.

The Whole Package
I don't think most gamers have been thinking of Crysis as a multiplayer-oriented game--I certainly haven't--so, if anything, the ambitious but flawed multiplayer mode will likely be a pleasant surprise, at least to try out. It doesn't add lots of value, but the Power Struggle mode might be right up some players' alley.

What does add more value is the impressive Sandbox Editor that is included with the game. It's quite user-friendly compared to many game editing tools, and hell, you can do ridiculous things with enormous chickens. Hooray!

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