Crytek's next-generation opus is finally upon us-and while gamers have undoubtedly been salivating over the near-photorealistic graphics for some time now, if it were to end up a mere brainless beauty, its legacy would ultimately be short-lived, standing as little more than a tech demo for extravagantly expensive PC hardware. Crytek, however, are an ambitious bunch, and the game's protracted development has been used to create a game that not only breaks technical boundaries, but achieves new heights in gameplay interactivity. Far from a brainless beauty, Crysis is a rare gem of a game in which all of its elements gel seamlessly to create an immersive and rewarding experience that has unequivocally raised the bar for all shooters to come. While conceptually it sits squarely in the lineage of sci-fi shooters such as Halo, Half-Life and Crytek's first game Far Cry, it evolves every imaginable element of the genre to unprecedented new heights.
While Crysis is a unique game and in no way tied to Far Cry, the basic design philosophy of Crysis is the same. It eschews the near-ubiquitous funneled level design wherein the player is herded through restricted pathways from one heavily scripted sequence to the next, instead giving players expansive, sandbox-like levels that allow for a great deal of improvisation, strategy and creativity. Utilizing an unprecedented level of interactivity and the most advanced artificial intelligence ever to grace a videogame, Crysis is a game that allows players a remarkable level of freedom for what is otherwise a linear, story-driven game.
Crysis is, without a doubt, the most stunningly realistic looking game ever made. Utilizing Crytek's proprietary CryEngine2 graphics engine, its system-crushing specifications are not to be taken lightly, as this is a game that will strain even the highest-end systems at the higher settings. Fortunately, the engine is quite scalable and can be run well on a mid-range system, but not without some significant concessions in visual quality and immersion. The vaunted "very high" settings are out of reach for all but the highest-end dual-card systems, but then again Crytek has intentionally designed CryEngine2 as an engine that will scale forward as PC hardware becomes more powerful. It's worth noting however that a few clever gamers have found ways to enable nearly all of the "very high" visual settings with a minimal performance impact-all it takes is a little know-how and a willingness to modify the game's configuration files.
Crysis's visual quality is by no means a mere technical feat either. Despite what on the surface may seem like a relatively pedestrian locale-a tropical island-the art design is exceptional. The island's topography is richly varied, from coastal tropics, lush forests and expansive farmlands to the disorienting interior of an alien spaceship and vast frozen wastelands. The levels are populated with a remarkable array of fauna and flora that vary realistically from one locale to the next-schools of fish, crabs, turtles and many other critters populate the coastal waters amid palm trees and dense jungles, while the grassy fields and forests of inland areas are home to numerous birds, frogs, and other creatures one would expect to populate such places. CryEngine2 also sports an advanced physics engine that builds on the basic concepts of interaction we've seen before in games like Half-Life 2 and brings them to a whole new level. All trees beneath a certain size can be shot apart at virtually any point along their length; countless objects in the environment, even animals, can be picked up and wielded as weapons- yes, enemies can be killed by a high-velocity projectile chicken.
Players assume the role of a U.S. Special Forces soldier who is part of an elite squadron sent to investigate the disappearance of a team of researchers in North Korea who are believed to be held captive by members of the Korean army. It turns out that the researchers have unearthed ancient alien technology buried in the island, and the Koreans are vying to get their hands on it first. What they weren't prepared for, though, is the aliens coming to life and wreaking havoc on the island, enveloping it in an expanding field of -200° ice that threatens to end all life on Earth. Combating a virtual battalion of Korean soldiers as well as gravity-defying aliens is a tall order, but fortunately the Spec Ops soldiers are armed with futuristic nanosuits that enhance their abilities by allowing for enhanced strength, speed, armor, or near-invisibility using a Predator-like cloak. The suit has a limited charge, so the abilities must be used judiciously and strategically. It may sound somewhat gimmicky, but in practice the concept gels naturally with the gameplay because the suit powers are merely extensions of the core game mechanics.
Crysis allows for a remarkable level of interactivity, and although it is of course not limitless, there are countless environmental elements that dynamically affect the combat. The destructible trees, for example, are by no means mere cosmetic enhancements; on at least one occasion, I was ducking behind a rock to avoid suppressive fire from a mounted machine gun, and a nearby tree was struck by some stray bullets and collapsed on me (I was killed). They can hurt enemies as well of course, whether by falling on them or even by being wielded as weapons with the suit's enhanced strength. A collapsed tree may even provide concealment if one wishes to take a more stealthy approach. Vehicles can also be destroyed realistically-a well-placed shot to a vehicle's tire, for example, will cause it to spin out of control in lifelike fashion, while a barrage of bullets to the gas tank will cause it to explode in spectacular realism. Many of the game's buildings can be completely destroyed as well, which can instantly turn the tide of battle and adds greatly to the dynamic feel of the combat.
The enemies are quite keen and while the artificial intelligence is not without flaws, it comes closer to achieving believable human behavior than any other game before it. Soldiers take cover, retreat, throw grenades intelligently, flank, and communicate with each other. Activating the cloak right in front of an enemy would cause them to begin shooting blindly in my direction, before they would assume a cautious stance and trepidatiously search for clues to my whereabouts. Enemies will react to motion in the environment, so if I moved too quickly through a bush or plant and caused it to sway violently, the soldiers would notice and begin searching for me in that direction. They even react with convincing shock and awe to the abilities of the nanosuit, cowering in fear or scrambling frantically for cover at displays of superhuman speed or strength.
What makes Crysis such a success is the way the interactivity, artificial intelligence, weapon design and open-ended levels meld to allow for an unbelievably dynamic experience. I spent hours simply immersing myself in the sandbox-style level design, approaching the levels in different ways and getting creative with my strategies-using different suit powers, trying different weapon customizations, taking different routes through the levels, and utilizing the destructible environment differently. Crysis truly shines as a game that allows players to approach the game creatively and strategically, letting them develop their own playing styles rather than funneling them through a series of linear, tightly scripted sequences with singular solutions.
My only real criticism of Crysis, if it can even be called a criticism, is that it comes up short in conceptual innovation compared to games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay that deal with more complex themes and branch outside of the conventional boundaries of the genre. While it evolves many gameplay elements in spectacular fashion, the tradition of science-fiction shooters is becoming rather crowded. The game's inclusion of mysterious aliens is very well done and the story is as well told as any top-tier first-person shooter, but thematically it does little to distinguish itself from Far Cry, Halo, or Half-Life. I'd like to see this kind of progressive, open-ended and player-centric gameplay applied to other, more colorful thematic backdrops.
While Crysis' single-player mode is excellent in its own right, the game also sports two multiplayer modes. One is a rather straight-forward and rather forgettable deathmatch mode. The suit powers do add a little bit of depth to it, but otherwise it's basically the same fragfest we've been playing since the inception of the genre. The real star of the show is Power Struggle. Power Struggle is a deep, team-based multiplayer not unlike the Battlefield series. Considering that Power Struggle is part of the retail Crysis package, it's a surprisingly robust game that would hold its own just fine as a standalone multiplayer package.
The game is fairly simple in concept: two competing teams vie for control of assorted tactical objectives, with the ultimate goal of sending the enemy headquarters to the big polygon renderer in the sky with some pretty impressive low-yield nuclear firepower. The maps are suitably large, and the varied terrain and the large assortment of vehicles available provide innumerable tactical possibilities. As with any online team-based game though, the experience can vary pretty significantly depending on the players. Power Struggle can be a little intimidating for new players, since many gamers were playing it during the open beta testing and the learning curve is a little steep. And while I am sure that there are some servers with plenty of teamwork and great communication, my experience was mixed in that regard. While I'm personally not a big multiplayer guy, I think devout mutliplayer gamers will find Power Struggle to be a surprisingly strong addition to Crysis' excellent single-player campaign.
One notable quibble though is that the Crysis multiplayer segregates gamers to different servers based on whether they are running the game in DirectX 9 or DirectX 10. The company line is that DirectX 10 allows for more advanced environmental interaction that enhances the gameplay. In DirectX 9 servers, the destructible environments and interactive plant life are noticeably less robust, and there is no day/night cycle. While this isn't a huge issue as the gameplay remains largely the same, I have to call shenanigans on what I view as a heavily corporate-sponsored decision. The fact is that all of these supposedly "DirectX 10 only" features are not only fully available in the single player game under DirectX 9, but it's already well known that a tweak of the game's configuration files allows virtually all of the ballyhooed DirectX 10 graphics features of Crysis to run in DirectX 9-in most cases with improved performance. With nVidia currently making a big push to sell their DirectX 10 video cards, I can't help but feel that Crytek's decision in this regard had less to do with a gamer-centric design decision, and more to do with the nVidia logo that graces the game's opening. I am not opposed to corporate sponsorship of games-Intel and nVidia's sponsorship of Crysis has helped the developers at Crytek take a protracted development cycle to fully realize their vision-but when gamers start getting shafted or artificially pressured into expensive upgrades, it's gone too far.
Crysis has been a long time coming, and it has been well worth the wait. A near-perfect melding of next-generation technology and interactive gameplay, Crysis is the pinnacle of the evolution of the first-person shooter and is the new standard against which all others will inevitably be compared. Its next-generation engine is demanding, and surely many will be disappointed that it doesn't run smoothly on older midrange PCs without compromising the graphical fidelity rather significantly. However that is the price to be paid for progress, a fact that any seasoned PC gamer should be aware of, and Crysis is the game that will justifiably persuade many PC gamers to upgrade their system. For those willing to invest the time and money to experience Crysis at its fullest, it is the pinnacle of next-generation gameplay and will be remembered not only as a remarkable technical achievement, but as one of the finest first-person shooters ever made.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the 1.0 version of the game