It was about two hours into Crysis when I began to realise just how good it might be. The first couple of hours had been fairly unremarkable - there were some predictable first-person cut-scenes, a linear intro level, some spooky goings-on, US military deployment, you know the sort of thing. I had watched the sun come up across the island and seen the kind of tropical Far-Cry-revisited scenes that we'd all been expecting. I had even barrelled through the first of the villages and used some of the suit-powers (which your buffed up future marine has at his disposal from the start) to kill off some enemies. But it wasn't until a little later that I sat back and actually looked at it.
Crysis is much more than a highly accomplished graphics engine, to be sure, but let me just get this across to you for a moment. Playing on a high-end PC (for Crysis runs best on a Quad Core beast with a DirectX 10 card) it was so good that I had almost failed to notice the sheer immensity of visual information it was delivering. The Crysis environments are so naturalistic, so close to realism, that you find yourself thinking: "of course, because that's how things are supposed to look." It takes a few moments to step back and really look. I was in a stretch of a forested valley. The sun was shining down on the rocks across the valley, reflecting light with that certain stony gleam that long-polished rocks have about them. Those same sunbeams were filtering through the trees and casting dappled shadows across the exquisitely detailed forest floor. This is that HDR stuff deployed as it was meant to be - with a slight haze that jungles have about them, with the yellow sun dropping beams of light through the waving branches overhead. The jungle was alive. Ahead of me vegetation flicked and moved: enemies approached.
This chap is with you through parts of the game. He stops for neither tea nor biscuits.
And that's pretty much where my eyebrows went up and I muttered mild obscenities: I was playing a game where (at least some) vegetation moved as people passed through it. The fronds of a palm tree bent and flicked well before I could see the soldier who approached along the path. In the firefight that followed I levelled a great swathe of greenery as the bullets flew and grenades detonated. Branches fell from trees and saplings collapsed into the undergrowth: it was my own little re-enactment of the minigun scene from Predator. But it got better - thanks to the capacity of the nano-suit to give me a temporary cloaking field - I stopped being Arnie [surely Bill Duke - Predator Ed] and became the Predator in the space of about ten seconds. I reached out and grabbed a soldier by the throat. I took a few moments to examine his horrified, dying face in all its incredible detail before hurling him backwards into the undergrowth.
Yeah, it really does look a bit special on those hyper-accelerated graphics cards of the future.
I just need to say something about Crysis's fiction and functions at this point. You're a super-soldier sent to a Pacific island to investigate dodgy business perpetrated by the apparently invigorated North Korean army. You're equipped with a suit of hi-tech armour that can be configured into various modes, and you rely on it for almost all situations. Even if you run out of ammo, the suit can get you past the enemies. The nanosuit has a constantly recharging reservoir of energy, which means that you can use any of the powers for a brief period before you'll need to rest up for a few seconds. The default is armour mode, which allows you to soak damage and also rapidly heals you. That's the the mode the suit will revert to if you decloak. Then there's strength mode, which reduces your defence but allows you to punch people to death, to punch Humvees to death (although I never managed that car-flip thing from the trailer), and to leap on top of buildings like a superhero. Speed seems to to be the least useful mode, allowing you to dash a short distance at a stupendous rate. Best of all though, is the cloak itself. This allows you to move a short distance invisibly, and allows you to effectively disappear from pursuing enemies for a few seconds, or to close in on them for sudden, close-quarters violence. It's not the first time we've seen this kind of thing - Halo 2 did it - but the implementation in Crysis is impossibly entertaining.
Fights happen a fair bit. Here's one happening right now.
Anyway, back to the wooded valley. As the first stage of the firefight subsided, I realised there was a second enemy patrol closing in. They were wading across the nearby river towards me. I crouched and killed a couple of them at range - headshots are a boon - but I was soon out of rifle ammo. I would need to scavenge more. Crysis' group AI kicked in and the soldiers fanned out through the jungle to try and surround me. I cloaked again and headed further into the jungle along the valley. I'd seen some snipers hiding in rock formations on the far side of the valley, and I wanted to get behind them rather than face the main patrol up-close. Using the strength-mode jump I bounced across the rocky waterfall at the far end of the river valley and then, after hiding to briefly recoup energy, I cloaked and closed in on the snipers. I finished them off with a couple of close-range shotgun blasts, before taking their weapons to attack the patrol on the far side of the valley. Unfortunately, because I hadn't taken the time to watch the valley a little more carefully, I was jumped by a second group. They hit me hard at close range. Killing one, I backed up and cloaked as I passed behind a rock, losing them for a moment. I lobbed a grenade into where I thought they'd go, before closing in to kill two more by the water's edge - grabbing the first by the throat, I threw him into his buddy, killing them both and sending the bodies sprawling across rocks and into the water.
I took a moment to watch their bodies bob and then gently float away in the current, pushing aside reed-like water plants as they went. Reflective mood past, I closed in on the final, retreating soldier. He splashed across the river, trying to get to cover. A few freshly scavenged rounds from my rifle saw him tumble and take his last splash. Serenity returned to the wooded valley and I spent a while staring at the light in the trees, before I bounced away up the hillside towards the next objective.
Crysis is filled with these kind of periodic zones of action. Some of them, such as the harbour level, are huge, and you'll find yourself juggling tasks, stealing vehicles to get about, while simultaneously gawping at the huge conflict that occasionally unfolds around you. I played through each of the major areas several times, on a range of difficulty levels. I had a totally different experience each time. Just by taking a slightly different route you'll end up in a fight you hadn't anticipated. Bump the game up to hard and suddenly you're thinking about whether enemy bullets are going to go through the fence you're about to dive behind, or whether you really can rely on grenades to put that machine-gun nest down. Gung-ho action is default on the easier settings, but as the enemy damage output increases with difficulty, you begin to be a little more cautious.
Playing around the with suit's powers, or simply trying to set up the sneakiest, most intricate assaults is awesomely satisfying. Rather like Half-Life 2's sudden expansion of interactive possibilities with the gravity gun, Crysis' suit turns most of the island into a violent playground. You'll find yourself playfully lobbing chickens at enemies one moment, and then savagely hunting them down like some half-invisible monster the next. Hearing your soldier buddy radio in and say "go quietly on this next objective" as you're halfway through the process of driving a Humvee through the roof of a tin shack (just to watch it collapse realistically) has a kind of perverse glory to it. Crysis is bombastic and bold, but caters just as much to stealth and surprise.
In fact the overall story of Crysis almost seems incidental against the backdrop of so many potentially awesome encounters. I'm sure some people will be disappointed by the eventual alien-powered denouement, or mystified or bored by turns as they discover what lies inside the mountain. I'm fairly confident that people will feel slightly uncomfortable with the screeching caricatures that constitute most of the Korean soldiers that you end up butchering, but at least the main sidekick characters aren't annoying. In fact, if I had to give a word to the overall single-player campaign, I would be patchy. There are great highs, such as landing on a ridge at night, under fire from artillery, but also occasional muddles where the pace just cannot maintain and you end up rooting about in sheds looking for ammo, or simply feeling a bit lost, in spite of the green arrow that urges you ever onward.
Go inside the hut and shoot the shelves. Honestly, its ace.
That said, the overall story is far more sprawling and complex than I had expected - with loads of variation in the challenges laid out for you and a bunch of stages of development beyond what I had expected. Even the strictly linear bits don't seem overly predictable, although the flying-squid shooting gallery stuff at the end is (as so many people had speculated) rather less interesting than fighting gangs of human enemies in the first two thirds of the game. The pace and sense of danger at the end of the game is nevertheless commendable - you do feel as if an unstoppable alien menace is stirring. It's almost a shame that they didn't make a little more of the frozen jungle environments that we had seen talked about so enthusiastically in the previews of this game.
There's also a gnawing sense that much of the larger world is lost to you. These huge geographies sometimes seem wasted, since you just end bombing through them, or simply stumbling onwards without finding secondary objectives to pursue. One particular night-time section had me running for ten minutes to get through it - being pursued by a helicopter that I didn't have the firepower (or, more accurately, the inclination) to deal with. Thanks to the ever-replenishing energy reserves of the suit I could basically run for cover and bodge it until I reached the next waypoint.
Here's that wooded valley I was talking about, minus angry Koreans.
Naturally there's multiplayer too, with all participants gifted with the hi-tech powers of the nanosuit. This comes in the form of standard deathmatch, and the rather less standard Powerstruggle mode. This mode provides a Battlefield-styled large scale combat in which two teams battling for control of a number of large military facilities. These provide power to central vehicle-production centres which will, eventually, allow either side to create a game-ending vehicle that can be used to destroy the opposing base. Nukes go off pretty much routinely. Crysis' multiplayer is extremely robust and provides a huge, open palette for organised teamwork to create some really interesting tactics - the versatility of the nanosuit sees to that. However, I can't see this multiplayer offering making too much of an impact on the general PC scene. It's too clinical to compete with the heavy-duty franchise-empowered design monsters like Enemy Territory, and too complex to appeal to the rest of PC gaming... (they'll be knee-deep in TF2).
The aliens aren't exactly rubbish, more... disappointing.
So Crysis is imperfect in a number of ways, but it's nevertheless a stupendously solid game for the PC. It's an FPS that exhibits some of the technological tricks we've been promised over the last few years while still offer a cogent, often thunderous, action-shooter experience. Its incredible looks are perhaps only let down by some of the art direction. It gives us a lavish world, but it's perhaps not applied imaginatively enough. The aliens are a worthy challenge at times, and provide a suitably pumped-up dramatic conclusion, but they never really surprise or inspire the kind of awe that they're presumably intended to. The level design might have been just a little tighter too. I found myself feeling like huge sections of the game had been wasted, and really I just wanted go back and play through the harbour again, or that wooded valley. Perhaps even more significantly, I wanted to see what the complex physics model and destructible scenery might be able to do in a more urban environment. The island wasn't quite enough for me. It needed a proper town, or at least some kind of island resort.
This is a game that feels supremely engineered, like a precision machine, or a German automobile. It makes Half-Life 2 seem old and frail, but by the same token it does nothing to diminish the imaginative achievements of that series. Crysis is impressive, but not imaginatively bold. Nor does it engage us like some other great shooters - such as BioShock - have done with their world and their personality. It's far better than Far Cry, and it's clearly going to create a rabid army of fans, many of whom I hope will plug themselves into the absurdly easy-to-us level editor and create us more single-player campaigns. Personally I'd like to see where this astounding world-forging technology will take us. And I can't wait to see what Crytek will do next.