Crysis may forever be remembered as the last stand of PC gaming's high end. A rallying point for PC elitists, it was designed to showcase the raw power of high-end PC hardware, unencumbered by the compromises that come with multi-platform development. It’s been nearly four years since then, and Crysis has remained the highwater mark for graphics technology amid a sea of games seemingly watered down to maintain parity with their console counterparts. My PC, built in 2007 to play Crytek’s visual marvel, has not been upgraded since and still handily plays all of today’s latest PC games with little difficulty.
As if we needed any more evidence of our defeat, even the mighty Crytek has thrown in the towel. Crysis was widely criticized - albeit somewhat unfairly - for what many saw as impossibly high system requirements, and its sales suffered as a result. Crytek has vowed not to repeat its mistakes, and both Crysis 2 and the CryEngine 3 technology that powers it have been designed with console portability mind. It is with a bit of sadness that I find myself reviewing the company's latest on my Xbox 360 and not my PC, and with wounded pride that I find myself actually enjoying it.
Although it is mostly remembered for its dazzling visuals, Crysis was a brilliant game, owed in part to its jungle setting, that allowed for a great deal of freedom, exploration, and experimentation. These types of densely vegetated locales have always been a nightmare for game developers, because of their size and complexity, and it’s a testament to the true power of CryEngine that they were able to pull it off with such detail, beauty, and interactivity. This huge, destructible paradise was paired with a gameplay system that allowed players to switch between four different modes with unique advantages and disadvantages.
One of the best pure action shooters of the generation.
At a glance, it looks like Crysis 2 is the realization of my fears. The unique Pacific island setting has been traded for yet another look at a dystopian New York City (seriously, hasn’t this city seen enough apocalypses?), and the different suit modes have been stripped from the gameplay. But after settling in to the new digs, it becomes clearer that this might not be the dumbing down we’ve been dreading, but a legitimate next step for the series.
The towering skyscrapers of lower Manhattan always make for dazzling eye candy - here more than ever before; but they’re also an invitation to use narrow corridors and impassible roadblocks to create a more linear design. At some points, Crysis 2 is guilty of this, but its levels are still packed with some pretty huge outdoor battles that provide ample latitude for exploration and experimentation. At no point does Crysis 2 ever succumb to Call of Duty-style linearity, at times opening up a couple city blocks as a single battlefield. Sure, many of these areas are connected by smaller choke points that may indeed be a concession to the need for the consoles to stream new areas into memory, but Crysis was never a true open world game to begin with.
Of course physical space to maneuver is wasted without some latitude in the gameplay. The trademark Nanosuit that gave Nomad his superhuman powers in the first installment has been upgraded quite a bit for the sequel. Gone are the discrete “modes” of the first game that forced players to trade off superhuman strength for improved armor or temporary invisibility. Instead the Nanosuit 2 retains all of the abilities of its predecessor and unifies them into a single mode that draws power from a common source. Cloaking and armor are still exclusive and can’t be used at the same time, but they can now be paired with the other abilities like super speed and high jumping, as long as you have enough suit energy to spare. This removes some of the trade-offs associated with the suit modes, sure, but in practice the increased flexibility affords players more gameplay freedom, not less.
Of course when Crytek is involved, graphics always dominate the discussion, and even here, it seems little has been traded for the wider audience. It’s true, and somewhat comforting, that the console version is still a couple notches below its PC counterpart, but let me tell you, it looks close. In any form, this is the most beautiful game of the generation, completely outclassing even games built from the ground up on the Xbox 360 or PS3. The subtle lighting lends an almost spooky realism and while the frame rate may occasionally sag and some textures take a moment to pop in, the gameplay remains smooth throughout. Never once are we made to feel like the aging 360 is struggling to keep up, despite a visual feast that outclasses even the original Crysis.
But it’s not just great technology that makes Crysis 2 such a showstopper. While graphics have always been important to Crytek, the company's out to prove that a relatively young independent European developer can turn out a legitimate blockbuster with production values capable of shaming any competitor. No expense has been spared, with absolutely stunning animation; a dynamic, intensely cinematic soundtrack; and a lengthy campaign packed with dazzling cinematic moments. The attention to detail is staggering throughout, even compared to the likes of Modern Warfare 2 or Killzone 3.
Best of all, Crysis 2 has some real meat on its bones. At the risk of sounding more effusive that I have already, Crytek has crafted one of the best pure action shooters of the generation. The prior effort was criticized for its sometimes dopey enemy AI and a weak third act where flying squid replaced the more interesting human opponents, but they’ve learned from their mistakes. The floating tentacled aliens of Crysis and Warhead have been replaced by bipedal Cyborgs that are fast, aggressive, and every bit as cunning as their human counterparts.
The suit’s many interesting abilities give the gameplay a level of freedom rarely found in first-person shooters these days. Many encounters can be tackled purely using stealth to either slip through enemy lines or to sneak up on enemies from behind using silent kills. Armor allows you to play Rambo and take on all comers. Even rushing in at full speed to deliver a deadly punch to the face can be a viable strategy. Crytek tries hard not to pressure players into a particular style of play. While certain areas might be easier with stealth and others easier with brute force, there is no right answer, and half the fun is in experimentation. While this is still a linear action shooter with all the semi-scripted trappings of games like Call of Duty, the gunplay is smart and satisfying in a way that few games are these days.
I doubt we could say that Crysis 2 is exactly the game it would have been had it been PC exclusive, but it’s hard to complain when Crytek has managed to best not only some of the biggest names in the industry, but its own previous efforts. Even as Epic is imploring hardware companies to make way for the next generation, Crytek is proving this generation still has some life left in it. It's managed to do what many (including its 2007 self) have said was impossible, and the result is not just a technical masterpiece, but one of the best traditional action-FPS of the generation.