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Let’s cut straight to the chase. Even after two years of hype, Crysis’ visual achievements are incredible. Jungle vegetation has never looked this lush before, nor the harsh daylight streaming through the trees looked so beautiful. The fog and mist effects put any other atmospheric effect you might have seen before firmly in the shade. The level of textural detail is astounding. The water effects, whether the ocean waves surrounding Crysis’ Asian island paradise or in the rivers and mangrove swamps of its interior, are unparalleled. Smoke, explosion, fire and other particle effects are dazzling. The character rendering and animation is superb. Crytek wanted to push the boundaries of photo-realism and they have succeeded. Forget Call of Duty 4, Gears of War and Heavenly Sword – Crysis sets a graphical standard that I can’t see any other game reaching for years.
Of course, not all of us are going to experience it in its full glory. With an Intel Core 2 Extreme X6850, an Asus GeForce 8800 Ultra and 2GB of DDR2 800 I was still only able to play the DirectX 10 version on High settings, leaving me to wonder what sort of machine is required to play it on Very High. Frankly, High is probably all my eyeballs can take at the moment, Switch to DirectX 9 and Medium and you have to do without some of the beautiful lighting, shading and atmospheric effects, but it all looks pretty stunning and you should be able to get away with marginally less impressive hardware. If you can only manage it in Low, upgrade: the whole thing looks flat and lifeless, and you won’t get the real Crysis experience.
Bear in mind, too, that Crysis really does need a balanced system. I started off playing it on an old system based on an Athlon X2 3800 and 2GB of DDR 400 with the GeForce 8800 Ultra thrown in. This setup had got me comfortably through Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Bioshock and Medal of Honor: Airborne, but Crysis practically killed it. On Medium settings it could only maintain smooth movement for about two seconds at a time before jerking uncontrollably. If you’re trying to eke out the life of an old single core or low-end dual-core system, then Crysis will be a step too far. Now is the time to say ‘out with the old’ and ‘in with the new’.
The real question, of course, is ‘is it worth it?’ Well, I’m as much a sucker for eye candy as the next man, but for a while Crysis left me wondering. Initially it feels a lot like Far Cry with a sci-fi twist. The wafer thin plot – an unholy composite of bits from the Aliens and Predator movies with a nod to Half-Life here and Doom there – isn’t particularly inspiring, and the all-important nanotech-powered combat suit seems underdeveloped. On Medium difficulty level the North Korean bad-guys seem ridiculously impervious to bullets, while their characterisation – or rather, caricature – makes Team America: World Police look like a sympathetic depiction of George W. Bush’s third least favourite nation. For the first hour or so I was stymied: Crysis had me gobsmacked, but was I actually having any fun?
Two hours in the matter was settled. Crysis is really the sort of game where what you get out of it relies a bit on what you put in. Play it like you would Call of Duty 4 or try to eliminate every last enemy and you will find it hard work. Get flexible, stay on the move and make the most of your combat suit, and it doesn’t so much take off as launch itself into the air with a resounding sonic boom. Thanks to the mighty mouse wheel button, you can select between any suit power in an instant, switching from Armour mode to Speed mode to Strength mode (handy for jumping, punching or picking up objects and throwing) to the Predator-style Cloak mode. See a bunch of misrepresented and doubtless normally humane and compassionate North Koreans lurking around a small group of huts? Kick in Cloak mode to get up close, then switch to Strength mode, grab one, throw him at his mates, then grab a handy exploding barrel and throw that at the covering machine-gun nest. Now switch to Armour mode, pull out your biggest gun and start mopping up the rest.
The beauty of all this is that you can use the combat suit to play the game your way. The harsh lesson you have to learn is that a super-suit doesn’t necessarily mean super-powers. It drains of energy with horrible rapidity, particularly when in Cloak mode, leaving you standing in the open and vulnerable to more attacks from the poor North Korean troops, who doubtless only want to finish you off so that they can return to their wives and children a little bit sooner. I’m sure they don’t mean the potty-mouthed stuff they say about you.
Much like Crackdown, then, the joy of Crysis is in using the world as your playground. A pretty wonderful and coherent physics system certainly helps, with every object in the world seeming to have a material, and that material reacting to high-explosive firepower in roughly the way you might expect. I’ve heard some reports of oddities, but in my experience the physics system is superbly deployed. When our misunderstood North Korean chums are hiding behind wooden fencing or poor-quality corrugated metal panels, it’s nice to be able to blast away their cover then give them roughly the same treatment. Or if they’re lurking in an inexpertly-assembled hut, why not use some of that super-strength – or a handy grenade – to knock out the walls and bring the roof down on them? Crysis is full of this kind of fun stuff, and at its best it gives you a feeling of freedom and power that other FPS games just miss out on. In the best sort of way, it’s a game that can’t say no. If you want to do something, and think you should be able to do it, then you probably can.
In many respects, this is an example of emergent gameplay working like gang-busters. The only problem is that, as with all emergent games, there are limits to what the designers can do to ensure the game stays consistently enjoyable. If Crysis is a playground, then there are times when you will feel like you’re getting bullied. You can find you’ve strayed into the wrong area and that you have too many enemies to contend with and not enough arms and ammo with which to do it. At one point I was hounded mercilessly by a helicopter for nearly an hour without any means of losing it or destroying it, and without any chance of sneaking into enemy-packed encampments while in its presence. It’s at this point that the pitiful duration of the suit’s Cloak mode really makes you want to scream ‘WHY? WHY?’ to the heavens above. Of course, when I did eventually bring this persistent menace down the joy was all the sweeter. What’s more, if something irks you in Crysis then it’s usually teaching you a lesson you can apply later. It might have been ‘don’t wander too far from your objectives’ or ‘stop making so much bloody noise’. In this case it was ‘always keep a tube of missiles handy, and don’t waste them on mindless destruction just for the fun of it.’
There will also be times when you get lost, or where – in the early stages – you seem to be drifting from one enemy encampment to another in a vaguely repetitive fashion. The game uses orders and objectives to keep you running through the most enjoyable and action-packed path, but there are times when that glorious geography is too confusing or too difficult for you to make it easily from one to the next. This in turn can contribute to what feels like poor pacing – something which isn’t a regular or recurrent issue, but leaves Crysis feeling less consistent than something more carefully orchestrated like Call of Duty 4.
All in all, though, Crysis is a game that delivers on its ambitious promises. It’s always tempting to dismiss a game that has been so hyped up on the basis of graphics as lacking in gameplay, but every time I underestimated Crysis I learnt that I was wrong. I thought the combat was lacking, but then I discovered that I just wasn’t doing it right. I thought the weapons were ludicrously inaccurate, but then I discovered the beauty of the iron sights, the scope, and the ingenious weapon customisation system that allows you to stick silencers and laser-sights on just about anything in our arsenal. I got fed up with the lack of ammo, but then I learnt to be more adaptive in my use of weaponry and the suit’s Cloak and Strength modes.
I even feared the worst about the game’s alien incursions, but here above all else I was wrong. I expected a sub-par riff on Aliens vs Predator or Half-Life, but instead I found new perils and new environments that turned the world of Crysis upside down. I’m not 100 per cent sure that the later, alien-filled sections of Crysis are quite as much fun as the more conventional action movie chunk in the middle, but they are certainly more spectacular and ambitious. I’m even willing to look past the odd bit of duff AI – give a North Korean a super-suit and a mini-gun and he seems incapable of navigating the simplest obstacles – and the traditional sub-par vehicle sections (one of which is actually better enjoyed out of the tank than in it).
For now, I’ll restrict my comments about the multiplayer mode to a few observations – I’ve been so busy with the single player that I’ve only had time to scratch the surface. The basic, quick deathmatch mode is fun, but there doesn’t seem to be enough incentive given to use the super-suit and the environments I’ve seen don’t seem to be as different or as interesting as those in the single-player game. If you wanted something revolutionary, you may come away disappointed. The Power Struggle mode – which sits firmly in the Battlefield mass team-play vein – is more intriguing, but also more complex. At the moment, it feels less accessible than Team Fortress 2 or Call of Duty 4, while not as focused as Enemy Territory: Quake Wars.
Still, let’s end on the appropriate high note. Even the most understated gamer or technology journalist will use phrases like ‘cutting edge’ and ‘state of the art’ a lot when it comes to FPS games, but I can’t think of another FPS since Half-Life 2 that has so richly earned such a description. Is it too much to say that Crysis reinvents the genre? Probably. You could easily argue that Far Cry was the real revolution and that Crytek’s new game leans heavily on its last. What Crysis does do, however, is redefine a lot of the terms and frontiers of the FPS. When we talk in future of things like photo-realistic graphics or emergent gameplay or consistent physics simulation, this will be the game we’ll inevitably use as a benchmark. Still, is that really so important? No. What is, is that Crysis is a blast. Powerful, exhilarating and regularly astounding, it’s right up there with The Orange Box, Call of Duty 4 and Bioshock as one of the best FPS games in the genre’s very best year.
Upgrade your system and put your scepticism aside. Crysis is one of the great wonders of modern gaming, and also one of the most thrilling and engaging games in this great year.
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