The thing that struck me most about Crysis 2 was the water. It was everywhere; in puddles, in streams, pouring through streets or tumbling over your head. The theme (if it even is one) is apt, because this game is all about fluidity and flexibility. Right at its core is the freedom to take different approaches to different problems. It's a game that allows you to choose the solutions that you feel are best suited to the issues at hand. But water can be both bad and beautiful; its destructive power is only matched by its quenching qualities. And that’s why it’s a perfect analogy for Crytek’s Crysis 2.
Crysis 2 is the sequel to Crytek’s breakout 2007 title. That offering, along with its spiritual predecessor, Far Cry, ripped open the possibilities available to first-person shooters. They introduced us to truly open 3D environments, engrossing characterisation and graphical experiences that put an expression of stunned wonder all over your face (while releasing smoke from your graphics card).
So it was always going to be interesting to see how these successes would be built upon. Four years is a long time in game development, and first-person shooter fans – looking for something to break the Michael Bay monotony of the genre – were twitching their trigger fingers in nervous anticipation. They really shouldn’t have been all that worried. Crysis 2 is a beast of a title. It’s immersive, interesting, deep and robust. It’s got intensity and action coming out of its eyeballs. Initially, first-person shooter fans will be pleased indeed.
Crysis 2 is set in New York. This by itself is a big change for the franchise – part of Crytek’s design philosophy was the ability to do whatever you wanted in order to advance the title’s plot. Naturally, the best way to do this was to stick your playable character into a nice big space, like a jungle or an island. But Crytek have had enough of that lark, and have switched gears on the series, choosing this time to place the gameplay within a more traditional – but by no means less inventive – urban environment.
The story packs no punches, firmly setting itself three years after Crysis came to an explosive close. An Alien race has landed on earth, and as expected they have set about being a right pain in the arse. Moving from the jungle islands of the Pacific to the Big Apple has meant there are more people to mess with, and mess they certainly have. For reasons that are reasonably unexplained an alien virus has infected most of Manhattan, slowly killing off New Yorkers and all within its territory. To contain the outbreak the Government has quarantined Manhattan Island. The early set up is nothing special, but it works: you’re an unlucky marine, sent to rescue a conspiracy theorist/scientist. Along the way an old friend of the series gives you his super suit and you become the ultimate warrior, a high tech killing machine, and (all things going to plan) the right guy for the job.
Aliens, infections, quarantines – that’s a decent scene for any shooter, but Crysis 2 goes further, upping the ante by throwing in both evil corporate mercenaries and shady company executives. Wrap all of this up in the ‘futuristic enough to be interesting, but still near enough to possibly happen’ Sci-Fi staple, and you’ve got yourself a pretty complicated narrative set up. This is good. I like complicated stories; if I wanted to run around shooting things I’d just go to Lower Hutt.
Good games wrap their primal fun up in good prose, and Crysis 2 does a pretty good job of this. It proficiently builds a story that is engrossing enough to keep you progressing from chapter to chapter. But it’s a little disappointing that the progression is a little slow to get going, because after a couple of hours of aimlessly shooting things, the title inexplicably switches gear, and thank goodness it does. The problem is that sometimes this works well and sometimes it does not. With Crysis 2 it feels more like a bunny hop than a curtain raiser.
But when that curtain is raised you can only sit back and be stunned by the quality of the graphical experience painted all over your pixelated stage. The title is simply gorgeous – but in a way that is far different to its predecessors. They had the advantage of lofty trees, sultry ferns and tropical sunsets. There is none of that here – just broken down buildings and wasted environments. But there is a beauty to be found when replacing a living jungle with a concrete one. Crytek should be commended for working Crysis 2’s storyline into its surroundings. Through graphical sleight of hand they have managed to depict a New York that is both grandly majestic and deeply monstrous. Thankfully this graphical juxtaposition isn’t going to make your GPU run screaming in terror. My reviewing computer is by no means at the top of the market, but it was having no problems rendering Crysis 2’s environments with a high frame rate. Pump the settings up to maximum and even the best rigs may splutter a little – but it was good to see Crytek had spent a decent amount of time optimising things for the hardware bell-curve.
Crysis looks great, its story is worth your time and its environments give both literal and metaphorical depth to your gaming experience. But what of that experience at its most basic level – Crysis 2 is, after all, a first person shooter.
Or is it? What makes this title different from the run of the mill bullet-fest is its variability. The use of your super-suit to change between different modes: stealth, armoured, or speed has resulted in a raft of different gameplay modes all being bound up in the same genre. Prefer to stealth it up? You can. If quick skirmishes are more your style – that's an option. Just want to charge on in guns a-blazing, dealing pain like a Panzer on P? That’s cool too. Crysis 2 lets you. Not every game does, so it gets a bump for letting you have it your way.
Although there have been changes to this broad freedom. Crytek have refined the experience they introduced in 2007 and have streamlined it in an attempt to get it right. Gone is the ability to switch to “strength” mode, instead Crytek have opted to have your superhuman man muscles just be part of the overall experience. This does take away a little of the roid rage fun of its predecessors, but it also means that when you want to rip that .50 cal machine gun from its nest – you just can, no questions asked. For this Crytek deserve a DB – nothing is ever perfect and it’s only through tinkering and experimentation that developers will get things right.
The weapon customisation options introduced in the original have also been improved, there is a greater range of choices (and just weapons in general) and the ease by which you manage them is worth a mention. Additionally, suit additions can now also be added – paid for by nano-particles collected off dead alien soldiers. It’s an interesting addition; everyone likes buffing up their hero, and the Sci-Fi setting gives ample room for RPG style elements. But the mechanism by which you level your suit seems oddly convenient. Running around dead aliens looking for nano-drops does have the effect of taking you out of the experience somewhat.
And the experience is generally a pretty intense one. There are moments of furious combat, fully realised with excellent audio and interspersed with first person cinematics at crucial moments. The use of environmental events is becoming increasingly well developed in first-person shooters – just think back to Sgt. Jackson stumbling around in radioactive death throes in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s penultimate mission – so it’s great to see this device continually being improved.
But even with these moments of genius, there is still something infuriating about Crysis 2’s core gameplay. The problem is that old chestnut that first person shooting just cant seem to fix: the quality of the artificial intelligence. I’m not sure how much development time went into combat programming vis a vi Crysis 2’s look and feel, but it should have been more. The AI is simply woeful. Mercenary grunts would regularly run into walls in front of you, alien commandos would gracefully jump from wall to ledge and back again – seemingly oblivious to the beautifully designed magnum you are lowering at their face, foes would shoot at you through walls, and the stupidity of enemies when you’re taking them down one by one while cloaked beggars belief. It was quite possible to cloak, run around enemy units, and then stab then consecutively in the back as they all looked forward. One by one, without a single grunt getting curious as to what all those viciously muffled squeals were. Not good. Not good at all. This flaw is especially disappointing because up until you realise that the AI is going to be a persistent problem, Crysis 2 appears to be an extremely good game. But that’s the subtle tragedy of an Achilles heel – it takes everything else down with it.
It’s this frustration that turns Crysis 2 from a raging river into a swollen lake. Everything it does well, it does really well. As an overall experience it looks great, feels great and tells a great yarn. Its bells all whistle and its trinkets all sparkle. But this dazzling array of graphical and technical wizardry hides the fact that water has quietly seeped into this title’s few cracks. Some of the core gameplay mechanics that you’d expect a tier one developer like Crytek to knock out of the park, are instead a little rusted over.
Crysis 2 is a little bit like the proverbial New Zealand leaky home. It looks modern and rich from the outside; there’s a new car in the garage and the kitchen gleams through the large lounge window. But deep inside its walls there is a cold damp, one that will become increasingly detrimental the more it’s ignored.