Blasting away at aliens and soldiers may seem like a familiar theme for a first-person shooter, but developer Crytek is looking to elevate the formula to new heights with Crysis, one of the most talked-about games on the horizon. In our previous coverage of the game, we've focused on the technology in Crysis, since the game promises to deliver, for all intents and purposes, truly next-generation graphics. However, there's going to be much more to Crysis than just pretty visuals. The designers at Crytek are intent on delivering gameplay and storylines that are the equals of the technology. Please note: this preview story may contain minor spoilers of some of the story elements in Crysis.
Despite Crytek hitting a home run with Far Cry, the designers have looked back on its development and thought long and hard about all the things they could have done better. For example, an obvious issue with that game was that the story in Far Cry was never really central. Jack Mamais, the lead designer of Crysis, described Far Cry as a bunch of different mission tied together with cutscenes. That's partly the result of Far Cry being the company's first game, and also because Crytek felt it was in a race to finish the game before Half-Life 2 and Doom 3 shipped. With that learning experience under its belt, and with its reputation firmly established, Crytek focused on developing the story in Crysis first and then building the game and the cutting-edge technology around it.
The basics of the story are fairly well known at this point. Crysis is about an alien invasion and the end of mankind, and it takes place after a strange asteroid lands on a remote Pacific island. The United States sends a carrier task force to the island, but the North Koreans get there first, and your character, Jake Dunn, is part of a US Special Forces team inserted onto the island. The game has three parts. The first will involve you and your team battling the North Koreans around the island. The aliens reveal themselves in the second part, and they kick off a global climate crisis. Finally, the third part takes place in the alien's environment, involving some kind of zero-gravity warfare.
What's interesting about Crysis is that how you get through the game can vary every time you play it. Mamais told us that the designers wanted to get away from the linear storytelling experiences found in most action games. "You always have to go from point A to point B, you always have to kill some people, but we're trying to make things a little bit different," he said. "We're putting a twist on it, like maybe you're not going from point A to point B, or you don't kill this guy to win."
Crysis is a game that will forgive failure, so you don't have to worry about being perfect every time. For example, you'll battle alongside other Special Forces operators who are part of your team. Each of these guys may have an important role in the game, but if they get in a bad situation and you can't save them, they can be killed off before they can perform that role. In most games, this would require you to reload to the most recent save point and attempt to get the rescue right, but in Crysis, you will be able to proceed with the story anyway. The latter parts of the game might turn out to be a bit more difficult as a result, because the dead comrade in question might have had some critical piece of information that would have made your life easier, but you'll still be able to complete the game without them.
We saw another example of this concept when Mamais showed us a level about halfway through the game. After allying with the North Koreans, you learn that incendiary weapons are effective against the aliens, so you have to fly a vertical takeoff and landing transport over to the North Korean ammo dump to load up on them. Along the way, you'll receive an SOS from a North Korean squad caught in a battle with alien troopers, at which point you have plenty of options. You can fly over the encounter and ignore the North Koreans' plight, or you can land. If you land, you again have options. "We can watch the battle, we can help the aliens, we can kill everybody," Mamais said, "but the key is that one of the guys has a gauss rifle, so if he goes down, we can pick it up and use it. But until then, you can't get the gauss rifle until a much later mission." There's a recurring theme of risk-versus-reward throughout the story. If you pursue some of these side missions, you may burn through your ammo supply faster than if you had skipped them, but at the same time, you may find some other benefit, as well.
How you get through the game will be affected by the difficulty level that you choose to play at. Crysis will ship with a number of difficulty levels, and we're told that the easiest will be easier than that of Far Cry, but we're most interested in the hardest difficulty level, which is appropriately called Delta. We're told that it's going to be brutal, and that the action will be more realistic. The controversial checkpoint save system from Far Cry will return, but the good news is that the game will also support quicksaving and quickloading, so you can avoid situations where you have to replay whole sections of the game if you die.
The amount of storytelling flexibility being built into the game is impressive. The designers took us on a virtual tour of the USS Ashcroft, the fictional aircraft carrier in the game. While the aircraft carrier isn't modeled in its entirety, a significant section of it is, and you'll be able to walk around below deck through various spaces or watch the activity on the flight deck. A special algorithm will make sure that there's always activity buzzing around you, and you may overhear the crew talking about your exploits. You can also have a bit of fun by provoking a Marine guard to shoot you if you attempt to get past him too many times, at which point you'll be treated as a hostile and have to battle the entire crew. (Which will probably make you glad that Crysis has that quicksave option.)
All things considered, and Crysis should deliver a single-player campaign story that will be worth playing through over and over again, which is a highly unusual feature for a shooter. "It's cool because it plays different every single time," Mamais said. "We want the whole game to be like that. You're writing your own story when you're playing your game. You're creating your own entertainment." The entire story seems like it's light-years past that of Far Cry, and if Crysis can pull it off, the game will deliver a next-generation story along with its next-generation visuals. Crysis is scheduled to ship this winter.