Crysis 2 has to live up to a high standard. Not only did the original Crysis pack a lot of high-quality action into its good-sized campaign, but its stunningly authentic rendering of lush jungle vistas set the graphical standard by which all modern shooters are judged. Fortunately, this sequel does an admirable job of living up to the original's reputation of sheer technical prowess. It doesn't feature all the visual bells and whistles you might expect in a game from a developer known for pushing the limits of modern hardware. But, this sequel still looks amazing, and it plays that way too. The jungle is now of the urban variety--New York City to be precise. You make your way through office buildings, across crumbling bridges, and around broad city squares, where robotic aliens infest hallways and swarm across rooftops. Large environments give you room to maneuver and grant you freedom to approach battle in a number of ways, which makes Crysis 2 a great alternative to the plethora of first-person shooters that usher you down corridors on your way to the next action movie set piece.
Crysis 2 does an excellent job of portraying a city under siege without indulging in constant action-film cutaways. There is still plenty of cinematic excess here, though it's delivered organically. Yes, there are a few scripted moments in which you are more of an observer than a participant; and, yes, you might be able to hold a key to peer at the imposing alien structure towering in the distance. But rather than wrest control away from you to highlight every falling skyscraper, collapsing passageway, and hovering alien ship, Crysis 2 allows these events to simply happen. And, because they are often so momentous, your attention is drawn to them. The few occasions when the game stops to consider how the average citizen might be affected by an alien invasion lend humanity to your militaristic actions. Familiar landmarks are defaced, lay in ruin, or explode as you watch. There's an eerie contrast between the untouched trees of Central Park swaying in the wind and the rubble stretching behind them. The visual design eschews artistic flair in favor of authenticity, and it mostly succeeds at providing a frightening real-world backdrop for large-scale shoot-outs.
If you appreciated Crysis as a technical benchmark, as well as an excellent shooter, you might be surprised by Crysis 2's more modest menu options. There are a few preset graphics options (high, very high, and extreme), but the menu doesn't allow you to tweak antialiasing settings and such, as you would expect in the sequel to the highly customizable Crysis. (You can adjust these settings by entering certain console commands, but that is not an acceptable alternative to built-in menu options.) Furthermore, the game does not support DirectX 11, so you won't see the advanced lighting techniques here that you see in games like Metro 2033 and Dirt 2. But to pick these nits with much vigor would be unfair to one of the best-looking games in recent times. Crysis 2 looks stunning, runs smoothly on even modest systems, and suffers from few obvious bugs and glitches.
Perhaps the game's most astounding technical feat is that it displays so much on the screen at once and that distant objects are rendered with more detail than you would typically expect. Look closely and you begin to appreciate the details. Birds strut on the pavement and then fly off as you approach. Alien dropships cast ominous shadows on pockmarked concrete and abandoned taxicabs. There are multiple stunning sights, such as a nighttime vista of the burning metropolis from a famed island in the East River. Such scenes are elevated by a rousing and varied orchestral soundtrack that underscores the visual juxtaposition of the picturesque and the profane. Consider, for example, a creepy minor-key track that contrasts dark, throbbing cellos with the busy fiddling of violins many octaves higher. Or an undulating melody through which electronic vibrations weave in and out.
You play as a marine known as Alcatraz, and like Nomad in the original game, you are outfitted with a nanosuit. This suit makes you the soldier of the future; it allows you to jump to great heights, temporarily cloak yourself, and scan your environment. You can also activate a mode that boosts your armor. You receive this suit in dramatic fashion from the original game's Prophet, and the nature of this technology figures heavily into the story. Someone wants that suit. Thus, you aren't just fighting off an alien invasion, but you're also fighting ground troops that would be happy to see you dead. You won't find much of interest in the characters, and the meandering plot takes a while to find its rhythm. But once it does, it carries you along properly, delivers a few twists, and comes to an intriguing conclusion that you won't see coming. How refreshing it is for a game to set up a sequel without resorting to cheap cliches.
It's a shame that it takes an hour or two of nondescript FPS action before you get to see the spectacular devastation. In fact, if you haven't played the original Crysis, the first stretch of the sequel might make you wonder why it is so beloved. You spend the early going pitted against relatively dumb human enemies who run past you towards some distant cover spot but fail to shoot, stand around staring straight ahead, and otherwise act as if they don't know you are pumping them full of lead. Later on, you catch friendlies and aliens standing around together, looking like they might be enjoying each other's company. Aliens and humans alike crash into objects and then just run in place rather than go around them or leap over. Other times, the invading ETs get confused when trying to leap to higher vantage points and make it easy to turn them to alien goo. The AI simply isn't good, and its mediocrity stands out all the more against the otherwise convincing climate.
Fortunately, the AI is an infrequent concern once the invasion is in full swing and you're surrounded by dozens of foes roaming the maps and surrounding you. The aliens come in a few varieties. Some armored creatures might pounce on you and knock you off your feet or fire energy bolts at you. Many of them hop onto ledges and rooftops to gain higher ground. Miniboss types pummel you with rockets and are tough to bring down without a C4 charge or a few rockets. Crysis 2 offers a nice challenge, particularly in its second half; some of those aliens soak up a lot of bullets before going down. You get an array of military-grade weapons, and you can tailor them with different sights (reflex sights, for example) and other enhancements (say, a silencer). You also collect the glitter that dead aliens leave behind (called nano catalyst) and use it to upgrade your nanosuit. For example, you can improve your suit's energy regeneration, or you can unlock a fun ground-pound ability. The suit works a bit differently than it did in the original Crysis. For instance, you no longer activate power mode to jump to higher levels; you just hold down the jump key. Rather than activate speed mode, you sprint.
The maps aren't as spacious as those in the original Crysis or in Far Cry 2, which may disappoint fans of the original seeking a healthy dose of sandbox gameplay. Compared to most shooters, however, Crysis 2 still offers plenty of room to maneuver. As you enter the larger areas--often from a rooftop above--the game encourages you to use your suit to scan the environment. Doing so allows you to tag enemies for assault or avoidance, and it shows you where all-important ammo and weapon stashes are located. How you approach battle is then up to you. You can activate armor mode and go in guns blazing, though Crysis 2 is not a bunny-hopping, run-and-gun shooter; the heavier your weapon, the slower your movement. Carelessness does not bring good results. Sometimes, you can avoid battle entirely by cloaking yourself and sneaking around. More often than not, you employ variations on these themes: cloaking yourself long enough to flank the enemy and then unleashing a barrage; popping a turret gunner in the head; or performing a satisfying stealth kill on a chattering alien from behind. Or perhaps you might use the verticality of the levels to your benefit, leaping to a ledge above and rushing to a better vantage point.
The resulting firefights are exceptional and unpredictable. Crysis 2's variety comes not from one on-rails sequence after another, but from busy, open maps that constantly break up your line of sight and give you a reason to use both short- and long-ranged weaponry. There are a few on-rails/turret sequences, but Crysis 2 is longer than most modern shooters--10 hours or so--and individual levels span multiple fronts. As a result, such orchestrated events don't overstay their welcome, and the game feels more like one extended experience than a series of bite-sized chunks sewn together. What makes Crysis 2 fun is that you author your own destiny by getting in an armored vehicle and squashing a few grunts under your wheels or ripping off the same vehicle's turret gun and wasting enemies.
Such diversity leads to superb shoot-outs in the final two-thirds of the campaign. It's unfortunate that the first few levels lack momentum; the story doesn't go anywhere, the environments only hint at the upcoming havoc, and the baffling AI drains excitement away. Once you finish the campaign, though, it isn't the early down moments you remember most but the thrills that erupted as you approached Grand Central Station or blasted your way through extraterrestrial hordes in a nail-biting sequence near the game's finale. Fending off leaping aliens with your comrades in a large city square is a blast: robotic hulks lumber on the ground level while agile foes skitter across ledges and fire from windows. In another momentous mission, the lights go out and you engage foes while activating your suit's heat-sensing mode.
The multiplayer part of Crysis 2 is superficially similar to that of other modern shooters, and it does a good job of keeping you engaged once you get past some technical hiccups. Crysis 2 rewards you with experience and levels as you play, but unlike the console versions of the game, you get access to all six modes from the get-go. These include standards like Instant Action (Deathmatch); Team Instant Action; a king-of-the hill mode called Crash Site; and a capture-the-flag variant. Rounding out the online options are two assault-and-defend modes: Assault and Extraction.
These game types all grant a good dose of action, though it is much different from the expansive Power Struggle matches that defined the original. Nevertheless, Crysis 2 differentiates itself from other shooters with the same nanosuit abilities as in the single-player campaign. You can cloak yourself for short periods of time and take your opponents by surprise; escape a sticky situation by leaping to higher ground; and improve your defenses by activating armor mode. The diverse maps give you plenty of opportunity to employ these skills. On the vertical Skyline map, for example, jumping to higher ground is a great way to gain an advantage over a pursuing enemy. On the atmospheric Sanctuary, stealthy players will appreciate the many archways and gravestones that shield them from view when they need to recharge their energy. It's all solid fun, and given the nature of the nanosuit powers, it's unpredictable enough to keep you invested for the long term.
PC players will be happy to note that they can join up with others using a traditional server browser, as well as the matchmaking feature, though few players seem to be using said matchmaking. That's not the only drawback affecting online play, either. Joining a dedicated server doesn't get you into a game; all you get is a pre-match room full of people wondering why the match won't start. Unranked servers seem to function just fine, however. According to the game, only playing in ranked servers is supposed to earn you experience and other rewards, but as of this review, playing unranked games has earned us experience points. For now, you can still join others and have a blast while advancing--just not in the way apparently intended.
Gaining experience is important because it forms the core of Crysis 2's elaborate system of unlocks. While you can choose from one of a few premade classes, the game allows you (in most modes) to create your own class by selecting from a variety of weapons and suit modules. These modules are many and may allow for faster firing rate, automatic warning when enemies come near, radar scrambling, and more. Some unlocks are earned by meeting the necessary skill requirement; others are tied to particular milestones. For example, you might earn a module upgrade by killing 150 enemies while in armor mode. There are many such upgrades and many ways to customize your character.
Crysis was a superb game, and it wasn't so just because of the astounding technology that brought it to life. Crysis 2 doesn't make as strong of a mark, but it comes close, and in a sea of me-too shooters, it feels unique and offers an exciting journey that's as much your own making as that of the developer. The wow factor is undercut by some AI and multiplayer oddities. But while the lows are inescapable, the highs are intense, and the more you play, the more extraordinary they become. If you give this sequel a little patience, it will bombard you with the thrills you came seeking.
If you're already playing Crysis 2, be sure to check out our game guide which includes both a full campaign walkthrough and multiplayer load outs tips.