It was hard not to be completely impressed when the first images and videos of Crysis appeared about 18 months ago. Scenes of lush jungles and towering alien war machines looked light-years beyond what seemed possible. Of course, the two questions that revolved around Crysis since its announcement were whether it would deliver on those visuals and whether it would deliver a game worthy of those fancy graphics. It turns out that the answer to both those questions is a resounding yes, as Germany's Crytek has proven that its 2004 hit Far Cry was no fluke. In fact, it was just the beginning from this studio. With its sophomore effort, Crytek has managed to deliver an incredibly advanced and exciting first-person shooter that practically rewrites the rules for the entire genre.
Crysis is an alien invasion game set in the year 2020. An archeological team on a remote Pacific island is captured by an invasion force of North Koreans, and your US Special Forces team is dispatched to investigate and rescue the scientists. Clad in high-tech nanosuits capable of boosting your strength, speed, and armor, as well as cloaking you temporarily to the enemy, you're parachuted into a tropical paradise that's crawling with intelligent enemies and something else that's tearing both the North Koreans and US forces to shreds.
Like Far Cry, the first half of Crysis is essentially a "sandbox" game where you're put in the middle of incredibly large levels and tasked with an objective. How you get the job done is pretty much entirely up to you, which is part of the brilliance of the game's design. For instance, the environments are big enough to give you a wide range of latitude. Do you have to get to a certain point on the map? You can take a meandering route that avoids patrols and go stealthy, or try the up-front approach and try to blast your way through, with the danger of enemy reinforcements showing up. Need to infiltrate a North Korean-held village? You can try the front gate, or maybe explore and find a quieter way in.
Couple these huge environments with the powers of the nanosuit, and you have a ton more options. You can play like the eponymous character from the movie Predator and use your cloaking abilities to stalk North Korean patrols, picking them off one by one and watching the survivors react in confusion. That could be via a silenced rifle, or simply coming up from behind a guard and grabbing him by the throat and hurling him off a cliff, or through the roof of a building, or against a tree, or whatever catches your fancy. Enhanced speed and strength give you an amazing amount of mobility, so you can vault atop buildings and come down behind someone, or run up against a North Korean vehicle next to a cliff and push it over the side. In a heartbeat you can switch between different roles, from stealthy assassin to seemingly unstoppable death dealer. It's a game that makes you feel like a superhero, though not an invincible one, because you simply can't run roughshod over the enemy. Crysis rewards smart, fast thinking.
It helps that the game features a high degree of advanced physics and destructibility in a highly dynamic world. Getting caught in a firefight in the jungle is a cinematic treat, thanks to the way the bullets will chop down trees, while branches sway from impacts. This isn't just a visual effect, either, as falling timber can kill if it lands on someone. There's all sorts of emergent behavior like that throughout the game, events that spring up completely unintended or unforeseen. In one instance, the flaming wreckage of a chopper landed on a hut, crushing it and killing all those inside.
Meanwhile, the gunplay and ballistics modeling make this shooter feel as if you're handling real weapons. Trying to hit a target at long engagement ranges is challenging thanks to weapon recoil and other factors. The North Koreans are encased in body armor, so they take some time to gun down, unless you aim for the head, which usually puts them on the ground. At your disposal is a variety of firearms, like shotguns and assault rifles. One of the neat aspects of the game is that you can fix up your weapons on the fly, adding scopes, silencers, and grenade launchers, provided you've found them. There are trade-offs for each add-on. Silencers let you take down guys quietly, though they reduce bullet damage, meaning you've got to make every shot count. Or flashlights mounted on your weapons might help you out in dark levels, but will give you away.
Crysis gives you all of these toys and ratchets the action higher and higher the deeper you get into it. The first level of the game introduces you to the sandbox combat and the nanosuit. From then on, the battles become larger and more intense as the action escalates. You'll storm North Korean-held villages and bases; encounter their counter to your nanosuit; take part in a chaotic assault on a North Korean harbor; and from there the game accelerates. Next is a wild tank battle in a tropical mountain valley, with helicopters and jet fighters roaring overhead. There's a sheer rush as your tank plows through vegetation and knocks down trees as missiles and tank fire erupt all around you. Meanwhile, the vehicle explosions are convincing, right down to the way ammunition cooks off and sends spirals of smoke outward. It's visual poetry of destruction. You're not confined to your tank the entire time, either. You can jump out at any time and use your suit powers and rifle to take on enemy infantry. When they're dead, pick up their dropped rocket launchers and engage vehicles in a cat-and-mouse-style game.
As events in the game continue to ramp up, you'll find yourself inside the alien ship, the zero-gravity environment delivers a visually strange and yet wondrous setting. As you navigate through the environment and engage the aliens you have to figure out your way through the level. Escape the alien ship and you're tossed into a frozen environment against the alien foe. After the alien vessel, the game becomes less free form and more linear, but it also amps up the action along the way, reflecting the way that the stakes are being raised. Now you're trying to fight your way out of the alien sphere, which means dodging war machines that look like something from The Matrix. There are a few more surprises in store from that point before you get to the ultimate showdown.
The one criticism that can be leveled on the story is that it leaves you screaming for more. While there's an adrenaline-packed finale, you still don't want the game to end on the note that it does. The single-player campaign is around eight to 10 hours long, which is a healthy amount for a shooter. There's a lot of replay here, too, as you can experiment with a multitude of different approaches. Plus, it's fun to go back and try out the large, set-piece battles again and again, since they can unfold in different ways thanks to the dynamic nature of the combat and the artificial intelligence.
Speaking of which, the AI is generally excellent in a fight, as enemy soldiers use cover and concealment effectively. They also know how to lay down suppressing fire and are great at tossing grenades to flush you out of hiding. Getting in a firefight in the jungle with these guys is always fun, because they'll make you work for it at the default normal difficulty setting. (However, the AI can suffer from the same problem all shooters seem to have; mainly that bad guys sometimes don't know what's going on down the road from them.) When you take damage, find cover and your armor and health will regenerate. If you die, you reload to the last checkpoint or quick save. Meanwhile, Crysis includes a special hard mode called delta, which is a lot of fun, because rather than making the game tougher by cheating and giving the bad guys more powerful weapons, delta takes away some of the gameplay crutches that help you at lower difficulty levels. For instance, incoming grenades are no longer highlighted, so you've got to pay attention now, and your health regeneration is slower. And the best part about delta is that all enemy soldiers speak fully in Korean, so unless you understand Korean, you're going to have a much harder time trying to figure out what they're planning to do.
The single-player game is a considerable accomplishment by itself, but Crytek has also included a full-featured multiplayer mode called power struggle that combines the best of the Battlefield games and Counter-Strike. The goal in power struggle is that each 16-man team (for 32 players total) must destroy the opposing team's base, but to do so they have to construct alien weaponry at a central prototype facility. To power the prototype facility, though, both teams need to seize and hold power stations throughout the map. In addition, there are bunkers and factories that can be captured; capturing a bunker allows your team to spawn in forward positions, while capturing a factory allows you to purchase vehicles that can help your side. Whenever you help your team by killing the enemy or seizing an objective, you gain points that can be used to purchase more advanced weapons, vehicles, and gear. It's an excellent multiplayer mode, and it comes with five large maps to support it. Keep in mind that everyone has their suit powers as well, so in addition to all the running and gunning and vehicle driving, there's plenty of leaping and speed running and cloaking going on.
Then there's instant action, which is essentially deathmatch with nanosuit powers. This is a chaotic mode set in some stunning levels, including what feels like a fully modeled Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. You can run around the flight deck, a good chunk of the hanger deck, and many of the corridors. Weapons are strewn about everywhere in instant action, so it's just a crazy melee of shotguns, snipers, rocket launchers, or nanosuit-enhanced fists. However, a team deathmatch mode is missing, which seems odd. Team deathmatch would have been a welcome addition, since it would have instilled some kind of teamwork into an otherwise free-for-all frenzy. Finally, Crysis multiplayer features built-in voice support, which means that all you need is a microphone to talk to your fellow players and teammates in power struggle.
Graphically, Crysis looks photorealistic at times--it's that amazing. Crytek has managed to achieve a visual fidelity that blows away anything seen to date, and there are countless moments when you'll just stop and gape at what you're seeing. Sometimes it's just the ordinary, like the setting sun casting all sorts of shadows and rays through the jungle canopy. Other times, it's something epic, like watching a huge alien war machine stomping toward you. The impressive aspect of the graphics is just how it manages to render huge, open, dynamic, interactive levels. Everything looks amazing up close or far away. Interacting with your squadmates lets you gaze upon the mechanical sinews of their nanosuit, or the incredible facial animation that brings them to life. They're capable of the subtlest of facial gestures to help convey emotion. Then you can sit on a ridge and peer down using binoculars to a village a kilometer away, scouting the location of the patrolling guards and machine gun posts. The sheer fact that many of the trees and buildings are destructible just adds a level of realism that's staggering.
You'll need a fairly high-end system to make the game look its best. In that regard, Crysis really does embody everything that's both exciting and daunting about PC gaming. A dual-core CPU and the latest generation of video card can run the game at maximum detail settings capably, though you have to lower the resolution a bit to do so. It's doubtful that a system has been built yet that can run the game at ultra-high resolutions with all the graphical sliders maxed out. Dial down the detail settings to high, which is the next-lower setting, and Crysis still blows contemporary games out of the water. Results are a bit mixed at medium and low settings, though. At the lowest detail settings, objects pop in and out with a fair degree of consistency. It's annoying at best and frustrating at worst, as it can impact gameplay. Crysis does support both DirectX 9 and DirectX 10, though the latter requires you run the game using Windows Vista. The visuals in DX9 are impressive, but they really come to life in DX10, provided you have the hardware.
The game also sounds fantastic, from the primordial "moans" that the island periodically releases, the soft crunch of dirt and branches under your feet, and all the background sounds that you'd expect in the middle of the jungle. Turn on your suit's cloak, and everything sounds muffled. The music, by composer Inon Zur, feels inspired by the scores from epic Hollywood action movies, while the voice acting is also excellent, helping to deliver some distinct characters and even a little humor.
If you put it all together, Crysis is just remarkable. This is a game that pushes the envelope in terms of both technology and gameplay and does so with aplomb. Crysis raises the expectations for every shooter to follow when it comes to graphics, interactivity, environments, immersiveness, AI, and gameplay. Quite simply, Crysis represents the first-person shooter at its finest, most evolved form.