Tag Archives: Crysis 2

Crysis 2: A Supposedly Fun Game You’ll Never Play Again

Videogames, despite the wishes of many who make and play them, are plodding out of their Dark Ages. Fast becoming the dominant entertainment medium of the century, with strange specimens at their antipodes hinting they could one day become a powerful — whisper it — artistic medium, they can no longer afford to wallow in quagmires of accumulated pigswill and faeces. So to speak.

The role of the games critic (and, okay, amateur blogger) today feels akin to that of the Victorian physician, moving away from guesswork and superstition, struggling assiduously towards a scientific understanding of the form. No more the medieval critic-priests trudging behind their gods, espousing arcane edicts about “gameplay” and “graphics”, burning unbelievers who dare to question dogmatic axioms such as “games must be fun”. These days, we can truly employ critical thinking, build new lexicons, favour empirical evidence, as we dissect our subjects, delicately prod the flaps and tubes…. All in pursuit of an answer to the question of what this creature called the “videogame” actually is.

And just as Sir Frederick Treves had his Elephant Man, we too may look towards the abominations and the monstrosities within the field to help put our study into perspective. But, unlike Treves, our monsters are sleek and charming to behold. It is beneath, at their cores, where the gnarled tumours lie….

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Poor old Crysis 2. It didn’t deserve an introduction like that. It tried sshhow hard to be ghoodsh. Hell, my praise was close to effusive when I wrote about it last. But … Man, something about it has been irking me more and more of late. I’ve been returning to it, on and off, in the year since finishing its Hollywood-blockbuster campaign, playing a level here, a fire-fight there, scribbling frenzied notes late into the night … unsure why a dumb shooting game was fascinating me so, but prepared to follow my nose to the malodorous truths my subconscious was sniffing out. So to speak.

Here’s why Crysis 2 is a fun game that nonetheless harms the industry, an emblem that speaks so strongly of why gaming is fucked right now: You see, Crysis 2 confuses the skin with the soul.

But first, history.

Crytek is a German-Turkish developer based in Frankfurt, a relatively young studio. They first came to prominence with Far Cry in 2004, a technically-dazzling shooter playing out on a lavish tropical-island setting. It is perhaps telling, though, that before the game’s release Crytek had already garnered attention for demonstrations of the engine Far Cry would run on.

The game really was stunning to look at. Its lush vegetation, lapping waters and long draw-distance set a new standard for real-time visuals. But it was also a mechanistically-rich game, with large levels and plenty of wriggle-room for completing objectives. Flora wasn’t just for admiring, it also concealed you from enemies, who would call for reinforcements if they spotted you, and work together to take you down. The muscular power of the CryEngine chugging away beneath its hood was utilised to create a more resonant experience for players.

Crytek’s next game, and spiritual successor to Far Cry, was Crysis, released in 2007. Selling the rights to Far Cry to Ubisoft, who went on to make the intriguing but flawed Far Cry 2 (hope you’re not getting confused), allowed Crytek to focus on a new IP, one that took the strengths of their first game and turned everything up to eleven.

Crysis was a beast. A PC-only title that barely ran on machines players owned at the time, it was the last great weapon in the graphical arms-race of those years. These days the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are old and creaking, and most developers will release cross-platform titles whose PC ports can be played with decidedly modest rigs — but five years ago Crysis was a badge of honour for hardcore PC gamers. You’d invite friends round to prove the PC was the true format to rule them all, and your friends would sit slack-jawed as trees splintered and fell from hails of bullets, buildings were reduced to rubble with grenade blasts, and ferns yielded and swayed from your passing figure.

Again, though, this graphical cock-brandishing worked to engender a deep and enthralling experience. Crysis‘s story of nanosuited warriors battling alien invaders may have been dumb, the characters stereotypes, but the sub-surface systems these narrative non-starters were draped over were complex, and rewarding to explore.

And here we arrive at the point. Gaming isn’t a storytelling medium, though it encompasses aspects of storytelling. It isn’t a spectator medium, like listening to music or admiring art, though it may contain beautiful music and artwork. The videogame is rather a model, a simulated world to play with, and play within.

Sometimes we play to be relaxed, sometimes to be entertained; other times we want intellectual stimulation, or emotional enlightenment — but play is always the key. You would think that as the games industry matures it would be looking for more effective ways to evoke these sensations, richer models to provide more nuance to the play.

Crytek would disagree. Their goal when designing the sequel to Crysis was accessibility; a product not just for the PC elite, but one that would run on the Xbox, with its meagre 512 MB of memory. Sacrifices in vision were necessary. This is understandable, even laudable, but the aspects of their vision Crytek deemed inconsequential enough to drop speak volumes of their changing priorities.

Crysis 2 is bombastic. There’s a bit in the first Crysis when, right in the middle of a pitched tank battle across a serene valley, the screen begins to shake, and the mountain in the distance crumbles apart, revealing an alien structure buried beneath it. Narratively, it’s standard sci-fi pulp, but experiencing it is quite the thing.

Crysis 2 makes a game out of that moment. Aliens have invaded New York, and  … no, that’s it. Crysis 2 is Michael Bay if Michael Bay was a videogame and not quite so much of a cock. Shit hits the fan, the fan blows up, the shit blows up, reality itself blows up, and you’re wading through the middle, haemorrhaging bullets and making solipsistic statements about the self. So to speak.

And it still looks incredible. The latest version of the CryEngine has gorgeous lighting and particle effects, all that neat stuff that gets tech-heads hot under the collar. Comparing static screenshots, this console-optimised sequel more than holds its own against its predecessor. The sacrifices, then, have been made elsewhere.

The most obvious casualty is scope. Where Far Cry and Crysis offered wide sandboxes to frolic within, Crysis 2 presents linear levels that sweep you between set-pieces that are dazzling yet unrewarding. When multiple options for progression are presented, they are signposted loud and clear. YOU CAN SNIPE ON THIS ROOFTOP, OR TRY SNEAKING THROUGH THE SEWERS HERE. Level design forces you ever-onwards, impatient for the next opportunity to blow its cinematic-load (so to speak), worried of losing your attention if it lets you stop to think.

The intelligence of the enemies is woeful as well. They flank you less, harry you less, and often become bugged and simply pivot on the spot, safe for you to pick off at your leisure. And the environments are less interactive, with the destructible buildings and trees and pots and fences of the first game replaced with an inert world that, after the initial sensory-thrills have abated, feels decidedly restrictive.

What Crysis 2 attempts — namely a deafening, smothering firework-display — it achieves. It is an assault on the senses. But Crytek can do more than this — have done more than this — and it is a shame to see the nuance of their earlier games abandoned in pursuit of loud theatrics.

And it isn’t just Crytek. Although the fringes of the industry are awash right now with developers experimenting with the form, producing rich and complex models, mainstream gaming is in a state of atrophy. The market is saturated with the same dumb corridor shooters, only with better wallpaper on the walls, more lumpy gravel under foot. Top tier studios who repeatedly confuse the skin with the soul.

And yet ultimate blame shouldn’t rest with the studios. Lobotomised publishers who have no sense of the worth of a thing beyond its financial value will always exist. But it is us, as gamers and critics, who feed them.

We demand parallax occlusion mapping, and realistic shadows with variable penumbra, and full DirectX 11 support. (This was, interestingly, many gamers’ issue with Crysis 2. At release, the PC version didn’t support the latest DirectX library, which in layman’s terms means some of the brick-walls didn’t look as weather-eroded as they could have done. Everything wrong with the game was because of an over-focus on visual splendour, and gamers complained because it wasn’t visually-splendid enough. Figures.)

We send the message that, above all else, we want our games to sparkle — and we are rewarded in kind. But that apparent need for sparkle, it doesn’t define us. The voice within that is desirous of more polygons, more filters, more power (the voice that persuaded me to download the DX11 patch when it later arrived) is the same loud voice that wants the ice cream factory at the pizza restaurant, the spending spree, the drugs, the excitement. The childish voice that wants, wants, wants — wants for the sake of wanting, wants, I don’t know, death, maybe … an end to the dread and despair that sits at the base of our spines.

Artists shouldn’t kowtow to this voice. That’s the job of pimps and pornographers and marketing executives. Because the childish voice cannot be satiated, its primary essence is in fact insatiability. The role of the artist should be to lead us back from this brink.

There is another voice, you see. One quieter, less pressing, but purer, more pellucid. It is not older than the childish voice, but younger, reaching back to before birth. It is inquisitive but not desperate. It doesn’t shout “Give me that”, but asks “What is this?”, and it waits for an answer. It is the voice that questions what we’re doing here, where we’ve been, where we’re going — the voice that sees us not as separate but together, a people who would be better helping rather than hurting one another.

This is the voice that art addresses.

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Crytek are not a highbrow developer; their aims were never those of high art. But within the field of the atavistic predator-prey simulator (and, hell, the enduring popularity of these games, and literature like Call of the Wild, proves our bourgeois society has not shaken off its animalistic roots) they were always innovative. It is sad to see them reigning in this ambition in an attempt to emulate the lurid and insipid beasts choking the lifeblood from the form. I’d like to see Crytek shout less, to forget the plastic surgery and focus on working out where their soul lies. That’s the future of the industry.

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Crysis 2: A Review

“Never assume,” the Buddha once said, “it makes an ass out of you and me.”

Well alright, he probably didn’t phrase it in quite those terms, and especially not in English — but it’s good advice regardless, and something fans of the original Crysis would do well to be mindful of when approaching this sequel.

Developers Crytek have altered their priorities, you see. Gone are the lush jungle expanses of the first game and its spiritual predecessor Far Cry, replaced with the tight urban trenches of a New York under attack from alien invaders.

And gone too is Crytek’s quixotic quest for graphical and physical fidelity far ahead of the curve, resulting in games only playable on the highest spec quantum-cooled 1.21 gigawatt machines of the future. Crysis 2 is designed with the ageing consoles in mind, its PC port the superior version but certainly not a tech demo to test upcoming graphics cards against.

The kids, as usual, aren’t happy. Being able to display the first Crysis on max settings was a badge of honour, undisputed proof that the PC could handle games the PS3 and 360 could only dream of.

So Crytek’s change of approach has been interpreted by the PC elite as a betrayal, a sacrificing of scope and individuality in the chase for that elusive Yankee Dollar.

Well to hell with that. Stop concentrating on what you assume Crysis 2 should be, and accept it for what it actually is, and you’ll find a superb game in there.

It is more linear than its forefathers, for sure, but also slicker, more accessible. It’s a roller coaster rather than sandbox, now — offering an intense ride that catapults you around the besieged New York as sky scrapers collapse, helicopters explode and alien structures burst forth from beneath the concrete.

The high-octane spectacle is an obvious strategy to appeal to the mainstream console market, but it is no less affecting for it. For gut excitement it rivals Call of Duty and its ilk, and in fact beneath the whizz-bang exterior lies a game far more intelligent and complex than those cleverly disguised shooting galleries.

The core concept is largely unchanged from the first Crysis. You play Alcatraz, a mute marine ensconced within the Nanosuit — a state-of-the-art combat suit bestowing the user with super-human abilities. The suit can be switched between three primary modes: strength, allowing you to leap buildings and punch people really hard in the face; armour, absorbing bullets and cushioning the shock from explosions and falls; and stealth, turning you near-invisible, letting you sneak past enemies and escape detection.

Whereas transitioning between suit modes in the previous game required accessing a wheel menu, Crysis 2 maps functionality to the Q and E keys (or bumper buttons), immediately increasing your flexibility in the heat of battle. The streamlining is an obvious yet major improvement, resulting in a more instinctive play style that allows you to react to each situation as it occurs.

There’s still room for proactive forward planning, but there is now less fear of making a mistake in your approach and your suit not reacting in time to get you out of trouble. With no lag between making a decision and implementing it through the controls, it’s easier to barrel through situations forming ad hoc plans as you go. Executing a strategy is still enjoyable, but possessing that extra level of manipulation over your suit makes firefights creative and rewarding affairs.

The AI is also more forgiving this time round, presumably for similar reasons. It’s always possible to cloak up and sprint away from confrontations, enemies on higher alert after spotting you but certainly not following you doggedly. Die hard fans of the first game might bemoan the step back in realism, but I found the extra leniency satisfying.

Which is not to say the Nanosuit is invulnerable. It is folly, at least on higher difficulty settings, to take on groups of enemies head on. Using suit powers drains energy, represented with a meter on the HUD. Energy recharges, but only with powers switched off, and once the meter depletes entirely you’ll go down in a couple of hits.

In practice this means the suit is best used for hit and run attacks. My original conception of Crysis was that the suit modes would make for a Deus Ex clone, albeit less cerebral, allowing you to choose to approach situations as either a walking tank, a raging Incredible Hulk or a stealthy rogue.

The game is at its best though, its most fluid, when utilising all modes in tandem. Less the Hulk, a more apt superhero analogy is probably to Batman — a deadly assassin striking unexpectedly, taking down with lightning efficiency then slipping back into the shadows.

You cloak up and creep through an area, finding a couple of guards separated from the pack. Sneaking behind one you snap his neck, coming out of cloak to blast the other with your rifle. But three more are alerted to the disturbance — you activate shields as the bullets come whining in. You charge at the group, grabbing one by the throat and tossing him across the street. Pistol shots take down the other two. But there are guards everywhere now, and you’re running out of energy. With a last spurt you leap to a nearby rooftop and duck behind cover. After a quick recharge you cloak up again and drop down silently on the other side of the building, slinking off to plan your next attack …

Of course it’s possible to knock down the difficulty and gun your way through, or stealth past the majority of encounters, but you won’t have nearly as much fun.

The game’s visuals, while they won’t be stretching hardware for years to come, are still hugely impressive. Morning sun starches the sidewalks and shimmers off windows, glowing embers float in the dusk, the sky is alive with birds and smoke and the dissolving ephemera of recently fought battles.

Lighting is more subtle, more believable than in the first game, and objects have a solidity they didn’t before possess. True, look carefully and you can see where concessions have been made to squeeze the game onto consoles: details that may previously have been modelled — discarded clothes, ammo, newspapers — are now drawn onto textures, reflections in the omnipresent glass buildings are a cheated approximation and levels, while still containing open areas, are more constrained than the wooded valleys of the original Crysis.

The general impression, however, is strong. With or without DX11 support, this is a sumptuous looking game, the art direction Crytek’s strongest to date.

I am less inclined, though, to defend the game’s narrative. It is not appalling, and manages to maintain a sense of pace and excitement, but away from the disaster-movie bombast its more human elements fall predictably flat. Characters are generally ill-defined, opposing factions do not have clear enough goals, and the attempts at sense of place — “The End is Nigh” style graffiti, virus-infected citizens huddled in quarantine zones — are too clichéd to take seriously. It is as if the writers have played Half Life 2 and BioShock, shot for a similar style, but not understood what it was that made the elements in those games work so well.

One aspect of the narrative that succeeds unequivocably, however, is the characterisation of the Nanosuit itself. While you know next to nothing — and don’t care to know — about Alcatraz, the Nanosuit is a hardy, likeable personality. It never shuts up, for one, yelling out MAXIMUM ARMOUR or STEALTH MODE ENGAGED at you with cheery abandon. But more than that, it is a dynamic, active, evolving presence, a friend to get you through the toughest of scrapes.

In an inspired design choice, the suit is constantly getting chewed up and bashed around by some scripted story event, always finding a way to cope with the trauma. When a chemical weapon infects the air, you fall to the floor as the suit tries to isolate and absorb the bio-toxins, the only control left to you a button press to activate the in-built defibrillator to restart your heart. When massive damage takes the suit offline, you follow key-prompts to crawl resolutely onwards, hand over hand, as the suit runs desperate internal protocols to restore functionality.

These moments of vulnerability work in part to throw your usual enhanced acrobatics into contrast, but they also do a great job of grounding you within the suit. Just as the plot sees Alcatraz and the Nanosuit merging into one being, so too do you feel a bizarre bond forming with the high-tech armour. You become reliant on it, transforming it into an AI team-mate constantly hoisting you towards greatness. That Crytek have conjured this sensation from nothing is deserving of praise.

Running concurrent with the campaign mode, Crysis 2 also contains the usual wealth of online multiplayer options. In keeping with the overarching style, this is a game taking its cues from Call of Duty — with weapon unlocks, leveling-up and preset classes, and all the pros and cons that go with such a system. Matches are fast paced and frantic, suit functions tweaked slightly but remaining similar to the single player. Levels are well designed, with the super-jump, sprint and cloaking abilities providing a fresh way to traverse terrain. The usual caveats apply — this is a competitive shark pool and newcomers are likely to be disheartened by the regularity they’re outgunned and outclassed by higher level players with better weapons — but overall the multiplayer is a solid experience that should extend the game’s lifespan considerably.

Crysis 2 is a muscular, frenetic beast of a game. Its tighter structure may rule out some of the potential for emergent glory that Crytek’s earlier titles offered, but blow-for-blow this is the better product. Does it set the bar for the next generation of videogame graphics? No. Has it aligned itself with the beefy jock-shooters vying for market dominance on the consoles? Definitely. But why assume either of those are such bad things? Take a leaf from the Buddha’s book and judge the game on its own merits — you may be surprised with what you find.

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