Tag Archives: Crysis

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….

***

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.

***

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.

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under Game Ponderings, Ramblings

Vaguely Life Leaks Away

Eyes open. There is … soft? Fog. A morass of fuzz. A pillow, so inviting. There is … “I”. Me. I am. I am … awake.

Dawn is breaking; it is my day off. Should I get up? What hour is this? Do people exist yet? Surely not.

I find my phone within a tangle of bed sheets. I wrestle it open, stare at the alien symbols until they form into familiar numbers. It’s midday.

Shit. Days off aren’t for wasting. Days off are precious and waiting to be filled with video games and music and John Updike novels; with guitars and bacon and above all writing, so much writing. Seize the day. Seize the moment. Seize the … seize … the … pillow.

Eyes open. There is … cloud? Haze. I am. Am I? What is … what is “I”? Pillow. I am pillow. So soft.

I find my phone within a tangle of bed sheets. 2:15 in the afternoon.

Shit. I wrench myself up from the quagmire and stumble to the bathroom. I stand under the shower and go “Nnuuurg” until the lichen clogging my mind begins to come loose. Just five or nine black coffees now, and I’ll be back on speaking terms with reality.

One day. One short day, a quarter used up, to get a post onto my blog. Too many empty dates, too little content. Letting my hopes ebb away, vaguely, inexorably. I’m not going to become a games journalist. I’ll be serving bad Australian lagers to media students my whole life.

What to do? I have no ideas for articles. No stories. I’ve not been playing enough games; discs everywhere and Steam library overflowing and no time to play. I need a new post on the blog tonight. I have nothing to say. Shitting shit.

I eat some cereal and calm down. Things are always better after cereal.

I decide to play Crysis. I’ve already done the Gaming Education for it, but I want it completed, I figure seeing it off will close a loop and give me a sense of accomplishment to steady my nerves.

Not long to go. I’ve escaped the island the whole game has been set on and reached a US aircraft carrier. But the aliens are after us. There’s a mega beast chewing up our ship, giving us hell. Ten minutes, I predict, and I’ll be leaping in slow motion onto a drop ship piloted by my burly squad-mate as the aircraft carrier goes down in a ball of flames. It’s been that sort of game.

Urg, except my save file won’t load. I plod around on Google, browse forums, and eventually figure out my file is corrupted. I rummage in the Crysis folder, find the offending file, and delete it. Now the game will load, but I have to start from a checkpoint further back, and kill all the Matrix-esque aliens I’d already killed. PC gaming, eh?

Chick-boom goes my shotgun, over and over, and I’m back at the mega beast. Not to ruin the surprising denouement, but I shoot a tactical nuke up its woopsie, it crashes onto the aircraft carrier, and I leap to freedom, in slow motion, onto my burly squad-mate’s drop ship. Flames lick out at us as we escape.

Someone should tell developers to stop ending their games like this.

The day is getting on. I still don’t have an article to write. I open a blank document and stare at the dark screen. I type “I don’t know what to write”, to see what happens. Nothing much happens. I start typing out my thoughts as they come to my head, then get depressed how stupid my thoughts are, and delete them. Pretending it’s just to create a mood advantageous to writing, I alt+tab away from the word processor and open Spotify. I listen to Daniel Johnston sing beautiful songs, lyrics full of hope yet so fragile you fear they’ll be wrenched apart, like spiders on the breeze. It isn’t advantageous to writing.

I listen to more songs, then watch videos for songs on Youtube, then scroll up and down my Facebook feed aimlessly. My head feels heavy and dull, like a swinging ham. Frank Turner comes on Spotify and sings about how you shouldn’t waste your life away. Shut up Frank Turner, I think.

I start watching a developer video for upcoming jock-shooter Bulletstorm, all smash cuts and obnoxious swearing and producers calling their characters the “premier badasses of motherfuck town”. It flushes me with embarrassment that this is the image of our industry we’re presenting to the world. Non-gamers don’t get to see Dinner Date and Digital: A Love Story and The Dream Machine. They just see brash videos for games containing “sweet badassery” and the ability to rip aliens’ assholes out of their bodies.

No wonder we’re not taken seriously.

I get glum. I’ve no idea what to write about for my article. I can see the word processor icon staring at me from the taskbar. I imagine it with glasses, looking over them at me, its head cocked, like a disapproving teacher.

I let out a deep sigh, muster my reserves and do the only sensible thing: I go downstairs and make crumpets.

Twenty buttery minutes later, I’m sat on my sofa absorbed in Super Mario Galaxy 2. I’ve not played it enough for a Gaming Education, so it won’t help me write my article, but the general effervescence is curing my mean reds. It’s loony and madcap and inspired, and even after Crysis it looks gorgeous. The objects have a real solidity to them, and they’re brimming with character and humour — the way the trees wiggle when you climb them, the soft grass coating the asteroids, the lo-fi beauty of the water. Crysis was lifelike, sure, but this is goddamn dreamlike.

And yet, as with the first game, it never quite makes me thump. Thing is, Mario games have had two arcs. The first arc reached its zenith with Super Mario World (or perhaps Bros. 3, with a plateau to World) — the challenge, the pacing, the level design perfected in those few years. Jumping from one platform to the next was raised to a religious experience.

But then along came Mario 64, and the rules changed. Although ostensibly you still played to overcome obstacles, beat challenges, receive rewards, there was something deeper at work. It was the first game I played — and perhaps the most significant barring Ocarina of Time — where the main draw was the fundamental experience of existing in a virtual world. Sure, I still wanted all 120 power stars, but more than that I desired to run around, to swim in the water, to climb the hills and jump about. The time limit was gone, the march from left to right had been abandoned; you were no longer a shark who moved forwards or died, but rather a stranger in a strange land — free to explore the mountains and valleys of a digital realm.

Mario 64 was the moment I stopped seeing games as electronic tests of skill, and instead understood their potential as waking dreams.

So, however imaginative Mario Galaxy and its sequel are, I can’t help but miss the sense of exploration Mario 64 gave me. The reigned-in nuggets of challenge the Galaxies provide are terrific, but they aren’t as tight as those in World or Bros. 3. How could they be, with that clumsy third dimension added? 2D means accuracy, 3D means adventure; and to my mind you play to your strengths. I enjoy what the Galaxy games give, but I can’t help gazing out into their star-flecked firmaments and wishing for more.

All of which is interesting, but doesn’t give me an article. The day is almost over. I have a heap of scattered thoughts and opinions, but nothing strong enough to lead a post on its own. If only there was a way to lash the thoughts together, some structure I could use to drape the day’s potterings across.

I stare at my PC screen. I listen to a Rock, Paper, Shotgun podcast. I drink gin and tonic. The earth continues its celestial pirouetting around the sun, and darkness falls.

I give up. I don’t have the answer. Not all battles can be won. I climb into bed — the pillows plump, inviting — and set my alarm for work tomorrow. My brain not quite ready for sleep, still clinging to this reality, I put a DVD in the player. Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman.

What will I post to my blog? I don’t know. I just need a spark, anything. Adaptation plays on.

I get tired. Maybe I’ll think of something in the morning.

4 Comments

Filed under Ramblings

A Gaming Education: Crysis

What’s totally clear is that Crysis is about cock. You buy it to prove how powerful your gaming PC is, you overclock your graphics card to prove you can run it on maxed-out settings, and Crytek made the damn thing to prove their engine could crunch more polygons than anyone else’s.

Cock, cock, cock. It’s one humungus cock measuring competition.

What’s equally clear is that, as someone who reads the Guardian and drinks green tea and worries about the environment, I am impervious to such nonsense.

A game is a game, and what matters is the emotional journey the player is taken on, how much the experience moves them, and what they take away from their time spent playing. Aesthetics, as a measure of beauty, obviously ties into this, and producing beguiling visuals is an important factor in engendering such tonal resonance, but HDR lighting does not a good game make.

Building ever more faithful recreations of reality is a job for autistic model-makers, not artists. The future of our industry lies in dreams, not reality.

Nevertheless, I have a new PC, and want to put it through its paces. It’s also, I feel, my journalistic responsibility to wade into this murky spunk-pool of one-up-manship, and report on the sticky truths I find there.

So I boot up the game, and it transpires I am playing the role of a gruff cybernetically-enhanced marine of the future, being dropped behind enemy lines on a mission of some importance, for a distress signal has been intercepted that hints at a dark alien presence to have been awoken from beneath …

I sigh. On the shelf behind my monitor sits Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre. I could literally be reading Sartre right now.

I land on a beach at night. I’m grasping an enormous, and-it-has-to-be-said, utterly phallic combat rifle, and wearing a suit that grants me special powers and makes the muscles in my arms look oh-so-bulging.

It becomes apparent my job is to shoot people and also sometimes blow people up. What complicates proceedings is that these people are simultaneously trying to shoot and blow me up as well. Talk about yer existential angst! To be fair, these chaps probably subscribe to Dr Johnson’s notion that he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man. And why not? Hell, it’s hard to feel dread about the nature of self when Korean soldiers are trying to set you on fire.

A while later I use the cloaking ability of my cyber-suit to creep up on two guards. I grab one by the throat and throw him against the other, and they both go skidding down a hill. This alerts more enemies to my position, so I switch to speed mode and close the distance between us in seconds. Face-to-face, I activate maximum strength mode, and punch the men half-way across the valley.

Very much about cock, that still felt pretty cool.

Later, I shoot my phallic rifle at a tree. The trunk splinters, and snaps, and the whole thing comes crashing down into the foliage, rays from the sun piercing its canopy as it falls. The ocean laps gently upon the sand, in which I can pick out individual grains, and birds fly overhead, distinct when I raise my laser scope to them, blurred and hazy on the edges of my vision. Plants sway in the breeze, yielding as I brush through them.

I’m not sure how that relates to cock.

Later, I’m racing down river in a patrol boat. A helicopter is chasing me, spitting bullets into the water all around. Just as my boat is about to explode I dive out and frantically engage my cloak, which gets me undetected to one of the forested shores before losing power. I cower in the dark as my suit recharges. The helicopter is circling and I can hear Korean voices all around.

Suddenly the torchlight from a soldier’s rifle comes bouncing over the ridge towards me, illuminating the forest in real-time. My suit isn’t fully charged yet, but I cloak up anyway. As long as I don’t move it should hold out.

The soldier passes feet from my position. I can see the expression on his face, the fabric of his jacket. My heart is thumping.

The soldier disappears from view as my suit power dies. The cloak splutters off and I turn — into the sights of the helicopter. I had forgotten about the helicopter!

The shriek of its mounted cannon tears through the night, and all around me smaller muzzle flashes take up the call. I am surrounded.

I dive away from the fire and noise, deeper into the undergrowth. I hit the dirt. My suit’s been chewed up, power is off, warnings flashing all over the display. Luckily it’s quite a piece of kit, and in the seconds it takes the soldiers to follow me it gets itself back online and recharges enough for another brief cloaking.

I take stock. Not enough rockets to destroy the helicopter. Two grenades. A few clips for my rifle.

Scanning with my binoculars I spot another boat moored on the opposite shore. But there are guards all over the dock, and more converging on my position, and the malevolent presence of that helicopter above. My suit has a few more seconds of cloak left …

I’m not playing a game by this point. I really am in the jungle, frantically forming plans, fighting for my life.

And it turns out, though Crysis is very much about the cock, that isn’t such a bad thing. After all, it’s not the size of the game engine or how fast it runs, but what you do with it that counts. Crysis’s fiction may be as hoary as it comes, but it sure provides one hell of a ride. Just don’t expect it to hold you and tell you it loves you after the excitement is over.

4 Comments

Filed under Game Ponderings