Another week, another FPS. This time it’s the turn of the previously-PC-exclusive, graphics-card-torturing Crysis franchise, now available for the first time on home consoles in the shape of Crysis 2. Though it might be viewed as a triumph of the egalitarian console medium that this elitist title has been brought down to the level of the common man, robbed of its primary unique selling proposition (it’s very pretty if you can afford to get the hardware to play it), is it a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes?
The story begins, as so many triple A titles these days, with a thinly-veiled cutscene masquerading as an interactive expositionary sequence. Crysis 2 is determined to show off its graphical chops (in truth not particularly remarkable when forced through a graphics card that costs less than the GDP of Wales), and it’ll be damned if it lets some stupid user cramp its style. Sure, you get to handle the boring bits, like swimming slowly round a corner, or looking around, but when there’s cool stuff to be done, control is yanked away quicker than a cruel older brother who takes over when something interesting pops up on screen. It’s bad enough that all big games these days seem to want to be films, but the sequence itself doesn’t actually explain anything about the plot. You play a guy. With this being an FPS made in the last 10 years, that naturally means you’re a rough and ready, incredibly buff marine, with a good chance that you’ll also be mute, with a stupid codename: all of which are the case here (Alcatraz, if you were wondering).
So, Jonny Stupidname of the marine corps wakes up in a New York warehouse after a particularly unsuccessful mission (to do what, it is unclear) to find himself strapped in to a new superpowered ‘Nano suit’, in what will quickly become a regular event for the main character, who starts so many levels coming round from blurry pitch darkness that I began to suspect him of being an undiagnosed narcoleptic. A brief flashback shows the previous inhabitant of the suit, Prophet, stripped down to his Nano-underpants and blowing his own brains out (again, reason unclear). The only thing you do know is that a voice that sounds like an auto-tuned Darth Vader tells you to go and find some guy named Gould, which appears to be the only mission for about the entire first half of the game.
Upon entering the city, it is apparent that things are a little FUBAR in NYC, and you’re first pitted against the bad guys du jour in modern games, the Private Military Company, or PMC. If you weren’t sick of battling these guys in every second FPS over the last few years, the troops it’s OK not to support are here, filling the role that would have been played by communists if this were an 80s movie (or Homefront). Obviously somewhat annoyed at being forced to slum it on the consoles, Crysis tries its best to maintain its snooty status by revealing almost none of the plot to you, and constantly saying things like ‘she’s the daughter of you-know-who’ (I did not know who) or ‘yeah, that Hargreave!’ (which Hargreave? Should I know a Hargreave? Am I playing Hargreave?) just to keep us poor console gamers in our place.
Once you actually get into the game, though, it becomes clear that this is a competently-assembled shooter with at least an attempt at narrative urgence (at which it fails, but that could just be because, having not played the first game on my diamond-encrusted PC, I was largely unaware of the wider context of my actions) and some nice, if not entirely original, gaming touches. Your super-suit gives you the ability to cloak yourself (awesome if you are a pacifist), jump high (awesome for rope-skipping competitions), run slightly faster (awesome for cowards, or the reviewer trying to get through the game ASAP) and activate shield-like armour (awesome for being a bit crap at shooters and too stupid to just use the cloak and run away).
Probably the best innovation is the polite suggestion that you use a Star-Wars style zooming scope to tactically plan your approach at certain sections, where the game will highlight perhaps a fixed gun or vehicle you might want to commandeer, a resupply point, good sniping position, or simply the best place to activate your cloak and run past everyone. In principle this is a great idea, and the first few times makes it genuinely enjoyable to choose your preferred approach to a given section. Unfortunately, in reality it boils down to the same old ‘stay out of sight/charge headlong at the enemy’ dichotomy that represents the highest of tactical options available in modern FPSs. Since firing a single shot (or getting too close, casting a shadow, running out of battery power, sneezing or looking at an enemy funny) cause you to be detected and your cloak to fail, any semblance of tactics is very quickly reduced to a desperate run through enemies, relying on the old inconsistency that though a bullet might hurt someone a bit, pistol-whipping them is often lethal. As with other Cry engine games (the Farcry series, for example), the second you are visible, all enemies within five miles are instantly able to zero-in on you, often through walls or across vast open spaces, with uncanny accuracy. Still, it’s a nice idea that does enhance the playing experience, even if the choice it offers is mostly illusory.
As the game goes on, focus shifts from the PMCs to a War of the Worlds style alien invasion (especially the Tom Cruise movie, a distinction you’ll understand more towards the end of the game) and things do start to pick up. There’s more than a little Halo and even touches of Fallout: New Vegas in the mix, but when it finally decides to start letting you in on the secrets (mostly via cutscenes, of course), things start to get more interesting, even involving. The storyline starts to become more engaging, the level design, previously pretty and detailed but somewhat samey, really starts to vary, and even the weapons and suit upgrades become more numerous and inventive. It’s in the second half that the game really finds its feet and starts to impress, which leaves one feeling that the initial levels might have been padded to lengthen the play time.
Weirdly, a lot of the elements that Crysis seems most proud of are starting to look dated: faces and animation that are good for their style but not a patch on things like the forthcoming LA Noire facial capture technology, huge parts of Manhattan island in a single level, something that we have seen in everything from Prototype to Spider-man 2 (OK, maybe not quite this pretty, but still), different vision modes and cloaking (Aliens vs Predator) and silly little interactions with objects like phones that make a dial tone and can machines that dispense (tragically absent in recent games but possible and just as pointless since Duke Nukem 3D). The only truly original contribution that the game has is that it can be played in 3D (with the right hardware), which will be useful for approximately 0.1% of the gaming public, and interesting to even fewer people.
Despite its shortcomings, the greatest of which I believe is its failure to pull the player in in the first half by deliberately not explaining the plot or character motivations, I really liked Crysis 2. It has solid game mechanics, the weapons are varied and customisable in a way that is neither onerous nor arbitrary, the plot is equal parts Prototype and Half-Life, and amongst the slightly old-hat ideas is some genuinely innovative and entertaining gameplay. It has a healthy 7-8 hour running time in single player, and, whilst not as awesomely beautiful as it no doubt is on the PC, it’s a handsome console game. Though it doesn’t top the best bits of the Halo or Half Life series, it is the first FPS in a while I’ve been tempted to play through again.
Progress: single player campaign complete, 7:30 hours. No multiplayer
What I’m really waiting for is a sequel to Rise of the Triad