If we didn’t know any better, we’d say that time travel is possible and already being practised. Somewhere in a Crytek office exists a spangly device ready to transport members of the team into brave new worlds of advanced PC technology so that they might develop for it, indulging their lust for eye candy ahead of its time. This is, at least, the only way we could reasonably explain the origins of the first Crysis – a title that would demonstrate to proud uber-PC owners that their machines were weak, feeble and but a blip in the technological landscape. Aside from the obvious criticisms levelled at Nomad’s resource-intensive romp through beautiful tropical scenery, it was marred by a slightly hollow story and occasionally inconsistent-feeling pace.
Emerging from a downed VTOL, with Customary Excited Soldier #1 telling us we needed to find our way to a safe area, the opening few minutes of Warhead had us concerned that little would improve in these regards for this second title. A charred, dark landscape added to our worries. Fortunately, as though we’d had our leg thoroughly pulled, and chain firmly yanked, the sun rises and the paradise island of the original unveils itself once again. Whether or not this was an intentional dummy move, designed to deride formulaic shooters, we don’t know. However, it was the last time we found ourselves troubled.
Running in parallel to the events of the first game (but in entirely new areas as something of a ‘version 1.5’, rather than the second title in the planned trilogy), Warhead has a far more refined feel to it. This is particularly interesting when the lead character comes in the form of Ray Winstonecum- Jason Statham alike, Michael ‘Psycho’ Sykes. As Psycho’s story unfolds, the mysterious nature of events on the island become apparent once again. Our British protagonist finds himself on a similar journey of exploration to his Delta Force colleague, and the game follows them parting ways. While early stages see him generally fulfilling nanosuit-clad hero duties, much of the title’s plot revolves around tracking down a mysterious container with, what appears to be, alien matter inside. Of course, the Koreans, as has been well established, haven’t flown in to contend for sun loungers, so a certain Colonel Lee duly nicks it – the cheeky swine.
Those who found him a bit much in the first title will find Psycho still exists as something of a macho British caricature – strong bruiser bone structure and all – but is given a dose of the ‘tough exterior, mellow interior’ and improved voice acting this time around as he struggles to deal with events that don’t work out in his favour. Then there’s the Korean super baddie, Colonel Lee, complete with golden aviators, who fulfils a much-needed ‘I turn up at inconvenient moments to ruin everything’ role. Admittedly, it’s far from being literary genius, but it makes for an engaging ‘good versus bad’ showdown.
Given the time-frame overlap, it would be surprising to find a fundamentally different set of weapons and equipment on offer in Warhead. Similarly, having Psycho check for a firmware update, thereby upgrading his suit’s range of abilities, would likely have been a stretch of the imagination too far. That said, there are a few new additions within Warhead, in terms of Mr Sykes’ arsenal and means of conveyance. Good fortune would have it that this section of the island features weapons caches with dual-wieldable AY-69 SMGs, pressure-pad mines and an EMP grenade launcher that will temporarily disable foes’ nanosuits. Used carelessly, though, it’ll also disable your own suit, which often makes for a less-than-ideal turn of events should you be in the middle of a firefight. An armoured truck complete with a mounted heavy machine gun will aid you in your travels and enable you to proceed, tortoise-style, through the visually stunning locations – albeit much less peacefully. These new toys slot into the existing range of weapons and vehicles well, with each adding to the overall experience.
While the original Crysis occasionally allowed some areas to grow repetitive and lose their impact, both visually and in terms of the style of gameplay offered, Warhead is truly masterful in how it guides you through the troubled island. It’ll only take you around seven or so hours to complete, but your travels around the island have been arranged in such a way that you will never find yourself growing tired of any of the environments. Before we ever had time to feel like we had been battling the enemy for too long, we would find ourselves in a frozen area fending off the aliens’ unwanted advances. Transitions between these locations never felt abrupt, which is no mean feat considering the fundamentally different visual styles.
Helped by the stunning environments, your efforts to find and retrieve the elusive container are made all the more enjoyable by combat that is every bit as good as the first Crysis. Enemy troops are never in a hurry to leave themselves exposed to your fire and will look to find cover whenever possible. To the same extent, they’ll seek you out with vigour. We discovered this after dispatching one group from our position of cover, only to be flanked by a second team.
On another occasion, having exhausted our entire supply of ammunition-battling aliens – which now seem to have a more advanced style of combat – we came across an invisible nanosuited soldier sporting a rocket launcher. This, while adding an extra level of difficulty to our predicament as we backtracked in search of ammo, also provided an enjoyable surprise. Indeed, Warhead could have benefited from a greater abundance of such soldiers, as similar encounters seemed all too rare.
Opportunities to decide exactly how you want to play the game, however, are as plentiful as ever. They range from kitting yourself out with weapons better suited to sneaky, non-confrontational gameplay, to choosing whether to storm through the front doors, or making a subtle jump over a perimeter wall to avoid announcing your presence. Even through Warhead’s indoor, corridor-based sections, you’re never left with the impression of linearity, and there’s never a dramatic and beautifully constructed showpiece far off. Once again, your nanosuit adds to, and forms an integral part of the style of play you adopt. Regular users of the Enhanced Strength mode will also be happy to learn there are plenty of large items scattered around, ready to be set on a collision course with a foe’s face.
AI seems to have improved since the original, with soldiers less prone to strange behaviour, such as loitering in doorways. Our only bug encounter was with a motionless APC, comfortable with us walking in front of it but tracking us with its mounted gun – in fairness, though, we may just have induced a coronary in the driver with our cloaked shooting out of its tyres.
Although we all knew it was never really going to be ugly, once the initial darkness of the opening stage subsides Crysis Warhead manages to look more spectacular than ever. Foliage is dense and richly green, casting gently swaying shadows – looking up through it reveals fine rays of sunlight. Meanwhile, your North Korean chums revel in blending into the background, leaving you firing randomly upon an untroubled collection of leaves and twigs. If you’re the one being shot at, glowing rounds will fly over your head or produce a burst of sparks on the crate that you’re cowering behind. Crabs scuttle across the golden sands, small birds fly across dirt tracks basked in sunset lighting and ice accrues on weapons you could never have previously thought ‘pretty’ as such. Such visuals allow for some truly rich and immersive environments. Little touches like faded billboards, civilian radio stations broadcasting to empty cafes and banter-filled military chatter guiding you through your travels do much to build up a rich sense of atmosphere into the gameplay.
Not content to let Crysis’s multiplayer component escape without a new coat of gloss, Warhead’s offering includes ‘Team Instant Action’ to complement the deathmatch-style mode of the first game. Also included are some impressive new maps, from Lost-style beaches strewn with parts of a crashed plane, through to treehouse complexes and a dark graveyard. These environments range from more intimate locations suited to close-quarters combat, to expansive battlefields meant for vehicular skirmishes. While this often makes for slower-paced rounds as you trundle, comparatively lethargically, across open areas in your tank or APC, gameplay remains engaging and accessible.
Crucially, this time around, Crytek has eased back on its travel through time and space. Rather than eat you out of house and home in hardware upgrades, Warhead will run happily on currentgeneration hardware. In fact, you’ll be able to experience Psycho’s exploits on High settings across the board with a mid-range rig that shouldn’t set you back any more than 350 smackers. Though Warhead will still happily eat all the pies you have to throw at it if you’re looking to max everything out at the highest resolution possible, it’s to be applauded that it’ll now run very happily on hardware accessible to most.
That our biggest concern with Warhead related to how it opens into its dark morning lighting serves to illustrate the effort Crytek has put into addressing the faults of the original and building on areas of its strength. Though it’s a relatively brief experience, as reflected in its lower price point, this latest iteration should put to bed any criticisms that Crysis games were gorgeous, yet ultimately soulless shooters.