You’re in the middle of a dense jungle, looking nervously around with your fellow squaddies for the first scent of danger. Then up ahead you hear a strangled cry: "What the hell?" As you turn the bend in the path, you’re confronted by what looks like a scene out of the X Files – a ship bars your way, a frozen ship, with a light frosting of snow surrounding it. As you stare wide-eyed at this vision, there’s a sudden unexpected explosion, the centre section of the vessel disintegrates and a strange metallic flying squid-like creature bursts through, grabs your team leader and vanishes into the undergrowth…
This is just a snapshot of Crytek’s latest heart thumper that is taking the first-person shooter genre by the throat and giving it a well-deserved rattle. You might think it bizarre that a company who set its only other creation – Far Cry – on a tropical island populated by hardened mercenaries that a Special Forces op has to single-handedly avoid, confront and ultimately defeat should base its follow-up on a similar game model. Yet within minutes of loading up, you know you’ve left kids’ toys behind – you’re in with the big boys now and they play rough.
For openers, the story revolves around a possible international conflict. It’s 2019 and the Americans have lost communication with a team of archaeologists working on an unexplored island in the Philippines Sea. There are rumours their disappearance surrounds an unearthed, unidentified artefact. Latest indications are that the Korean People’s Army have invaded the island and held the archaeologists as hostages. In true Mission Impossible style, for diplomatic reasons no official action can be taken so Special Forces are sent in to attempt a rescue.
After your initial briefing you’re parachuting into the night with your squad. And something’s wrong before you’ve even hit the ground. Have you been attacked? You regroup and that’s when you find the body of one of your men, hideously torn apart. Now it’s not just a rescue, it’s survival.
You don’t need to be a NASA astronaut to figure out that what the archaeologists dug up wasn’t from this planet. By the time you come face to face with the ETs, the huge scale of the threat facing humanity suddenly overawes you and the stage is set for a titanic battle of unequals. The Earth’s atmosphere could be permanently transformed and it’s time for the humans to unite in the face of an apparently insuperable and merciless opponent.
Apart from that delicious sense of fear trembling down your spine, there’s another growing awareness that hits you within minutes of landing on the island. It’s like the day you first put in a pair of contact lenses after spending many years seeing the world in a slightly offcolour haze. Everything suddenly feels super-real, with colours and contours so sharp it’s almost like an overpowering assault on your senses.
The graphics in Crysis are so fine-tuned you can smell the rotting leaves in the undergrowth, see icy breath streaming from your mouth and find yourself ducking as branches snap back in your face. The hero of the story isn’t the protagonist Nomad, it’s the CryENGINE 2 that powers the photorealistic visuals and reveals just what the latest hardware can achieve when the brakes are ripped out.
Computer gaming graphics have tried for years to emulate movies in both detail and cinematic camera movement, but Crysis is the first to use this degree of advanced shader technology to create animated lip-synching faces and fluid body movements that truly convince. You want dynamic lighting – this gives you everything from soft tree shadows and powerful sunbursts to twilight on ocean water, dimly lit mineshaft interiors stabbed by flashlights or Night Vision and glittering alien snowscapes.
The powerful impact of focus pulling, blurred vision following grenade detonations, ‘wobbly cam’ when crossing uneven terrain and the refractive light distortion when plunging into water wouldn’t look out of place in a Die Hard film. And Bruce would never look this good in a Nanosuit.
A nano-what? Well, what would Batman be without a Batsuit, complete with utility belt stuffed full of handy gadgets? The Nanosuit is a prototype modular exoskeleton that has been designed to boost your physical capabilities and protect you from attack or detection. A quick injection of nanobots into your bloodstream and you can race at twice normal speed – especially useful when you’re out of ammo and the alarm’s been raised.
Strength can also be enhanced so you can leap on to vehicles or smaller buildings, hurl larger objects, go mental in melee attacks and shove sizable vehicles aside. In the thick of battle, extra armour protection can be called on where the suit absorbs more of missile impacts and extends your health as a result (unusually there are no health packs). Finally, the cloaking mode briefly conceals you from sight and also makes you less audible to stealthy attackers – but the second you fire a weapon that invisibility elapses. Obligingly, the Nanosuit provides you with an automatic aqualung when swimming underwater, but, as in Half-Life 2, time is limited.
Switching between modes on the Nanosuit takes a bit of practice; you have to hold down the mouse wheel and simultaneously move the mouse in the direction of the relevant icon in order to access the power you need. Although nowhere as bad as the infamous Tomb Raider menu selection controller, it’s easy to accidentally highlight the wrong icon when you are about to be pounded by a seeming battalion of bloodcrazed Koreans.
When it comes to movement it’s pretty much business as usual with the WSAD keys controlling direction and (re)programmable keys for Jump, Sprint, Crouch, Prone and Night Vision. Gamepad fans may also leap for joy that an Xbox 360 controller is an alternative option.
The HUD is one of the most clutter-free of recent years with a relatively discreet panel in the bottomright indicating Nanosuit status info, weapon choice and remaining ammo. The lower-left of the screen is where the Tactical Radar feeds intel on the deployment of friends and foes, mission objectives and vehicles once tagged. Although useful as a general guide, it’s often hard to assess distances or obstacles accurately when you’re being snuck up on or travelling cross-country to a checkpoint.
Not giving your presence away is very often down to the wrong footfall at the wrong time and just as the visuals are the star in the crown of this game, so are the sound effects that go with them. Brushing through leaves or thorny bushes, a hard crunch over rocks or the whooshing tide as you swim up to a fortified base have all been designed with authenticity in mind. This is because the revamped sound system within CryENGINE 2 is data driven, so every sound has its own specification – these can be tweaked if you’re using the built-in editor.
Any kind of surround-sound setup will be utilised to the max and can be helpful when a party of vengeful KPA squaddies try to outflank you from behind. By using a mixture of listening and watching the Tactical Radar you can gauge when it’s best to fight or flee. The in-game music is mercifully subdued most of the time, yet still manages to capture the sense of unease and excitement that lies at the core of the action. Unnerving string sections will frequently kick in when danger is imminent or the sound of rumbling will start and quickly crescendo the deeper you penetrate to the heart of the mystery.
The range of conventional weapons on offer is relatively modest, numbering a pistol, submachine gun, shotgun, SCAR, FY71 assault rifle (AK-47), Precision Rifle, mini-gun, Gauss Rifle and missile launcher. However, the choice of weapons becomes more important as the missions progress. This is because some weapons have a greater range of modifications available than others. For instance, the SCAR hybrid combat assault rifle has a high range of scopes, silencers and launchers, but ammo is scarce on the ground. Meanwhile, the less-powerful and adaptable FY71 has liberal caches of ammo and is the favourite weapon of the Koreans. As ammo and weapons can only be collected from dead foes and their bases, the FY71 is always a useful member of your arsenal, but only so many weapons can be carried simultaneously. Lots of difficult decisions…
If you were an avid aficionado of Far Cry then you’d have spent a merry few hours roaring round the island in jeeps or boats firing machine guns and trying to steer at the same time. Well, it’s no surprise that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to do just the same here, commandeering land, sea, and air vehicles.
But there seems to be an endemic problem in every FPS when it comes to controlling the damn things and Crysis is no exception. The lightest touch on the A and D keys send you crashing sideways into walls or foliage, and acceleration and deceleration seem to be fixed on ‘max’ at all times. It’s also noticeable that many of the auto-saves will happen when you’re hurtling towards a machine gun nest or HQ front gate and so you have seconds after reloading to get out and run for your life before being shredded. Piece of advice – save before you get in the vehicle.
Binoculars double as zoom controls to see what future threats are ahead and also guide air support to their targets. One of the joys of completing a mission is watching as you order the aircrews to pound a target to rubble – oh how you laugh through your relief and exhaustion!
Talking of missions, there are four difficulty settings – Easy, Normal, Hard and Delta – but however much bravado you put up front, success is calculated more by brains than brawn. Rushing into enemy installations lobbing grenades will bring the enemy on you in an instant; distracting them with a big explosion then sneaking round the back in Cloak mode is far more effective. And patrolling squads can be quietly eliminated by waiting for one soldier to wander off alone, at which point you grab the unsuspecting Korean by the throat and use super-strength to fling him off a cliff.
However, regular FPS gamers will find a significant sea change when switching from fighting the KPA in the traditional manner to kicking alien butt in Zero-G conditions inside the mothership. The change of pace is unsettling and frequently frustrating, especially in your first confrontation with the extraterrestrials where no extra ammo or weaponry is available.
As John Motson might say, "It’s a game of two halves," and not everyone will appreciate the difference. Many of the earlier missions are built around familiar ambitions like rescuing hostages, knocking out KPA jamming stations so satellite links can be restored and supporting a tank convoy. Although all primary missions have to be completed before you progress to the next level, the map is sufficiently sprawling that the paths you choose can be as varied as you decide.
AI is highly intelligent and success depends on your initiative and strategic planning rather than tooling up and blasting everything. Also, gone are the days when you can hide behind a tree or light tactical vehicle after leaning out to take out a foe or two by numbers. In Crysis, if you stay too long behind the tree, your enemy will simply disintegrate it (and you) within seconds using a burst of his FY71 assault rifle. Being chased by a chopper or tank and think it’s safe to duck into a tin shack for protection? Think again. First comes the boom or sound of tracer bullets and the next second you’re standing in the open with piles of corrugated iron around your feet. Then you’re dead, mister.
As you might expect, you can continue the conflict online. The multiplayer option is designed for up to 32 players and is divided into two modes. Instant Action is effectively Deathmatch under another name and is for adrenaline junkies who want a quick high. It’s exactly like it sounds on the packet, with loads of racing round, picking up weapons and ammo and using your Nanosuit powers. Unfortunately there’s no team variation, so it’s just you versus the rabble.
Power Struggle is a new mode where upgrades can be bought, alien technology annexed and vehicles used for combat. The aim is to destroy the opposing team’s headquarters and part of this involves using alien technology that can only be accessed after capturing a Prototype Laboratory and connected power sites. In addition to that vehicle factories can be taken over and then used to produce the transport featured in the single-player game. One main advantage of multiplayer if you’ve completed the solo game is access to exclusive weaponry like the Molecular Accelerator (which fires high speed ice shards) and the awesome TAC launcher that fires a miniature nuclear warhead. Charming.
If there’s a moment that accurately sums up the knee-trembling awe that Crysis will undoubtedly instil in the flinty hearts of even the most battlehardened FPS veteran, it has to be the moment you first see the mountain housing the alien spaceship. Having just recovered from the latest assault on a Korean military base, you feel the earth start to tremble violently under your feet. Heading out of the main gate and following the road round the next corner, you’re suddenly confronted with a staggering sight. Massive chunks of rock are peeling off the side of the mountain and crashing to the ground below, while neon blue flashes spark off the metallic tendrils starting to emerge from within. As you continue to watch open-mouthed, flashes of lightning scorch the rocks and you can feel the colour draining from your face.
Lock your door. Banish sleep. Remove your iPod. Prepare to repel the invaders…