Hyperbolic phrases such as "bar-raising graphics" and "unparalleled eye-candy" get tossed around so much in the world of video games that they lose meaning and, eventually, make skeptics of us all. But every once in a while a truly spectacular looking game comes around to breathe new life into these expressions, and right now that game is Crysis 2.
Developed by German studio Crytek, it's the follow-up to Crysis and Crysis: Warhead, a pair of PC exclusives released in 2007 and 2008 which remain gorgeous and graphically complex games even by today's standards. The new game is available on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but, predictably, looks best played on a high-end Windows PC. That said, I've spent much of my time with it on Microsoft's console, and I have to say it makes for great living room viewing, too.
The action is set in a near-future New York City that has been devastated and mostly emptied by a combination of alien attacks, a strange plague, and earthquakes. It's an apocalyptic vision of Hollywood proportions. The scale of both the city and the destruction is enormous. Skyscrapers really feel as though they are 70 or 80 storeys tall, and their burning, partially collapsed upper floors appear just as detailed as their lower levels-a feat all the more impressive given that there are hundreds of these unique, gorgeously rendered structures surrounding us for most of the game.
That said, it's what we see up close that impresses most. Experiencing an earthquake firsthand on the FDR as the road cracked and shifted, dust coming up to cloud the air, is something I won't soon forget. Equally memorable was a scene in which I entered a parking garage on a street corner only to come out inside a gaping crater left by a crashed ship that exposed several floors of the underground parkade. The crash had just happend; wires were still sparking, concrete was tumbling down, and fiery rubble created heat distortions in the air.
As the game progresses, New York grows worse for wear. At one point I was exploring a huge, debris-filled depression in the centre of the city so deep that I had almost forgotten I was still in Manhattan until I heard the terrible sound of groaning of metal and looked up to see an enormous building tipping sideways and crashing into its neighbour. It's just one among scores of peripheral events designed to keep players aware that the Big Apple is in a constant state of chaos and collapse.
On the subject of sound, audio design deserves a bit of praise, too. Rifle shots echo through the city's concrete and steel canyons with remarkable realism-think of the shootout scene in Michael Mann's Heat-and the exotic moans of strange and terrible alien machinery often brought a chill to my skin. The meandering, ominous score, meanwhile, sets a suitably menacing tone, even if it is a little too persistent (there's something to be said for interludes in which gunsots, explosions, and screams do all the talking).
Now, you might be wondering how the player fits into this exquisitely realized urban armageddon. The narrative, which is connected to its predecessors by only thinnest of threads, is, sadly, a weak spot. None of the primary characters have much resonance, and explanations provided for our actions and objectives aren't always satisfactory. Thankfully, all you really need to know to have fun is that aggressive, squid-like aliens are invading and a private army controlled by a military technology company is attempting to contain the incident.
Players see everything from the perspective of a soldier named Alcatraz who never speaks. A marine entering the city by sea, his ship is destroyed and crewmates slaughtered. Prophet, a character from the original Crysis who waged war against the same aliens on a remote East Asian island, saves him and outfits him with a high-tech "nanosuit" designed by the same company whose military personnel are roaming the city's streets. That company wants the suit back, so, at least until the aliens show up, they're your enemy. They're not particularly bright-they tend to take foolish risks and rarely use group tactics (though, curiously, they can spot you instantly from a block away if you peek from cover)-but what they lack in brains they make up for in sheer numbers, swarming out from all areas of the map when sufficiently riled up. The cephalopod extraterrestrials aren't much smarter, but they are faster and more powerful.
Strategies for dealing with both human and non-human foes revolve around the nanosuit's abilities. You can increase armour for a short while to withstand a lengthy fall or charge headlong into a group of bad guys. After your suit powers back up (which takes just a couple of seconds) you can engage its cloaking ability, rendering you almost invisible to let you sneak up on or around your enemies. A tactical visor pinpoints locations suitable for sniping, flanking, and stealth kills then marks these points as well as enemies on the heads-up display. The suit can also be upgraded over time, adding features such as an enemy movement tracker and the ability to see the trajectory of incoming fire.
The nanosuit abilities make Crysis 2 a decidedly different experience than your standard military shooter. They confer a feeling of immense power and make the notion of one man taking on an army of aliens seem almost plausible. Plus, being able to pick up a huge alien with your hand, twist its neck, and toss it aside is extremely gratifying, as is tearing a .50 calibre machine gun out of its vehicle mount and using it as though it were no heavier than an assault rifle.
On the downside, the suit's upgradeable abilities make it feel a little more gimmicky than the suit in the original game, which simply and efficiently allowed players to switch between increased armour, speed, strength, and cloaking as needed.
The sequel also lacks its predecessors' vast open-world environments. Don't misunderstand; the New York we explore is huge, and players often have several ways to go about completing their objectives. Whenever I died I almost always chose a completely different route and tactic with my next life, taking advantage of the suit's power jumping ability to scale a low structure for a better angle of attack or working my way around the block to avoid a fight altogether. But even with this freedom, navigating an urban jungle-essentially a series of streets, tunnels, and passages-isn't quite the same as moving about a spacious natural jungle.
The lengthy campaign-which I clocked at over 12 hours, including restarts-has taken up so much of my time that I've played only a couple dozen online multiplayer matches in a handful of familiar team and solo game types. That said, I've enjoyed every one of them, if only because they offer such a distinct change of pace from games like those in the Call of Duty and Battlefield series.
With the ability to cloak or armour up at any moment, players can switch between stealth and toe-to-toe tactics on a whim. And with 20 suit modules that enable abilities such as enemy radar scrambling and the always gratifying air stomp, there are plenty of ways to customize your style of play. I haven't seen much in the way of team tactics, but I haven't ranked up high enough to join the ranks of better players.
Folks interested in sticking with the multiuplayer for the long haul will appreciate the steady doling out of experience points in several categories, allowing you to grow in rank, become more proficient with specific weapons, and improve your suit modules. Time and frequency of play will tell, but there appears to be weeks or months worth of character growth and unlockables online.
Maybe it's just because I'm a guy who likes to watch end-of-the-world scenarios-and all the better if they're presented with the sort of eye-popping beauty seen here-but I can't get enough of Crysis 2. I wish the story held together better and that our human enemies were a bit more strategic, but the action is undeniably intense. Crytek has said that this game is supposed to show other game makers what their multiplatform game engine, CryEngine 3, can do. I can't help but think that there are a lot of developers out there right now who'd love to be able to create something this polished and entertaining.
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Windows PC (reviewed)
Publisher: Electronic Arts