It’s remarkable how long Crysis had a hold on the ceremonial title of “best looking game.” From when most of us first saw it in 2006 until Battlefield 3 drops in a couple weeks, Crytek’s 2007 first-person shooter seemed to be everyone’s benchmark for technical prowess. Yes, many games have actually leapt ahead of Crysis in the years that have followed its release, and yet so few can match the collective satisfaction achieved when one’s machine is able to run Crysis at its maximum settings. Its legacy as a powerhouse is unrivaled.
None of that matters much in the console space. Save a concentrated effort from a handful of skilled development teams, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 visuals have topped out well below Crysis’ highest settings. The console port actually looks fantastic, but well under the latest iterations of Gears of War or Uncharted. What does this mean for Crytek’s port of Crysis to Xbox Games on Demand and PlayStation Network? It finally has to be judged on how it plays rather than what it looks like because, objectivity be damned, how amazing Crysis looked always seemed to be the focus of most any perspective from four years ago.
Crysis’ narrative is concentrated and unobtrusive. It’s 2020, and as a member of an elite United States marine unit Delta Squad, the player-character Nomad is tasked with infiltrating a South Pacific island and rescuing some VIP’s held hostage by the North Korean military. Initially focused as a military conflict before eventually giving way to the super natural (The Abyss is a contextually different but thematically similar analog), Crysis is prone to its share of cheesy one liners, slightly implausible twists, and action film bombast, but generally manages to keep the player’s interest without getting in the way.
The main concession of a futuristic narrative is to rationalize the existence of your new favorite toy; Nomad’s Nano Suit. It’s through the Nano Suit where Crysis is able to bend and break the rules of a modern first-person shooter experience. An energy meter governs its powers, each of which drains the meter differently. Strength mode can be used for jumping considerable distances or throwing objects at a high rate of speed. Armor mode slows Nomad down but provides an extra layer of protection. Cloak is used for predator-like camouflage and Speed allows Nomad to run really fast. These powers could have easily fallen into some sort of gimmicky, highly tailored combat scenarios, but instead Crytek built their suit around their game, rather than the other way around.
Crysis isn’t a true open world game, but you’re still able to do almost whatever you want in combat. A lot of your tasks are generic plot fodder like gathering intelligence or destroying radar stations, but the means by which they can be tackled can vary greatly. If you like brute force then pick up a shotgun, engage armor mode, and go in guns blazing (and set the difficulty to easy). On the other hand, those who prefer a more methodic approach will be delighted to go in cloaked with a silencer, line up a shot, uncloak, and then fire before quickly sliding back into cloak. A bit of strategy and planning is always required because you’re going to have to figure out a way to manage your Nano Suit’s energy amidst the surrounding chaos, but generally there are multiple methods to tackle almost every assault. Metal Gear Solid 3 is an obvious but completely valid comparison, as it gives a similar amount of freedom to the player’s particular interest or experimentation in any given situation.
Crysis’ approach to combat is an antithesis to the current crop of first person shooters. The last iteration of Call of Duty was a hand holding hallway simulator, and most games in its shadow have been content to follow that model. It’s much easier to carve a linear, scripted game, but it beyond the initial experience it offers almost nothing of value to the player. Upping the difficulty may change ammo rations and damage values, but rarely affects one’s thought process. Crysis operates under a different school of thought; yes, enemies take more ammo but your approach (as in how you manage your Nano Suit) has to change when going from Normal to Delta difficulty. Other than Far Cry 2 I can’t think of a game that has managed such large environments with a myriad of play style options as well as Crysis does.
An odd thing about Crysis; only two-thirds of the game operates in large environments. I don’t know whether Crytek had run through all their ideas for that sort of play style or intended to refocus the game in the name of pacing, but Crysis takes a hard swing toward linearity in its final act. Without spoiling too much (of a four year old game, I know), Nomad will find himself in a rather large amount of monster closet corridors and/or stuck battling waves of enemies whom are completely different from what you were used to. The zero gravity level is a love or hate it affair (I fall into the former), but Crytek actually recognized no one cared for Ascension and cut the level entirely. In any case, Crysis’ abrupt switch in styles left some sour, but I didn’t see much to complain about.
A couple relics of game design past do manage to stand and say hello. This port lacks a quick save option, and checkpoints can be rather unforgiving. Repeating segments is understandable, but when it breaks between checkpoints are so long I methodically execute a series of ten kills over and over until I get back to the spot where I keep failing, something’s amiss. Crytek’s physics engine is awesome when buildings are blowing apart and Nomad is throwing dudes through walls, but sucks when I am standing on a box that somehow moves and smashes me against the ceiling, which then kills me. Texture pop-in is a drag and other hitches nip here and there, but really it’s no more (or less) than you’d expect in any other game.
What’s really surprising is how well Crytek managed the port. Crysis on a console always seemed impossible, and four years after the fact most would have expected a half ass port produced by a gun-for-hire third party. Instead, we’re presented with a wonderfully optimized and all around faithful port of the original. No, it doesn’t look anywhere near as pretty (as countless screen-grab ready PC patrons are quick to point out), but it looks fine and right in line with its console peers. A lot of what made Crysis special is completely intact; beautiful beaches, great foliage, completely destructible buildings, and enough animals to fill a medium sized zoo are all represented. Choosing to abandon a multiplayer few would ever play, cutting a level most hated, making a controller comfortable, and a smart digital release at $20 suggests Crytek put some thought into what they were doing. Crysis is an all around great deal, “on a console” notwithstanding. The only mystery is whether or not Crysis Warhead is going to receive the same treatment.