Playing videogames is inherently adversarial. The developer creates a challenge and you have to beat it. It doesn't matter whether you're leveling up a character to fight the main boss, shooting your way down a hall stocked with Nazis, or just bouncing a ball around some colorful pegs. It boils down to you vs. the developer.
The beauty of Crysis, a free-roaming shooter with some wonderful tricks up its sleeve, is that you feel like you're subverting the rules, beating that mean ole developer at his own game. He probably didn't expect you to use your superstrength to jump onto this roof and snipe those guys. Ha! He probably didn't think you were going to use stealth to work your way behind this base and then come in behind the machine gun nests. Sucker! Little did he know you'd use your superspeed to run away from that marauding helicopter. What a rube! Like the best free-form games, Crysis makes you feel like you're getting away with something.
Of course, the developer of Crysis knows full well what you can do, and despite the careful illusion of total freedom, he?s in complete control. But you'd never know it from the way the game plays, turning you loose and giving you superpowers to wreak havoc on a lush tropical island occupied by enemy soldiers. The story is some stuff about a mysterious discovery at a remote dig site, and the North Koreans got there first. It's up to your elite special ops team, decked out in nano suits, to discover what's going on. The premise is just a setup for a Big Surprise, which is hardly surprising, but is revealed in an impressive way.
With Crysis, the developers at Crytek are visiting familiar territory. They've been here before with 2004's Far Cry. Both games strike out across open terrain dotted with free-form encounters against soldiers with decent Artificial Intelligence (AI). About two thirds of the way through, both games jump the shark. They make the nearly fatal mistake of bogging down in the conventions of traditional corridor shooters stocked with monsters, essentially abandoning everything that made them exceptional.
There is some really nice stuff at the end of Crysis, which deserves not to be spoiled. Suffice it to say a fantastic new environment opens, and the old environment is modified just enough to be new and interesting. But then the endgame moves into closed quarters, established with an extended and barely interactive cut scene. It all culminates in one of the most tedious boss battles this side of a Metroid game. Your reward for sticking it all out? An unsatisfying cliffhanger ending with nothing resolved. It looks like the developer you thought you were beating gets the last word.
Along the way are some vehicle sequences, mostly optional. If you don't want to take the Humvee, feel free to hoof it. The tank, however, is one ride you won't want to miss. Unfortunately, the aircraft sequence is like a tech demo slapped onto the game. It's an unnecessary "See what we can do!" moment. Yes, Crysis, we know by now how impressive you are. Can we get out and walk now?
This is visually one of the year's most impressive engines (it is rivaled only by Massive Entertainment's World in Conflict engine). It's no surprise that a game this good-looking and wide open is also demanding. A good video card isn't enough. You'll want a fast CPU and plenty of RAM. Even then, you'll have to make compromises. Option tinkerers will have a field day with the advanced graphics setting, but there are general settings for everyone else. The "very high" setting seems to have been included for computers that haven't been invented yet. But no matter how you set it up, you're getting absolutely stunning sun-dappled forests, surf-kissed beaches, and detail-crammed shantytowns. Such foliage, such water, such light! Crysis refuses to look ugly.
Of course, technology can only get you so far. For gameplay, Crysis gives you the requisite guns, but it also throws a nano suit into the bargain. This can be used for extra armor or speed, for instance. But it also offers you new ways to interact with the environment. The strength power lets you jump to places you wouldn't normally be able to reach, effectively doing an end-run around the level design. Similarly, the cloaking lets you circumvent combat by turning invisible until you attack. Here you get that delicious sense of watching and waiting that comes with any good stealth game. The limiting factor is movement. If you stay in one place, you can pretty much cloak indefinitely. But the faster you move, the faster you drain your pool of nano-stamina, or tech-mana, or suit juice, or badass energy, or whatever it's called. Set up ambushes by waiting, or carefully dash from hiding place to hiding place, recharging as you go.
You can change nano-powers with a pop-up radial dial, but there are also helpful double-tap commands that make it a lot more fluid. Master these and you can speed run up to someone, activate strength, grab him, and toss him over a cliff, then cloak to wait until his buddies investigate. Uncloak, activate your armor, and let the firefight begin.
There's a similar flexibility with the weapons, which never get too crazy. Although you'll eventually get a ridiculously big mini-gun and a special hi-tech weapon, for the most part you're using semi-realistic firepower. But at any moment, you can kit out any given gun with a silencer, various scopes and targeting options, a flashlight, and even ammo types. Presumably all this stuff fits into the pockets of your nano suit. Just go with it.
Considering that 80 percent of the game is set on the same tropical island, Crysis does a great job varying the setting. For instance, a huge harbor shows off how the developers carefully created an open world. You need to destroy a few AA guns, which are little more than arbitrary objectives, but they're situated in such a way that you're rewarded for scouting out the area and trying new approaches. Working your way around roads, exploring underwater tunnels, and stealthing among cargo containers are all viable alternatives to just forcing your way in with brute firepower. Crysis allows -- indeed, encourages! -- any combination of these approaches. The whole thing feels like a playground, but with guns. And in the end, the harbor offers you an explosive payoff.
It's too bad the same can't be said about Crysis as a whole. This is a game that would have done well to end about two hours sooner. Fortunately, you can cleanse the sour taste left in your mouth with Crysis' multiplayer game. It takes full advantage of the wide-open terrain to create a tactically sophisticated game of capture points, vehicle battles, equipment upgrades, and superweapons. It's like a mix of Counter-Strike, Battlefield 2142, and Quake Wars. It still needs to be tidied up a bit, and hopefully the player base won't be too limited by the steep hardware requirements. But it's enough to keep you going well after the otherwise excellent single-player game has ground to its disappointing conclusion.
This review was based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.