Crysis Warhead (PC)
The byword of the military shooter in 2008 is "refinement." Rarely are gamers handed concepts that are genuinely new, but loads of pleasure yet remains in seeing something done significantly better than before. That's what Crysis Warhead is all about. The $30 standalone expansion to developer Crytek's visually stunning shooter Crysis improves just about every aspect of gameplay, from vehicle handling to alien artificial intelligence and the very behavior of the vaunted graphics engine.
Great physics, realistic vegetation, serious mayhem -- all back and noticeably revamped for this expansion.
In fact, while Warhead is a solid tangent off the main Crysis story arc, it works better as an affordable introduction to the franchise. The basic story presents that of the original from a different perspective -- Sergeant "Psycho" Sykes is set down on an island occupied by hostile North Korean forces, but all humans are soon under assault by an alien force that freezes the entire landscape. As Psycho, a walk-on character in the original game, players are clothed once again in a powered suit that can enhance strength, speed and defensive capabilities at will, or offer a cloaking mechanism to aid in flanking enemies.
The only impediment to pure enjoyment is that the story is presented with incredible brevity. The cut scenes don't offer much exposition, but the point of the short (five- to seven-hour) campaign is to parcel out action into many different doses. Not only is that accomplished, but it's done with more variation and player options than in the full game.
Until a couple of cut scenes that occur near the end, Psycho's ugly bruiser mug and Jason Statham voice are about all the characterization and plot you're going to get.
Cut apart Warhead like a 10th-grade dissection project and you'll find a simple structure: large set pieces as the major organs with slight connective tissue holding them all in line. Yes, the basic game progression is quite linear, but once within the operating theatre of any given set piece there are options aplenty. For example, just prior to the Big Freeze, Psycho will be tasked with infiltrating a harbor, nabbing some sensitive info, then boarding a submarine. The approach is heavily defended, as is the harbor, but there are ways to go in guns blasting, either on foot or by vehicle; to stealthily flank most of the resistance; or to use the suit's superhuman enhancements to achieve some tactical mixture.
None of what goes on in Warhead is innovative at all, but the action comes together quite well. Crytek went straight for some of the hoariest levels in the book: a descent into a mine, a ride on a train and a defensive setup against waves of enemies. And yet, thanks to a basic design directive that keeps many options open as often as possible, it rarely feels like yet another rehash of that level that was so much better in (for example) the original Call of Duty all those years ago.
You'll find the aliens to be more than simple floating distractions this time around; now they've got tactics!
Despite Psycho's near-impenetrable suit, there's plenty of tension, especially once enemy humans are similarly attired and discover their ability to run from EMP grenades that would destroy their defenses. Aliens, meanwhile, no longer float around aimlessly and are therefore much more of a threat. This time, the human AI flanks and pushes forward and back with more smarts and precision, and vehicles, while still feeling a bit slushy, handle much better. The only glaring flaw with the AI this time is that enemies get dumber the further away they are from Psycho, which means that snipers get more advantage than they should. (As an inveterate sniper, this particular fault glared out at me bright and often.)
It's likely that many players were put off the first time around by the fabled tech requirements of the original game. Truly, getting the most out of Crysis required the sort of gaming PC that could also take over neighborhood power centers. But the game could run on lower-end rigs, and in Warhead Crytek has made the world even more scalable and accommodating for machines of less than military class.
With the revamped scalability of Crytek's engine, you won't need a nuclear-powered PC to see stuff like this.
On a high-end machine, this expansion looks absolutely incredible, but a business-class PC with a few GB of RAM and a reasonable video card will still render a lush game world fully packed with the same physics and foliage that make the high-res version such a marvel. Expect a bit of draw-in now and again, but the primary level design, character behaviors and improved art direction all remain in effect.
(The perfectly average PC build that served as the primary review rig: stock HP Pavilion a1640n with 2 GB RAM, Intel Core 2 Duo 6300 1.86 GHz CPU, NVIDIA GeForce 8600 GTS with 512 MB GDDR3.)
And the art direction here really is something to gawk at. Check out the world immediately after the alien invasion and Big Freeze: Large ships are stuck half-rolled in frozen surf, the alien shapes are bursting out of frozen ground with imperious menace, and the North Korean forces are fearfully frozen in place. Generally speaking, Crytek no longer seems to feel the need to bludgeon us with effects and technological dazzle, and the result is that the team's artists really get a chance to shine. This is a great-looking little game.
The destructive power of vehicles is far more entertaining this time out, and adds real fun to the team deathmatch mode.
The only downside is that the multiplayer component, while solid and worth diving into (and located on a separate packed-in disc called Crysis Wars) doesn't show the same evidence of thought seen in the solo game. There's an immediate, much-wanted team deathmatch mode, and slightly revamped Power Struggle modes. During the former, returning players will likely appreciate the improved vehicle handling, as the various military rides scattered through each map prove key more to fun than success.
All this being the case, Warhead is a solid offshoot of the main Crysis storyline. Perhaps far more importantly, Warhead not only stays true to the original game but also builds upon the involving gameplay and vivid environments of Crysis -- it's an ideal and affordable introduction to the franchise. Essential expansion packs are even rarer than innovative shooters, and Warhead certainly makes the cut.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased by Crispy Gamer.