Crysis 2 Preview
3rd Mar 2010 | 09:00
Forget Far Cry 2. The real sequel to Crytek's tropical PC shooter was Crysis, a game so powerful it could only run on a nuclear-powered PC the size of a semi-detached. Until now.
For the past twelve months, Crytek have, through a series of tech demos, been floating the very real possibility of a Crysis sequel running on Xbox. CryEngine 3 videos seemed to point towards modifications - but not many. This was the lush jungle and the wide-open sandbox of the original PC game; the eye-searing world that had changed gaming visuals forever in 2004. This was, in fact, proof positive that, with the right amount of time, effort and technical expertise, Crysis could become a console game. And so it has. But not how you think.
While every one of their previous games has been set in the tropics - a gradual evolution culminating in the beautiful vistas of Crysis
Warhead - Crytek's next game is heading somewhere very, very different. Crysis 2 is swapping the real jungles of the South Pacific for the sprawling urban jungle of... New York. Yep, that's the same place we've been before in Prototype, Alone in the Dark, The Darkness, Ghostbusters, every bloody Spider-Man game, and parts of The Godfather 2; a city that has, if we're honest, become one of the most unoriginal settings in gaming. But for Crysis, and for Crytek in general, it's virgin territory. And to understand how radical a departure the move is for the series, we need to take a step back.
Set in the near future, Crysis centred around a bunch of high-tech super-soldiers, deployed to a Pacific island to rescue scientists from hostile North Korean troops. The first part of the game involved sneaking, running, punching, shooting and swimming around the huge, fictional Lingshan islands, battling human enemies and occasionally sharks. (Seriously, look at the great vids on YouTube).
The second part of the game involved, er, aliens. And after extra-terrestrials arrived and blasted the environment with a freeze ray, most people agreed that Crysis - in taking a super-powered leap over the shark - took a turn for the worse.
As Jake 'Nomad' Dunn, you were one of only a handful of soldiers blessed with a Nanosuit, a nifty piece of rubberware that offered you four different modes: Strength, Armor, Speed and Cloak. Strength let you jump higher and farther, hurling items with more force; Armor deflected a certain amount of damage; Speed gave you the ability to run and swim faster; while Cloak made you temporarily invisible. The beauty of the suit was that it let you decide how to approach situations based on your individual needs and abilities.
Standing on an overlook, gazing down at a group of soldiers, do you rush in there with Strength using one human meatbag as a shield, before punching the rest into oblivion - or do you take a more measured approach, utilising the protective power of Armor to pick them off one-by-one? Alternatively, you could sneak in and stealth-kill every last one of the douchebags. It was entirely your choice; and if you wanted to mix-and-match, well, the system actively encouraged that - switching between powers was incredibly simple.
The Nanosuit was half of what made Crysis so appealing, but the tropical setting was the other; it was both an indictment of what the PC was capable of and a timely reminder that videogame worlds could be colourful and beautiful, rather than drab and brown.
It was a setting unlike the majority of game environments, which seemed happy to settle for clichés such as... New York City. But the main benefit of the tropical setting was its inherent freedom; at least in the early sections, you had a broad, beautiful sandbox to play in.
It's this sort of freedom that the 360's shooter library badly needs. Gears of War was about as open as Woolworths, while Halo: ODST's supposed freedom was limited to the Rookie missions that bookended the game's tightly structured flashback sections. Even Halo Reach, for all its promise, seems to be heading down a very different path to this game. If Crysis 2 can manage to retain the freedom of the first in the series, it will be unlike any shooter the 360 has seen yet.
All of which makes the move to NYC more than a little troubling. The whole game will, apparently, take place there - a place not typically known for its vast tropical environments, or indeed its killer sharks. It's probably safe to assume we can expect major landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building to make an appearance, probably in the context of getting blown up.
Sadly, Crytek haven't revealed much - indeed, anything - about the plot yet; if original hero Nomad will return, whether Crysis Warhead's Psycho will take up the mantle, or if some new guy will step into the Nanosuit.
JUNGLE TO JUNGLE
What we do know is that it's a very different setting to the first game. And according to Nathan Camarillo, the Executive Producer at Crytek, it's for the unique possibilities that come with the new locale. "We decided to pick New York as it's one of the world's premier hotspots; it's a very important place for the entire world. In general, a city offers more opportunities for vertical gameplay than a jungle; the player can jump between different floors, jump on buses, on trucks, in craters, and from one building to another.
The player is much more mobile in a city playground, and can change his position more often. They also have a lot more freedom (in this kind of world), as they can plan or attack someone from above, and gain an advantage."
The freeform tactics of the first game are intact, albeit in a slightly different form. Crytek are adapting to the new locale by incorporating all of the vertical elements that come with a major city - in particular, unsurprisingly, the enormous skyscrapers. It makes sense: Crysis puts you in the shoes of an all-but superhero, and what better place for a superhero to fight crime than New York City? It's been home, variously, to Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and countless others; spiritually, Crytek are simply trying to draw on New York's iconic history.
The major concern, of course, is that the new setting will undermine the sandbox nature of the original. Camarillo doesn't think so. "When we started thinking about Crysis 2, we first figured out what we could improve, in which direction we'd like to go, and what the next playground could be. Crysis 2 is a sandbox game. In contrast to the common sandbox, Crysis has borders and a world that extends beyond those borders but - just as importantly - we go into more detail within our play space too."
LOST IN NEW YORK
As cynics, we need to butt in here to point out that 'more detail' usually means 'smaller environments', but then again, there is far more background detail to represent in a city, not to mention a greater number of people and objects to interact with. The major problem with city-set games up until now (Grand Theft Auto IV aside) is that they just haven't had the processing clout to present a lifelike city in its expansive, people-packed glory.
With the power of CryEngine 3 behind it, Camarillo doesn't see that problem, or the problem of offering the player genuine freedom of movement, as an issue. "I think the freedom of Crysis 2 will surprise console gamers.
Crysis is not about 'go anywhere'; it is about looking at a situation from a great vantage point and then formulating a plan that you proactively initiate to defeat your foes. You have a lot of freedom in what that plan entails, and what weapons and world interactions you use. This is what we're calling Veni Vidi Vici gameplay: I came, I saw, I conquered, and it should be quite fresh to the console market."
It should be, but let's not forget there is one game already offering something similar. Like Crysis 2, it's a game with super-powered agents in a vertically open, urban playground; the game, of course, being Realtime Worlds' Crackdown. Unlike Crysis, Crackdown didn't portion out its powers into several different modes - while the Agent was blessed with enhanced strength, agility, armour and speed, all four abilities were active at once. And Crysis 2 appears to be heading down a similar route. Gone are the separate active powers, replaced by a system that's a bit more difficult to describe. "Crysis 2 introduces a new and improved version of the Nanosuit," reveals Camarillo. "The Nanosuit 2 is mapped to play styles rather than individual powers.
It enables players to customise how they approach different combat situations and challenges." Which could mean anything, really. Although there didn't seem anything majorly wrong with the system in the original Crysis - mixing and matching abilities to fit tactics was as simple as swapping powers out in the middle of battle - if it can be refined and perfected in Crysis 2, then we're definitely on board.
CRY ME A RIVER
Of course, there is an elephant in the room where Crytek's decision to set the game in New York is concerned. On a purely technological level, a city is geometrically easier to render on a console than the vast, complex foliage of a jungle. No matter how excited Crytek seem to get about the opportunities the Big Apple provides, it does seem to fly in the face of what we've been led to believe: that Crysis, in all its stunning tropical glory, is possible on a console. Was the decision to switch simply down to the 360's more limited processing clout?
"I would not exactly call this generation of consoles 'limited'," says Camarillo. "However, the challenges have allowed us to avoid overdesigning features, to keep the focus narrower and tight for a compelling experience on all platforms. In the end this will make for the best experience for the gamer, because we will spend more time per feature, making it more polished, rather than spreading ourselves thinly just because we can. Creative constraints can be refreshing."
Between the new setting, and talk of making the game more 'focused', there is a worry that Crytek may have compromised the soul of Crysis in order to make it work on another format. But even if that's true we can probably still expect something of a technical marvel - CryEngine 3 is a remarkable thing. "It's an all-in-one solution," says Nathan, "AI, physics, networking, multiplayer, audio and high-end effects are all included within the engine and built solely for CryEngine 3."
This should help considerably with the porting process - or, eventually, perhaps eliminate the tiresome requirement entirely. If the
tech videos Crytek showed at last year's Game Developers Conference are indicative of the final engine, the differences between all three versions of the game should be extremely slight. Presumably, anal picture-quality-obsessive owners of high-end PCs may well see some benefit, but compromises for the sake of multiplatform development shouldn't be anything like as drastic as some people were anticipating, and bemoaning in advance.
"The big challenge during the development of CryEngine 3 has been scaling the engine whilst maintaining visual quality and performance," Camarillo goes on to tell us. "This is always challenging; problems occurred, of course, but we're really proud that our teams have managed
to solve them." But did they solve them by eradicating the jungle, or was the new setting their intention all along? More importantly, will NYC fundamentally alter the nature of the series - and if so, will it change it for the better or for the worse?
Crytek have made their name perfecting tropical environments, and their games are specifically geared to take advantage of them. They can't simply change the background and hope the rest falls into place; in order for Crysis 2 to work on the same fundamental level as the original, the action will need to change too.
This could bury Crysis, or it could morph it into an entirely new game, one that PC gamers and fans of the original might not be happy with - chatter that it's 'dumbed down' for the sake of consoles is going to be difficult to shake off - but one that's right at home on 360.
So, there's a mountain of worry, but there's plenty of hope, too. Without playing the game, and based on the small amount we saw, it's difficult to tell if the tech videos Crytek showed paint an accurate portrayal of the game - but CryEngine 3 shows huge promise, and Crysis 2 has enormous potential. It might not be the sequel we were expecting, but that doesn't necessarily mean we're being cheated out of the Crysis experience; just that Crysis 2 may offer something different.
And if that something is leaping between buildings in a single bound, punching soldiers off rooftops and crushing cars beneath our super-powered feet, then it's a change we think we can live with.