The sequel to the prettiest game in the last 10 years looks to add a bit more substance to the equation. Because it's what's on the inside the matters, right?
It's been some time since we heard the phrase "there isn't a computer in the world that can run this with the highest settings", but that doesn't mean Crysis developer, Crytek, wasn't busy on their next gem. The difference this time, maybe unsurprisingly, is that they've shifted focus and turned their efforts toward getting their tech-pushing franchise and their design sensibilities onto home consoles. For the most part the developers hit the ground running and don't look back, shouldering in on the shooter mainstream like a 400 pound Halo-killing gorilla.
There might be one or two of you taking exception with that last line but the truth was that Crysis sales were disappointing. Of coure, releasing a game that most people can't play, exclusively on PC's, significantly limits the user base you can pool from. So Crytek decided to bring the sequel to the Xbox 360 and the PS3 along with the PC, and the world is a little better off for it.
What Was That about Combat Evolved
If you're worried you might be missing something if you didn't play the original, don't be. The connections to the sequel are tenuous at best and even the gameplay has been iterated on to the point that it feels much newer. Crysis gave players a great sense of open world freedom where they could attack their mission in almost any way. Crysis 2 retains elements of that philosophy but boils it down to smaller sequences that are easier to digest. This isn't a dumbing down of the gameplay, but a smart shift that creates more narrative cohesion along the way, something the Crysis had trouble doing.
You play as a marine named Alcatraz, part of a USMC Recon team sent to extract an intelligence contact that could help combat an alien race, known as the Ceph. The Ceph invaded New York during a tumultuous time when the public was panicked by an outbreak known as the "Manhattan Virus". Somewhere along the way the mission goes tits up, you wake up hurt, but the proud new owner of a sweet new Nanosuit 2.0 - a better version of the marine issue suit started with. If that sounds bizarre or vague it's because I'm jumping over some plot points that I don't want to spoil. Even still, Crysis 2 struggles to bridge the stories of the first and second game. The sequel tells a convoluted story that fails to get more across than "there are aliens, you need to stop them". It's a good thing that stopping them is a lot of fun.
Crysis 2 throws you into a long string of fire fights and battles that, while nothing new, have a level of finesse and organic malleability that sets it apart from virtually every other shooter on the market. Crytek sets the events of the sequel in New York City, a sturdy foundation that's easy to recognize and relate to. The result is fantastic. Building on what people know of the North American metropolis, Crytek is able to take us through a familiar world while deconstructing and totally destroying massive parts of it. Because the city is so well realized it's easier to have a connection to the events, which in turn makes you keenly aware how central you are to the chaos.
It's not because of the shooting mechanics that you feel so involved, it's because of the Nanosuit. The suit actually plays a big part in the story but for the purposes of this review all you need to know is that it gives you options: Stealth, Armor, Power and Tactical options. You'll recognize the suits functionality if you played the original but things have been streamlined and tweaked in a number of ways that make its use much more fluid. What Armor and Stealth do is self-explanatory, but both are vital to Alcatraz's survival. Power Mode is a combination of strength and speed, which allows the player to cover long distances in a flash and jump great heights. The three combine to turn Alcatraz into a near perfect physical specimen.
However, the Tactical feature is the most important, even if it may not be the most interesting. Instead of the simple binocular function in Crysis, Tactical Mode has been advanced in every way possible. It doesn't just to give you a better glimpse on the action from a distance, it throws open the playbook and lets you pick from a menu of options. You see, when you go into Tactical Mode you're shown enemies, ammo, weapon drops, objective markers, breach points, sniper and turret nests and stealth routes. You can tag enemies so they remain easy to track or avoid. Crysis' greatest accomplishment is in successfully evolving an FPS game so that players aren't funneled through one long linear path to success, but given a staggering amount of ways to proceed and never told which one is best.
Silent But Deadly
The most significant part of the franchises evolution, in terms of the fundamental mechanics, is how well they hold up to each type of play style. Crysis had very regimented and strict allowances of what could be done with the suit, generally forcing you to stick with whatever strategy you went into battle with. Crysis 2 lets you shift gears on a whim. If you get spotted during a stealth kill and a small army of Ceph start to attack you all at once, the armor ability will protect you or your power will take over and get you to safety faster than the enemies can keep up. You never die in a fight because you've been clipped by some random stray bullet or because you were at a disadvantage with arsenal or equipment. In most cases it's the opposite, fulfilling the promise of transforming you into the ultimate weapon.
Crytek keeps control over the action tight, creating opportunities at every turn. You can play whole sections like the Predator, slipping up to enemies unseen and leaving them dead in your wake. Or you can attack situations like the Terminator, standing tall against a rain of bullets as you return your own deadly spray of gunfire. The fact that Crytek makes every style feel natural and rewarding is an accomplishment in its own right, but the fact that no one strategy works necessarily better than another is a real treat and a testament to the game design.
Though Crysis 2 is always fun it does run up against the odd AI problem that can break the immersion instantly. Humans have a strategic attack and defense approach when fighting you while the aliens implement search & destroy tactics. It's great to see the differences in the species but humans tend to be easier to kill than their alien counterparts. Unfortunately, both have problems with path finding. All too often you'll discover a lone enemy staring into a corner or walking into a ledge. Other times they'll make strange decisions like turning and running instead of just shooting you up close. Still, when it works the AI can be challenging and very exciting to fight.
Now You See Me, Now You Don't
Of course, one way to get a real challenge is to play online. Crysis 2 is the culmination of of not just the efforts of Crytek, but the influences of most major online shooters. It combines the very best of Halo and Call of Duty and creates a unique online experience that requires equal parts planning, skill and execution. There isn't the level of teamwork that you get in the Battlefield series and perks aren't so overpowered that they'll let a sole player take over a match. The Nanosuit brings out and highlights a lot of different approaches. The blend of large sprawling maps, with a lot of multi-leveled vertical action, and narrower maps, where action is faster and players have fewer hiding places, keeps things balanced from one match to the next.
Still, there are a few concerns and one very real issue. The progressive experience and unlock system meets the standard for an online shooter, and Crytek makes you earn specific upgrades so you can unlock attachments or mods. But one problem some will have is that the weapon selection from the outset feels very limited. There's five classes and everyone starts with the same weapons for each class. It's too limiting if you don't like the weapon and runs the risk of dissuading players from trying new class types.
One problem that you can attribute to the design is that a lot of modes are locked out until you reach specific level. There's really no reason to lock out a player from playing a mode, like Hardcore, if that's all they want to play. If the goal is to make sure players test out everything, that's fine, but it doesn't excuse locking modes at high levels that take a long time to access. The other annoyance is the game's penchant for respawn points that are right in front opposing players. Throughout matches you'll be spawned randomly around the map, which should be fine. But too often you either spawn in front of an opponent or witness a player spawn in front of you, giving you a freebie. It may not happen every match, but even once every five is too much, especially with the sophistication on display in the rest of the game.
There Isn't a Computer That Could Run It
Let's just assume that any PC games out there get first right of refusal in the it-looks-best-on-this graphical dick measure. Even modest computers (relatively speaking) are able to showcase Crysis 2's beautiful engine better than either console. The XBOX 360 version, known as the less powerful of the two consoles, actually looks remarkably similar to the PC, cementing it as the best looking console game ever. However, PS3 players get the short end of the stick. The Playstation copy runs at a lower resolution, the framerate is noticeably worse and the effects don't always perform as they might on the Xbox. Even still it rivals the best looking games on any console, and such trivial differences are only a worry if you have both consoles and have to choose, or you're so stuck up to think graphics are a make or break when buying a game.
Voice acting in Crysis 2 is quite good and it's reminiscent of how the Half-Life series does their story and dialogue in-game. A lot of dialogue is spoken around you, not necessarily at you. Characters will ramble on at a computer or in a different room as you're free to roam wherever you please. What's surprising then is just how good it always sounds, bringing to light Crytek's absolutely stellar sound mixing. The standard holds up well and extends itself to all area's of the game, including the strong score that might now get enough credit at the end of the year but is a real classy entry.
Crysis 2 will take its share of lumps for being a consolized sequel, but that pointless bickering gets in the way of the fact that Crytek has managed to create a thrilling, fresh shooter in an over-saturated market. The fact that they accomplished it by embracing their competition, improving on the staples of the original Crysis (and Warhead) and deftly refining game design elements that held the first game back brings to light just how talented the development team is. Immediate and periphery set pieces of the inter-species war going on throughout New York lends enormous scale to the events, something usually requiring a 300 foot monster battle.
It's a beautiful game regardless of platform, - though if you must keep score; PC then 360 then PS3 - it controls masterfully, the story is serviceable enough, the campaign is lengthy and always fun, and the online multiplayer takes the best of two totally different game styles and turns it into one awesome one. In many ways Crysis 2 is the shooter for people sick of shooters, who want to get their fix of all styles in one place without sacrificing quality. Crysis 2 sacrifices nothing, and delivers almost everything.
Final Score: 90%
90-94% - "Astonishing" An exceptional accomplishment in gaming that has only a couple minor flaws that are easy to forgive because it's just too damned fun. A standard we wish all games could achieve and something everyone should play.