Crysis 2: Maximum Retrospective

20 Apr

Big, fat, oozing spoilers throughout.


It’s strange that the amount of post-release coverage Crysis 2 received was so disproportionate to the degree of buzz it enjoyed in the preceding few months – hundreds of previews, scores of trailers (most apprently narrated by some smug US surfing tournament commentator), a demo, and God-knows-how-many e-arguments about the nature of cross-platform  development. Then it got a bunch of pretty good reviews, a couple of tech analyses, and apparently cloak-moded away from the public eye.

This saddens me. It was probably never going to be as talked-about as the first, but it feels like a lot of what it had to offer was drowned by the flood of ill-advised whining about grass textures and the fact that you can’t see your own reflection on every physical surface. So, instead of a late review, let’s look at individual facets of Crysis 2 and wonder aloud if it lives up to its horrible pun of a name.

The Nanosuit

Whereas in Crysis, your bleeding-edge, made-of-muscles leotard was a handy tool in killing aliens and harassing Koreans, here it’s a better-developed character than you are. Everyone wants you dead, because you have the suit. You’re humanity’s only hope, because you have the suit. You’re literally dying, but you’re clinging onto life, because you have the suit. Make no mistake, Faceless Army Grunt, the suit is the one who saves the day here. You’re just carrying it around. You can’t blame Crytek for pushing their USP this hard, but during the last half-hour or so Crysis 2’s fetishistic adoration for its own piece of kit leads to it becoming imbued what is essentially magical powers. There’s a line between what can be justified by calling it ‘science fiction’ and what is just batshit fucking insane, but Crysis 2 stumbles over it gibbering something about DNA merging.

Practically, though, the suit is much more entertaining. It’s been streamlined slightly so Cloak and Armour modes are mapped to the finger-friendly E and Q keys, and actions that previously required Strength mode are performed automatically by holding down the appropriate ‘Jump’ or ‘Hit in face’ buttons. It’s an almost comically more intuitive system than Crysis’s radial menu, making slick transitions between actions tremendously fun and simple to pull off. There are only two failings of the new nanosuit: Speed mode is gone completely, replaced by a slightly-faster-than-average sprint. The second is that this will sap your suit energy deflatingly fast. If you’re in Armour mode, but need to sprint to cover before the combined fire of seven guys tears through your protection, there’s no way of just running – there is only the super-sprint, and the combined drain of that and Armour mode will mean you’ll run out of juice for both before reaching safety. Instead, there should be a toggleable Speed mode just like the new Armour/Cloak modes – binding to an easy-to-reach button, to be used at our discretion. It’s not crippling to the point of wanting the original, fiddly suit back, but it does make the inaccurate assumption that we want everything done for us, automatically, all the time.

Oh, and using ‘Power’ mode to hold a gun a bit steadier is one of the most battery-intensive things you can do – over becoming completely invisible and leaping ten feet in the air. Er, what?

Enemies

The new cannon fodder here is a well-equipped, well-armoured gang of private military douchebags – the kind that make cocky “Tin Man” digs at you while you shrug off their friend’s bullets and hurl him off a roof by his neck. They all lack faces (come on, even Half-Life had that funny cigar-chomping model) and aren’t always averse to throwing grenades at each other’s feet, but once they know you’re there they become relentless in their hunt for you, and their patrol routes are just unpredictable enough to instill a sense of dread when one turns towards your hiding place. Best of all is their reaction to a stealthily-killed comrade – after a darkly amusing “Are you okay?” they’ll briefly freeze, knowing there’s someone out there who can turn invisible or invulnerable at will, and not knowing exactly how they’re going to react. Ironically this short bout of panic is the perfect time to sneak up behind them and ruin their day,  and I’ve cleared whole areas by creating daisy chains of concerned foes checking the pulse of a fallen friend, then taking them out as well.

Easily the greatest triumph Crysis 2 can hold over its predecessor is the revamped alien menace. The first game’s gliding robo-pests were a good example of how games can use enemies to force a drastic change in player tactics, and why that isn’t always a particularly interesting, challenging or smart thing to do. The upgraded, bipedal monsters are, functionally, stronger and more agile humans. This means the deliciously satisfying stealth-action at the heart of Crysis isn’t compromised by the arrival of these bastards – if anything, they’re more fun to fight than the basic PMC schmucks. Fast, tough, aggressive, and able to instantly leap great heights, crawling through them to silently stab one in its gooey, exposed neck is electrically tense, if only for the gruesome mess you’ll find yourself in if you falter. It can become pretty exhausting in later levels, so much so that I let out a sigh of genuine relief when some more humans showed up – not because I wasn’t enjoying battling the aliens, but because doing so was so mentally draining. There aren’t many games that wear me out like that.

Looks

My God. Of course it was going to be pretty, but the combination of polish and technical optimisation on show here is superhuman work. I had a complete overhaul of my PC a few months ago, but it’s still hovering around the top end of ‘mid range’. And yet it manages to squeeze a solid 45 frames per second out of Crysis 2 on the second-highest graphical setting , and 60 in interior areas. For this machine that’s better than Just Cause 2, better than both Bioshocks, better even than the original Crysis.

When moving from a jungle to New York, the obvious risk is the loss of colour and detail in favour of a mesh of grey blocks. But Manhatten, post-invasion, is filled with attractive little touches (scattered litter, flashes of physical strain and decay, endless signage) and slightly bigger touches (great valleys excavated from the concrete streets, gargantuan metal veins wrapped around the landscape) that make it feel more alive than any field or forest. Graphical, art and budget limitations can sometimes make versions of a post-apocalyptic world just look broken – Crysis 2 makes it look utterly, hopelessly, irrepairably ruined. It’s lovely.

Writing

What of the storyline, besides you being handed God’s own overalls which can implant the voice of a dead man onto your vocal chords if you pour smear alien jelly onto them? The main premise is, in short, bullshit. Not so much the alien invasion – that’s fair game – but your motivation for doing anything about it is remarkably weak. Your guy, Alcatraz, is only the enemy of this PMC because they think he’s someone else, and Gordon Freeman syndrome prevents him from doing anything about it. Reasons for this enforced silence range from a hangover to vocal chord damage, but none really justify Alcatraz not grabbing the nearest radio and croaking “Hey, guys, I’m not this ‘Prophet’ guy, alright? Can you stop trying to murder me now? Are we good?”

Mainly though, most of the reasons you subject yourself to hundreds of potentially deadly fights with gun-toting lunatics and blade-wielding mecha-aliens for are impossible for anyone other than the game’s writers to understand. I have to find this suit-scanning machine why? How come I’m punching this glass tube of pink water? Why will jumping into this giant superheated shaft save the world? Any half-decent motivation to go from A to B is lost in a mighty current of pseudoscience. When I was asked to blow up a building simply because it would help the evacuation of civilians, I gladly obliged – my technobabble fatigue had gotten so bad I was happy just to do something for reasons which, in any other game, would seem clichéd and emotionally detached. The saddest part is that the muddled grandiosity of the main plot overshadows the few genuinely affecting bits – a few minutes after my successful bombing, I watched as our convoy were forced to leave behind an injured couple to get caught in a second skyscraper collapse. Polygons crushing polygons, I know, but…jeez.

Guns

Love ’em. I’ll ghost through a situation if I can (I would willingly give a massage to the person who decided to add a quiet insta-kill attack from behind) but when things go south, these are great fun to back with. There’s not much conceptually innovative about them (microwave rifle aside), but they’re just so angry – the sounds of each sot echoes off New York’s glass buildings, and enemies react with suitable force to being hit. Even using the sights produces a wholesome clicky noise as the gun swings up to eye level. A remarkable level of care and attention has been given to these things, considering how frequently the game encourages you to avoid using them.

About midway through, human enemies can be seen using an SMG that shoots bolts of electricity, both doling out damage and temporarily frying the nanosuit. Firearms are meant to be dangerous – it’s great that even with Armour mode, there’s something in this game that makes you think “I really, really don’t want to get shot with that”.

The beginning

For all its successes, Crysis 2 makes a poor first impression – after a pointless and lengthy intro movie, and the aforementioned “Permanent voice loss? Hangover.” conversation, the game forgets to give you your suit powers until several minutes after you first gain control – so the very first gunfight you get into is also the one that’s most likely to kill you. After that, it subtley coaches you on the two main modes by literally locking you into place, taking over the suit that you’re supposed to be in control of and having a creepy robot voice explain that armour makes bullets kill you less. Imagine being Alcatraz at that moment – “Oh God the suits gone all stiff and there are guys stood right there and I’ve dropped my gun for some reason and why am I stood next to this explosive canister ahhhhhh”. They’ve managed to take the sense of excitement and discovery out of your new, expensive toy, and replaced it with a series of cold and obvious tutorials. Show, don’t tell, guys.

The end

Better than shooting grenades up the rectum of a spaceship, worse than most other things I can imagine. The final fight is between you and a trio of ninja variants on the alien soldiers, who can also power-jump and use cloaks. This could have been awesome – use the skills you’ve learnt to outwit and destroy a team of creatures with roughly identical skills and health to you. Instead it’s a fairly short scrap with some very unthreatening enemies. They actually pop up a couple of times earlier in the campaign, but also dart out of sight before you can tag it. Besides that, they’re utterly forgotten about until this last battle. Thus any fear you might have had of them has faded – these guys aren’t stalking you, they were just a cheap trick to get a brief scare.It would have been cooler if a) they looked different to the regular aliens b) they hound you throughout the campaign, occasionally pouncing on you and clawing you to critical health before slipping away. The game could have a number of points where this happens, and randomises them so you aren’t suddenly violated in the same place on each playthrough. I want the final fight to include this element of taking revenge on the jerks that have been a constant, unpredictable thorn in your side the whole game, and doing it by besting them at their own abilities. At the moment, the only game these guys deserve to be the final boss of is a game about crap final bosses.

That said, Floating Central Park is quite neat.

To conclude

As a sequel, Crysis 2 is one step forward and three-quarters of a step back. Everything has been tightened up, made smoother, cleaner and shinier. But it takes itself far more seriously than a game about running around in Superman’s pyjamas really should be, and consequently the weirdness it fails to embrace becomes hard to swallow. Cover your ears when someone starts talking, however, and it’s a much more slick, fun and ambitious FPS experience than the relentlessly brown contemporaries from which it appears to borrow most of its multiplayer content.

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One Response to “Crysis 2: Maximum Retrospective”

  1. richybigpants April 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm #

    Its an amazing game, the online is frustrating, but its got much more depth than COD, but so has a shallow grave…..

    If you play xbox live send an invite through the link on our blog.

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