Back in 2004 a hitherto unknown company called CryTek released a game called Far Cry. In a year that also saw the long-awaited releases of both Doom 3 and Half-Life 2, Far Cry was a surprisingly successful break-out hit, marrying the excellent graphics of those games with a semi-freeform approach to missions that was truly exihilirating. The sense of freedom it brought to the normally linear-as-hell first-person shooter market was quite revolutionary, and it has arguably aged better than either of its competitors due to its much greater replay value. Crysis is not the sequel to Far Cry, since Electronic Arts snatched up CryTek and their next game whilst the Far Cry brand name remains with Ubisoft (who are currently developing the Africa-set Far Cry 2 for a late 2008/early 2009 release), but it is the 'spiritual successor'.
Crysis is set in 2020. North Korea has occupied an island in the Pacific Ocean where something unusual has been uncovered by an archaeological expedition. The UN has sent in a team of special operatives using new nanosuit technology to investigate, resulting in guerrila warfare against the North Koreans before the situation escalates and a full-scale war looks set to unfold over the island, resulting in the deployment of two US carrier groups to the area. And then the object the expedition has uncovered wakes up...
So far, so traditional. Crysis builds on the success of its predecessor by retaining the tropical island setting but ramping its graphical capabilities to the max. Make no mistake, Crysis is the single most graphically-advanced computer game on the market, a position it will retain for some years to come given the somewhat conservative looks of its nearest competitors. That said, the game scales excellently: my two-and-a-half-year-old single-core machine coped with most settings at Medium, and it looked substantially better than the still-gorgeous Far Cry with everything turned up to maximum.
Of course, graphical excellence is nothing without the gameplay to back it up and Crysis delivers on that score. It's a fast-paced action game but, like Far Cry before it, it also allows you to play stealthily and gives you more options, such as more silenced weapons and a camouflage field ability, to make use of that tactic. The game also allows for more effective hand-to-hand combat. The nanosuit allows you to increase your speed, strength or armour throughout the game depending on the situation, although to be honest you rarely need to take it off armour mode, but it's a nice touch. Weapons selection is surprisingly poor, however. The UN-issue SCAR rifle is great but you have to ditch it as soon as you run out of ammo and switch to the North Korean automatic rifle, which has the stopping power of a gnat in a hurricane. Entire clips are sometimes needed to take down one enemy soldier. The shotgun is great but ineffective at range, whilst the minigun tears through ammo so fast it's barely worth using. The gauss rifle and the infinite-recharge ice weapon you get at the end of the game are both excellent, but since you only get them five minutes before the game ends, hardly astonishing.
Crysis is a pretty good game that fixes many of the sins of Far Cry. There is less messing around indoors, the story and characters are much better-developed, there's a much greater sense of coherence in how the missions and levels fit together and a solid sense of camaderie once what appears to be the entire US Marine Corps lands on the island to provide some back-up in the latter half of the game. Unfortunately, it also takes some retrograde steps. Whilst multiple routes to mission objectives are again provided, they are much more constrained than before. This is because whilst Far Cry took place across multiple islands, Crysis takes place in sectioned-off areas of one big island, and the game won't let you just wander off at will. This decreased freedom from its predecessor is extremely irritating, given it's one of the appeals of CryTek's work. Secondly, CryTek have astonishingly not yet figured out that whilst we enjoy fighting intelligently-designed human opponents, having lumbering mutants or in this case (spoiler!) ice-based, gravity-bending aliens turn up just feels lame, especially when they can take ten times as much ammo to kill compared to the superhumanly damage-resistant human enemies.
The other major problem, one increasingly prevalent in the FPS genre, is the establishing of Crysis as a franchise. We can't have one good, long game and that's it, we've got to have a major cliffhanger ending, followed by the news that Crysis is a trilogy with part two due in 2009 and part three in 2011, and finally the news that there will be a 'parallel' game following another character through the same events, with the first of these, Crysis: Warhead, coming out in late 2008. Sometimes the sheer avariceness of the computer game industry is startling, especially when the developers proudly tell us that the game has sold a million copies in six months but it could have sold more if piracy wasn't around, so as a result the sequels will be co-developed for the consoles and may not be as visually impressive as a result. And to finally put the boot in, Crysis is quite short: at about eight hours to completion, Crysis is substantially shorter than Far Cry, Half-Life 2, FEAR or a lot of other recent FPS games.
Crysis (***½) looks a million dollars even on relatively underpowered machines and is a huge amount of fun to play. However, it won't last very long, has a huge cliffhanger ending and scales back on the amount of freedom you have. The game is available now for PC in the UK and in the US as both a standard and collector's edition. The 'parallel' game, Crysis: Warhead, will be released in November 2008, with Crysis II likely to follow a year later.