New York City, 2023. Three years ago, evidence of alien life was discovered on the island of Linshan, claimed by North Korea. An ancient civilisation, the Ceph, had seeded bio-organice spacecraft known as 'spheres' under various points of the Earth's crust. American marines and special forces, spearheaded by soldiers wearing experimental 'nanosuits', engaged the Ceph and ultimately defeated them. However, a second sphere has now been activated under New York City. To clear the city the Ceph have released a deadly virus as a prelude to an all-out attack. As American military forces try to clear the city of millions of civilians, it falls to a marine to take up the nanosuit and engage not only the Ceph, but the corporation which created the nanosuit and now wants it back, by any means necessary.
Crysis 2 is CryTek's fourth game, following on from their brilliant 2004 debut Far Cry and the first two games in the Crysis franchise, Crysis and Crysis: Warhead. CryTek have two principal goals with their first-person shooters. The first is to deliver the most technically and graphically stunning games in the world, which they have ably achieved. The second is to create FPS games which break out of corridors and linear passages and try to give some freedom back to the player, allowing them to approach firefights and battles in a manner of their preference, or to even avoid them by using stealth. Crysis 2 continues this tradition as well, although in a much-less accomplished manner than its forebears.
The game opens with you on a submarine approaching New York. The sub is predictably destroyed by the aliens, but you are rescued by Prophet (a side-character in the original Crysis; the protagonists from the first two games do not appear in this one) and given his nanosuit to take the fight to the enemy. You are also engaged in battling the creators of the nanosuit, who send soldiers after you to try to recover it. Initially you are on your own, hounded by aliens and human soldiers alike, until you rescue a scientist (a walking exposition tool with no other characteristics) and learn more about what's going on. Then the US Marines arrive in full force and you team up with them to carry on the fight (sometimes in squad deployments with fellow troops, more often not). The storyline features much wibbling about nanotechnology and lots of grunting from manly soldiers (one of whom is a token female) about getting things done and leaving no man behind and so forth. To be honest, the storyline and writing are both forgettably generic, surprising as two of the better SF authors around at the moment (Peter Watts and Richard Morgan) worked on it.
Like its forebears, Crysis 2 presents the player with a mission objective and leaves you to decide how to accomplish it. The usual options are a head-on confrontation, a flanking maneuver, a sniping option or stealth. Rather disturbingly, the game assumes that you are too thick to figure this out on your own and walks you through these options each time you enter a combat area (though you can simply ignore this by not using the nanosuit's visor), but nevertheless the choice is good. Your nanosuit has several abilities which can help with these choices. It has an armour mode which renders you resistant (but not totally immune) to enemy firepower and a cloaking device which makes you invisible. Both abilities consume suit power (as does running and doing large jumps), and managing your power adds a fresh tactical perspective to the game.
The game employs the tiresome twin gimmicks of modern FPS games, namely cover and regenerating health. At least the nanosuit provides a reasonable in-game explanation for the regenerating health this time around, but the cover system means, once again, discovering areas and levels littered with convenient waist-high boxes and barriers everywhere which just looks silly. Fortunately, the cover system is optional (and you have to press a button to activate it, so you don't stick to walls automatically) and can be safely ignored by players who actually want to fight, rather than cowering behind walls. In fact, the nanosuit's armour option allows you to engage aggressively in combat and strikes a good balance between empowering the player and making them too invulnerable.
Weapon choices are fairly standard - shotguns, pistols, rocket launchers, machine guns - but do the job. They're chunky and satisfying to use, though rather greedy on the ammo. Luckily the game is absolutely littered with ammo dumps, so that's not a problem. The game also has melee options, including a formidable ability to pick up an enemy soldier (human or alien) and throw them a colossal distance. Whilst a bit overpowered, this does use up all your energy and takes a few seconds each time, so can't be used rapidly to clear a tight cluster of enemies. Combat is excellent, which is handy as it makes up 90% of the game, though enemy AI occasionally falters at long range (sniping becomes less of an option as the game proceeds, probably because of early sections where you can kill dozens of enemies with no-one around them batting an eyelid).
The tactical freedom to handle combat as you see fit, and the combat itself being great, are two important things that prop up the game. The third are the visuals. At launch Crysis 2 was, somewhat bizarrely, less impressive than the original Crysis. This was because serious compromises had to be made to fit the game onto consoles. Happily, CryTek released a later patch which added high-resolution textures and a DirectX 11 mode on PC, which transforms the game into something from another world. Graphically, Crysis 2 is the single most jaw-dropping game on the planet (supplanting its forebear, which must drop to second place). Aside from CDProjekt's visually stunning Witcher 2, nothing else comes close to it. It's a quantum leap forwards and shows what we can expect from the next generation of games. The atmospheric depiction of a shattered New York City (borrowing more than a few visual motifs from Escape from New York and Cloverfield) is another triumph, helped by some excellent music.
So, the game has great combat and stunning graphics. Where Crysis 2 runs into problems is with story. As I said before, the story is a somewhat generic piece of fluff about fighting off an alien invasion. The characters are walking fonts of exposition with no real sense of personality and no interesting or memorable dialogue. You fight, and have a good time fighting, but don't really care about the stakes or the other characters involved. The generic nature of the plot shouldn't be a problem, as it's basically an excuse to rationalise the huge explosions. What makes it offensive is that the game loves to rip control away from your hands every half hour or so for a tedious cut scene, a 'surprise' cliffhanging event (usually an explosion, fall or tidal wave ending with you being unconscious for a few moments) or, rage-inducingly, a Quick Time Event. Quick Time Events - in which normal game controls are suspended and you have to follow on-screen controls for a few minutes like a simpleton for absolutely no discernible reason - are the laziest of devices to use to make the player feel involved in the game, and frankly cost the game half a star by itself (luckily there's only a few of them in the whole game, otherwise it would have been more).
Crysis 2 (***½) laudably follows in its predecessors' footsteps by giving the player more freedom in how to play than most shooters. Unfortunately, its sense of freedom is considerably watered-down from its forebears (and Crysis was already substantially more linear than Far Cry) and then totally undone by its dependence on industry-standard but unnecessary fluff like cut scenes and Quick Time Events. If you can overlook these issues - and they are relatively restrained - then the impressive combat, mouth-watering graphics and the tactical options presented by the nanosuit combine to make it one of the better contemporary first-person shooters. The game is available now in the UK (PC, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360) and USA (PC, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360).