Crysis: a First Person Shooter as it should be done

Title Crysis
Developer Crytek
Type First Person Shooter
Platform(s) Windows XP/Vista
Kelly Score ™ 95

I bought Halo 3 on my XBox 360 shortly after it came out. I didn’t expect much from it- and that’s what I got. The Halo franchise is good, but has never really “wow”ed me.

At its root, I’d say the problem is partly a matter of the story as presented in the game coming across as “weak”, and partly the visual perspective the game plays from. I understand the back story behind the games is very detailed and rich…but the game doesn’t convey that well to me. As for the perspective: they seem to consistently do something with Halo that combines to irritate me (“an endless stream of passages, all alike…”) and give me motion sickness. First person plus acres of similar looking views equals nausea for me. Add these considerations to the fact that I made a mistake and played 9/10ths of the game on “easy” before discovering that you have to play on “normal” to get any achievements…the thought of playing the game through again made me put the DVD away.

Along comes Crysis. This game is as “different” as Far Cry was a few years ago, and that’s not too surprising I guess as both games were developed by Crytek. Note that Far Cry 2 was *not* developed by Crytek, so who knows what that will be like.

Moving back to the topic…Crysis has the bog-standard first person shooter plot. A super-soldier is part of a squad tasked with investigating some strange happenings on an island near China. The cause turns out to be some sort of alien invasion- much gunfire ensues. What makes Crysis “better” than the standard fare has more to do with how the story is presented, how the player is allowed to interact with the world, and how natural the whole process feels.

I’ll try to give some more detail to explain that throw-away statement I just made. Firstly, Crysis has extremely lifelike visuals. Yes, the game has all the gee-whiz graphical features you’d expect, but Crytek has chosen to use them to render a real-looking world rather than using them to make pulsating oil-slick walls that all look the same. At least half of the game is out doors, with more or less natural lighting. There are plants that move and branches that break as you walk amongst them, birds and frogs that fly or jump out of the way as you move too close, and lots of beautiful lighting effects. I think choosing to set Crysis mostly in the real world, or something like a real world, was a good thing.

Crytek also implemented some surprisingly compelling AI features. Sure, the enemy can be caught occasionally with the “extras standing in the wings” expression if you catch them at a bad moment. But once you wake them up by making a bit of noise they generally behave like you’d expect human soldiers to behave. They attempt to flank, search around where the noise came from, shoot randomly in the approximate location they think you are, call for reinforcements, and so on.

Next on my list of rationalizations for my like of Crysis is the story and how it is presented. It actually takes a good twenty or thirty percent of the game to lay the groundwork for the “alien invasion” concept. During that time, the story is presented through the usual cut scenes, but the pacing is good. Even though you know the aliens are coming, the game gives plenty of reason not to rush to see them.

The central “cool” factor in the game is the futuristic nanosuit the main character uses. It gives the wearer the ability to selectively increase any one of strength, speed, or concealment. None of the abilities granted are massively powerful: strength doesn’t allow you to punch through reinforced concrete, speed doesn’t let you run at 90 miles an hour or stop time, and concealment only works effectively if you are motionless. But every battle in Crysis gave me dozens of alternative ways to use these three abilities, and never was I forced to use ability A to unlock door B. This choice becomes part of the story which the player gets to write. You still complete missions and the plot still moves forward, but exactly how you go about that is up to you.

Some of my favorite moments in the game were humorous outcomes of one or more of its best features. Objects in Crysis are generally physical: they can be picked up, broken, or potentially shot through. In one instance, my cloaking ability ran out at a critical moment and I got the attention of a heavy tripod-mount machine gun emplacement. I ducked behind a 2 foot thick palm tree and went prone while my suit recovered power. The guy with the machine gun kept firing, and splinters were flying off the tree. Raised on standard shooters, I ignored the graphical fluff…but then there was a “crack!”, and the tree’s trunk burst … dropping 60 feet of 2′ thick wood onto my prone form, and killing me instantly. Remember, kids: Concealment does not equal cover.

Another memorable instance involved the enemy’s AI. I snuck up using my nanosuit’s concealment ability, hid behind a concrete barrier, and tossed a grenade amongst eight enemy soldiers that were standing close to each other. It was night, and my aim was bad: I only killed two of them. I concealed myself and moved some distance away, knowing the enemies would launch an aggressive search. I watched from a distance with my binoculars…and nearly died laughing when one of the searchers thought he found me, tossed a grenade over a barricade, and killed five of his compatriots. To me, this was clear evidence that the enemy soldiers, none of whom were equipped with night vision or fancy nanosuits, were actually listening and using their “eyes” in the dim light available to them. They heard something and reacted in panic…only it wasn’t me they heard. Friendly fire is a bitch…

All in all, I’d give Crysis a nine out of ten on the Kelly scale, or 95% if you want to go with percentages. Well worth buying if you like first person shooters. I’ve only played single player so far: I’d estimate there is a good twelve to sixteen hours of game play in the campaign. I haven’t tried multiplayer at all, but I’ve heard it is pretty good- player matching/sessions are managed via GameSpy Commando.

I will call out a few issues, however. Crysis requires a high end PC configuration. My machine is a dual-core Athlon 4600+ with 4 GB of RAM and a pair of RAID 0 10K RPM drives. My video card is a 512 MB ATI 1950XTX. With this configuration, I was able to play Crysis on medium settings at 1024×768 resolution. It looks pretty nice, but that’s far below my normal 1600×1200 resolution with high settings that I can get away with on other games. The developers say they built Crysis to work best with hardware that doesn’t exist yet, and I can confirm that. If you think it is your God given right to play a game on high settings, then you will not be happy.

A second problem I ran into was some stuttering and slowdowns, and even the occasional freeze. This would also periodically effect cut scenes, with the audio/video getting out of sync. It bears mentioning that this only seemed to occur after a couple of hours or more of playing. For completeness, I’m running Vista 64 Ultimate, with the version 7.11 ATI Catalyst video drivers. I see there is a new 7.12 version of the ATI drivers out with a couple of entries in the release notes about Crysis. I’ll try that out and see if it fixes my problem.

UPDATE: I updated to the 7.12 ATI Catalyst drivers and it *seemed* to increase the stability of game play. I was able to finish Crysis, but encountered an extremely frustrating problem during the final battle despite having the updated drivers. I repeatedly fell through the ground while fighting the final monster and down into the bowels of the aircraft carrier upon which the battle takes place. Perhaps worse than that, however, was the fact that my character was also falling through stair cases. I repeatedly rebooted my machine and reloaded my last save game in order to replay this final scenario, and in every case I would move around a bit to pick up ammo and then fall through the ship once more.

I overcame this problem by turning the graphics down from “medium” settings (which is what the auto-detect set them at for my machine) to “low”. I should point out that there were no obvious performance problems during the scene in question: I switched to low settings on a whim, thinking it couldn’t hurt to try. See above for my system specifications.

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