Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Review: "Crysis 2"

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review for Crysis 2 (Xbox 360), 1 to 12-player first-person shooter, out now
My prediction: Santa will have a lot of trouble fulfilling the Christmas wishlists of all the 20-something gamers in the world this year. My guess is about 80% of people who play and enjoy Crysis 2 will inevitably have fantasies and flights of fancy about owning and using the military-grade nanotech suit which Crysis 2's gameplay is built around exploiting. Which is actually a little ironic - the plot of Crysis 2 is ostensibly an Isaac Asimov-esque tale about the genuine logistical problems that a nanosuit driver would face when in contact for extended periods of time with symbiotic hardware. But I digress.

The plot of Crysis 2 is of an alien invasion, pretty much. After Prophet's team from the first Crysis - which remains one of my favourite games of all time - uncovered the alien artifacts under the Ling Shan islands, years pass, an eventually the aliens have come back to reclaim their planet. Given the nickname "Ceph," these aliens unleash a deadly virus upon mankind, rise up from beneath the earth's crust causing untold natural disasters and climate change issues, and basically wreck shit up.
It's unforgivable, then, that these aliens are so poorly represented in the narrative of the story. Oh sure, we see glimpses of their strange hardware and we see the possible roots of their evolutionary path, but from start to end we basically only know in the end what we knew at the start - they're bad, evil aliens, and they've taken over New York. Why New York? Probably all the Americana - if Crytek can't rub as much American iconography in our face, how will they outdo all the other FPS developers? ...wait, Crytek is German? I take it back, maybe it's probably just a gameplay thing.

No, as in Crysis, the main focus is the nanosuit. The gameplay is essentially Crysis, only... refined. Some would say "dumbed down," I would say refined. The suit abilities in Crysis - Strength, Shield, Speed and Cloak, all return for the sequel, but instead of micro-managing each component, they are sort of all clumped into three - Armour, Power, and Invisibility. Activating the Armour mode deflects bullets and absorbs fall and fire damage, and activating Invisibility activates your cloak and other ancillary stealth functions.

"Power" cannot be switched on or off. This is where people would say the dumbing down has occurred - instead of switching on Speed to sprint fast, you just hold down the sprint button and it drains from Power. Instead of switching on Strength to punch people harder, you hold down the melee button and your super-strength punch drains from Power. It basically removes the blubber from Crysis's often-times bloated control scheme, which isn't a bad thing at all. In fact it's great thing.

On similar merits, the level design - previously a seemingly confusing mess of "open-world" exploration and base infiltration - has been refined to a strictly linear, yet choice-heavy straight path. It's a bit Deus-Ex-lite, in essence - you can either go in guns blazing, go in stealth, go in through the backdoor-route, or what have you. You always end up in the same place, but instead of tossing you at a building and going "do what you must," it gives you several unique and varied solutions and lets you pick. Again, I'd call this an improvement over the original - and it encourages repeat playthroughs, where you know "oh, I can stealth here," and you can go back and try it again with the guns blazing option, or what have you.

It helps then, being a more streamlined, linear affair, that the game looks so damn amazing. This owes perhaps most, not to the CryEngine 3 (though the engine is amazing), but to Crytek's ability to breath aesthetic sensibilities into every corner of the game's design. Pleasingly unique colour pallettes from area to area, use of vegetation and weather effects, sunbeams, refracting light, neon signs - every detail makes the world flourish and feel alive more than any game I've played in the past year or so. I especially like the depth-of-field blur on weapons that extend close to your eyes, and other HUD flourishes and effects like, like when the nanosuit shorts out and your vitals go offline with appropriate crackly poor-signal imagery. And props must also be given - Crysis 2 is perhaps the first game that I've been able to look up at the skyscrapers of New York and say, "yeah - that building is tall". Not even Fallout 3, a game whose map is three times the size of Planet Earth, could nail genuine scale through visuals alone. For this, Crytek must be applauded.

The CryEngine 3 also offers up some incredible cinematic destruction physics. It's not Bad Company 2-style destruction where you can chip away at cover, and I'm sort of disappointed by that. Rather, it's used in a very Source-esque way of providing physics-driven set-pieces - and oh my god. That is all. Honestly, there are about five physics setpieces in this game and just about every single one of them had my mouth gaping open like a gawking fish. I won't spoil, but when you see that giant wall of water heading towards you - your heart will leap into your mouth, and stay there well through the cutscene that follows.

Crysis 2 is amazing. That's a pretty blatantly simple approach to reviewing, but I have to say it. But, it has a lot of shortcomings - some more drastic than others - that simply must be gone over. Let it be said preemptively that none of these are game-breakers. No, you must buy Crysis 2 immediately. But nonetheless, I must nitpick, because these are some huge freaking mutant nits.

The story. Ohhh, the story. Acclaimed science-fiction writer Richard Morgan wrote the script, and the script is fantastic. The themes the game tackles are also nice and pulp-sci-fi, with things like symbiotic nanosuits integrating with the suit driver's vital organs and spinal column, the evolution of the suit as it interacts with alien tissue and virus, and... well, I shan't spoil, but when Prophet says in the opening "we're all dead men walking," he perhaps means it, uh, quite literally. But the way the story is presented is atrocious. I don't mean by the cutscenes; no, they're fine. It's sort of a Half-Life 2 sort of thing where it all plays out in first-person with occasional on-rails segments (you know, like most AAA FPS released in the last two years). No, it's the delivery I have the problem with.

The sporadic pacing, the flexible introduction of lead (?) characters, the out-of-the-blue plot twists that, while are good twists, leave much to be desired; the voice acting, which ranges from painfully wooden to comically over-the-top, that grates on my ears like they're cheese. Granted, the characters themselves are all nicely rounded - the Dr Gould character I actually found myself having an attachment to despite his horrific performance - but overall, it fails to do justice to the big, well-thought-out ideas the plot was aiming for. And, of course, the portrayal of the aliens - as mentioned - is a massive letdown, and they never evolve from "weird looking bad guys" for the whole game.

Now, cast your memory back. Remember in my 6/10 Halo Reach review where I said the game was uninspired and dull, but it had an uncannily high degree of polish? Well, Crysis 2 sort of hits the opposite end of that field - the gameplay is kinetic, exciting, and heart-pounding; the set-pieces jaw-dropping, the plot unique, the settings varied and colourful. ...but the amount of bugs in this game are staggering. Poor texture-popping, the enemy AI fucking up their patrol subroutines and walking into walls, clipping issues, horrific slowdown in some of the more laser-intensive firefights, and a plethora of sound effects repeating, levels not loading - if you can think of it, Crysis 2 probably suffers from it. The game is still amazing, I must stress. But the technical brilliance of the engine, and the air-tight script, gameplay, level design and musical score, only go to bring to light the holes of bugs, poor acting, and what have you. Crysis 2 falls into the realms of must-buy - it's just a shame not all elements are on par with the others.

Pathetic aliens, a poorly-told story, and technical niggles aside, Crysis 2 is the next step in the evolution of action gaming, and more than deserving of the Crysis name. Suit up, soldier - there's a war to be won. Or something like that. Aliens to shoot. Explosions to cause. ...you know. It's inherently noble.

All screenshots for PC games are now taken by myself thanks to the recently implementedSteam Screenshots feature! If you want to see more amateur videogame screens, why not check out my Steam Screenshot gallery? There are funny captions, I promise.

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