You're sitting behind the wheel of a finely tuned luxury automobile. The upholstery creaks as you make yourself comfortable; it smells like quality in here. You haven't even turned the key and you can feel the car humming, its tightly-coiled energy waiting to be unleashed. This car isn't designed to make you feel romantic or poetic; it's designed to make you feel powerful.
You run your fingers over the dash. Near the edge, just above the glove compartment, a piece of the dashboard flicks up under your fingers. Huh, weird, how did that happen? It must've come unglued or something. You smooth it down and look at it. There, good as new. You twist the key in the ignition.
The car roars to life! It's throaty and strong! Wait, but did you feel it hitch? Nah, couldn't have been. Smell this leather! Cars that smell like this don't hitch. But… yeah… wait. You hear something, just beneath the rumble of the engine. A high-pitched keening sound, like metal wire spinning round an un-greased spool. You put the car into gear, and it chugs. It chugs? Oh yes, there was no mistaking that: that was not supposed to happen.
You're sitting behind the wheel of a finely tuned luxury automobile. But something's wrong.
That's what it's like to play Crysis 3.
Crysis 3, which comes out today on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, is the third (well, technically fourth) in a series of first-person action games that mix stealthy sneaking with huge explosions, all draped across lush, exquisitely rendered environments. The result has historically been something a bit smarter and more open-ended than, say, Call of Duty or Medal of Honor.
The Crysis series isn't really known for its winning personality. The games don't get by on their stories, or their characters, or their lore. They're not even really all that widely regarded for their gameplay or design. They're known, first and foremost, for their sweet, sweet tech.
The first Crysis was released exclusively on PC in 2007 and almost instantly became the high-water-mark to which all PC graphics were compared. It looked like a PC game from the future: eye-watering sunsets splashing across a shimmering ocean, tiny little frogs leaping through a carpet of jungle-undergrowth. It was the game that PC gamers could lord over their console-owning brethren. Not only was it unavailable on Xbox 360 or PS3, it was commonly held that those platforms couldn't handle the game if they tried. (The irony here is that Crysis was eventually brought to the 360, albeit as a toned-down port.)
The game's developer, the German studio Crytek, has always seemed a bit less interested in making great games and more interested in using their Cryengine technology to make great-looking games.
That said, I've always had a soft spot for the series. I like both Crysis and Crysis 2 in equal measure, though for somewhat different reasons.
In Crysis games, you play as a man in a suit. Specifically, a "nanosuit" exoskeleton that looks like SCUBA gear combined with one of those frozen human musculatures you'll see on display at Body Worlds. The suit gives a distinct advantage in combat against mere mortals, as it allows players to switch between various powerful modes on the fly. There's a stealth mode that makes you invisible like a certain dreadlocked extra-terrestrial, and an armor mode that lets you suck up bullets. There's a speed mode that lets you run super fast and jump super high. You can breathe underwater, and just in case you didn't feel enough like The Predator already, you can activate a visor that allows you to see heat signatures.
The games, then, are entirely about using your suit's powers to stalk and kill dudes. Sometimes you hunt human dudes, and sometimes you hunt alien dudes. This has traditionally been a good amount of fun, because of one crucial balancing feature of the nanosuit—it runs out of energy rather quickly, and you can't stay invisible or bullet-proof for too long before you'll have to pause and recharge. Past Crysis games have always been at their best when players are set loose in moderately open outdoor or semi-outdoor areas, pitted against a bunch of enemies. It's in these scenarios that the games, particularly Crysis 2, start to feel something like the "thinking man's brainless shooter." You'll creep and strike, creep and strike, hiding, cloaking, attacking, hiding and recharging, before pouncing again.
You are a guy named "Prophet," who is the same guy that everyone thought you were for the bulk of Crysis 2, when you were actually a guy named "Alcatraz," though at the very end of that game you actually became Prophet anyway. (I know, right?)
But every time Crysis games get away from that core routine, things become significantly less enjoyable. The back-half of the first game, which was set on a south pacific island, featured giant flying squid-enemies that were a tenth as fun to fight as the overmatched but numerous North Korean soldiers from the opening chapters. The second game, which took place in an under-attack New York City, featured aliens that were more humanoid and a lot more fun to fight, but still not quite as enjoyable as the PMC soldiers of the opening and closing acts.
Crysis 3, unfortunately, spends most of its time lost in the weeds. There's plenty of hunting, but it's sporadic, and changes made to the formula combine with dodgy AI and odd level-design to make the whole thing feel uncomfortable and ungainly.
In Crysis 3, you still wear the suit. Through some plot contrivances that don't really merit a detailed explanation, you are a guy named "Prophet," who is the same guy that everyone thought you were for the bulk of Crysis 2, when you were actually a guy named "Alcatraz," though at the very end of that game you actually somehow became Prophet anyway. (I know, right?) The story goes like this: it's twenty-some years after the events of Crysis 2, and Prophet has been frozen in stasis this whole time, kept under lock and key by a megalomaniacal megacorporation called Cell.
Prophet's old buddy Psycho, who was one of his squadmates in the first game (and was the star of the Warhead spin-off) turns up, older and fatter and conspicuously nanosuit-less, and wakes Prophet up. In the wake of the events of Crysis 2, New York has become a Cell-controlled, bio-domed jungle, loaded with wrecked, overgrown buildings. (It's lovely-looking.) There's wildlife and foliage everywhere. The aliens have been scattered to the wind, and Cell Corporation has gone full-on Lex Luthor—they're trying to take over the world. Time to show them who's boss.
Sounds fine, right? A decent action-game setup. But right from the start, something seems hinky with Crysis 3. The first level takes place at night aboard a Navy cruiser, where Psycho escorts Prophet to freedom. I found myself surprised that I was spending the opening act doing what I've come to think of as the "First-Person Shooter Follow." See here:
I'd follow Psycho to a door, wait for him to open the door, then go through and shoot some guys. Then I'd follow him some more. This kind of thing is de rigueur in a Call of Duty game, but in Crysis? At the very least, it set off some warning bells.
The whole introductory level took place at night, and I found myself fighting my way through small labs, then through bigger labs, then corridors. Nothing felt open, or empowering, or particularly fun. It certainly didn't feel like Crysis. That went on for the game's entire opening act, before the camera finally opened onto a sprawling, day-lit vista. (A screencap of this moment is a bit farther along in this review.) If you're anything like me, this is the point where you'll think, "Thank god, the actual game is starting."
Only it doesn't start. I had to follow Psycho some more, then this happened (This clip is from the Xbox 360 version of the game, wobbly foot and all. Everything else in this review is of the PC version):
After that, I was finally set loose in the urban jungle. Sweet! Oh, no, wait. I wasn't all that loose, actually, because there was a huge missile-launcher in the sky that would blow me up if I became uncloaked out of cover. So I did some tedious linear recon (no combat) for a couple minutes, and then finally, finally, I got to the first open area where there were some soldiers to fight. And… I defeated them handily, because I'd been given a futuristic bow that fires silent, instantly deadly and/or explosive-tipped arrows and I could use it without uncloaking. (More on the bow later.)
I made mincemeat of those poor goons and then moved on… but not to another outdoor combat sequence! Nope, it was time to follow Psycho again, and then head underground and fight some guys in another dark, interior area. Some aliens turned up about 20 minutes later, and it just became more of a mess from there.
WHY: Lovely graphics aside, Crysis 3 is a mostly mediocre shooter in which fancy visuals faintly disguise haphazard design and a lack of technical polish.
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3
Release Date: February 19
Type of game: Tactical first-person sci-fi shooter centered around a mixture of stealth and action.
What I played: Completed the single-player story in around 6-7 hours, replayed several hours' worth of levels on various difficulties. Played a couple hours of multiplayer and a couple hours of the Xbox 360 version. Replayed several chunks of Crysis 2 for comparison.
My Two Favorite Things
- When it's pretty, it's damned pretty. In terms of razor-sharp fidelity and near-photorealistic vistas, this is easily one of the best-looking games you can currently play.
- Multiplayer has a number of distinctive charms, particularly the fact that every player can become invisibile.
My Two Least-Favorite Things
- The last chapter is a chore, the final boss is a mess, and the dénouement is laughable.
- Enemy AI just can't keep up with the new, bigger environments, and humans and aliens both behave too erratically to be much fun to fight.
Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes
- "I didn't realize my PC could actually physically break a sweat."
-Kirk Hamilton, Kotaku.com
- "Why would I ever use anything but this bow?"
-Kirk Hamilton, Kotaku.com
- "This is it: The mediocre game that screenshots will sell."
-Kirk Hamilton, Kotaku.com
So that was more or less when I started thinking, hey, there might be something weird under the hood of this supposedly finely-tuned automobile.
Before I dig too much deeper into the design or the writing, let's back up and talk about the tech. That's why a lot of people play Crysis games, after all: they want to make their PC beg for mercy, they want to set their post-FX slider to "low" for the first time since buying that new graphics card. They want to play this game and think, "Yeah, but in three years, when I have a new PC, I'll play this again." Call it aspirational PC gaming. We want to taste the future, even if it gives us indigestion.
I'm running an Intel i5 2.8GHz with 8GB of RAM and a GeForce 660Ti graphics card. It may not be the hottest setup money can buy, but it's not too shabby, and it can run Crysis 2 with all the high-res-texture bells and whistles at a consistent 60 frames per second. It can also run pretty much every other PC game I have, from The Witcher 2 to heavily modded Skyrim, without a hitch.
My computer certainly choked on Crysis 3. I played a review build of the game that Crytek had put together last week, and the game's performance was erratic at best, with some combination of medium/low settings giving me solid 60fps before dipping down to 30 or 25 in certain scenes. Only by dropping every setting to "Low," turning off antialiasing, and running medium-quality textures have I been able to get a consistent 60fps at 1920x1080 resolution. And even then—sometimes it'd drop.
I've been following this NeoGAF thread with interest, as players there have been trying all manner of high-end cards and are reporting similar performance dips. Almost no one seems to be able to get the game to run at maximum settings without taking a significant framerate hit. That said, this stuff is very difficult to get nailed down—I installed Nvidia's newest drivers today, and didn't really see a noticeable improvement, despite the fact that they're optimized specifically for Crysis 3. I'm still playing with textures on "medium" and all my settings on "low." Then again, you may not care about framerate as much as I do. Responsiveness is key for me; I'd rather play an ugly game at a steady 60FPS than a pretty one at 30. And it's worth reiterating that even on low settings, Crysis 3 looks very nice.
I like the idea of a future-ready PC game. And I don't doubt that in three or four years, people will buy this game on sale just so that they can run it maxed-out on their new 8GB GPUs or whatever, just like I did with Crysis in 2010. But at the same time, I have to say that I find Crysis 3's under-performance to be a liiiittle bit of a bummer. The game isn't just demanding, it feels poorly optimized. The fact that it seems unable to maintain a consistent framerate unless I dial it all the way down and even then has dips makes me think that it's just not that well-constructed or stable. It's likely that future updates and patches will iron this out and make the game more consistent, but for the time being, it's a real bucking bronco.
On a related note, the Xbox 360 version of Crysis 3 is a big step down from its PC big brother. I played an hour or so of the 360 version just to see how it compares, and the difference is remarkable. It's still plenty okay-looking for a console game, but it doesn't move all that well. It's too busy for the Xbox's native resolution, and the jaggies and low-res textures make everything look muddy. Not only is the game lower resolution and lacking any of the DirectX 11 particle-porn the PC version so regularly smears onto your screen, the Xbox version's framerate is quite sluggish, which makes it less pleasant to play.
All that said, yes: if your interest begins and ends with extremely high-res PC gaming, Crysis 3 will slake your thirst. And a part of me enjoys that Crytek struts out and throws down this crazy game that's less an entertainment product and more a gauntlet, daring PC gamers to throw their machines against it with reckless abandon. The studio has done a marvelous job positioning itself as purveyor of a product that users don't deserve to use properly. It's hard not to admire their chutzpah. "This game is so awesome-looking that you can't even play it for another two years," they say. "But you know you're gonna buy it anyway, because you just want to see how you stack up."
In summary: it's totally playable as is, though it'd be nice if the damned thing worked a little bit better. And a further caveat on the graphics: while the game looks amazing in screenshots, it doesn't always look so hot in action, even on PC. Animations, especially facial animations, are stiff and waxy. The motion capture is odd, combat animations can be stilted, and characters regularly leave huge gaps of silence between lines of dialogue.
As an open-ended stealth/combat game, Crysis 3 falls well short of the standard so recently set by Far Cry 3. (For example: see that vista in the image above? You don't actually ever get to explore that in Crysis 3.) And as a transhumanist sci-fi adventure, it doesn't match the melodrama and romance of Halo 4 or the moral credibility of Deus Ex. But while those games' shadows stretch long over Crysis 3, the shadow that most thoroughly covers it, curiously, is that of its predecessor, Crysis 2.