Crysis 2 Review

I’ll confess. I didn’t play the original Crysis. Blame Crytek for building an engine that still struggles to run on high settings of contemporary PCs, much less consoles. While there needs to be standard bearers for graphics processing power, for good or bad, the original Crysis still sets the standard on PC gaming in the visual arena. Unfortunately, it makes for an exclusive group of gamers.

Evidently, Crytek learned their lesson for Crysis 2. The game looks utterly stunning and is arguably one of the best-looking shooters on consoles. I’m still undecided whether Crysis 2 looks better than the original game, but the fact that there is a discussion about which looks better speaks volumes on what Crytek was able to accomplish with their engine.

I don’t know if New York City has ever been better rendered in a video game. From the ruined subway stations, the collapsing buildings, the wash of water and destruction in later stages, New York City is a beautiful mess. The CryENGINE performs some of the best lighting and ambient techniques I’ve seen in a game, and the addition of 3D support for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 highlight these elements. Level designers have done a top-notch job designing the city streets to best replicate a post-destruction New York, pedantic in their detail. Without a doubt, so-called graphics whores are going to find a lot to love in Crysis 2, even though it isn’t a major step up from predecessor.

Unfortunately, the visual prowess of Crysis 2 is almost undermined by the bland and generic sci-fi feel to the game. I know that people buy their shooters to shoot aliens and bad guys, not to enjoy an enriching storyline. However, Crysis 2’s plot about Ceph aliens invading New York City and infecting the population and lone hero Alcatraz playing hero is almost offensively generic.

I don't have a problem with super-soldier marines and aliens and sci-fi guns, for we gamers tolerate them often. I have a problem with the gaming stealing every idea from airport thrillers, Hollywood blockbusters and future-science shooters. “Oh, it’s set in New York City in the midst of mass destruction! How original! The Statue of Liberty is destroyed and downtown? Sure glad Cloverfield didn’t do that! And aliens that want to harvest human bodies? How unique! What about that guy who betrays you, but is then back on your side; then goes insane? Never had that happen before!”

It's a huge insult to the game to acknowledge that High Voltage Software’s The Conduit for the Wii did this “alien invades urban metropolis” first. That said, some successful storytelling emerges with main character Alcatraz and his constantly shifting alliances. In one level, he’ll be shooting at the mercenary CELL agents, and they'll assist him in blasting the Ceph aliens. An occasional chapter will do something halfway interesting, although the characters double-crossing the good guys isn’t a terribly compelling twist. When gigantic alien tentacles become the most interesting part of a plot, something's not quite right.

Oh, and get this: Alcatraz is a silent protagonist. Disagree with me if you will, but the belief that a “silent protagonist” lets the player easily step into the shoes of the hero is a lie. I can't emphasize with Alcatraz, and that’s how it should be. He’s a marine who, through fate, is thrust in the middle of a battle between aliens, marines, and mercenaries. He doesn’t feel like an everyday man, and never will, and the only reason I would play Crysis 2 is to pretend for a few hours that I'm this amazing super-soldier. That’s the whole point! There are some silly plot points that somehow imply character development in Alcatraz, but they're dumb and not worth keeping in the game.

To Crytek’s credit, they did an impressive job of keeping players up to date on what happened between Crysis and its sequel. No, there is no major ”previously on Crysis …" sequence, but those who played the original will find plenty of nods to the first game. Thankfully, newcomers won’t have a problem jumping into this one, and the story feels very self-contained. Maybe I would have appreciated the plot more had I played Crysis, but anyone entering the franchise with this sequel will be in a similar situation.

It’s a shame that some of the best ideas used in Crysis 2’s campaign are only used a couple times. The vehicular tank mission is only used once, and some of the on-rails shooting stages are only teased at. In one later level, the electricity gets blown out, forcing the player to bring out the nano vision, a standard infrared camera. Even in the dark, enemy soldiers can still hear you, and sneaking past these units proves to be one of the more thrilling moments in the game. Other stages ask Alcatraz to rout through a burning building in Bryant Park, and one particular boss battle in the middle of a darkened Times Square was particularly enthralling. These are bright spots within a fairly generic campaign.

When it comes down to the shooting mechanics of Crysis 2, you’ll find a solid and capable shooter. Everything you would expect from the genre (sniper rifles, shotguns, grenades, etc.) are all represented. The game controls beautifully, but the one area that it does stand out is the nanosuit. And why shouldn't it? The nanosuit is a primary plot device in the game. It’s the raison d’être of the Crysis franchise. Justifying the player's genetic modifications, explaining the armor and stealth abilities, and providing some of the story progression, the nanosuit is flat out awesome.

Thankfully, though the story is weak, Crysis 2 more than makes up for this shortcoming with pure gameplay flexibility. Each level offers multiple ways to bypass an obstacle. Players can even bring up a HUD that will pinpoint different methods to circumvent an area, such as sniping enemy aliens, sneaking through sewers, using a turret, flanking enemies from the side, and more. Attacking units head-on will typically result in a quick death, and the guidance from the game itself is appreciated, although more experienced players can ignore it outright.

Enemy AI is outstanding. The dirty secret in game development is the sweet spot developers must hit with enemy AI. If a developer makes AI that is too good, then the game will be too difficult, and players will never feel a sense of accomplishment. Crysis 2’s AI has a good balance of smart soldier reactions (flanking the player, dodging grenades, finding cover) and a constant feeling of danger, especially since Alcatraz can be easily overwhelmed. Soldiers are always on patrol, as well, and are well aware of what their fellow soldiers are doing. For example, a player can use stealth to avoid a group of enemies, but if he kills a unit on patrol, his comrades may come running over to see what happened. I encountered this problem in one area, where I sneaked into a pier building and killed the soldiers inside, only for all of the guys left alive outside to come charging in.

While the player will use the entire stage to complete a level, the enemy units will do the same to take Alcatraz down. A smart player can use the reactions of the AI to their advantage. For example, when I brought those units into the pier building, it was much easier to eliminate them with a shotgun in the tighter environments. Or I can attach C4 to a car, kick it toward a group of enemies, and when they dodge, have the car explode right next to them. Crysis 2 constantly challenges the gamer to come up with new techniques and methods to solving problems, and it's very rewarding. Unfortunately, there are a few problems with progression, specifically with the stealth armor.

When using the stealth armor early on, enemy soldiers can easily locate the player by the sound of his footsteps or the movement of his shadow. However, killing alien enemies and collecting XP can upgrade the suit. Usually these upgrades range from increasing the amount of time that armor can be used, decreasing the amount of time it takes to recharge, or making wall jumps much faster. For the most part, they don’t make Alcatraz feel overpowered, but they assist players and complement their natural tendencies to solve problems. If you really like confronting enemies head-on, go for the armor upgrades.

Of course, if a player dumps all of their points into increasing stealth time, quieting their footsteps and boosting their energy recharge, it’s very easy to just walk past enemies until the nanosuit’s energy depletes, take cover until the energy refills and then keep walking. Seriously, for much of the last quarter of the game, I breezed through many of the more difficult portions of a level. Some of the NPCs in those sections are extra difficult, so why should I stock up on ammo when I can walk right past them? I wouldn’t necessarily call this a bad thing about Crysis 2 (I liked the bad-ass feeling of being a ninja super-soldier), but I did feel like I was cheating the game. Or maybe it was just rewarding me for a stealth-focused method.

The game does give players ample weapon and ammo drops, with everything from standard assault rifles to a gun that will microwave an enemy from the inside out. Each weapon can be modified on the fly with scopes, silencers, reticules and more. I never spent too much time modifying my guns, but I can understand that, especially on harder difficulties, having the right weapon for the right fight is immensely important, and the option between a silenced or scoped weapon can mean the difference between success and failure.

Multiplayer is a shining point in the game. Following the pattern of other FPS games, players will earn upgrades and unlockables as they play through the mode. Upgrades range from suit modules that allow for lethal air stomps, enhanced visors, increased speed for suit energy recharges, and more. Many players will fall into the traditional Assault/Scout/Sniper/Gunner roles offered from the get-go, but custom loadouts will offer plenty of flexibility for those who want it. An interesting option allows players to reboot and forfeit all of their upgrades to earn bragging rights. Coupled with the 200 “assessments” that grade players and the 256 dog tags awarded for performing specific actions (I’m partial to the teapot dog tag for performing a set number of “teabags"), Crysis 2’s multiplayer is designed to snatch players and never let go.

For players who are particularly good, support bonuses range from improved radar to orbital satellite strikes—a gigantic laser that shoots down from the sky. Thankfully, for players who find themselves on the receiving end of a bullet just a little too often, fatality bonuses such as ammo deflection and sniper scramble can help get them back in the game.

Out of the six game modes, four are fairly standard while two offer twists on familiar modes. Team Instant Action and Instant Action are derivatives of familiar deathmatch modes. Crashsite is Crysis 2’s version of control point: Aliens drop pods that players fight to control to reach a set score, and at a certain point the pods explode. Capture the Relay is a basic capture the flag mode.

The Extraction and Assault modes play off the best characteristic of Crysis 2: the nanosuit. Extraction is a two-part mode where one team defends two “Ceph Ticks.” Each one is actually an upgrade to the nanosuit, so if the offensive team snags a tick and brings it to their helicopter on the other side of the map, they gain a bonus to assist with capturing the other tick.

Assault is also a two-part mode, though probably the most distinct. Teams are split into two groups: weak Marines with better weapons and nanosuited troops with only a pistol. There are four rounds, with each player having one life per round. The better-equipped Marines must defend computer terminals from the nanosuit-soldiers who try to download data. It’s actually one of the most dynamic modes in the game, as the marines run from point to point to take out the nanosuited soldiers who tend to be out in the open. The risk/reward system of the nanosuits is best seen here.

If any of these game modes are too simple, they can be modified with everything from stripping the nanosuit abilities to limiting games to one life per character. There is even a fast round modifier that cuts intermission time for players who just want to cut to the game. Also, the stages are gorgeous areas mostly taken from or inspired by the single-player campaign, and with 12 arenas at launch and three more courtesy of DLC, Crytek offers more areas to learn and explore than most other shooters.

This is a very successful multiplayer mode. With the addition of armor abilities, the game is able to set itself apart from other military shooters, but it's hard to tell if Crysis 2 will stand up to the longevity of games like Modern Warfare or Halo. One of the achievements for the game is called Dedication, which can only be unlocked if you play the game online six months after the first battle, so clearly Crytek believes enough in their game to warrant such long-term commitment from players.

All in all, Crysis 2 is an outstanding game. Between the incredibly challenging AI and the stages that reward creative thinking, Crysis 2 distinguishes itself as a thinking man's shooter. Unfortunately, the bland and almost generic story is very weak glue for an otherwise great FPS. With plenty of in-game collectibles in both the multiplayer and single-player modes, as well as solid multiplayer gameplay options, players will find plenty of bang for their buck, and the stunning power of the CryENGINE needs to be seen to believed.

[Reviewed on Xbox 360]