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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.
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.
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.
I've always thought of Crysis 2 as an underrated game: it's a meaty, largely well-designed shooter that's polished, atmospheric, and gives players a ton of excellent opportunities to creatively blow shit up. It's also superior to Crysis 3 in almost every way. Crysis 2 feels like an ambitious game made by developers who were unafraid to take their time and get things right. Crysis 3 feels like it was hurried out the door, almost as though Crytek was clearing out old business before re-focusing on free-to-play games.
The differences between the two games are apparent from the very start: Crysis 2 almost immediately set you loose in open-air, outdoor environments filled with soldiers. Crysis 3 makes you follow a guy for an hour or so, putting you either in closed rooms or semi-open, darkened areas filled with enemies on high scaffolding who you can't see but who can see you. The new game is also significantly shorter and less narratively ambitious: Crysis 3 plays out over seven chapters, while Crysis 2 featured nineteen. There are smaller differences, too, like the fact that for some reason, Crysis 3 has stripped out Crysis 2's interesting and functional first-person cover mechanic.
Crysis 3 plays out over seven chapters, while Crysis 2 featured nineteen.
To make sure I wasn't imagining things, this past weekend I loaded up Crysis 2 and started dropping the needle on random single-player missions. At every turn, I found a superior game. One minute I'd be fighting aliens in a fraught showdown in the middle of Grand Central Station, the next I'd be helping marines topple a skyscraper in order to block alien mortar fire. Or, I'd be holding a room against onrushing soldiers rappelling from the skylights while simultaneously fending off an attack helicopter. Or embarking on a deeply satisfying stealth-assault on an enemy base on Roosevelt Island, a sequence that was so fun that I became engrossed and played it for the better part of an hour before remembering that I had to go back to Crysis 3.
The harder I look, the more Crysis 3's deficiencies pile up. It's a very short game, but not a particularly focused one. I played through the single-player story in around 6-7 hours, give or take, and couldn't believe the story was moving as quickly as it was. There are only three other characters in the game other than Prophet, and one of them gets about 5 minutes of total screen-time. It's only daytime for two of the game's seven chapters (And remember, by way of comparison, that Crysis 2 had nineteen chapters). The rest of the game takes place underground, in a haze, or at night.
Only one chapter---a nighttime jaunt through the flooded ruins of Chinatown---comes close to consistently capturing the type of sneaky, hunt-y encounters that were so fun in Crysis 2. It's enjoyable while it lasts, but even then feels short-lived. Before long I was behind the wheel of a tank for a stunted vehicle segment, or in the gunner's seat of an airship for a frustrating turret sequence. The game just never settles into a groove, and as a result feels hurried and off-balance.
Here's another unexpected problem: Prophet's bow is overpowered. It's basically a swiss-army-knife weapon that can double as a rocket launcher and can take down any enemy in the game. And, like I mentioned earlier, it's silent and allows you to fire while invisible. There's no need for stealth melee-kills or even silenced weapons, because you can just whip out your bow and waste anything that moves. Crysis has always relied on a careful balance between the suit's energy-timer and the enemy's superior numbers. A powerful new element like the bow throws the scales out of whack.
For an example of that imbalance, picture this scenario: First, I tag the enemies using my visor. Then, I crouch up across the roof, cloaked. I change the draw-weight to make my bow super-powerful, then I pick them off one by one. It's not just that the bow is overpowered and lets me attack while invisible, the enemy AI simply doesn't really respond to the fact that their friends are dying right before their eyes.
That kind of thing happens a lot. Bugs popped up throughout my playthrough, from the weird AI to numerous graphical and audio issues. Enemies froze in place, a guard I tagged somehow fell upwards into outer space, and I was able to clip right through vent covers.
Yes, these examples are all little things. Some of those bugs will likely be patched out of the game. But we're talking about a game that has been pitched as this amazing-looking godsend, a beacon of incredible future-tech. A sign of things to come. So I can't help but be disappointed that it so consistently lacks technical polish. Despite its screenshot-ready visuals, there are plenty of current-gen games that exhibit far stronger technical execution than Crysis 3, with the added benefit of actually running consistently on modern computers.
Crysis 3's level design often feels overly narrow, but a couple of times it also feels too big. It's a cop-out of me to keep saying that "something feels off," but that's the best way to encapsulate the design of the game---almost every level just feels a bit off. Disorienting, difficult to navigate, with the open areas feeling too open and the enclosed areas feeling claustrophobic. One later level in particular is very large, but feels too large, and as a result seems somewhat empty. You're given access to a few vehicles, but the level is also dotted with deep pools of water that will swallow those vehicles whole.
Enemy AI seems incapable of coordinating over great distances, and often I'd see an enemy stand still in my sniper-sights, unable to do much of anything except perform an endless loop of ducking into cover, sticking his head out, then ducking back. One late-game side-mission tasked me with rescuing some guys in a tank. I came in expecting to fight off attackers and found them simply waiting for me. They drove off in their tank and invited me to take the gunner's seat. They then proceeded to drive out about fifty yards into the open, and sit there motionless while the enemy blew them apart.
Was Psycho every really anything more than a Cockney accent masquerading as a personality? I guess not.
Crysis 3's story and dialogue are as undercooked as the rest of the game. Enemy guards all seem to have gone to the Splinter Cell school of bad enemy dialogue, regularly yelling stuff like, "He's hunting us!" and "He's using arrows!" and "You think this is hide-and-seek? Show yourself!" At one point I shot a lone guard with an arrow, only to hear one of his compatriots in another room holler "He's using a bow!"
Someone at Crytek seems to have heard complaints about the past games' relative lack of personality, and the writers have attempted a last-minute emotion-injection. This attempt, while doubtless well-intentioned, was not successful. In contrast to the second game, the protagonist speaks and emotes, but it's never convincing. The script attempts to lay out a meaningful theme about sacrifice that never actually coalesces into anything or connects with the events of the story. The writers appear to be under the impression that the theme will become meaningful through repetition alone. I didn't care about any of the characters in past Crysis games, and this attempt to make me suddenly give a damn about their sacrifices feels like a band-aid on a corpse.
Psycho, the freedom-fighter who accompanies you for most of the story, is a dud of a character. Before I played, I was happy to hear that he'd be featured. Now that I've played it, I find myself asking: Was Psycho every really anything more than a Cockney accent masquerading as a personality? I guess not.
The overarching story, which concerns a reborn alien leader and a wormhole-invasion straight out of a made-for-TV adaptation of Mass Effect 3, is nonsense even by sci-fi video game standards. What drama there is takes place elsewhere; you just hear it over your radio. The dialogue is a dispiriting collection of clichés that includes such stinkers as "We're all human, Psycho! Nomad, Jester.... We all fought. Not the god damn nanosuits!"
At one point, a character cries out, "It was never just about the suit!" I always thought it was about the suit. I sort of liked that. It kept things simple. I think it should've stayed about the suit.
Here's a short list of further disappointments:
- Collectable audio diaries that must be listened to in the pause menu, but not while playing. They never shed any light on where you are, who the speaker was, or what's going on.
- A weird attempt at painting the Cell corporation as a cheerily evil corporate entity that feels inspired by Portal, of all things.
- A poorly designed final boss-fight that ditches all of the game's strengths and pits you against a confusing enemy.
- Waypoints and objectives that feel unclear, leaving you wandering around a large, empty environment for minutes on end looking for a path forward.
- A hacking minigame that feels tacked-on and annoying.
- A lackluster map that's hidden beneath one layer of the menu, and a mini-map that is mostly impenetrable.
- Grenades that are as liable to bounce off a doorframe and land at your feet as they are to land near your target.
- Incredibly vigilant enemies that are able to spot you uncloaked at two hundred yards, even if you're crouched in the shadows.
Multiplayer is a welcome bright spot. Broadly speaking, it's a sort of slick merger of the twitchy iron-sights of Call of Duty and the heavily armored mega-jumping of Halo. In my limited pre-release multiplayer sessions, I was surprised at just how much fun I was having. Multiplayer matches follow the typical templates for these sorts of games---there's deathmatch, team deathmatch, exfiltration and point-capture. What makes it really pop off is the fact that everyone has a nanosuit that can become invisible or armor-tough. It's impressive just how much goofy fun a multiplayer game can become when everyone has the ability to become invisible for brief periods of time.
Crysis 3's new multiplayer mode is called "Hunter Mode," and I had a good time with it as well. You either play as a cloaked nanosuit-wearing "hunter" or a lowly Cell guard. If you're a hunter, it's your job to kill all the guards. If you're a guard, it's your job to stay alive for a set amount of time. If you get killed, you spawn back on the map as a hunter, so the last surviving guard winds up having to outwit a whole lot of hunters. I was surprised to find that the most tense, enjoyable moments of my multiplayer session with Crysis 3 involved me, crouching in a corner, hoping no one found me before the clock ran out.
It was an odd thrill, more like playing hide-and-seek than any more familiar first-person shooter multiplayer mode. That video may seem like the least exciting multiplayer video ever---it's just a guy crouching by a wall! But it was actually more exciting in a way, because it felt so new. I'm not sure I'd play Hunter Mode for more than an afternoon or two, but it's a neat idea, and nice to see more games experimenting with asymmetrical competitive multiplayer.
There are other bright spots: You can still pop a different scope, attachment, or silencer onto your weapon on the fly. The power-jump still has that satisfying "sproinggg!" feeling. There are still moments of badassery, when you'll creep on a guy and take him down, then creep away just before his friend comes around the corner. Oddly, the aliens are now more fun to fight than the humans, but they can indeed be pretty fun to fight. And of course, when Crysis 3 is pretty, it really is quite pretty.
Multiplayer is a welcome bright spot.
But still, so much of Crysis 3 falls well short of the bar Crytek themselves set with Crysis and Crysis 2. The game's publisher EA has assured me that Crysis 3 will be receiving a day-one patch, but I can't imagine it will do too much to change the game from what I played. As I said, it's likely that over the weeks and months to come, Crytek will optimize the PC version to get consistent performance on a wider range of machines. But while those sorts of patches may address some of the more cosmetic bugs I ran into, it seems unlikely that they'll address the game's haphazard level design, poor AI, odd pacing, clumsy script and unbalanced combat.
Despite this laundry list of shortcomings, Crysis 3 still contains flashes of that delightful predatory thrill that makes Crysis games so fun. But they're too infrequent, hidden within a game where fancy tech disguises conservative, uninteresting design. The more I think about and play Crysis 3, the more frustrated I become. Crysis 2 managed to get an admirable number of things right. I would have loved to see the third game build upon that foundation and close the series out with style.
Instead, Crysis 3 is a finely tuned luxury automobile that's not, as it turns out, all that finely tuned. You sit, revving the engine, hoping that weird sound will go away, but it doesn't. It gets louder. You lower the driver's-side window; it gets stuck halfway. You pull down the sun-visor; it comes off in your hand.
Perplexed, you turn the visor over and examine the underside, wondering if it's supposed to come off. Maybe this is a feature? You look up, pause, sniff. Sniff again to confirm. Yep. Beneath the rich smell of the upholstery is the smell of something else. Something less pleasant.
And you stare at the wheel for a couple of moments, and you make peace with the fact that despite its lustrous exterior, this really just isn't a nice car after all.