Thursday, 31 March 2011

Crysis 2 - Suits you sir...

Platform: Xbox360, PS3, and PC
Certificate: 15
Developers: Crytek
Publishers: EA
Genre: Sci-Fi FPS

I know what your thinking: "Dat ass"
With Crysis 2 being the next in a long line of first person shooters to arrive this year after Bulletstorm, Killzone 3, and Homefront there is an added emphasis on genre titles having to define themselves in an increasingly crowded market. Fortunately Crysis 2 rises to the challenge by offering players an alternative to the highly scripted linear nature of your modern warfare clones through expansive environments and a veritable restaurant menu of different tactical approaches to pursue depending on where the mood takes you. It also looks very pretty…

The original Crysis released in 2007 was a PC game proud and true. Effectively a spiritual sequel to 2003’s Farcry developers Crytek’s first tropical island shooter, Crysis had the kind of graphics that would make a deity weep creating the most realistic and expansive jungles that only the most high spec machines could muster. It was so good looking that its competency as an FPS was largely overshadowed, introducing us to the performance enhancing Nano suit and weapon customization back before COD4 had made it FPS verbatim. It wasn’t without its flaws in regards to accessibility but Crysis introduced an intriguing tactical dynamic to the whole one man against an entire army shtick. It also had aliens of course. Don’t forget the aliens.
Crysis 2 is set within New York City in the year 2023, three years after the events of the original Crysis. The alien race known as the Ceph, which were introduced in the first game are invading Manhattan Island unleashing a deadly plague on the people. With the city under martial law, you are put in control of a US Marine known only as Alcatraz; you are being deployed into the city via submarine to escort an important scientist by the name of Gould out of the city. Things do not go swimmingly of course, or they do seeing as you are quickly forced to escape your submarine which is suddenly attacked. After a brief and slightly haphazard introduction with one of the alien war machines, you are pulled out of the water barely alive by returning super soldier Prophet, who wears the all important nano suit. Blacking out, you regain consciousness the next day, for some reason Prophet lies dead on the floor with you encased in his nanosuit. Thusly, you are sent into the fray, using your suits body enhancing features as the man most capable of bringing an end to the alien menace. Aliens are not your only cause of concern of course, CryNet, the developers of your performance enhancing suit are looking to regain their technology by any means necessary, and have dispatched an army of PMCs to take you down, saving the world becomes more complicated…

Crysis 2 may look like another sci-fi shooter existing somewhere in between the vivid colours of Halo and the oppressive bleakness of the Killzone series, but as the game begins introducing its fundamental concepts you realize that you have an added element of choice into how you want to get your war on. Dropping the tropical island of the first game (and Farcry for that matter) Crysis 2 is set in the urban jungle of Manhattan, but if you thought this would make the game more linear you would be wrong. As I have said in the opening, one of the main appeals of Crysis 2 over its many contemporaries is a sense of openness and freedom of player choice. Throughout the lengthy campaign you will be fighting through the city’s deserted war torn streets and there will be numerous different routes available to you, some obvious and some which may require a bit of exploring. Admittedly there are sections where you are forced to crawl through corridors and tight spaces, like the obligatory sewer sequence but for the most part the game places you in large open areas, which often or not will call for a degree of planning. Whether it be meticulous planning of made up as you go along.

As with the first game, the nano suit is a vital component to combat that grants the player this extra freedom. But whilst Crysis only allowed you the rather limited option of switching in between the four powers of speed, strength, armour and stealth, Crysis 2 greatly refines the interface making it far more accessible and efficient to use. Speed and strength function latently into the way you move, you can sprint by clicking in the analogue stick, you can jump high by pressing the ‘A’ button and you can pick up heavy objects at will and throw them at your enemies. The game feels very much like Mirror’s Edge or crackdown as you traverse areas, vaulting onto objects and sliding through crawlspaces. The two shoulder buttons control stealth and armour mode, the former activating a predator style invisibility cloak and the latter making you more resistant to damage. All abilities consume your suits energy which will recharge with time, though thankfully far quicker than in the first game. There is also a vague leveling up system, for each of your powers there are three types of focus. You can unlock the ability to dampen your footsteps or identify gunfire tracers. Then there is the coup de grĂ¢ce, the air stomp, which allows you to smash down upon your enemies from the skies. It doesn’t happen very often and it can be very difficult to pull off, but when you do it is tremendously gratifying, even if it does usually leave you prone to enemy fire and shot to pieces in mere seconds.

The suit also grants you different vision modes, a thermal mode allows you to see in the dark and identify hidden targets through their body heat, predator style. Then there is the particularly useful tactical mode, which allows you to mark enemy targets, and identify weapon supplies. It will also advice you on how to approach an area, for instance in one large area, the tactical visor will identify turrets, or routes that are prime for flanking, exploring and using stealth. These are never orders just advisory tactical maneuvers that beckon you into embracing the game’s open ended style of play.
Most times I was opting for the stealthy approach. Observing my situation candidly, seeking higher ground marking all the targets, watching their patrol routes before picking them off one by one with silenced head shots or stealth attacks. Of course, you can go in all guns blazing, coupled with the game’s large environments and nanosuit functions, you will rarely get overwhelmed as you can retreat by gaining high ground or maybe ducking into a subterranean sewer. Of course, the humanitarian gamer can play through some sections without killing anyone if they so wish. In some areas you will be able to sneak your way around without firing a single bullet.

The stealthy approach.
The enemies in Crysis 2, come in the human PMC variety and of course the alien Ceph variety. Whilst the enemy AI, does not seem to be as cunning as the Korean soldiers of the first game (who we can presume went off to invade the US in Homefront) it is at least competent in putting you through your paces. If you are detected they will send up flares calling for reinforcements. They will run for cover and try to flush you out with grenades. The aliens on the other hand are a lot more offensive and in your face. In the first Crysis, the Ceph were characterized by Matrix styled hunter killer robots or War of the Worlds styled tripod fighting machines, they have been given more conventional makeover for the sequel now appearing in humanoid form. Part robot, part space squid they bare an almost uncanny resemblance to the elites and hunters from Halo. Head shotting them will similarly send orange fruit smoothy gushing at explosively velocity all over the place, which is admittedly very satisfying and gleefully b-movie. Whilst the PMCs are fairly limited on where they can go, the aliens will be jumping to higher ground and charging at you and pursue you relentlessly. They are also capable of turning your suit against you, unleashing EMP bursts that will knockout your suit’s power making you extremely vunerable and a prime candidate for an alien spit roast.

The game contains the usual arsenal of pistols, shotguns and assault rifles, with a couple of colourful new inventions such as personal favourite X-43 MIKE (or the Microwave Incendiary Klystron Emitter as it is technically known children) which is perfect for frying the malevolent forces of the cyborg space calamari to combustion point. There is once again in line with the previous game more dimension to combat as you adorn your weapons with all the usual attachments relevant to your tactical situation. Add a silencer, a scope and a semi auto switch and you’ll be best suited to the role of stealth marksman. Alternatively, equipping a heavy machine gun with a laser sight will make you better equipped from firing from the hip. Whichever situation you opt for, Crysis 2 plays well regardless. After being stealthy during in one section, it was almost cathartic going loud to battle aliens through a storm drain. Once again, Crysis 2 gives you more freedom over how you approach your situation, at least farm more than most of its contemporaries (it isn’t Bulletstorm). It also gives the game great replay value. I did enjoy the game on the first time through, but I did feel slightly limited in places because I hadn’t unlocked some of the all important attachments. The early stages of the game is very difficult without a silencer for instance. On my second time through, I had access to all my kit and could even play it on the hardest setting and the game was even more enjoyable, as I could replay the sandbox zones in different ways.

Apart from the usual foot soldiers, Crysis 2 will occasionally throw bosses at you, be it tanks and helicopter gunships on the human side, or large brutish gladiators and tripod walkers on the alien side. The campaign is very lengthy, and whilst the enemy design is decent if a little bit formulaic, there really isn’t much in the way of variation. There are no colossal boss fights or standout moments as in the Playstation’s Resistance series or Gears of War, which is certainly a crying shame. It would have made the game all the more memorable if you had to face off against one off creatures that required a different attack plan from the usual sandboxes.

Now may be a good time to put the old invisibility cloak on.
This isn’t to say that the campaign is bereft of standout moments be it linear or emergent. The linear moments usually involve something to do with the environment, at one point for example a Day After Tomorrow tidal wave inexplicably races down the street you are travelling. Other than this there are plenty of times when giant skyscrapers are falling down around you or enemy vehicles career into the side of the building you happen to be sitting. As for emergent gameplay, Crysis 2 shine. In one of the game’s final levels, I actually managed to sneak my way through an alien infested outpost. This led to an incredibly tense gaming session, with my suit’s power forever draining with enemies literally patrolling around every corner, reactionary to the smallest sound, it certainly beat all the normal scripted events throughout the course of the campaign.

The main disappointment of Crysis 2 is undoubtedly the story, unfortunately reared from the stable of generic action game fluff. It is not that the game is badly written, incidentally by dystopian novelist Richard Morgan (author of the Takeshi Kovacs series)or even badly acted, it is just painfully generic. For all the detail put into the graphics and surroundings of New York City, you never get a full sense of the extent of the disease on the ordinary people. You will come across a lot of survivors suffering from the disease, huddled, sick and dying in the subway stations and apartment blocks with these awful alien growths attached to their body. I was half expecting that they would become feral zombies, giving me something else to shoot after facing the organized militant forces of the game, but alas it never happens. There is no interaction with these characters, save for their frantic speech and mumblings, you can’t even shoot them and put them out of their misery. It all feels slightly distant.

Then there are the aliens themselves, who are just there. There is no build up or explanation as to where they come from and why they are here on earth in New York of all places melting perfectly decent human folks into organic soup. There are grisly hints here and there or course, the game does do atmosphere very well. The opening of the game has you negotiate through Central Park, which has acted as an evacuation zone. You go through medical tents, turnstiles and deserted queuing areas, going past mounds of body bags and the like. The game making use of all the eerie post 9/11 imagery, ransacked and deserted streets, walls littered with missing person notices and the dust clouds from toppled buildings. Even though you are fighting on American soil, there is little of that American bravado that characterizes so many other games. One of the best moments of the game occurs at night, when you are called to assist the marines to hold back the aliens as you evacuate people from Grand Central train station. It is here that you get a sense of a bigger story. Other than that, the story never seems to contextualize or give any substance to the alien attack. It is always more concerned with the suit that your hapless character is encased within.

Perhaps this is the point. Your character’s name is Alcatraz after all, and you are effectively imprisoned within this advanced technological super suit against your own will by Prophet, isolated as if on an island as the only one equipped to save the human race. Then there is the added dimension of Manhattan acting as a kind of prison on an island as it plays host to an alien invasion and viral epidemic. This all makes good thematic sense, a solid base for any story to be founded upon but it never happens. As Alcatraz you mission objectives are given by a variety of talking heads, one of which is the obligatory hippy scientist wanting you to gather alien samples. The next is the shadowy force at the head Cry Net who developed the suit you are wearing and obviously knows a lot more than he lets on. Then there is the obligatory hard as nails military chick who will give you orders to follow, the grunt you are. Seeing as you are the one wearing the suit, and taking into account the nature of the gameplay itself, you would think you would be capable of making your own decisions on who to trust. Perhaps this is asking too much from an FPS. Maybe next generation. Regardless, the narrative arc goes through familiar territory, as you fight through the latter stages of the game you’ll have to bear people talking through your ears telling you how flawed and feeble the human race are and how futile and inconsequential your escalating third act heroics really are in the grand scheme of things. It can sometimes really grate on even the most spectacular sequences that occur during the latter stages of the game. It is a great shame really, because everything about Crysis 2 is top of the line, but it is the story that stops it from being a stone cold classic, falling way short of Halo: Reach or COD4 and of course Half Life 2.

Why is it always the Big Apple?
 Which of course brings us to the graphics. Crysis was famous for its system hogging visuals synonymous for hardcore PC gaming. I only got to play Crysis for the first time last summer, when time had forced me to update my desktop. Supposedly Crysis 2 is more lenient on PC specs than its predecessor, suffice it to say Crysis 2 still looks absolutely amazing. There aren’t enough adjectives in English language to convey how good it looks or how well it runs. Even on the humble xbox there was little in the way of frame rate issues and runs like a dream. I perhaps wouldn’t go as far to say that Crysis 2 is the best looking game on the market. I would say that it is at least on a par with Killzone 3 on the Playstation but it is definitely in the upper echelons and considering how open ended the game is it is amazing feat on the part of Crytek, particularly when you are used to seeing such high polished sheen in the more linear FPSs like the latest COD games.

The artistic direction is all there to make full use of the latest incarnation of the Cry Engine, at times as you negotiate the streets of New York, the game feels photorealistic. It may only be the odd soldier animation that will put you off. Sometimes enemies will get stuck in walls and remain walking on the spot, there are a couple of AI glitches and some graphical pop in issues but nothing too serious to break the game. The environments themselves are oddly beautiful, burst drain pipes lead to urban rivers, running over chipped concrete and cascading as waterfalls over craters housing the remains of a doomed dropship all under the red glow of the setting sun. It sounds like pretentious poetic waffle, but this is what the game looks like and it is quite simply a joy to behold. Nothing short of a feat of graphical wizardry. I found myself drawing a lot of comparison’s to Bulletstorm which came out a couple of weeks ago. Both games have sections that force you to play through dilapidated buildings that lie effectively on their side, but Crysis 2’s depiction of Manhattan just puts Bulletstorm’s failed resort utopia weep.

In addition to the campaign there is also a versatile multiplayer mode. Which is in line with the parameters set by the Call of Duty MP experience. The suit becomes as big an element to the experience as it did in the single player, allowing you a choice of several classes before giving you the opportunity to create your own class. The normal death matches quickly become tiresome, as you are time and time again shot in the back or spawn killed by somebody in stealth mode, but the objective team based games are where the multiplayer really gets going. One decent innovation is lifted from Battlefield: Bad Company 2 where you’ll remember whenever you knifed an opponent you would gain the extra satisfaction by prizing the player’s dog tags from their cold dead hands. Crysis 2 adopts this quirk, whenever you drop another player, he’ll in turn drop a dog tag for collection. Attainment of dog tags grants you access to the usual killstreaks. It is a neat innovation, as it prevents long distance campers from racking up killstreaks. Plus, whenever you kill an opponent, the impetus is on you to retrieve his tag which will go against defensive styles of play. Corridors and lines of sight become increasingly important because even if it looks that no one is there, you can never be too sure.

The multiplayer is serviceable, in my opinion it’s not quite as good as Killzone 3 and it doesn’t have that degree of variation and randomness that Halo has, but it makes for a fun distraction from the single player campaign, which you will want to play a couple of times anyway. I did find some issues with matchmaking, it is not as efficient as either Halo Reach or Black Ops and there can be some annoying bugs in regards to hit detection. If you get a group of friends online, I’m sure it will be far more enjoyable as the gameplay allows for more co-operation through communication. Indeed, you are left thinking that a co-op mode of some form is missing, but perhaps this would be too taxing on the engine.

Bathroom assault.
With that said, Crysis 2 is a great package as it stands. Though some jaded PC gamers may feel like Crytek have sold their soul by developing for consoles, Crysis 2 improves on the formula established by the first Crysis. The gameplay has been refined and made all the more accessible, from the nano suit to the open but confined city environments and it all plays remarkably well on the controller. The surprisingly lengthy single player campaign is worthy of replay thanks to the variety of options the game offers you. It is let down by a generic story and a lack of variation in enemies which doesn’t do the game’s stellar presentation values, be it the fully blown orchestral soundtrack to the awe inspiring depiction of apocalyptic Manhattan island any favours. Whilst the MP allows players to find further uses for the nano suit, and does manage to retain the game’s sheen it does feel too much like an add on to keep its contemporaries from laughing at it. Those who are getting well worn by the linearity of many a corridor shooter will find the open ended tactical feel very refreshing and also, the graphics are also very very nice. 

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