News, Views, and Reviews
The third (and a half) time is the charm for Crytek. The German-based studio has finally shown that they can meld benchmark graphics with rock-solid controls, clever level design, impressive enemy AI, brilliant moment-to-moment game play, and an engaging sci-fi story with characters you actually care about. Anyone that says “graphics don’t matter” are usually saying that game play is more important. But Crysis 3 proves you can have both.
From my hiding spot in the ruins of New York City, I silently watch a group of enemy Cell troopers fire frantically at the moving overgrowth around them. They are being dispatched by the “Ceph” alien Stalkers: panther-like creatures, larger than the soldiers, that use a combination of stealth technology and natural cover to ambush their targets. Seconds later, only the Stalkers remain. A nearby jamming device is interfering with my visor’s ability to lock on to and track moving targets. Soon, I’ll have to try my luck with the Stalkers, and I’ll only have the movement of the grass and overgrowth to help me. I can still engage my own cloaking device, or switch my nano-suit’s energy to reinforcing my armor. I have to use that armor ability a few times, as I hope to absorb the damage the Stalkers swiping claws inflict as they cleverly ambush me. Using a combination of super strength to leap above the overgrowth and the cloaking ability to remain hidden, I pause to observe the grass movements from the top of a derelict bus. And so it continues, cloaking through the grass, jumping from perch to perch, and tracking the Stalker’s movements, until I’m finally able to shoot or melee all the enemies around me.
This experience is a perfect example of the melding of game play AND graphics: it’s all in the details. The flickering of the Stalker’s cloaking, the movement of the plants, these are all “tells” that help me fight my opponents, and they’re made possible by high graphic fidelity. The details are under the hood, too, as the game itself is feature-rich with options. I could have attempted to sneak past all of the Stalkers, or used my armor ability up close and personal. The intuitive controls help me adapt to situations on the fly, with either turning invisible, boosting my armor, or using increased mobility like jumping, sprinting, sliding, or vaulting up to higher ledges. All of these abilities use the same energy supply, so I have to carefully monitor an energy bar as I’m jumping and cloaking around the battle field, pausing here and there to let the suit recharge. Through out the 5-6 hour campaign, I’ll find hidden upgrade terminals that give me points to spend on unlocking perks for my nano-suit. These perks can modify my abilities, from extending the duration of my cloaking ability to increasing the amount of damage I can absorb, from increasing the distance I can sprint to making me totally silent when I’m cloaked. The weapons I employ can also be modified on the fly, for example, swapping out different scopes, adding silencers, or switching to “specialty” ammo types. Honestly, even though I found several upgrade terminals and “unlocked” a lot of weapon attachments, I didn’t spend a lot of time messing with different perks or specialty ammo types. But I still had a blast. More importantly, I look forward to re-playing different “chapters” of the campaign, perhaps using different strategies to avoid or engage my enemies. Adjusting the difficulty also changes the game play, as the enemy AI can range from clueless to merciless, and the hardest setting even removes your visor’s cross-hairs and ability to track enemies.
As I said, it’s all in the details, and that’s why I chose the PC version to play and review. The console versions are awesome, but the higher quality of the PC version elevates it above other sci-fi/military shooters. Web sites like IGN and Game Informer gave (the console version of) Crysis 3 an 8.5, and tacked on a brief “and the PC version is a little better” disclaimer in their reviews somewhere. But I think the details are more significant than that.
Graphics: For starters, the version of the “CryEngine 3” used to power this game for consoles makes it hard to distinguish it from other games that use the Unreal Engine 3. When I downloaded the Xbox multi-player demo a few weeks before the game was released, I hardly believed I was looking at a CE3 game instead of yet another gritty-filtered UE3 game. (If you’ve played a lot of UE3 games, you know what I’m talking about.) But the PC version comes in crisp and clear, and the quality just has to be seen to be believed. I’ve actually heard people say things like “Crysis 3 is, at least, a new benchmark for graphics” as if that’s an insult. Personally, I can’t think of a better way of praising the graphics of Crysis 3: it sets a new benchmark for graphics. In other words, it is now THE best looking video game. Period.
Controls: Equally, if not even more, important are the controls. In this case, I can almost recommend this game to anyone. Depending on your experience with and ability to play video games, you might have to lower the difficulty, as the enemy AI WILL challenge you on higher settings. But the controls themselves are nearly flawless. I say “almost recommend” and “nearly flawless” because there is one sore spot: a sequence later in the game that introduces an off-road vehicle has some awkward design choices. The game forces you to stay in first person while driving and the windshield is very narrow, which further limits your field of view. Unfortunately, the “off-road” vehicle struggles too much with the terrain. The combination of the limited perspective and the jerky handling is not pleasant. It’s not a total deal-breaker, as the rest of the game controls so well, but it does deserve mentioning.
Game play: I can’t stress enough how fun and satisfying this game is. It’s not an “open sand-box” game or a “corridor” shooter, it’s a hybrid of both. I like to call it an “arena” shooter. The game pushes you from objective to objective, but those objectives will take place in open “arenas” that are full of enemies. It’s you versus them, and it’s up to you how you fight them. Completing the objective and/or defeating all the enemies in the area means you “win” that arena, and then you move on to the next one. If you die, you have to start that encounter over. In addition to the choices your nano-suit gives you, there are (sometimes) enemy turrets and mine fields you can hack, turning them hostile to your enemies. Sometimes, a second objective will be available that you can choose to complete or ignore entirely. This “arena” style may limit your overall freedom, but it keeps the story moving and the pace is intense and consistent. There are a few instances of the objectives not being very clear, which can be frustrating, For example, you’ll see the blue square on your mini map and on your screen, indicating you’re near the objective, but you can’t tell if it’s above you or underground somehow.
There is one issue that might not happen to everyone, but I want to mention it, just in case. There are a few moments in the game that your nano-suit becomes super-charged with alien energy. This makes you invincible for a few seconds and, if you’re carrying an alien weapon, super-charges the weapon to do extra damage. Triggering these moments also starts a new “checkpoint” AND sends waves of enemies at you. In theory, it’s supposed to create a tension-breaking moment where you can just unleash unbridled fury at your enemies. If you die before you reach the next checkpoint, you’ll start over at the point you became super-charged. Unfortunately, and it happened to me more than once, I started at that point without the alien weapon I was carrying, or I was NOT invincible, or both. That turned a tension-breaking moment into a ridiculously frustrating moment.
Oh yeah, did I mention the compound bow? Yes, just like every other preview and review has already said, the bow IS awesome and super-fun to use.
Sound: When a game looks this good and is this fun to play, it’s easy to overlook the sound quality. But make no mistake; it’s excellent, too. When I approach a new area, I like to switch to my ‘visor’ mode, and scan for enemies, ammo crates, and any secrets. When you focus on these things in ‘visor’ mode, they stay on your screen, even after you switch back to ‘normal’ view. That way, as you’re sneaking around, you can easily track the triangles that indicate the enemies, even as they move in and out of your normal view. When they are just patrolling, these triangles are grey. If they become alerted or suspicious, the triangles turn yellow, and then red when they actually see you. I’ll say it again, the AI is excellent. Even if you are invisible and quietly dispatch a target, another enemy might see that guard fall to the floor and come over to investigate. It may seem trite, but the soldiers’ chatter “did you see that?” or “I think I heard something” helps enhance the game play almost as much as the flickering stealth suits and moving grass. One of these “trite” comments can send you into a panic if you suddenly hear it coming from a soldier that you aren’t tracking! The musical score compliments the action, increasing the tension or melancholy of any given scene appropriately. The voice acting is also very well done. Again, it’s the details. The main character, Prophet, sounds more or less robotic, for example, depending on the situation. It’s just a subtle difference in the echo effects, but it’s very effective. Gunfire and explosions are lively and create a good sense of distance. The final third of the game really escalates the conflict between the Cell soldiers and Ceph aliens, and that conflict can be heard echoing in the distance. Those background noises enhance the story, and remind you what is at stake. The “sci-fi” sound effects are also good, like activating the stealth abilities makes a recognizable buzzing sound. The power of the weapons, however, sometimes felt underwhelming because the sound of gunfire just isn’t that loud. I chose to use stealth when possible, and equipped silencers when available, so I felt a little disappointed that the non-silenced weapons weren’t louder than they are. Still, there is some attention to detail, particularly in the variety of human and alien weaponry, and the appropriate noises they make.
Narrative: Surprisingly, it’s the story that brings these details together. In a very satisfying way, I should add. Not only was the narrative the weakest part of the previous Crysis games, it also got very convoluted and confusing. Crysis 3 takes that convolution, throws in some strong characterization, irons out the confusion, and weaves it all together into a tremendous conclusion. At the heart of Crysis 3 is a story of two men: Prophet and his comrade Psycho. Psycho used to have a nano-suit, but it was stolen from him, painfully. He carries a bitter grudge for whomever was responsible, and he carries resentment towards Prophet for still having his nano-suit. Prophet is the opposite. Throughout the previous Crysis games, Prophet has endured some harrowing changes to his suit and his body, and he now fears he has all but lost his humanity. So the two men covet each other: Psycho wants to be something ‘more than’ human again, and Prophet wants to return to being a man. The characterization of Psycho, the graphical detail in his face, expressions, and body language, melded with the excellent voice acting, really carries the game. These themes, and their performances, gives the story more meaning than it ever had. It also makes it easier to understand and relate to. It’s not just an alien invasion; it’s a personal journey to sacrifice as much as possible to stop the enemy while retaining some shred of humanity. That’s some pretty deep stuff for a shooting game, but it matches the attention to detail and effort poured into the rest of the game.
Conclusion: Compared to any other shooting game, on any lesser platform, Crysis 3 *could* have been an example of “been there, done that”. Instead, the attention to detail, and the technical proficiency, elevates it above crowd. The Crytek studio has made some stand out titles in the past, including the previous Crysis games. But, each game seemed to have something a little wrong with it that kept them from being great games. Outstanding game play, solid controls, and a meaningful story insure that Crysis 3 is not just the best looking game out there, it’s an all around a great game.
Crysis 3 is available, February 19th, for PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. It is Rated ‘M’ for Mature for: Blood, Strong Language, and Violence.