Crysis was the pinnacle of the modern, hardcore first-person shooter: wide-open level design, intensely violent, unabashedly difficult, with no Half-Life 2–style puzzles or obstacles that a super-powered punch couldn’t solve, and a sliver of a story compared to Call of Duty 4. It brought our ability to interact with the environment in realistic ways to new levels, and the nanosuit was a masterstroke of game design that gave players the ability to perform super-human feats that transformed the nature of the gameplay depending on how you used them. It was a stunning achievement executed by devoted PC gamers, and it left us hanging when the game ended, wondering where Crytek would take the action from there.
The answer, apparently, is backward. Crytek seems bizarrely eager to de-emphasize the finest aspects of Crysis - the challenge and the open-ended nature of the gameplay in most missions - in favor of a more linear and simpler Call of Duty 4–style campaign. The result is an awkward hybrid that feels like a theme park ride based on the original - a sort of Crysis: Pirates of the North Korean. It’s a loud, explosive, action-packed seven-or-so hours that nonetheless manage to feel simple, uninspired, and even tedious by comparison.
While Nomad’s occupied on the other side of the island, you play as Sergeant Michael Sykes, affectionately known as “Psycho,” in a story that runs roughly parallel to the events of Crysis. By “story” I mean that JSOC Commander Emerson barks orders sending you hither and yon in pursuit of a North Korean officer, Colonel Lee, who’s tugging around a shipping crate full of something that doesn’t smell like kimchee.
The action and destruction ramp up swiftly, but in a strictly linear fashion that mimics the tightly scripted scenarios from CoD4. Like Dick Cheney’s canned hunting trips, cargo vehicles and gas stations are placed at intervals in order to show you a series of lovely explosions. Sure, you could get out of your tank and single-handedly strip a Korean bivouac of its soldiers during an escort mission - your charge will patiently wait for you - but you’re given zero incentive to explore, and it doesn’t make sense in the context of the mission, since you’re supposed to get your guy somewhere in a hurry.
In the game’s most disappointing sequence, Psycho pursues Colonel Lee and his mysterious cargo on a hovercraft across the frozen ocean, over listing ships and beneath the canopies of giant frozen waves. It’s a breathtaking sight, and you’ll want to pull over the hovercraft and drag the wife and kids out for a couple quick snaps. In fact, you can - Colonel Lee decides to take a nap if you’re not pursuing him. There are far too many showcase missions like these - all the way to a climactic mission near the end that’s literally on rails - that don’t take strategic advantage of the nanosuit, and often make it superfluous. Yikes.
The story is handled poorly. Missions often end abruptly, culminating in awkwardly staged cut-scenes that make characters look as if they’d forgotten their lines. Instead of, say, the thrilling ghillie-suit flashback sequence in COD4, Warhead shoves a wedge of backstory in through a handful of non-interactive audio-only sequences. It’s an inelegant gimmick suited to a lesser developer. There are tremendous improvements in Warhead, however, beyond the addition of a few weapons (including dual SMGs and a grenade that can temporarily disable an enemy’s nanosuit).
The creature AI is far more lethal compared to the kamikaze calamari of Crysis; now, they behave more like assassins, skittering through the brush, taking cover behind trees and rocks, and using coordinated attacks, including flanking and distraction (using what appears to be vocal signaling). In one sequence that takes places in a rocky gorge, I was repeatedly rubbed out until I figured out that while I was being attacked from the front, other creatures were advancing behind me upwards along the walls of the ravine, using small plateaus for cover and popping out to shoot me in the back.
Warhead also trounces the original in its spectacular climax, which tosses you into the center of what I’ll only say is an awe-striking, terrifying scenario, yet keeps your mission focused tightly and credibly on what one man - albeit, one man nicknamed Psycho - could achieve. It’s nothing like the laser-tag silliness of the Crysis finale. Multiplayer also gets a fine boost with the addition of Team Instant Action that supports up to 32 players, and includes maps that force you to use the nanosuit aggressively to navigate elevated forest dwellings, and one full of VTOLs, helicopters, and tanks beneath a railway trestle that’s rich with cover. As a gift to LAN gamers, Warhead’s multiplayer version can be installed and played on multiple PCs using a single copy.
To be fair, Crytek doesn’t consider Crysis Warhead to be a proper “sequel” to the original, and it may not have been meant to reach the lofty heights reached by its predecessor. It’s a visually dazzling series of showcases, set pieces, and astonishing images that consistently overshadow the gameplay. No FPS diehard should miss it, but I say that more for the Team Instant Action multiplayer than the enjoyable but forgettable single-player campaign.
Although we know that Crysis Warhead will use SecuROM copy protection and require online activation, there was no word at press time about the exact number of installations that will be permitted per copy (probably three or five), nor whether those installations will be revocable.
The $650 Challenge: a promise made good
Earlier this year, Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli made the astonishing claim that he expected Crysis Warhead to run at 30 to 35 frames per second at High settings on a PC that cost little more than $600. I tested Warhead on a system I built myself with parts that totaled less than $650 (including a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo E6700 and GeForce 9800 GT). The result: On Gamer settings - the Warhead equivalent to High - I averaged a surprising 32 frames per second, except on the hovercraft level, which made the rig chug and dropped the framerate average down to about 26 fps, which is still impressive for the engine that had been legendary as a system buster.
PC Gamer scores games on a percentage scale, which is rounded to the closest whole number to determine the GamesRadar score.
PCG Final Verdict: 73% (good)
Sep 16, 2008