Last month, I described id's Mad Max-style shooter RAGE as "perhaps the best-looking video game of all time". I take it back.
Last week I saw Crytek's executive producer Nathan Camarillo play Crysis 2 on the Xbox 360, and it blew me away. I shouldn't have been surprised - Crysis still looks incredible some three years after its release. But that game was a PC exclusive that was pretty much unplayable on the maximum graphical settings on the hardware of the time. Crysis 2, a multiplatform game powered by Crytek's CryEngine 3, looks even better, despite running on a console that's nearly five years old.
Crysis 2's trashed open world New York is ridiculously detailed. Crumbling skyscrapers litter the landscape and building interiors are packed with furniture, posters and yesterday's news. Is that the Empire State Building on the right? Certainly that's the Flatiron. It is a gorgeous day, but the brilliant sky is obscured by ash. Sunny rooftops and leafy café gardens, broken glass and twisted metal, upside down taxis and flickering lights: here is a game where slowly panning the camera will provide all sorts of retinal pleasure.
The most impressive thing about Crysis 2's visuals is the somewhat mind-boggling idea that you can go anywhere. And of all the cities in the world to do it in! Rockstar did open world New York first, of course, but with Crysis 2 Crytek is taking urban sandbox visuals to the next level. New York is one of the tallest, densest cities in the world. There is verticality here, aided by the city's world famous skyscrapers, that fits the super cool Nanosuit like the rubber gloves of the... er... Nanosuit. Crytek's recreated New York so accurately and with such vibrancy and detail that it'll surely go down as one of the technical accomplishments of this generation.
Crytek's decision to set the game in New York has - obviously - a lot to do with showing off what it can do with graphics cards (and rekindling the desperate imagery of 9/11). But there are other, more subtle reasons behind the choice. Quick spoiler: towards the end of Crysis a mountain fell apart to reveal an alien structure. At the end of the game the jungle island it was set on was decimated. This, Nathan explains, didn't work at all. "With Crysis being set in a jungle island, it was out in the middle of the Pacific. None of us have ever been there. No-one can ever go there. Even though we tried to make it interesting in the end no-one cared about the island. No-one really cared that it got blown up. We wanted to give context and a location that people would start to care about." Hence, New York.
There is a feeling that Crysis 2 breaks with the past, perhaps even a hint of a reboot. It takes place about three years after Crysis - a deliberate attempt to separate the stories a little bit. The aliens from the first game have expanded their conquest, overrunning the major cities of the world. Nathan promises to resolve some of the questions and plot threads left open at the end of the first game, but, he insists, Crysis 2 tells an entirely new story that newcomers will be able to enjoy without having played its predecessor. For console only gamers, this will be a godsend. Crysis, somewhat surprisingly, was never released on the Xbox 360 or PS3.
My impression is that pretty much everyone loved Crysis' Nanosuit. It granted temporary godlike powers - Speed, Strength, Armour and Cloak - that could be activated via small flicks of a mouse. It was a cool idea that worked brilliantly. But it appears that Crytek is its own harshest critic, because Nathan says it'll work even better in Crysis 2.
Apparently, Crytek noticed three distinct gamer styles developed as fans got to grips with Crysis' open world. One group played like The Predator, using the mobility and stealth of the suit to sneak around the jungle, get really close to enemies, find one guy and then kill him with their bare hands or a short range weapon. The player would then hide, rinse and repeat. "The analogy we use is like a cat playing with his food before he eats it," Nathan says.
Another style involved using binoculars and other long range abilities of the suit with the stealth power. These players would wait until one sheep wandered away from the herd then pick him off with a sniper rifle or medium ranged weapon. For these gamers, the most important thing was to avoid detection.
Last but not least is the super hero style. These players would use mobility and armour to survive a flurry of bullets, grenades and even tanks as they punched up huts and trees with their fists. This was a brute force approach, but some of the more skilled players turned it into a sort of finesse style of gaming, thrill seeking and always living on the verge of death.
Crytek made the decision fairly early on in development to focus on these gamer styles, a decision which, according to Nathan, makes the addition of new suit powers pointless. "The powers that were there were really good," he says. "But we noticed that they weren't as refined and accessible as they needed to be." The upshot of all of this is that none of the powers have been taken away. Instead, Crytek has refined the way you can use the old powers to make gamer styles "come to the surface faster".
An example: in Crysis, strength made you jump higher and punch harder. Players used speed to sprint, maintained that momentum, then quickly switched to strength to do a long, vertical leap. You couldn't use the two powers at the same time, making the manoeuvre proper hard, or, as Nathan puts it, "hard to find". "We said, well hey, people want to be more mobile, let's give it to them all the time."
In Crysis 2, the base mode of the Nanosuit is more powerful at all times. You can always sprint and always jump. You'll be able to jump across rooftops, jump up onto high ledges and jump across huge gaps in the game's dense urban environment without too much worry that the suit will run out of energy. It's a more streamlined system that allows players to combine powers, doing things like cloaking while sprinting, an experience Nathan likens to "being like a ghost".
The upper body strength granted by strength has been moved to armour, meaning when you're in the middle of combat you can punch a car into a bunch of enemies, or pick up something and throw it at enemies, while soaking up bullets. It also means you can rip a machine gun turret off of its mount and use it to lay waste to everybody and anything in your way. "Both on console and PC, the controls for the Nanosuit are very accessible now," Nathan says. "It's easy for people to find these types of gamer styles and create their own."
Layered on top of the changes Crytek has made to the way the Nanosuit works, and the old weapon customisation system, is Nanosuit customisation. Via a certain number of slots you'll be able to turn on "two or three" modules that'll help you "express your gamer style even further". You can push cloak further, armour further, or the amount of tactical information you gather about the environment further. While everyone will be able to build the suit up so that they can play the game the way they want to, Nathan anticipates that the hardcore, the people who really understand the game, will go one step further and customise the Nanosuit just before each encounter. They will size up each gameplay space individually, thinking, "I want to do this to my gun, I want to put these things on my suit, and now I'm going to jump in and cause havoc".
And havoc is exactly what we see during Nathan's gameplay demo. New York is deserted save for an alien infestation and the patrols by a private military company called CryNet Systems (Nathan refuses to divulge their motivations). Nomad, called "Prophet" by chatting CryNet soldiers, surveys the Wall Street area. His objective is to infiltrate a CryNet-occupied building. Why? We don't know. But we do know that he'll need to go through loads of enemy soldiers to do it. The first thing I want Prophet to do is leap onto an unsuspecting bad guy and punch him in the face. Then, maybe, punch everything else, just to see what you can destroy. But the sheer number of CryNet soldiers pottering about the rooftops demands a more strategic approach.
After listening in on a bad guy conversation, identifying the location of a few well-placed snipers, and then firing off a few cheeky sniper shots of his own, Prophet leaps onto a rooftop and starts pumping bullets into enemy flesh. The environment comes to life, bursting and popping and tearing itself into bits at the mere glance of your targeting reticule. The smoothness and vibrancy of the destruction rekindles memories of Modern Warfare's best moments - glass shatters, green foliage is ripped to shreds and concrete is smashed to pieces. It's like the infamous Lobby Scene from The Matrix, except outside and with more colours.
Inside the building the player will encounter some interior combat and a key cutscene we're not shown ("if it got onto the internet it would spoil the story for everyone"). But we do know you're captured by CryNet, they power down your suit and you're escorted out of the building. Here, the demo starts again. As Prophet lies dazed and confused on the floor, a building shakes then crumbles. The aliens are back with a vengeance.
I haven't seen nearly enough of Crysis 2 to get a feel for how it'll better enable the player styles Nathan talked about. The Nanosuit looks and sounds just as cool as it did in the first game (I just love the suit's voice), and I get the impression that it'll be less stingy when it comes to regulating power use. But really, all I know for sure at this point is that Crysis 2 exists and looks absolutely incredible. Still, that's enough to whet my appetite, and now that Crysis is finally coming to the Xbox 360 and PS3, millions of others'.
Crysis 2 is due out on the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in holiday 2010.