I'm back in the Big Apple, and boy does the place look like a tip. There are huge holes in most of the buildings, the streets are a gloomy mess of craters and wrecked cars, and worst of all, E.T.'s drink-driving cousins have popped by for a spot of sight-seeing; every few minutes a boozed up alien smashes his intergalactic Vauxhall Nova into the dirt. Oh, and to cap it all off, I keep getting shot in the head.
Of course, from a certain perspective it all looks quite nice. This is the multiplayer build of Crysis 2 on Xbox 360, and while the game before us is clearly not the finished article, it's equally evident that Crytek is striving to attain "eye candy" status. Needless to say, that's exactly what's expected of them: the Crysis brand is virtually synonymous with graphical prowess, after all. The original PC title set a new benchmark for visual wizardry, and 2008's Warhead expansion pushed even harder with its detail-packed conjuring tricks. The kicker, of course, is that Crysis 2 must cater to three sets of expectant gamers - servicing the PS3 and 360 crowds, as well as the established base of PC owners. Three gorgeous FPS rabbits must be pulled from their respective hats come March next year, otherwise all hell will break loose.
But let's not speak so negatively - because on the basis of today's taster, things seem to be going rather well. It's not yet clear to what extent EA and Crytek are aiming to compete with The Big Boys of competitive FPS multiplayer - CoD, Halo and Battlefield - but for now the game seems to be offering a pretty good time in its own right, supplementing the standard run-and-gun fare with a variety of toys and acrobatic abilities, common to all players.
We covered these skills in our first preview of Crysis 2 - and several of them will already be familiar to veterans of the PC original - but for the benefit of latecomers, here's a quick recap: each trigger-happy participant is kitted out with a high-tech nanosuit that allows them to deflect bullets, turn invisible for short periods, and leap high into the air; the latter ability also allows users to perform a painful ground-pound move. All of these tricks sap away at a slowly-replenishing power supply, preventing their overuse; even so, it's safe to say that if it existed in real life, the Crynet Nanosuit 2 would be topping the Christmas wishlist of every psychotic technophile in the land. It's sexy, versatile, and it turns you into a combat deity. Also, it offers better call reliability than the iPhone 4.
EA's recent showcase event offered a second chance to sample Impact and Rooftop -the two maps revealed at gamescom in August - along with a new level, Ambush. Here players duel it out in the shadows of looming skyscrapers, in the ruined cityscape of a devastated New York. Today we're playing a Crash Site match - essentially a mobile variant of King of the Hill. Every minute or so an alien ship falls to Earth, and both teams struggle to pin down and hold the area surrounding the downed craft. The shifting objective keeps players moving and encourages the use of the suit powers - not that further encouragement is really needed. It's a promising sign that that Crysis 2's gadgets are extremely fun to use - so much so that on occasion you (meaning: I) will get shot down because you were messing about, rather than playing properly like a good little nano-soldier.
You'd be forgiven for expecting a street-based map to be a rather flat battleground, but instead Ambush shows clear evidence of Crytek's new focus on "verticality" - a rather annoying, back-of-the-box word. In less flashy terms, this simply means that the environment stretches up and down as well as sideways - and yet this design does seem to have a fairly significant effect on combat. Whether you're fleeing an attacker or simply prowling for a fresh target, there's invariably a choice of paths for you to take - and equally this means you can rarely be sure that your back is covered. By holding the jump button you'll perform a nano-assisted leap skyward, and if you happen to be near a piece of suitable scenery you'll haul yourself atop of it. It's slightly reminiscent of Mirror's Edge, and between this and Splash Damage's Brink, climbing may just turn into the must-have FPS feature in 2011 - assuming the mechanic takes off, of course.
Even if it doesn't, the novelty of increased mobility seems to work well here - particularly when combined with the ever-addictive cloaking device. There's something instantly appealing about catching someone out of the corner of your eye, turning yourself invisible, and then dashing off to stab them in the back. If you've got the skills, there's potential here for serious mind-buggery - as evidenced by the sneaky git who led me down a dark alley, disappeared into thin air, and then stomped on my face.
While the classes on offer feel both reassuring and over-familiar, it'll take time to build a full appraisal of the tools on offer. There are a few hints at innovation - one class carries a dart-based weapon that drains suits of their power, for example - but I suspect it's the suits themselves that will fuel Crysis 2's triumph if the multiplayer does indeed succeed. Aside from the relatively generous spread of immediate tactics, it's in the messiness of the playing field that the game really stands out. There's a perverse beauty in the smashed features of New York, and while such images inevitably recall the darker moments of recent history, it's the irregularity of the crumpled masonry and leaky pipes that really impresses. There are still a few rough edges that could be attended to, but as I say, this preview build bodes well for the quality of the final product. And with any luck, Crysis 2 will offer more than just another pretty face.
Crysis 2 is set for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on March 25, 2011.