Crysis 2 Manhattan Project
It’s strange to think that in just a few short months, maybe at the most a year, those incredible screenshots will become real. A milestone of playable photorealism will be reached. Aliasing and slowdown: things of the past. Tomorrow’s graphics cards, with all their processing power and bandwidth, will be given the rudest of awakenings, forced to hit standards and temperatures that put warranties at risk. Assumptions of what’s possible will change, while the upgrade potential of this spectacular game will be a tantalising unknown. We’re talking, of course, about Crysis 1.
We let it slide at the time, what with the shambles surrounding driver support and DX10, but when we shacked up in Crytek’s Frankfurt studio for our 2007 Crysis review, the game was running in 720p. The native resolution of the monitor was higher, the rationale being that if you let the screen upscale things itself, you’d avoid overheads like high resolution and anti-aliasing. How foolish we were to think that when Nvidia and ATI got their acts together – for launch, maybe? – none of this would be necessary.
From an incongruous row of cinema seats planted square in the middle of its ‘Treehouse’ mo-cap studio, all part of an elaborate Crysis 2 reveal, we remind ourselves that only an elite handful of gamers can play the first game properly. By which we mean perfectly, just like the trailers and screenshots. Make no mistake: the game built to raise the bar of PC graphics did exactly that; give it hardware strong enough to double and then downsize its resolution, giving the 2x2 supersampling it yearns for, and its achievements become clear. In lighting, texturing, moving and composing its natural 3D world, the game is practically flawless.
But few have the luxury of knowing it, which in part explains our neighbours for this presentation: an Xbox 360 and PS3. At no point today will we see Crysis 2, set in the vertically adventurous New York City, running on PC. The landscape has changed, both industrially and culturally, and the now 600-strong Crytek has only one thing on its mind: conquest. This will be, insists executive producer Nathan Camarillo, “the best experience within each platform.”
Oh yes, everyone’s on-message today, which seems a shame after the candid chit-chat of our very first Crysis visit, back in the studio’s old digs in quiet and claustrophobic Coburg. So much has changed since then, from the move to Frankfurt and its global expansion – part of Crysis 2, we learn, is being made by recent UK purchase Free Radical (now Crytek UK) – to the studio’s image as a kind of FPS statesman, that you have to worry about its ability to dream. Made in a place the Yerli brothers – president Cevat, managing directors Avni and Faruk – were desperate to leave, Far Cry was like a postcard set in a locker door, escapism bordering on tourism. Crysis was more military, made by people with newly found things to lose.
Not that Crysis 2 is a fraught or tentative production, as you’ll discover in a moment. First, though, the lights are down, the screen is lit, and it’s time for an orientation video. Set three years after the first game, placing it 13 years from now, the sequel moves the fight for Earth to a new island: Manhattan. A population of 20 million has been crushed, other major cities – London, Rio – destroyed.
We arrive late, of course, into a postapocalyptic environ like none you’ve ever seen – unless, that is, you’ve seen 2012, I Am Legend, Independence Day, The Omega Man, Prototype, The Book Of Eli, Fallout 3, Cloverfield, FEAR 2, The Postman, The Core, Godzilla, The Road, The Day After Tomorrow or Resistance 2. This is an issue, isn’t it, all this disaster porn? After a particularly zealous year of vandalising famous monuments, aren’t we all a bit, well, spent?
Not if you ask Cevat Yerli: “I Am Legend and The Day After Tomorrow were unique and both ‘owned’ a version of New York. Ours, likewise, is in harmony with the Nanosuit. In Crysis, we changed that island in ways the player didn’t expect. Expect bigger here. It’ll be a New York City like none in games or cinema.” Furthermore, these games and movies, says Camarillo, are more than just a seasonal fad. “Destruction and scarring of the environment: they’re universal themes that have been around forever. Our take will be unique.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. While hardly an entrant in the God’s Lonely Man genre, this concept trailer for Crysis 2 – just a slideshow of artwork – isn’t without its clichés. Broken bridges, abandoned cars, shattered storefronts and skyscrapers propping each other up like walking wounded: it’s not exactly City 17. But as the trailer makes way for a live demo and we move inside the new and improved Nanosuit 2, the promises start to ring true.
The level begins as you exit a subway into a part of downtown Manhattan isolated by rubble, the battle underway as an alien frigate swoops across the street and up towards a distant skyscraper. A pair of attack helicopters give chase, radio chatter providing commentary. Missiles are fired, the damage is terminal, and the craft lurches behind the building, then punches clean through it, leaving a rather impressive realtime hole as it tumbles back to Earth. In surviving the crash, we overhear, this new landmark has just become the hottest place in town. Prized alien samples are aboard and everyone is after them, though not always for the same reason. A mysterious objective – “Find a way to Nathan Gould’s apartment” – has been replaced.
What happens next is a microcosm of the first game, the humans fighting over who gets first dibs, the aliens making them regret it. There’s a twist, though, in that it’s not the Koreans this time but Americans, members of the Crynet Systems infantry. Yes, the same company that made the Nanosuit, and no, we don’t know why they’re out to get you. “You’re private sector, just like the rest of us,” squawks one soldier to another. “Now keep your eyes peeled for that Nanosuit ****.” Definitely out to get you.
Now, about that Nanosuit, and its role at the centre of Crysis’ universe. Visually, it’s easy to dismiss as just another chunk of neo-military fetishwear, what with its ski goggles and abundant knobbly bits. But consider this: in September last year, it received the coveted Red Dot Award, an international prize for excellence in design. Crysis wasn’t the only ‘digital game’ to win, and it’s hard to overlook the fact that of the seven others, six were German, just like the award itself. But it was still the one game lauded for character design, which is quite something considering the suit’s habit of obscuring the person wearing it. The point: to a large extent, the suit is the character, with a history and attention to detail to rival the man inside.
That said, “player-centric storytelling is a buzzword internally, a cheesy but good definition,” says Camarillo. “We want the player to experience the gameworld from the inside of the suit to the outside. You’re not just hitting the magic trigger that causes the next thing to happen, you’re caught up in the chaos of what’s going on. You’re figuring out how you can solve this problem over the course of the story, and hopefully it’s not too obvious.”
And where the suit goes, the rest of Crysis must follow. The farther it jumps, the more it needs terrain. The harder it hits, the more its enemies need strength, be it in numbers, firepower or intelligence. The more it can take, the more it must be given. That was a problem in the first game, the poor North Koreans easily beaten while the aliens… well, they just didn’t give a toss. “They just floated around the environment,” Camarillo admits. “They weren’t tactically engaged, they threw conventions out the window and they didn’t use cover – that’s something we wanted to change.”
Nanosuit 2.0, then, improves on its predecessor without feeling overpowered. Faced with a multi-storey car park, first in a parade of intricate environments, its debut in the demo isn’t even aggressive. Tactical mode, which joins the familiar Strength, Armor, Speed and Cloak, is a neat cross between the Crysis binoculars and the scanner in Metroid Prime. Activate it and the HUD lights up with item markers and readouts, telling you who you’re looking at, how they died or what it’ll take to kill them. Every discarded weapon can be analysed from a strategic distance, while civilian bodies, which are everywhere, each flash up a unique blob of text. No word yet on the origin of this data, so we’ll just have to see if it’s Orwellian backstory or a great big plot hole.
A few storeys later and you reach the other side, where it’s clear the path to your objective, besides being smashed and bent into platforms and trenches, is littered with Crynet troops. They pull up in one of the first game’s vehicles, hop out, have a little chat and begin combing the area. “I wanna see gratuitous aggression, people,” says one. He’s certainly about to get it.
The road thus far has been notably straightforward for a Crytek game, though not so much when you consider its designers’ love of action bubbles and bottlenecks. A studio whiteboard (which Crytek probably should have cleaned) bears the words: “Eight hours average play time, 48 action bubbles, ten minutes each.” For all we know, this could describe a side-project called Nomad & Sonic At The Special Olympics, but you wouldn’t put money on it. This particular bubble, then, is really no less adventurous than last time’s, but the towering buildings, regular interiors and quite irregular sight of walls of rubble prove deceptive. “It was a large island in Crysis but you weren’t interested in every square inch,” says Camarillo. “There were large expanses, funnels and action spaces, and we’re doing the same with New York. It’s a comparable size.
“You’re not interested in the 55th floor of each building, but we want you to feel you’re surrounded. You have this freedom to explore these small pockets and go really deep on details, but seeing all of New York isn’t necessarily that exciting, and it’s not great for pacing or telling the kind of story we want. It’s a constrained freedom.”
Reassuringly, Crytek is the first to admit that the first game’s opening chapter is, in a word, formulaic. A bit like Predator at first, Camarillo volunteers, before marching through “a bit of this story, a bit of that.” No one’s saying that’s a bad thing, necessarily, but if you couple it with a rather relaxed approach to ambient storytelling, it does tend to leave you with no story at all. It happened then, but we’re assured it won’t happen now. And as if to fend off delusions of grandeur, there’s even deference to Valve. Camarillo: “You play Left 4 Dead and kill 12,000 zombies, but there’s a story in those levels: the government’s lying, the military’s lying. It’s the world you can imagine in a zombie outbreak. So you take a little of that, and what games like Half-Life 2 have done with direct storytelling, and you make it work without beating someone over the head with it.”
Dustbins and mailboxes, though: those you can beat people with. Back in the demo, our guide has ditched the stealth and switched to scenery props, bullets and Nano-assisted haymakers. Even at a glance, it’s clear that Crysis’ combat has evolved. Enemies are everywhere, punches and pistolwhippings are suddenly more effective, and the opportunities are just a whole lot greater. Approaching the sprawling crash site, where platforms of masonry stare into chasms of tarmac, it’s like an entire Crysis village has been folded in half, all the pieces and players tumbling into the middle. A bit like Heat, in fact, with each abandoned car popping and crumpling under fire, forcing you on to the next before it explodes.
Best of all, and in a massive improvement over the first game’s use of the 360 controller, you can lean. Channelling Medal Of Honor: Airborne as much as Killzone 2, the new cover system lets you lock to a piece of scenery and lunge out with the stick to fire, snapping instinctively back to safety. Presumably it works as well as it looks – this demonstration is a strictly hands-off affair – even if we are asked not to scrawl down the button layout, since it is still in flux, much to chagrin of those who have to work with it.
From here until the aliens ride out, now represented by a Halo-esque ground force (another whiteboard references Stalkers, Grunts, Shadows, Screamers, Spotters, Changelings and Heavy Ticks), the action is relentless. At one point, the gun is wrenched off a military vehicle’s roof and used to chop down enemies, but never does it make for a turkey shoot. It’s a short ride if you set the Nanosuit for maximum aggression, but that’s the whole point. If you choose to, you can see, hear and do plenty in this tiny segment – enough for, at a guess, up to an hour of play.
It could be scanning corpses and mobile phones; standing in streets wrapped by the sounds of a city under siege; or looking up to see flocks of birds reflected in upper storeys, office debris floating to the ground. Fire hydrants spray fine mists over cars and vans, the doors of which hang open, their occupants slumped and their belongings strewn. We assume it all represents just the tip of this particular iceberg.
More comes to light in a second run of the same demo, designed to showcase the finer points of Nanosuit 2. The game’s soundtrack, for one, changes drastically with each suit power. Tactical mode heightens your acuity to the point of hearing gravel move gently beneath the feet, or the conversations of distant enemies. Strength, meanwhile, hears you bound along with lead boots, the toughened Nanosuit turning incoming bullets into muffled thumps. Then there’s the suite of modifiers that extend the game’s arsenal, now themed around different suit powers. Directional bullet trails, X-ray vision and bullet deflection are mentioned, reinforcing Yerli’s original concept of the “modular hero”.
As the demo ends, it’s a relief to note that the chairs aren’t melting, none of the journalists present is sweating any more than usual, and the lights on the 360 console aren’t flashing. The message is clear: this is Crysis with pretty much all the trimmings, running at pre-alpha without slowdown, and today’s consoles are cool with it. They can take it.
It still leaves us with more questions than answers, especially when it comes to the game’s idea of an urban open world. GTA, says Camarillo, is “a huge open world in which the level of interaction is limited. In Crysis it’s about granularity.” So while the game promises action spanning “three storeys up and down,” the question of breadth seems unlikely to be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. You almost certainly won’t be hopping in one of few functioning taxi cabs, checking a global map for a mission marker and taking a grand tour of the Big Apple. Returning to the Cloverfield comparison, what’s more likely is an onslaught of tightly directed, frequently expansive levels that take you from murky depths to dizzying heights, full of enough details and opportunities for several return trips. No one’s answering such questions today, anyway. For Crytek, this reveal has little to do with story or design, and everything to do with the code underneath.
Put simply, if the day’s technical demos are anything to go by, there’s a very real chance that the age of Unreal Engine 3 is about to be joined, if not threatened, by the age of CryEngine 3. Reticent about console R&D while making Crysis, the imminent DirectX10 being a neat distraction, Crytek isn’t messing around this time.
As part of its ‘What You See Is What You Play’ feature set, Sandbox 3 can run a fully featured, fully interactive editor and game environment in realtime, in sync, across three monitors: one for 360, one for PS3 and the other, obviously, for PC. With a pad for each console, two designers can then play the game while a third, sat at the mouse and keyboard, makes sweeping changes under their feet. The assets are managed on the fly. There is no downtime. In conventional terms, there is no port: the game simply exists as multiformat. “All I need,” says Carl Jones, director of global business development, “is more space on my desk.”
Can the new deferred lighting system really handle “hundreds of lights” with zero performance hit? Is supersampling really possible now if a team decides to allow it? As hard as it is to know what to believe, it’s harder to know what to doubt when you consider things like Aion: Tower Of Eternity, the gorgeous MMOG powered by CryEngine 1, or the endless surprises of Time Of Day modding, a hobby that ekes startling photography from the original Crysis maps. One CryEngine 3 feature we’re not shown in depth is realtime colour grading, by which a game’s entire tone can be quickly and drastically changed. “We’re not going to go film noir,” says Camarillo, “but the engine could.”
If this is Crytek running in what Gearbox president Randy Pitchford calls “risky generation-plus mode”, then here’s to taking risks. “Thanks, Randy, for caring,” says Yerli, “but please focus your concerns on your own company. [Pitchford] doesn’t know at all what the 600 people at Crytek are doing, and nor can I since timing is important and it isn’t time yet. Rest assured, any project or development reveal at any time – let’s say today – means that the decision was made about two to three years ago, and the first deep thoughts were probably about five years ago. At least that’s how it is here at Crytek, and today we’re thinking about the next five years.”
Dreaming, in other words, just as it always has. Happy to suggest that it’s “still the benchmark, competing with itself”, Crytek isn’t resting on its laurels, while the Yerlis, with their crazy mix of ingenuity and pragmatism, are as much in control as ever. As for Crysis 2, which we’re assured will look less and less like its console rivals as it lays on extra detail, let’s just say it’s good to see it finally having fun, not worrying so much about being The Best Game Ever Made.
From weapons like the ‘FELINE’ submachine gun, ‘JACKAL’ auto-shotgun and ‘HAMMER’ – we’re hoping it’s the Jack Hammer shotgun from Far Cry – to the wealth of enemy types, suit options and encounters, this is no longer a game in which you have to find or create the fun, but one in which the fun finds you. And while much seems familiar in a world of sci-fi shooters, this game seems closer to ones anticipated but never delivered: the vast urban warfare of a Halo sequel, a Resistance 2 that was actually good. And in a marked change from last time, says Camarillo, we won’t have to worry about seeing it all beforehand.
“Part of the problem with Crysis was that there was a little too much out there before the game was released. Everyone saw almost the whole game before it came out. So in one of the early E3 demos the end boss battle was shown – an awesome moment at E3 that completely underwhelmed everyone when it actually ended the game. We shot ourselves in the foot there.
“Now we have to worry about adding too much because we can. That’s the danger of being a really strong developer: you can lose focus on what you’re trying to accomplish. But, yes, we’re having fun. We know what was good about Crysis, what we needed to improve and what was fun about the game, and we can build on a core we no longer have to find. We can have those signature moments that only Crytek can do in realtime – those five big things you’ll remember forever.”
Review by Edge Staff
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