Crying over Crysis 3
Friday morning I finished Crysis 3, accidentally skipped the final cutscene, and had to catch up on events with the help of the Eighth Wonder of the World, YouTube. Which was a relief because the final boss is a real pain in the butt (spoiler?), and the ending is sort of nice, in that sappy way that’s hard to admit and look masculine at the same time. You might assume from the title of this review that I didn’t think much of the experience, but that’s not true — I liked Crysis 3 well enough, even if it left an aftertaste of bitter disappointment once its creamy flashiness had worn off. Explanation below.
Crysis 3 picks up a couple decades after the Ceph aliens have been defeated in Manhatten, and thus defeated across the entire globe (because everything revolves around the Big Apple, always). In the meantime, Prophet and his magic nanosuit have been searching tirelessly to figure out a way to defeat the Alpha Ceph, the alien boss who Prophet must mention every time he opens his mouth. At some point, the evil CELL Corporation, who you may recall as the human enemies from Crysis 2 that you shot at when you weren’t shooting at the Ceph, captured Prophet and froze him or something. They erected a big nanodome over Manhattan, and now are the de facto rulers of the earth because they own all the world’s energy through mysterious means — very likely captured, unethical, and dangerous alien technology that will lead to the re-awakening of mankind’s most dangerous enemy.
Prophet gets busted out of CELL custody by a ragtag resistance, and soon finds himself embroiled in their attempts to bring down the evil corporation. Prophet warns them about the Alpha Ceph (many times) but they don’t listen, which considering this is the third installment in the series is sort of like how nobody believes Adrian Monk or Gregory House even after a couple dozen deductive holes-in-one. Lots of shooting and swearing ensue, followed by some “revelations” about how CELL are indeed harnessing unstable alien lifeforms, which in traditional fashion break loose, kill everything, and try to contact their mothership to bring hell down upon their captors. Then there’s more shooting and swearing, though this time with aliens.
There’s very little patently wrong with it. Your suit’s abilities to go invisible, go armored, or go fast are fun to use; the shooting is pretty solid; and the enemies and scenery are varied enough that the (short) ride doesn’t get too repetitive. The aliens are a bit less fun to fight than their softer human counterparts, though not as much so as in previous installments. It’s definitely better than Crysis 2, and a head-and-shoulders improvement over most of the factory-pressed manshoots we’ve seen churned out over the last few years. It’s a perfectly fine example of a first-person shooter doing mostly its own thing.
So why am I disappointed? To find out, let’s go back in time to March 2004, to Crytek’s first game, Far Cry.
Immediately upon finishing Crysis 3, I undertook an experiment: I reinstalled and played the opening missions of Far Cry to see if it was as good as I remembered, or if I was letting nostalgia tint my perception — because of course that’s a real possibility, considering Far Cry released nearly exactly nine years ago. There are plenty of games I return to after much less time, only to find they hardly resemble the game I remember.
The result of this simple experiment was that I had more fun in 76 minutes than I did in Crysis 3’s ten hours. With every step, I ran into details that Crytek had decided to chop out of their latest two Crysis games, or “streamline” out, or however they’d prefer to put it. I’ll provide a few examples:
The very first level let me extensively scout an enemy base before attempting my objective: to rush in and steal their jeep, and use it to reach the other side of the island. In the escape, I was pursued relentlessly until I crashed in the jungle and evaded my pursuers on foot. The entire time, I was allowed to proceed in the manner that I wanted, stopping at little houses on the beach or to poke around inside of ancient crashed Japanese Zeroes. After the negative response to the narrow level design of the second game, Crytek assured their customers that Crysis 3 would be more open. It’s clear they delivered — but only one level near the end of the game even attempted openness like they were providing in the training level of their first game.
A short time later I attacked and cleared out a patch of island hutches, only to leave a single enemy grunt alive to trigger the alarm. I let him do this on purpose, because in response an armed patrol boat roared across the lagoon, which I engaged from a safe spot in a position I had made secure. Not only did the fight happen on my terms (and leave me a working patrol boat), but that boat came from somewhere; namely the next mercenary camp I would be attacking. In letting the boat attack me now, when I was ready for it, I had thinned out the population of the next base, which wasn’t separated by a loading zone or objective-door. In Crysis 3, enemies can and often do call for help, and reinforcements arrive — but they’re just magically-appearing extra troops who moments earlier occupied no geography, and came from nowhere. They don’t depopulate the next area; they just sort of materialize. The maps, while large and gorgeous, are still a linear sequence of very large rooms.
After a hang-glider battle with a helicopter — which I opted to undertake; other valid paths included creeping through the brush or capturing a boat — I found a high watchtower overlooking a distant mercenary base. My rangefinder indicated it was over 400 meters away, easy range for my awesome sniper rifle, which I used to wipe out the camp’s more dangerous defenders. This prompted a helicopter strafing and reinforcement of the base, as well as extra troops ready to ambush me in the thick jungle that I afterwards tromped through to get to the base. Again, Crysis 3 simply never presents engagement ranges like this, or AI responses to the few instances when long-range combat takes place. Half the time I bothered sniping from afar (and by “afar” I mean not all that far), the comrades of the murdered target responded by confused wandering.
Now, my goal with this string of anecdotes isn’t to say Far Cry is the better game (though sure, it is in many ways), because it was deeply flawed. It had as many linear indoor sequences as glorious outdoor ones, stealth was a beast to use, and the latter half was filled with ultra-tough super-mutants that were as determined to ruin the fun of the game as they were to chew on your femur. Still, in 2004, Crytek created a game that looked like the future of shooters, just as Deus Ex had done for story-based FPSs in 2000.
Okay, on to the original Crysis, which with the help of devmode and some console commands launched me straight into some of the later levels. The result was much the same: wide maps, enemies that came from somewhere, and freedom to move to the mission in whatever way I saw fit. I could steal a vehicle and drive, or walk, or crawl if I wanted to (indicatively, even the ability to crawl is absent in Crysis 2 and 3). I could sidestep major encounters if I was sneaky or clever enough. The few additions, like the ability to customize your weapons and the powers of the nanosuit, are both significantly refined in Crysis’s two sequels, but why Crytek opted to amputate the best part of their first two games is beyond me — it’s like they wanted to augment the arms and legs, but lop off that pesky torso and head.
The “wide corridor” design even feels better than it did in Far Cry, especially when it’s highlighted by conflict. Two of the midgame levels stand out as masterpieces in this regard, both of which see a sizable clash between the two human armies, with you acting as the outnumbered side’s sole hope of turning the tide. While your allies battle it out, you’re sprinting and cloaking between enemy positions, commandeering vehicles and abandoning them minutes later, taking out entrenched tanks with demolitions charges and wandering far and wide across the battlefield. In contrast, most of the opportunities to build these types of large conflicts in Crysis 3 are totally squandered — the biggest fights you witness are between a half-dozen combatants on each side, if that. So when the game finally releases you into an impressively huge map that lets you go where you want to go, it not only comes as a “So they can do it with this technology!” epiphany, it’s a letdown once you realize just how static the battlefield really is. That one map may be large, but otherwise it’s business as usual: enemies patrol their set routes, allies exist only to activate sidequests, and anytime your attention is required by the designers, you’ll be forced right back into the hallway. “We need help here or we’re done for!” a mortar crew shouts over the radio. If you get there and kill the two Ceph soldiers that are harassing them, they’ll aid you by mortaring a couple of the obnoxious pinger walkers that are wandering between burning buildings (before disappearing themselves); if not, they’ll remain there until activated; static, lifeless.
Lifeless. Maybe that’s the word I’m searching for. The ways Crysis 3 feels dead just keep adding up.
For one thing, quite a few of Prophet’s coolest moments take place during cutscenes. For a series that allows the player to pull off ridiculous maneuvers, that’s a big no-no. I mean, why are we seeing regular cutscenes at all?
Early reveals about the CELL Corporation never pay off. One of the first things you learn about them is that the bulk of their soldiers are regular folks who couldn’t afford electricity and other amenities, and were inducted into a controversial “work away debt” program. So you’re slaughtering loads of the underprivileged, when you get right down to it. Now, as much as the game loves to blather on about what it means to be human, it could have been amazing to jump into the actual, um, human element of it, by talking about the poor dupes you have no choice but to mow down in order to collapse their overlords’ evil plans. Instead, this game’s idea of “characterization” is to have its characters get flamboyantly angry and clomp off in a huff, even though the world is imploding and humanity is getting exterminated.
Lots of the levels follow a theme, which doesn’t make them seem realistic. Rather, it makes Crysis 3 feel like an amusement park. This is explained away a little bit by the “Seven Wonders” lore — CELL-controlled Manhattan has now transformed into seven unique biospheres that apparently people call the Seven Wonders (I never heard anyone ingame actually say that, which is a relief because that’s a deeply silly way to put things). So one area is the swamp area, and now you’ll have a themed segment against fire-robots; here’s the region with tall grass, which means you need to evade Ceph-velociraptors; now here’s the airy skyline segment; now you’re in a scary lab; now a linear Ceph hive. Driving segment where you have to go fast to get somewhere in just a couple minutes! Flying segment where you’re the gunner and you can barely see anything because you’re whipping around! Boss fight! On and on.
Speaking of driving segments, where did all the vehicles go? They eventually reappear for the vehicle-themed segments, but even in the generally-meh Crysis 2, CELL was using armored trucks with .50-cal guns as backup. In this outing, most enemies are braving the dangers of the Liberty Dome sans any heavy backup at all. Not only does this mean that a significant number of situations are robbed of a “heavy” to avoid, I also didn’t have a use for all the rocket launchers and demo charges I was finding until the last little bit of the game. Pity.
Finally, this might be a bit of spoiler, but the story is one of those pesky examples of a conflict that wouldn’t have necessarily happened if your hero hadn’t set them into motion. And I hate that, because my moron protagonist is doing stuff I would never have done. Like shutting down the power containing a giant alien menace. I mean, come on, Prophet.
Maybe I’m nitpicking. As I said, I enjoyed Crysis 3 reasonably well. It’s gorgeous, and has solid gameplay, and the character models are stunning (except for the snaggle-toothed resistance leader). In a way though, that just adds to my disappointment. It’s clear Crytek is staffed with talented people, and it’s too bad they were so intent on crafting something “cinematic,” filled with bombast and import and grumbling seriousness, rather than taking the sprawl and fun and mess of their first two games and actually making a sequel. After all, in my experience, games play to their best cinematic strengths when they allow situations and dangers and conflicts to arise organically from a set of tools and systems, because then the things that happen on screen are happening to you, not to some game protagonist. For instance, one of the most harrowing game situations of 2012 was when me and some friends tried to escape Chernarus and hid in the forest like scared rabbits. And we didn’t have a sweary NPC shouting how serious the situation was (“Alpha Ceph!”). We did enough shouting on our own, thanks.
Anyway. Crysis 3 is a good game. Very good, even. It’s just a shame it isn’t as good as two of its predecessors, despite all the spit and polish Crytek had to offer.