A Blast from the Past review

Most games, you’ve either played or haven’t but this was one you either played or couldn’t.

The Past

Crysis set the bar for non-linear shooters, itself a relatively new sub-set of FPS at the time, popularised by Crytek’s previous effort Far Cry. That game showed non-linear shooters could work but Crysis, it’s ‘spiritual successor’ showed how they should work. If you could make it work; Crysis’ specs were so high, it melted even the most high-spec PCs. No one played it on Highest Settings and four years after release, the only way to make it even run on Consoles was to hugely reduce the spec and dumb-down the AI (ideal for console players).

But all that OTT tech was up there on screen; it looked and felt real - you believed you were on an island to stop a renegade Korean army intent on claiming some powerful discovery. Which turned out to be the squiddys from Matrix and after that it went downhill faster than the Matrix sequels. Still, the Nanosuit was a game-changer - it was thrilling to cloak and get this close to the enemy; and that was if you played as a coward; you could also be an armoured tank, a zippy shock-trooper - the Nanosuit was the character choice menu rolled into one. The AI, the open environment, the boats and Humvees to barrel around in; Crysis was a huge leap for FPS – after this, linear was suffocating.

But for all my fond memories, I never actually finished it; my PC fell at the final battle, dropping to a frame-rate slower than a PowerPoint slideshow. As much as I loved playing it, when you know you’ll not win, you give up – it’s been years since I had a Crysis but now I have a better PC. I hope. Time to don the Nanosuit and save the day. On Highest Settings.

Still a Blast?

Opening on a group of soldiers so cliched they should be in a CoD game, we launch ourselves over an island where a research group uncovered something - I know what it is; disappointment. I never got on with the aliens once they were out, partly because everything that happens before was so good. Let’s get to the good stuff.

Before I can though, I have to go through a ‘systems check’ which I can’t take seriously because it reminds me of the ‘tutorial’ at the start of Blood Dragon. I’m Nomad, one of Raptor Team, the best of the best of the best who are outfitted in Nanosuits, the latest in military tech armour. Basically the Batsuit, it can make you run faster, jump higher, go more invisible than ever before. The only flaw is the suit is fitted with an iPhone battery; you have just long enough to get going before the battery is at 1% and you have to wait for it to recharge. If you sprint, Nomad turns into a gazelle with asthma; a quick dash and he’s wheezing to a stop. Invisibility is great – if you’re one of those street-performers who stand perfectly still; move and it’s gone in seconds. Strength allows you to leap higher and throw/punch at far greater levels. But only once. Armour deflects gunfire – but moving while armoured means Nomad gets over-taken by the tortoises that meander around the island. The suit does recharge quickly but when it’s down you’re also unarmoured and exposed. For all its apps, the iSuit isn’t best suited to close-quarter fighting. I remembered it a lot differently but you do start to think tactically. Should I circle around using Speed, then Stealth up behind and use Strength to hurl this tortoise at him or… just shoot him?

Unfortunately, it seems none of this tech works in the cutscenes. Something is stalking the Raptor team and we’re dropping like flies. At least one Raptor would have survived if he just turned on his invisibility. After we lose Prophet, our CO, it’s down to me and some bloke off EastEnders as we continue to push forward.

Actually, we can push in any direction we want. Crytek have made everything an option. I can clamber up cliff-faces, get into thicker bush, go into the water, circle around for miles, squirrel through placements unseen – there’s no game-dictated barriers, no corralling, no ‘you’re leaving the mission area’ within reason.

It’s a very realistic setting within a believable island – there’s even wildlife. Thankfully nothing dangerous like the later Far Cry games (didn’t you just love lying in wait, sniper trained on a distant camp’s look-out only to hear a growl and while you desperately try to swap for the shotgun to see off the tiger, the shots attract the nearby soldiers costing you the ‘no alarms’ bonus and one of them is the Molotov guy and he burns the place down and you lose the bulletproof vest running from fire and your entire plan is ruined?) Where was I?

Oh yeah, no nasties on the island but it is teaming with life. The tortoises, fish, chickens, wader birds; I was once terrified by a frog that leapt at my scope as I was lying in wait, sniper trained on a distan – anyway, Crysis provides an amazing environment and gives you the freedom to solve the problems within it.

Although your missions never get beyond ‘reach this dot’, it never feels repetitive; you’re working out routes, choosing approaches and being as Ninja or Michael Bay about it as we like. We start on a beach using Humvees and boats (or not) then the terrain subtly changes as we push further inland through rivers and forests. Those give way to valleys and lush grasslands, mangrove-style swamps eerily covered in fog and abandoned townships surrounded by wide-open paddy fields, before a harbour being used as the Koreans’ staging ground. They are heavily dug-in on the island, and its surprisingly tense engaging them.

Out in the woodland you can never be sure you’re alone. Sometimes you catch the glint of their scopes, hear them chatting or see a flashlight but other times I’ve just stumbled into squads not realising they’re there. I had a soldier trip over me as I was prone, looking at frogs. If they see you cloak they panic fire, but they’re aggressive and smart, circling, kicking the bushes and flushing you out. I’m not sure modern games know how to do this kind of thing anymore, it’s all scripted and planned but in Crysis it all happens naturally – well, usually because you’re dicking about.

Eventually though, once the scale of the Korean invasion is realised, the US Navy decides to invade too and the game shifts focus. Soon our missions change from black-ops to charging AA Guns and assisting in the US deployment and it escalates into shooter silliness; I was enjoying the at-my-own-pace style and subtle build but now, for no good reason, the million-dollar suit wearing infiltration specialist is the only one around who can operate a tank. But, no sooner have I grumbled about this mission being out of character when I somehow manage to flip my tank – and Crysis anticipated this contingency/my idiocy; the ground troops conveniently have RPGs so I can bolt around taking out the Korean tanks on foot. Not easy, but Crysis is one of those rare games to really consider how you’ll play instead of forcing you to play their way. Eventually we reach the mountain where the Research team are. And the Squiddys. Think I’d rather stick with the tank vs foot fight.

Inside we discover the research team were actually CIA who’d uncovered an ancient hibernating alien race and decided the best thing to do would be to wake them up. The only way out is through the Squiddys ship. Or the exit menu.

I’d forgotten about the zero-g level. Inside the alien ship thing, Nomad floats about while seeing the aliens wake. They rush at you shrieking and clawing or firing annoying ice darts. Tumbling around the alien spaceship is different after all the tactical stuff but it’s a shame Nomad didn’t retain the zero-g ability once back outside – if the squiddys can float about naturally in the real world why do they need zero-g in their spaceship? It would’ve been awesome to add ‘zero-G’ to the Nanosuit’s abilities. Later, Nomad flies a VTOL in another unnecessary CoD level so it’s possible. What really annoys me about the zero-G sequence is I know once I escape I’m in another game. The look, the enemies, and most importantly, the game-play all changes up; yet Nomad is no better prepared.

I’d hoped that years of more brutal shooters would soften the squiddys but no, they’re worse than Borderlands’ Skags. We’re basically in a race to reach an evac area except it’s not a race, it’s a slog. The Squiddys are out in force and they take a lot of force to get past, reducing it to a shotgun game as they constantly charge like tentacled zombies. There’s no anticipating or tricking them to get an edge and the open spaces have changed to a tighter path. There are hair-raising moments but whereas getting spotted by the Koreans was just the beginning, now it’s just turn-on armour and hope you have enough shotgun shells.

There’s nothing wrong with refreshing a game, but everything that came before was still working. It feels unnecessary – we only ever saw one Squiddy before this and we took out the Koreans before entering, so you assume the zero-g moment is leading to a boss fight; it feels tacked on like a post-ending DLC. And because the squiddys prefer it cold, their ship snap-froze the island which is now bright white ice. It’s an interesting look, but has drained the deep, layered environment. The whole game has gotten flat. Then it gets daft.

Prophet survived somehow and now has an anti-Squiddy gun and some weird connection / understanding of them. He also needs to pause to recharge every two minutes, usually wherever Squiddys hang out. Now a babysitting mission? Why has Crysis gone from staggeringly original to hitting every shooter cliché? We reach the fleet which of course is overrun. We fight off a wave, then suit-boy is the only one who can fix a problem, then fight a wave, go fetch something. It’s turned into Half-Life.

And then the big daddy Squiddy appears for a monumentally cliched boss fight. I’d never seen this before, originally my PC died during the waves and it totally ruins what I thought was a subtle, intelligent game; it was all on you and how you read the situation but this is a scripted, bombastic mess. It’s as epic as unnecessary. Another thing I’d missed was the ending, which I won’t spoil. You’d never guess it – because Crysis 2 ignored it.

This has been a weird blast from the past. The first two thirds were even better than I remembered. The suit’s power is frustratingly short but then if I could have permanently cloaked I would have just enjoyed a stroll through paradise or sat on the beach having an invisible beer. I still struggle to figure out how a game that is essentially trudging and occasionally shooting can be so compelling - Crysis is as a much a work of art as it is a shooter; most of its attitude and style has been copied but it’s not been improved on; Crysis’ greatest strength is it builds a believable world and leaves you to work out how to get through it. It’s still one of the best thinking-man’s shooters I’ve played. But … I’ve also never played a game with such a disappointing final act. There’s nothing wrong with it, it just completely undermines everything leading up to it.

Crysis spawned two sequels and an add-on, focused on the Danny Dyer sidekick. While the add-on Warhead is hugely underrated and equal to the original - better in places, with great characterisation and a more even Squiddy experience but the sequels were a mixed bag; and by mixed bag I mean horrible; only the FEAR series tops Crysis for going so badly off the rails. But we’ll always have two thirds of the original, which has been recently remastered. Quit at the spaceship and it’s one of the best non-linear shooters of all time.

2007 | Developer Crytek | Publisher Electronic Arts

Platforms; Win/Origin, PS3, X360