First, to clear something out of the way: I apologize for the extreme lateness of this review, but shortly into playtesting Crysis, the computer used had to be brought in for repairs. While I got it back in a reasonable amount of time, it was equipped with just 1GB of temporary RAM, which wasn't even clocked at the speeds I was used to. Suffice it to say that playing one of the most demanding PC games in years on a substandard machine is pointless exercise - more on this in a moment. Meanwhile, as an actual gameplay experience, Crysis has plenty to recommend it. It is unquestionably one of the best first-person shooters of 2007, and most likely of this decade.
The core of the game is its single-player mode, whose story directly ties into the play mechanics. It's the near future, and your character is part of a US spec-ops team rescuing Americans on an island chain in the Pacific. There's always a catch though, and as it turns out, the islands have been newly occupied by North Korea. Moreover, the chain is not so coincidentally the home of some alien relics, many of which turn out to be alive.
All the members of the spec-ops team - whom you'll be paired with only on occasion, conveniently enough - wear special full-body armor called a nanosuit. The suit gives wearers superhuman abilities, such as extra speed, strength or invisibility. The trick is that players can only use one of these abilities at a time, and they all eat into a recharging energy pool. Players must thus think about how and where they want to move, whether it means slinking around in the jungle, or tossing Korean soldiers left and right. This helps give Crysis a strategic dimension many FPS games are lacking. And naturally, everyone in the world wants to be Superman, gamers among them.
Other depth comes from the terrain, which like the game's spiritual predecessor, Far Cry, allows for much wider roaming than games like Half-Life 2. The (primary) objectives the game assigns ultimately funnel players through a single path, but it's otherwise possible to run, swim, fly or drive in many different directions. If attacking a base proves difficult from one angle, there's often another which is more lightly defended, or at least offers better cover from gunfire. Similarly, it's sometimes possible to just drive past a tough squad of enemies, or avoid them entirely by crawling through the underbrush. This doesn't always work obviously, or it wouldn't be much of a game.
Less important, though still a nice touch, is the ability to customize weapons with silencers, lasers and flashlights, as well as several different types of sights and scopes. These have a noticeable effect on each combat situation, and the sniper scope in particular is handy for turning any rifle into an impromptu long-range killing machine, even if an assault rifle isn't as accurate as the real deal.
The thick of it
In terms of difficulty, Crysis doesn't pull many punches. I chose the Hard difficulty, based on my experiences with the demo, and sure enough there have been a number of times in the full game when the odds seemed hopelessly stacked against me. I can't even imagine what the top difficulty must be like. If you're a fairly casual PC gamer, experienced or not, I would suggest you stick to Normal. Regardless, don't expect to finish Crysis in a weekend unless you sacrifice most of your waking hours. This is definitely a plus in an age of six-hour single-player modes.
Odds aside, the AI in the game can be kind of scattershot. It's generally good about pathfinding and taking cover, and it's certainly tuned to be a skilled shot. The problem is that it sometimes seems to "freeze," so to speak, leaving itself standing in the open; in other cases it can get itself stuck, especially when water is involved. There's also the ironic problem of enemies - notably helicopters - sometimes honing in on your position with inplausible accuracy, and yet being thrown off the instant you turn on invisibility.
While we're on the topic of flaws, it's worth mentioning that a certain section of the game temporarily eliminates freeroaming in favor of linear levels. Some people seem to hate Crytek for including it, but if nothing else it does have some mind-blowing scenery, and it's a break from the relentless jungles on most of the island. You can hardly fault the developers for thinking of the game's overall flow.
Target in sight
Graphically, the game is probably the best-looking title this year for any platform. You've probably seen many of the highlights in other games - soft shadows, dense vegetation, day and night cycles, particle effects everywhere - but at maximum detail, Crysis manages to combine these all together, despite being set outdoors where they should theoretically be too much to handle. The explosions are particularly nice, feeling for once like they have some force behind them instead of just a flame animation. A great deal of the entertainment from the game comes from just soaking in sights you won't get to see elsewhere.
This does come at an incredibly high cost though, if you want to play the game the way it was intended to be. The test system was equipped with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, a 640MB GeForce 8800 GTS, and 2GB of 800MHz RAM, which was enough to get a reasonable framerate at 1280x960 with mostly high-level detail. There were still noticeable slowdowns and even pauses however, leading me to think that only a Core 2 Extreme with an 8800 GTX and 4GB of RAM could really play the game fluidly with the best settings. This is ignoring the special DirectX 10 options available to Windows Vista users, or hackers with Windows XP.
Surprisingly, performance tends not to drop that much during multiplayer play, and Crytek's networking code is up to par. Still, I doubt that the game will have much longevity online compared to games like Team Fortress 2, just because the barrier to entry is so high. It's not a question of hardware demands so much as the learning curve - other than deathmatch the only other mode is "Power Struggle," in which teams fight to build alien technology and blow up their opponent's base. The gameplay mechanics take a while to get used to, and the tutorial video only explains the general outline. It's fun once you do get used to it, of course; but given the choice I think most people would prefer multiplayer they can hop in and out of.
Gazing over what I've written, it occurs to me that I haven't quantified what makes Crysis superior to most other shooters. It isn't any one thing, but nor can I pull a fast one and say the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. No, I think it's that the game actually exploits its technology to do things we haven't seen before. One incident that sticks in my mind was when I was hiding from another helicopter, having recently reached the top of a guard tower. I was about to retaliate with a rocket launcher, but suddenly I heard the chopper's own rockets firing, and before I knew it the tower had collapsed under my feet and killed me.
What strikes me is that as simple as it sounds, that scenario would be unlikely to have happened in another FPS game. Most titles still don't have destructible buildings, while all but the toughest can be blown apart because of Crysis' physics engine. More importantly, without the expansive terrain in the game there's no way I could've been chased by a helicopter, and both that and the invisibility effects meant I had a decent chance of hiding, if only temporarily. My crumpled corpse was a natural outgrowth of the way the game operates.
There was a time in PC gaming when A-list titles regularly pushed the limits of what computers were capable of. This might've been a necessity, but it forced developers to deliver new experiences. Crysis harkens back to that mindset, reminding me of why I became addicted to PC gaming in the first place.
It stands to reason then that if you like shooters, and your system can handle it, Crysis is one of the must-have PC games on shelves at the moment, alongside the likes of BioShock and The Orange Box. People may be drawn to the admittedly cheaper platform consoles provide, but Crysis is something that will never appear on the Wii or Xbox 360. Conrtrary to speculation, the PC isn't dead yet, even if an individual one might die on you.