I hate aliens.
Not because I am afraid they will one day take over the world, consuming us through their vaguely organic orifices and using our blood to terraform earth into the spitting-image of Mars. Nor do I hate them because they might one day tempt us into building a gigantic spinning thinga-ma-job with no discernible purpose besides teaching Mrs. Arroway a lesson about faith. Nope. I hate them because they constantly ruin our games.
I’m talking about the ending of Half-Life. I’m talking about the horrible Arbiter levels in Halo. And I’m talking about those scary-looking, but ultimately boring, squids which arrived in the later parts of Crysis.
I enjoyed most of Crysis. Even the alien parts weren’t that bad. The problem with them was that they made the game’s most enjoyable mechanics – the use of your suit functions and the exploration of the plethora of ways a base could be assaulted – nearly irrelevant. I was over-joyed, then, when I heard that the next Crysis game, Crysis Warhead, was supposed to focus more on fighting the Koreans than the aliens. Fighting hoards of reasonably intelligent, well-entrenched enemies in an open environment is by far preferable to fighting aliens who, despite their advanced technology, are inexplicably unable to provide a reasonable challenge to one man in a nano-suit.
The introduction of Crysis Warhead made me wary. The opening cinematic is a relic from the days when thirty seconds of watching a muscular bad-ass make things go boom was considered exciting. The muscular bad-ass in question is Sergeant “Psycho” Sykes, one of Nomad’s squad-mates from the original game. Crysis Warhead treats the character as if he needs no introduction, which is confusing, because he wasn’t a particularly memorable character. The confusion is made worse by the strange audio-tape playback which occurs right after the opening cinematic. Though it was probably supposed to seem mysterious, the playback’s references to characters, situations, and terms the player knows nothing about causes the sequence to sound like Star Trek techno-babble.
The game quickly redeems itself with a spectacular opening sequence which does nothing to clear up the incoherent introduction, but does plenty to raise blood pressure. Although it is a stand-alone game, the difficulty level of Warhead ramps up immediately. The opening scenario, a raid on a North Korean military base nestled in a former beach resort, is as difficult as it is fun. The next few hours of the game is a succession of top-notch base infiltrations, jungle combat scenarios, and vehicle sections. Perhaps learning from the first game, Warhead keeps the human enemies in closer proximity, resulting in much more dangerous combat situations. There are also many more instances where you’ll have to fight KPA soldiers in their knock-off nanosuits. This is refreshing; the nano-suit soldiers were the only enemies in the original game that were a one-on-one challenge, and their inclusion in Warhead reminds me of fighting Special Ops soldiers in Half-Life.
But then the aliens return.
Apparently assuming that everyone has already played Crysis, Warhead never bothers explaining why the island is suddenly covered in frost or why big blue and purple aliens are now swarming everywhere. An uninspired boss fight against a gigantic but harmless alien walker, complete with the need to hit its weak spot to bring it down, soon follows. Things only get worse, as the player is swarmed by wave after wave of aliens who still haven’t figured out a better strategy than making suicidal dashes and jumps towards the player. The real problem, however, is not the aliens. The problem is that Warhead suddenly becomes an on-rails, linear game, robbing the player of any freedom or flexibility. The game hits rock bottom during a train sequence, during which the player does nothing but man a turret and fire into hoards of bad-guys, both Korean and alien. It isn’t quite the worst action sequence I’ve played in a game, but it is certainly the worst I’ve seen in a game that is trying to pass itself off as a quality title. It bewilders me that the game was taken in this direction, considering that the main complaint most critics had about the original Crysis was that it sometimes became too linear.
In sum, the campaign is as mixed as a mixed bag could be. At times it overtakes it predecessor, particularly during the first few hours of the game, which are absolutely brilliant. The specter of linearity, however, haunts Warhead in same fashion it haunted the original. Just as you find yourself amazed by the openness of the environments and the many ways in which you can choose to complete your objectives, the game takes all of that freedom away.
The graphics remain the rock on which the Crysis series is built, and they’re as consistently beautiful as ever. Crytek’s CryENGINE 2 remains in a league of its own. Sure, it requires a beast of a computer, but I have yet to see any game that comes close to providing the same caliber of eye-candy. It helps that Crysis is a bright, colorful game, full of scenic jungle vistas and frozen gorges. Areas of note in Warhead include a carrier surrounded by a frozen sea and a final battle of apocalyptic proportions. Typically, the graphics of a game would have very little effect on how I would judge it as an overall experience, but Warhead is so beautiful, its environments so lush, that I inevitably see the game in a better light. Crysis with the settings ramped up is a technical milestone, and I doubt we’ll see anything as attractive come out within the next year. In the world of PC graphics, that is saying a lot.
It is worth noting that Warhead technically comes with an additional ‘game’ know as Crysis Wars. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t worry – I didn’t know a thing about it until I opened the case. Crysis Wars is actually a very minor expansion to multiplayer Crysis, adding some new maps and a new game mode. On the whole, it adds a little replay value, but still falls short of genre-leading games like Team Fortress 2. If you enjoyed multiplayer in the original then you’ll enjoy multiplayer in Crysis Wars, and the reverse is also true.
Though I’ve ragged on it plenty, Crysis Warhead is, at times, a blast to play. At around ten hours long, the campaign isn’t epic, but with an entry fee of thirty dollars, there is a lot to like here. Value matters, and though the game doesn’t give the completely non-linear gameplay I was hoping it would, the excellence of the early game makes Crysis Warhead an attractive title for those who enjoyed the original.