We have a special guest post from John Belland, better known around the comments section as Hammercorps. He has been an avid reader of our content and contributor to discussions since our Only Single Player days. He had some insightful things to say about Crysis, so we hope you enjoy reading his piece as much as we did.
There’s a moment in the beginning of the original Crysis which perfectly encapsulates the type of experience you’re in for. It’s the moment when you receive your orders to disable a jamming system, which is located on a beach below the hillside you’re on. When you reach the crest, you’re confronted with a beautiful view of the beach, as well as more of the island further down. KPA soldiers mill in the buildings below while boats patrol offshore. The sun rises while Inon Zur’s “First Light” from the soundtrack plays.
It’s a simple thing, a typical vista reveal. Almost every FPS since then (and well before) has done it in almost exactly the same way: a linear path opening up to some glimpse of a big open horizon. What sets Crysis apart in this regard is that the vista reveal is not just smoke and mirrors, nor a simple throwaway trick to show off the power of the engine or build mood for the setting. Instead, that wide open space that you see from the top of that hill is all playable. You can play the game the way that Crytek intended: sneak (or charg) down to the buildings, clear them out, grab a jeep, and make your way down the roads, taking out KPA outposts on your way to the next objective.
Or, you can do what I did on my last play-through: swim out under one of the enemy boats, kill the crew manning it, and sail it past all of those encounters all the way to a small peninsula where you get a secondary objective to assault a KPA Headquarters on top of the cape. When you reach it (however you did, whether by clearing out the roadblocks, which can be accomplished in multiple ways on its own, or by sea), you then have multiple ways to complete that particular mission, whether you assault your way up the mainland or drop off onto the beach below and use your suit’s strength mode to jump up the rocks and hide under the deck of the structure. And that’s just a secondary objective. You still have the main goals to follow, which can usually be completed in multiple ways and so on.
Crysis is an extremely unique game in the fact that it manages to strike a perfect balance between linear and open game design, and it’s something that I haven’t seen in a game since then. Its own sequels couldn’t live up to the bar that it set, and the only FPS that I’ve played since that has managed to stand alongside it in terms of game mechanics has been the recently released Titanfall 2 (albeit for completely different reasons). When Crysis released back in 2007, it did so alongside a host of other extremely well-made and innovative shooters, from Bioshock to Half Life 2: Episode 2, and of course the influential Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
While the AAA market went in the vein of the more linear, scripted, and cinematic approach that Modern Warfare refined so well for the next 5-7 years, I’ve always found it a shame that there wasn’t any more attention paid to Crysis’s type of design. When comparing it to more linear games, it’s quite easy to see where it stands out. The open mission design that I was touting earlier makes it far more replayable then a corridor-style game, and it greatly helps with immersing you in the game’s world. Where other games are content with telling you that you’re an “elite Special Forces soldier,” Crysis really makes you feel like it. Not only do you have a super-powered Nanosuit, but you have the ability to plan and execute. You have a set objective and a location, but how you get there and accomplish that is all up to you, as it should be for someone in your position.
It’s an easy case to make for why Crysis is better then the average linear shooter. A trickier one, however, is why it’s better than true open-world sandbox games, such as its genetic cousin Far Cry. The simplest answer is that I believe these types of games go too far in the other direction. As has been pointed out in other articles before, linear games have one distinct advantage to open-world games, and that is their focused curation. In a linear game, or at least a semi-linear one, the designers have the ability to create set-pieces that switch up and add variation from whatever the core gameplay loop happens to be.
The Half-Life series is probably one of the most famous (and well done) examples of this, but Crysis pulls it off as well. From the beginning levels, which place an emphasis on your one-man army skills; to the midway portion of the game, which transforms to more of an assault-style phase, including one vehicle focused mission that lets you wreak utter devastation on the KPA, and plays brilliantly on top of that (though it’s certainly possible to complete on foot); to the end of the game – the pacing and atmosphere of the missions are being constantly switched up for you, while at the same time still allowing you a tremendous amount of freedom to complete them. To me, this is far more effective then just simply driving across the same areas from main mission location to main mission location while picking up collectibles in between, and it also keeps the momentum of the game intact. You’re free to experiment, but you’re also moving at a pace that is appropriate for the plot of the game, something that open-world shooters often struggle with.
So, let’s talk about the elephant in the room, which is Crysis’s much maligned back half. While most people will agree that the first half to two-thirds of the game is really something special, they will often point to the less impressive end of the game, where it starts to become more linear and strays closer to other AAA shooters. And they are right, it does. However, a point that I think these people are missing is that while it may seem like an unwelcome shift, it actually works extremely well in maintaining narrative consistency.
(Warning: Spoilers will follow.) Throughout the first two-thirds of the game, you are, essentially, the most powerful thing on the island. Sure, you can die easily on the higher difficulties if you don’t play smart, but the KPA soldiers can’t match your super-soldier abilities. It fits very well narratively, then, that you’d have the freedom that you do. In the latter stages of the game, however, when the Ceph awaken, that power is stripped from you. Suddenly, something far, far more powerful than you is in the game. At this point in the story, it’s not about discovering what’s going on anymore, or sabotaging the KPA’s operation, it’s about surviving long enough to get the hell of Lingshan. In this way, it makes sense that the game would become more linear and more about set-piece battles against the Ceph creatures, even if that wasn’t Crytek’s intent. It helps that these sections are quite enjoyable as well, including one particularly fun bit involving a VTOL. (End Spoilers.)
There’s a lot of other things that I haven’t covered here, such as the gorgeous soundtrack (something I never hear mentioned), the weapon customization, the atmosphere, and much, much more, but in the interest of time, I’ll sum up now: Why is it that other studios haven’t been able to match the brilliance of the original Crysis, even its own developers? I think the fundamental reason is that too many teams, when they look to Crysis for inspiration, only look at one part of the game.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 and Advanced Warfare, for example, tried to emulate suit superpowers like Crysis, but both of those games were constrained by the fact that they didn’t give the players room or freedom to utilize them. Instead, they tried too hard to maintain the breakneck run and gun pace of the series, while also relegating most of the abilities to gimmicks used only in preset areas. On the other hand, the original Far Cry, created by Crytek, had the wide open spaces like Crysis but still the linear pacing, yet Far Cry often fell into long tedious stretches due to the fact that you didn’t have some sort of ability or way to mix up the combat. Crysis is a difficult game to emulate because, in the end, it’s absolutely the sum of its parts, and I mean that in the best way possible.