WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
The path of the super soldier has been well-worn by gamers, especially given that the vast majority of video games are specifically designed to make you feel like a gun-toting god. It's not like there's an abundance of first-person accounting games, or massively multiplayer online shelf-stocking simulators (MMOSSSs). Game makers know that there's an overwhelming majority of gamers out there who play video games for one reason and one reason alone: to forget about their lousy day at the office and step out in the oversized shoes of an almighty bad-arse for the evening.
Consequently, it's rare that we're actually able to empathise with the protagonists in the first-person shooter genre. It's somewhat impossible to relate to someone who murders so many so often, and shrugs off repeated gunshot wounds as though they were no more irritating than day-old sunburn. The previous games in the Crysis series have been particularly guilty of this - they've each strapped you up in an exceedingly well-armoured and cloak-equipped Nanosuit and sent you out to leave no guard un-murdered in your pursuit of... something something the fate of the universe. They've certainly been fun, but rarely has there felt like any real purpose behind all of that ultra violent enemy punishment.
So the biggest surprise that hits when you first sit down to play Crysis 3 is the noticeable leap in quality displayed by its story and characters. It's clear that this is an area that Crytek has largely directed its focus, and perhaps why the core gameplay experience hasn't really changed too dramatically from Crysis 2. Crysis 3 roots its narrative in a fight against the oppressive CELL Corporation and the pursuit of the alien Alpha Ceph, but the story is propelled along by the relationship between protagonist Prophet and his sidekick Michael `Psycho' Sykes. One is desperate to cling to his last traces of humanity, the other, newly stripped of his Nanosuit and tortured by CELL, is struggling to come to terms with his own mortality.
Thanks to uniformly excellent dialogue, voice acting and facial animation, Crysis 3's characters are able to emote at a level well beyond the reach of the loud-mouthed marines typically found in the genre. It's not quite Half-Life 2, but it's still a substantial jump in storytelling for the series. For a game about a hero that's become more machine than man, Crysis 3 has a surprising amount of heart.
That's not to say that the Crysis series is suddenly a sensitive new aged feelgoodery. You won't be cloaking yourself and sneaking up on someone in order to give them a surprise snuggle and a kiss on the cheek. Like its predecessors, the gameplay of Crysis 3 is almost exclusively about killing, be it via an all-out assault or more surreptitious forms of slaughter. The new game is every bit as fluid and flexible (and fun) as fans have come to expect from Crytek's more sandbox style of shooting, and there are a handful of new additions to your arsenal that make each enemy encounter all the more entertaining.
You can now use the Nanosuit's upgraded visor capabilities to hack electronic devices found in the environment, which is executed via a short timing-based mini-game. Opening locked doors is a fairly mundane means to an end, but the fun really starts when you hack automated turrets to turn on their owners, or electronic minefields which you can subsequently lure your enemies into. Hacking is certainly a handy addition that lends itself well to Crysis's freeform approach to firefights.
The more significant enhancement to Crysis 3's combat is the Predator bow. It's a one-shot kill weapon that can be used silently and with the cloak engaged, and although the capacity of your quiver is limited, regular arrows can be retrieved from corpses and re-purposed. The bow also has a handful of secondary fire modes, including electrified darts and thermite-tipped rounds. In fact, so powerful and enjoyable to use is the bow that it very nearly negates the need for the rest of the game's high-powered arsenal, save for when you come up against some of the more well-armoured foes in the campaign's latter half.
But new combat features aside, the biggest reason that Crysis 3 is such a consistent joy to play is because its control system is near flawless. The fact that you can quickly augment your weapons with different sights and grips without retreating into menu screens, or the ability to quickly pull out a grenade by double-tapping the weapon-switching button; it all works wonderfully and means there's never any kind of artificial interface standing in the way of your natural instincts. Even on the PC version of the game playing with a controller almost topples the traditional mouse and keyboard: what you lose in mouse fidelity you gain in ergonomics. The exception to the rule on all platforms, however, are the handful of vehicular sections, which feature disappointingly clunky control by comparison.
While Prophet's quest to topple the CELL Corporation and eradicate the alien Ceph feels slightly shorter than Crysis 2's campaign, its pacing is better and its levels offer up far more freedom and replayability. The seven campaign levels on offer mostly present a happy medium between the open sandboxes of the original Crysis and the more linear paths of Crysis 2, and some of the later areas in the game feel imposingly enormous, with multiple paths to take in approach of each skirmish and various secondary objectives to tackle at your leisure. As a result of the additional breathing room, Crysis 3 features a checkpoint system considerably more generous than that of the previous game, so it's only on the harder difficulty settings that you'll find yourself having to repeat large sections of the game.
Even if you do have to repeat sections, at least you'll be enjoying the view. Crysis 3 is set in a dilapidated New York City, reclaimed by nature, and it's been brought to life with quite a staggering amount of detail. When the gates open and you first set foot inside the Liberty Dome setting you'll likely pause a moment just to take it all in. Gorgeous lighting, vegetation rendered down to individual blades of grass and levels with towering verticality; it's a clash of jungle and shattered urban architecture that results in a game world genuinely like no other. Crysis 3 was always likely to be an impressive technical achievement, but the artistic quality of its design shouldn't be overlooked.
As has become par for the franchise, Crysis 3 is an experience best enjoyed in the single-player campaign, but that's not to say that the multiplayer component is in anyway poor. Once again outsourced to Crytek UK (the studio formerly known as Free Radical Design), the online side of things does a commendable job of appropriating the Call of Duty class/load-out/perk systems, but works best in the modes that leverage the Nanosuit powers. This is particularly exemplified by the new Hunter mode, which pits two cloaked hunters against a team of CELL troopers. Each trooper killed switches sides and becomes a hunter, until there's one trooper left to nervously twitch and shoot at shadows. It's genuinely intense stuff, and well worth investigating once you've polished off the campaign.
In preparation for this review we tested the game on a high end PC, a PS3 and a 360. Naturally the PC version (our test machine was packing two AMD Radeon HD 7970 graphics cards) was the visually superior of the three, thanks to its higher definition, better lighting and textures and all manner of other fog effects and shading employed on the highest graphics settings. Having said that, the console versions are still able to hold their own. We expected the six and seven year old circuitry in our PS3 and Xbox 360 to boil into a puddle of silicon soup as soon as we slipped the disc in the tray, but as it turns out Crysis 3 runs well and looks fantastic no matter which platform you pick it up for.
Crysis 3 is a polished iteration on the previous Crysis titles. Its campaign mode features some much needed soul beneath the sci-fi sheen, which gives a sense of purpose to all the killing that has been previously absent from the series. While its multiplayer mode isn't quite strong enough to tear you away from the genre leaders for long, it at least provides enough of its own flavour to present a worthy alternative.
It's not quite a next generation experience come early, but it's a superbly controlled, tightly paced and tactically flexible shooter with a satisfyingly focussed story, and an excellent way to tie up the Crysis series... for now.