Our review of Crysis 2, the 2011 sequel to 2007’s benchmark PC shooter. It’s…a slow-motion train wreck of not-nearly-epic-enough proportions, no matter what Hans Zimmer’s music tries to tell you. Part the 2nd of a series we’re still calling The Downfall of the First-Person Shooter.
Crysis 2 is a perfect example of what’s with the video game industry that produced it. And these problems are no closer to being solved than they were in 2011. Not everything wrong – it’s not like we’re talking about Madden or FIFA here – though all three are published by the same company. And that should tell you something by itself. Even fans of EA’s licensed sport’s games will admit they’ve been stuck in a rut since 2002, with only the most superficial of updates to show for the last decade-and-a-half of quote-unquote “innovation.” Except for those off years, when whole sections of the games are cut out to meet deadlines or hardware limitations. Doesn’t matter – they still sell millions of copies every year, like clockwork, on name recognition alone.
And I wouldn’t mind, except this has taught EA there’s a massive global audience of undiscerning customers for their glorified shovel-ware. And I wouldn’t even mind that if EA didn’t insist all its partners and subsidiaries target the same audience. That kind of business model inevitably leads to games like Crysis 2….which shares so many elements with a much better game of the same name that I can’t help thinking how good it might’ve been. Not Crysis 1 good, obviously – the two don’t share nearly enough for that…but it might’ve become something more like the #1 First-Person Shooter its marketing hyped it up to be, were it allowed to be something other than…well…this…
Welcome back, then, to the far-flung future of 2023 – and you are U.S. Force Recon Marine Codename: Alcatraz. Before you meet yourself, though, the Expository News Network catches us up on our story so far. It’s three years after the Korean-American-Alien war over Langshin Island, and things have not gone well for the human race. Turns out those aliens – now called the “Ceph” after their superficial resemblance to cephalopods – left more than one derelict ship buried in the Earth, all those millennia ago. In fact, there’s been one chillin’ underneath Manhattan Island ALL THIS TIME… and isn’t that just the damnedest, most convenient coincidence?
It’s almost as if the developers, after making two shooters-set-in-tropical-jungle-islands-in-a-row, picked the first, most obvious “concrete jungle” that popped into their head when it came time to choose a new setting. The Predator franchise did the same thing, for pretty much the same reason, back in the early 90s, leading to an excellent comic book miniseries, excellent novelized by Nathan Archer, both called…er…Concrete Jungle. No relation to the Playstation 2 game of the same name: thank the gods. But there I go, talking about good things, when I should be talking about Crysis 2.
So the Ceph – evil, ancient aliens that they are – have cleared out most of Manhattan with a supercharged form of Ebola that breaks people down into their ooey, gooey, biological component parts. The better for the Ceph to recycle them into drone soldiers we can shoot. First, though, you have to watch your entire team of fellow-Marines get wiped out in the opening helicopter…er…submarine crash. Right. This is a sequel, after all – the kind designed to wrap a Crysis 1 player in a nice blanket of familiarity, while simultaneously drawing in a new, console-based audience for their previously-PC-only brand. Especially after Ubisoft took over development of their other first-person series, Far Cry…but, damn it, there I go again…
The submarine crash reduces you – stereotypically silent protagonist that you already are – to a barely-alive lump of broken bones and ruptured organs. After a brief blackout, you/Alcatraz wake to find yourselves encased in a supposedly supped-up version of the first game’s Nanosuit. The very same one worn by your/Nomad’s old squad leader, Prophet. Who – somehow – made it all the way from the Philippine Sea to NYC, only to come down with “the Manhattan Virus”…somehow. Choosing to shoot himself in the head rather than waste away to human bean juice, Prophet charges you, via a recording in the suit’s HUD, with completing his mission. You must find a scientist with information crucial to stopping the Ceph, and keep him alive long enough to send that info up the chain.
Too bad the chain of command’s become so muddled. With a virus loose in the streets, breaking social order over its figurative knee, you wake up in a city under martial law, it’s streets patrolled by members of the private military company CELL. Your fellow Marines pop up a little later, and while they act at least somewhat reasonable, CELL (and especially its commander, Lockheart) considers Prophet – and thus, anyone wearing his suit – to be a walking biohazard, and orders are to shoot you on sight. Since you’re a silent protagonist, you can’t very well tell Lockheart he’s got the wrong guy, but late-game events make it clear Lockheart’s way past the point of appreciating life’s subtle nuances. He thinks your suit is the key to victory, so he’ll gladly sacrifice whole platoons for the chance to peel it off your hide.
Irony being, he’s entirely correct. Over the course of game, you come into contact with Jacob Hargreave, co-founder of the company that made your suit, Hargreave-Rasch Biotechnologies. After a few levels of listening to him as the standard Voice Over the Radio, you find out Hargreave’s a one hundred-plus-year-old scientist who build his company – and your suit – out of Ceph tech, salvaged from the “impact site” at Tuguska. He was there, back in 1908, when a so-called “asteroid” wiped out all those acres of forest, and he’s been preparing for a full-scale Ceph invasion This Whole Time…The entire cast of the first game (including your avatar, Nomad) were not but pawns in Hargreave’s anti-Ceph machinations…and like any king worth his throne, Hargreave’s got no qualms about sacrificing another pawn if it’s – as the kids say -“for the win…”
A needlessly convoluted follow-up to the Battle of Langshin, answering none of the questions its predecessor left open. They aren’t in that expansion pack, I mentioned – Crysis: Warhead – either. That thing’s just a side story, it’s events occurring parallel to the base game. If you want to see what happened after that hard cliffhanger – how Prophet got in a position to “save” Alcatraz’s life, or the final fates of Nomad, Psycho, and Dr. Rosenthal the Younger, or how in the hell no one noticed an alien starship under New York besides one crazy old scientist…well, you’ll have to read the six-issue comic book tie-in series published in conjunction with this game. I haven’t seen this much crucial information left out of a story, only to be published in a comic, since J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek movie. “Oh, you want the villain’s motivations? That’ll be five extra bucks, please. Twenty if you want the whole story.”
And like an Abrams production, plot twists pile on each other like the enemy AI piles on you if you stand still too long. CELL’s second in command was actually an undercover CIA operative This Whole Time. And she’s the daughter of Principal Strickland, from the first game! You’re supposed to care, I guess, because her father spent four levels yelling in your ear before he owned by a giant crab/robot monster. The US Military gets sick of CELL’s shit about halfway through, and revokes their authority, but take a wild guess how many fucks Commander Lockhart gives, or what this does to his overall mental state. If you played Warhead, you might remember Lockheart’s nephew was up for the nanosuit program, but something went wrong during the recruitment phase and Nomad got his slot instead. If you didn’t play Warhead…then Lockhart comes off as yet-another crazy PMC commander, being the antagonist in a video game, dead-set on the killing the player character because…well, shit, we need some kind of human-v-human conflict, don’t we? Something personal the player can relate to…
And why not some inter-human conflict, while we’re at it? Turns out your suit, far from being the thin skin of shape-shifting machines it was in the first game, was actually symbiotic – perhaps even a life form in its own right – THIS WHOLE TIME. It certainly acts like one… and by the end you learn, on top of everything else, that Prophet is still alive…after a fashion. Either the suit digitally copied his personality into itself before he punched his own ticket, or it’s doing an imitation fine enough to pass any Turing Test. Either way, I can’t find myself too terribly bothered by this bit of body-snatching, because Alcatraz was never interesting in the first place. Never surprised me to hear characters call me by his name, since Alcatraz is about as much of a character as the can of spam in your cabinet.
Because of this, serious identity issues begin to crop up even before that last Big Reveal. Are we really playing as Alcatraz…or an emerging AI sub-routine, piloting whatever’s left of Alcatraz, like some organic jalopy? And what’s with the name, anyway? “Alcatraz” – The Rock – a name synonymous with inescapable prisons. Is that a conscious reflection of the game’s design philosophy? If so, it works like a charm, because nothing says “linear video game level design” like a city street’s worth of buildings you can’t enter. Nothing helps you feel like a rat in a maze more a sewer level…or a subway level, though after a certain amount of collateral damage, the distinction gets pretty fine. Or is that name a stealth cry for help from developers consumed by EA, and slowly being digested in the belly of that rough Beast…?…I don’t know. Those are just my best guesses. – [“Your best? Losers always whine about their ‘best.’ Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.”]
In itself, linearity’s not a bad thing. Points of Crysis 1 forced you into a straight shot, true. But those were not the most memorable portions of that game. It was at its strongest when its levels opened up, allowing you to discover the many and various paths toward killing or sneaking around whatever was in your way. There were switchback trails, winding rivers, rocky hillsides you could side-jump your way up, Bethesda-RPG-style. It was great, because it provided the illusion of freedom to what could’ve easily been Just Another Corridor Shooter. Like Crysis 2.
Setting the action in, above, and under a half-decimated city restricts design choice by its very nature. You can still Jump Real Good, and plenty of ledges are graspable, making Alcatraz/Prophet an order of magnitude more versatile than his FPS-protagonist peers…but more often than not, you find yourself trapped in a hallway. Sometimes its got an open roof, for that liberated feel. Sometimes one wall’s been blown off, revealing vistas I’d go so far as to call “beautiful” in a depressing, post-Apocalyptic kind of way. But hallways they remain. Most with only one exit – past all the cybernetic monsters and/or pissed-off PMC dudes out to avenge the twenty-dozen of their friends you ruthlessly slaughtered in the last hallway. Earth’s first interstellar war does rearrange the geography as things go on…right around the time I started getting irritated by all the one-note characters and their Sudden But Inevitable Betrayals/Deaths. Not least because I can’t speak to them, or even sit back as my character speaks to them in the Measure, Professional Tones of a super soldier, like Nomad. But they never tire of talking at me. Someone needs to do all the fetch-questing in this town and how can I fetch-quest without a quest-giver?
For example: the scientist whose trail Prophet sets you on in the early game is named Nathan Gould. He spends two levels hurrying you along, sounding like a burnt out old hippie the whole time, only to leave before you get to his lab, since CELL’s hot on his trail. And, like a dumbass, he leaves the location of his new safehouse on his hard drive, where any murderous PMC can find it with a few keystrokes. [“I’m a conspiracy nerd, not some hardcase!” Well, that should make you even more attentive to little things like that, shouldn’t it? Dumbass! You don’t endear a player to a character by immediately demonstrating that character’s incompetence. Not unless you’re making a comedy. And even then, your jokes better not miss.
No points for guessing who has to raid the place (now that it’s crawling with grunts) and give the hard drive lead poisoning? Fewer points for guessing this is a blatant set-up for a man-vs-helicopter boss fight. Negative points for correctly guessing that the entire game’s paced like this: one damn complication after another, overriding your previous objective just as you reach it, stringing you along with all the enthusiasm of a hung-over tour guide on Monday morning. As opposed to Crysis 1’s much better pacing, with it’s constant upending of player assumptions, provoking emotional reactions to and (assuming you still have higher brain functions) considerable thought on what it placed in front of you…like, oh, I don’t know…some kind of artistic experience. Or something.
If I want to be a superhuman monster wall-jumping my way through a New York City slowly succumbing to some mutinagenic virus and patrolled by murderous military types, I could always go back to Prototype. If I wanted first-person, post-Apocalyptic Americana, I’ve got two Fallouts for console, set on either side of North America, and I can put five more for my computer like that. If I want to have a stealth-and-shooting-spree good time in massive, open levels full of purdy visuals, I could just play Crysis 1 again. So I switch over the to Multiplayer in a last, desperate attempt to wring some fun out this purchase…and promptly get shot in the head by a sniper who’s ground his way to level 50 and unlocked the super awesome railgun you don’t get until near the very end of the singleplayer campaign. It’s nice if you’re winning team…at first…but these matches are only ten minutes long, and repetition is the natural solvent of even the most transcendental fun.
That’s the inherent problem every sequel has to overcome somehow. Crysis 2 seemed to think moving the action to New York ticked that box off just fine, thanks. But when you find yourself seriously doing something Joe Dante did in Gremlins 2 – stop. Think back. Remember Gremlins 2 was an explicit satire of the lazy decision making that creates bad sequels with such consistency and regularity, you can find examples all the way back in Ancient Greece. That’s why Gremlins 2 is 100% made of lazy sequel cliches, and why all of them become the butt of a joke at some point. Whether those jokes hit or not will determine your opinion of that film, and your need for an incredibly expensive tech-demo of a first person shooter, with a dull, dragged-out story and twitchy multiplayer, will determine your opinion of Crysis 2.
Unless you also want to factor in EA’s decision to turn right around and release Crysis 3 less two years later….