An action hero's weapon is an extension of their identity. They're inseparable implements, representative of their approach to combat and justice. Bond's silenced PPK. Batman's iconic boomerang. Mjölnir and Thor. Even Popeye's transformative spinach says something about him as a character.
What does the Nanosuit say about its wearer in Crysis? That the player has a need to improvise, a need to see-saw between being an assassin and being a brute. “Press Q,” reads the manufacturer's tag on the collar, “to harden your skin like a brick wall. Press E to become as transparent as a pane of glass. Tumble dry low.”
Crysis, at its best, is a franchise that puts you in situations where the Nanosuit doesn't do the dirty work for you, but simply serves as a springboard for spontaneous problem-solving in hazardous battle-playgrounds. Crysis 3 doesn't deviate from this template, but it does mostly repeat Crysis 2's interpretation of it. It's a less sandboxy and groundbreaking one than the original Crysis, to be sure, but linearity isn't an inherent sin. Crytek's shooter remains one of the best-looking games anywhere. It's acrobatic and deliberate, especially in multiplayer, and an expression of what PC hardware can do.
Crysis 3's campaign feels more of a continuation than a reinvention of Crysis 2. You're still in the Big Apple, though one that looks like your neighbor's house when they've been on vacation for a month, leaving their mail to pile up and yard to overgrow. Paramilitary bad-guy corporation CELL has taken credit for your heroic effort in the last game, and while you've been asleep they've gotten busy exploiting some secret power source to revitalize ruined NYC. Enormous, spherical barriers called Nanodomes have been erected to accelerate ecosystem growth.
At the start of the story you're sprung from a stasis pod by Psycho, a former fellow Raptor Team member, to join a rebellion against CELL. Psycho and others have been “skinned” of their Nanosuits, making you, Prophet, the only one on the planet. Cue the standard “you're humanity's savior” spiel: Prophet's unique bond with Ceph DNA grants him new power, but also exposes him to potentially being controlled by the Ceph hivemind. Psycho's vendetta to find out who separated him from his superskin motivates the first few hours. He joins you as a temporary companion character on missions to sabotage a few well-designed CELL facilities, like a hydroelectric dam.
My hope was that this plot and the terraforming power of Nanodomes would be natural excuses for Crytek to create a broad set of exotic environments. And my worry was that Crysis 3 might simply coat Crysis 2's somewhat-claustrophobic city blocks with moss. In 2011, I criticized the sequel's narrowness : “Expressing your abilities as a player demands vertical and horizontal space, and there's slightly less of it in NYC than I would've liked.”
The level design of Crysis 3 falls somewhere in between this gulf of opportunity and familiarity. “Urban rainforest” as an aesthetic isn't really strayed from, and if anything, it feels under-expressed in that it's never taken to its natural extreme. The world rarely seems wild. I never felt like I was in an NYC that's been swallowed whole by the Amazon. A few areas filled with meters-high marsh grass are the exception. In one of my favorite sequences, Crysis 3 threw packs of Ceph Stalkers—melee assault units with scythes for arms—at me in a railway car graveyard submerged in a wavy green ocean under the sun.
The Ceph Stalkers didn't bolt directly at me. They didn't magnetize to my position like most game enemies. They darted. They took indirect, lateral routes. The stalks of grass quivered, but in a way that obscured the true orientation of enemies. I remember emptying a shotgun into the brush, still unsure if I clipped one. I felt anxiously, wonderfully lost. I couldn't tell if I was in Central Park or Jurassic.
This was a legitimate “the floor is lava” scenario. In a panic, I perched myself atop one of the railcars, a rusty island. Four Stalkers, by my count, were orbiting the car, pouncing in the jungle bed like cheetahs. I gripped a grenade, pulling the pin before I even knew where I was going to throw it. The grass flickered at the opposite end of the ruined train. I chucked the bomb, holding my breath. Ten gallons of bubblegum blood sneezed out from behind the end of the car. A radar blip faded. The whole arc felt like playing Marco Polo against jungle raptors.
This moment—feeling alienated on Earth—is an outlier, unfortunately. Structurally, the level design has improved some: two chapters feature caves, and an above-average turret sequence or two, but mostly gone are the subways, parking garages, sewers, and elevator shafts of Crysis 2. The campaign also sprinkles in optional secondary objectives—no substitute for a proper sandbox, but they're decent carrots that pull you away from primaries. Some are as simple as clearing a set of mines around an light armored vehicle using the Nanosuit's new hacking mechanic (a timed button-press mini-game that's appropriately complex). In some cases, completing these side missions grants functional benefits: liberating the LAV let me catch a ride with them through a segment of the map, operating their turret as they taxied me. In the same chapter, a mortar team volunteered their services after I killed some Ceph harassing them, unlocking the power to call in artillery strikes.
Most of what you shoot in Crysis 3—the CELL weapons—are copies of what you shot in Crysis 2. I'm fine with that: Crytek's near-futuristic ballistic guns don't need replacement. Instead, the number of violent bells and whistles you can attach to conventional weapons has multiplied. One of the basic rifles, the Grendel, can be mutated from a sci-fi M4 into a ridiculous death platform. Throw a miniature version of the Typhoon—a new SMG that spits 500 bullets per second—under the barrel as an attachment. Swap in a muzzle break to improve the accuracy of your first shot. Load a mag of 6.8mm AP ammo (if you've found one of the special ammo caches) for greater penetration. Even shotguns get access to electric buckshot.
The déjà vu of handling the same weapons is offset by Prophet's newfound ability to wield Ceph guns. Each of these devastating power weapons pulls from a single, small magazine of ammo. They're intentionally disposable; as long as you don't mutilate an alien with explosives, you can steal their flamethrower, lightning sniper rifle, or absurd plasma minigun that transforms into a wide-firing plasma shotgun. Firing each of these produces the same pleasure I felt when I first fired the Combine Pulse Rifle in Half-Life 2: giving enemies a taste of their own medicine. Their power is offset by the weight they place on Prophet (you can't leap as high when holding a Ceph weapon), and by the loss of the ability to swap freely between standard firearms and the new Predator Bow.
On the receiving end of these guns, though, I found the Ceph to be a little tamer than they were in Crysis 2. Ceph Stalkers are underused. Devastators, formerly the alien tanks of Crysis 2, fall easily from the basic Ceph Grunt weapon, the Pincher Rifle. Ceph Spotters, floating drone-spheres that can zap you with EMP, were almost unnoticeable in the campaign. The new Ceph Scorchers are a bright spot. When attacked, they pop up their torso like a tower shield, making them invulnerable to direct assaults. They're scary, glimmering little scarab-tanks—even when you're hidden, they'll intermittently torch an area while on patrol, like a camel might casually spit.
Turning the difficulty to Supersoldier (the fourth of five settings) did make things more comfortable (i.e., uncomfortable). Some of the increased ease of Ceph-killing is owed to the ability to wield their weapons, but more of it is due to the Predator Bow, which has a unique advantage within Crysis: firing it while cloaked doesn't interrupt invisibility. It's also permanently in your inventory. Crytek mitigates the Predator's power a little by making its ammo scarce, but because you can recover basic arrows from victims, and most enemies die from a single, full-power shot, the bow occasionally feels like an easy way to clear a room. I still consider it a good addition to the weapon set because it demands being careful and deliberate in a way that Crysis' other weapons don't.
It's remarkable how well Crytek's UK division has made Crysis' overpowered pajamas work in multiplayer. Migrating the mechanics of invisibility and near-invulnerability into a balanced arena can't be easy. Online play, like the campaign, does feel more like a renovation than original work. Even one of the 12 maps, Skyline, is a reskin of the popular Crysis 2 level of the same name. But this whole side of the game feels as affectionately made as it did in 2011, and anyone that played the previous multiplayer should welcome more of it.
Some of the mode's cleverness comes from Crytek worrying more about what's fun than what makes sense within Crysis' canon. In multiplayer, the Nanosuit's stealth and armor powers operate on two separate batteries, not a shared pool. You can cloak and then immediately activate armor mode with no penalty. This wrinkle encourages a heavier use of stealth—armoring-up, bagging a kill, and then cloaking away is a viable getaway maneuver.
What I love about the the ubiquity of invisibility in competitive play is the way it makes seeing and listening necessary skills. The pace of movement in multiplayer—fast respawns, bottomless sprinting stamina—exceeds Call of Duty, but I rarely fall into the tired meat grinder mindset that I usually do in that franchise. It's mitigated by two things: a killstreak system that doesn't shower skilled players with ridiculous bonuses (you also have to earn rewards by retrieving enemies' dropped dogtags), and the need to observe the world around you and absorb every drop of audio to stay alive. The sound design, vibrant and functional as it is in the campaign, clearly communicates threats and events. Footsteps betray enemy positions. Distant, crackling firefights let you know where you're needed. Metagame accomplishments don't overpower the moment-to-moment combat. When you penetrate an enemy's armor, it crunches like a trillion walnuts, an effect that coincides with a shower of neon marbles falling off an enemy's body.
Creative mode design also continues to be a strength. Among eight modes, the stand out is Hunter, an asymmetrical, infection-style game type that matches two Nanosuit players against 14 CELL soldiers. Unless they're hit with an EMP grenade, the Hunters are permanently invisible, with Predator Bows and a bottomless stealth battery. Everyone has sparse ammo. Playing as the prey, CELL, you feel like a bunch of teens thrown into a two-minute horror movie—you're equipped with a proximity alarm, which pings like a paranoid steel drum whenever a Hunter is close.
It's such a wonderful rearrangement of the mechanics. As a Hunter, you feel a ton of urgency, as a CELL, you're balancing the safety of sticking with your teammates against the potential protection of isolating yourself in a far-off corner of the map and hoping you get ignored. There are also massive body shields in the environment that CELLs can pick up. In my finest moment, I cornered myself with one of these as Hunters encircled me. With my doom a certainty, I threw the shield at a cloaked player in front of me, crushing him with it in a final blaze of hilarious sacrifice.
Even with all the praise I've thrown at it, I worry about the longevity of Crysis 3's multiplayer, based on how people seemed to abandon Crysis 2's after release. It's a minor tragedy that people don't seem to see Crysis as a multiplayer game. They still think of it as the GPU-eating titan it debuted as.
Really, it's both. Crysis 3 is launching with the same advanced settings Crysis 2 took months to add. That includes high-resolution textures and DirectX 11 support, and all the effects knobs you'd expect: shading, lens flares, shadows, water, anisotropic filtering, and more. Less scientifically, it looks as good and plays as well as anything on the platform. Every particle effect—from the flash of sparks when you pull the trigger on a Typhoon, to the radial detonation of an airburst arrow—is candy coming out of a piñata. CryEngine's lighting makes mundane corners of the world feel authentic. The score, too, is outstanding, retaining its hints of Hans Zimmer despite the composer no longer being involved. Every moment benefits from the thudding, modern action movie music (that never resorts to dubstep in a search for relevance), songs intermingled with understated electronic sounds.
Crytek hasn't pushed itself with Crysis 3. Compared to the wonderland that say, Far Cry 3 drops you into, its world is low on moments-of-awe per hour, and on the hours you'll spent in it: I finished in about nine. The legacy left by Crysis, assuming this is the last we'll see of the franchise in the near future, is much different than the craterous impact the original game made in 2007. It's still a terrific, dazzling action experience with a core mechanic that empowers you, and ultimately, this feels more like Crysis 2: Episode 2 than a sequel that deserves your maximum enthusiasm.