The last time I played Crysis, my computer exploded. This was back when I knew very little about building PCs, and had hooked up a powerful graphics card to an unbranded PSU below the recommended wattage. It worked at first, and I marvelled at the visuals. But then, after about ten minutes of play, there was a flash, a bang, and the faint smell of burning plastic. The screen went black and my brief love affair with the game was over. Crysis, and my own stupidity, had killed my PC.
Crysis was, and still is, famously demanding. Even now, with a GTX 970, I can’t run it on max settings and maintain 60fps. For a game this old, that’s absurd. But that’s always been Crysis’s ‘thing’. “Yeah, but can it run Crysis?” became a joke in the PC hardware community. It’s a game that has the fans in most rigs spinning and wheezing to keep up. But it’s worth remembering that Crysis is also a really good first-person shooter. Well, for the first half of the game at least.
Set on Ling Shan, a chain of tropical islands in the North Pacific, the game stars a squad of elite US soldiers equipped with high-tech nanosuits. These skin-hugging onesies grant the wearer superhuman abilities including running really fast, killing people with a single punch, turning invisible, and throwing chickens into the sea. The villains are the North Koreans, who have occupied the island and kidnapped a team of archaeologists who made a discovery that will, they say mysteriously, “change the world.”
The game opens with you and your soldier pals, who call themselves Raptor Team, leaping out of a plane. It’s night, but you can just about see the island through the darkness as you freefall. It’s a great intro, showing just how massive the setting is. A tantalising glimpse of what’s to come. You land and make your way through the jungle, taking out North Korean soldiers with a silenced rifle along the way. And as you travel, the sun slowly begins to rise. You emerge from the trees and get your first good look at the island, the sun burning orange on the horizon. But then you die.
Crysis is a tough game, and most people will learn this the hard way when, drawn in by that sun-soaked vista, they stumble blindly into the soldiers below—and the gun-mounted patrol boat—and are instantly torn to shreds, even with their fancypants nanosuit. Your powers may be superhuman, but you definitely aren’t. Perhaps this was by design? Because from that chastening moment onwards, you creep carefully between areas of cover, scan the horizon with your binoculars, and try not to bring attention to yourself.
But the genius of the nanosuit system is how it encourages the occasional burst of bravery. Your abilities rapidly drain the battery of your suit, so you can only use them for a few seconds. If there’s an enemy vehicle on the road ahead with a mounted gun, you could sneak past—or you could activate your super-speed, dash through the hail of gunfire, then quickly activate your strength boost, leap into the air, and punch the gunner so hard he dies instantly. Switching between powers on the fly like this elevates Crysis above what could have been a fairly plain, unimaginative FPS.
Using the cloak, which turns you shimmery and invisible for a short time, makes you feel like the Predator. Some of the best moments I had in the game involved sneaking through the jungle stalking increasingly terrified soldiers, picking them off quietly and unseen. If they catch a glimpse of you as you cloak, they’ll fire hopelessly into the trees at the last place they saw you. It’s brilliantly empowering, but the severely limited battery life of the cloak means you have to think carefully about when and how you use it. This balance of weakness and power is masterfully done.
The first section of the game is my favourite. You have to make your way along the coast of the biggest island, and that’s it. That’s your objective. But it’s a long, eventful trip, and along the way you have to deal with soldier patrols and vehicles, optional objectives, enemy-controlled towns and bases, and other distractions. And because of the richness of the nanosuit-powered systems, there are countless ways to approach every encounter. It’s not a fully open world—you’re still heading down a prescribed path—but the feeling of freedom and scale is powerful. Every time I play this section I do it differently, and on higher difficulty settings it’s incredibly challenging.
Apparently someone playing a game will think an AI is more intelligent if the enemies call out what they’re doing. The soldiers in Crysis are constantly yelling to each other about where they’re going or what their next move is, which not only gives you convenient audio cues to adapt your tactics, but also makes them feel genuinely smart. Even if they probably aren’t. Cleverly, on any difficulty setting above normal, the enemy soldiers will speak in their native Korean, making things slightly tougher. I love sneaking up, grabbing one, and watching his face screw up in pain before I activate my strength power and toss him effortlessly off a cliff. I’m horrible.
But the fun doesn’t last. That thing the archeologists discovered turns out to be aliens, and their re-emergence on the island is when Crysis begins to lose steam. The aliens in question, later revealed to be called the Ceph, come in the form of giant squid-things and interrupt the fantastic pacing and flow of the you-versus-infantry missions. The aliens just aren’t as much fun to fight, and a few later sections—including an on-rails trip through an alien spacecraft and a woeful boss battle on an aircraft carrier—strip away the compelling freedom that makes the first half of the game so enjoyable. It turns into a generic first-person shooter, albeit a very pretty one, and reaching the end without quitting due to boredom is a test.
Crysis is, in many ways, a landmark PC game. People remember it as ‘the one with the amazing graphics’, but returning to it, I’m surprised by how fun it is as a game. The opening hours are up there with the best FPS experiences on PC, and it’s a shame the series became increasingly focused on pushing its visuals, its daft story, and overblown cinematic set-pieces rather than the sandboxy shooting. But if you have a GTX 970 or lower and are expecting to effortlessly play the thing on mega-maximum settings now, you might be in for a disappointment. Crysis might be ancient in game terms, but it’ll still put some gaming rigs through their paces.