Version tested: Xbox 360
If the previous 10 years of video game design were led by the characters we control, this decade is already being defined by what they wear. Not in terms of fashion; aside from the cut of Bond's tuxedo in Goldeneye, style never had very much to do with shooting games. But in terms of the performance-enhancing abilities they offer our avatars, the identity of many titles now pivots on the suits we are given to wear.
Suits transform the man into the super man. They allow us to skid on our knees at 50mph, to leap tall buildings in a single bound, to punch through concrete. They cloak us with invisibility, they toughen our exteriors to withstand the bite of shrapnel and they provide justification for the head up displays that almost no video game can do without.
It started with Master Chief, a faceless cipher whose identity exclusively hangs on his regenerating armour. From here games as diverse as Vanquish, Dead Space and, in its latter stages at least, BioShock have relied on the suits their characters wear for relevance. Stepping into the shoes of a space soldier is no longer interesting enough. We demand rocket boots.
This is threaded into the very story of Crysis 2. The man in the nanosuit, a soldier known only as Alcatraz, is so peripheral to the plot that, for the first half of the game, every other character you meet presumes he is someone else. Like Clark Kent, they don't care about him. All that matters are the clothes he wears, a futuristic weave of technology that enables its wearer to stiffen himself to withstand the blast of a grenade, or blend invisibly into his surroundings. The characters on your side are only interested in putting the suit under a microscope; the characters that oppose you are only interested in stripping you of it.
So Crysis 2 is a game about a suit. But it's also a game about a suit. The mechanics all fall within the triangle of abilities that the silvery, sinewy lycra provides. By default, in 'power' mode, you can run at twice the speed of a man and jump twice the distance. Tap the left bumper and the suit hardens into 'armour' mode, turning you into a human-shaped tank, able to take a missile to the chest and walk away giggling. Tap the right bumper for 'stealth' and you turn into a ghost, blending into your surroundings and evading detection.
This combination of abilities offers the ultimate gaming power fantasy. One moment you can be Solid Snake, skulking behind an enemy till you see the hairs on the back of his soon-to-be-broken neck. The next, you're a Big Daddy, charging forward into the slack jaws of death, cannons to the left, cannons to the right. The wide-open spaces of Crysis 2's New York are playpens in which you can toy with your prey in whatever way you wish using these tools.
For console gamers whose tactical brains have grown fat and dull after so many Call of Duty-style corridor shooters, the opportunity to plan, think and execute without fairground direction is invigorating and sometimes paralysing. The suit may turn you into a God – but you're the one that has to provide the divine inspiration.
Your power trip is tempered by the suit's power gauge. Any ability you use drains its energy and you become a standard-issue human soldier for a few seconds. It's a smart, if obvious, economy - but it's also supremely well-balanced.
For example, while in stealth mode, the power will drain slowly when you're standing still. Start to run and the gauge will deplete more quickly, while, if you slide or power jump, you'll run out of juice in seconds. Through this carefully constructed mechanic, a pitch-perfect balance is struck between planning and being able to react on the fly.
Enemies fall into two classes: Cell agents, those military men hoping to prise the suit from your body, and aliens, nine-foot, hunched, tentacled bipeds. Dead aliens drop firefly-like clouds of nano catalyst which can be used to upgrade the suit's capabilities, dampening your footsteps while in stealth mode, for example, or adding tracer lines to every enemy shot to show where it came from. Each of the suit modes has three different upgrade options, but you can only have one active at any one time, making upgrades a strategic choice rather than a linear RPG land-grab.
It's tough to convey quite how incredible Crysis 2's world looks. It's not strictly beautiful. Rather, this is a New York in the advanced stages of military infestation: makeshift tarpaulin camps, sand bunkers, plastic radioactive decontamination showers and upturned buses litter the streets, making it a messy, uncomfortable place to visit.
But it is a world whose intricacy and realism will cause you to stop and stare long after the first drop of the jaw. The sway of tree-tops; the spray of a decorative fountain; the flames erupting from a burst gas pipe: incidental details that grab your attention for their quiet, shocking realism. Who knows how Crytek managed to squeeze Cry Engine 3 onto the consoles while maintaining such extraordinary level of detail? But this world sits next to Uncharted 2's as the most detailed and well-expressed yet seen on our TVs.
[Editor's note: Digital Foundry reports that frame rate takes a hit on the console versions of Crysis 2, so PC is the version to go for if you have a capable machine. Look out for a Face-Off soon. However, we reviewed from the 360 version and were plenty impressed regardless.]
It's not just window dressing, either. Shotgun blasts bite chunks from thin concrete, meaning that every time you duck behind cover you're weighing up its thickness and durability. Abandoned New York taxis will disintegrate under attack, doors falling off to reveal meticulous interiors. A cloud of dust from a fallen building – and the alien presence in New York only just manages to distort the echoes of 9/11 – forces the use of the suit's thermal imaging, all graphical flourishes that have tangible effects on the game.
For all its realism, there are graphical bugs: tree textures that stretch across a courtyard, Cell soldiers standing poised with their finger on the trigger of an invisible gun. But bugs aren't the main negative on Crysis 2's copybook. Rather, it's the characterisation and story that drag the game back from being a bona fide classic.
Crysis 2 lacks a single character you can like or relate to. The gruff robotic voice of the suit is characterless: cold, efficient, but without charisma. As a result the narrative has an unemotional, technical feel. The closest you come to a companion is the middle-aged professor Gould, whose dialogue never comes to life despite a valiant effort from his actor.
Nobody needs to know why you are fighting the army and aliens to enjoy the ride. But without character, you really are just left with a suit and a set of rules. It's possible to fall in love with a rule set, but it's harder to reminisce about one.
A generous online mode (developed by Crytek UK, formerly Free Radical Design) sees most of the single-player suit abilities remain intact. While you might expect the stealth and armour suit modes to upset the balance of the game with eight players, the opposite is true, injecting deathmatches with fresh depth and interest.
The now-mandatory Modern Warfare experience system is present, but you also earn Power, Armour or Stealth XP depending on which way you use the suit's abilities in a firefight, as well as XP for the specific weapons you used. As with any FPS that incorporates RPG levelling into its online mode, there's a danger that more advanced players quickly overwhelm newcomers, and while each of the online modes can be played with other 'new recruits' (players under level 10), already the gulf between levelled players and newcomers is a marked one.
Each enemy player you kill will leave behind a set of dog tags. Collect three sets before you die, and you'll be able to use a new ability, much like Modern Warfare's kill streak rewards. Whether these designs can sustain the online portion of Crysis 2 for months remains to be seen, but it's certainly a strong first impression.
Story aside, Crysis 2 is a hell of a video game about shooting stuff. It's challenging, facilitates and then demands the use of tactics, and is more generous in scale than almost any other first-person shooter of the past few years. Even on the default difficulty setting, this is a challenging game, and the sparsely spaced checkpoints force careful consideration of every scenario.
The long road through the game, winding its way towards Central Park, lacks variation, but then it was never intended to be a Bond-style rollercoaster ride around diverse global tourist locations. Rather, this was always intended to be a game about a suit, and what that represents. In almost every way that matters then, Crysis 2 is dressed for success.
8 / 10