Last year, I went to Frankfurt to see a man who could make water flow from a rock. He could do it with a couple of clicks, actually, and then all it took was a couple more to turn the rock into a pile of rocks, and then a small mountain. Finally, he set the mountain on fire. After that, I probably asked if he had a "spawn helicopters" dropdown handy because, y'know, that's just how I roll.
That was my first glimpse of CryEngine 3, and while it was nice to see a piece of middleware so powerful you could edit levels and playtest at the same time - at one point, my guide was dropping little modular jetties into the water as I moved a character across them - the real focus was on what was happening outside of the PC monitor. Two flatscreen televisions were showing the same scene, as CE3 pumped every tweak and amendment to PS3 and 360 devkits simultaneously.
Crytek, one of the biggest names in the PC market, was pretty serious about going cross-platform, then. Somewhere, in the sheltering gloom of a distant valley, I heard Mark Rein cry out like a wounded boar.
A few days ago I went to New York to see what Crytek built with their new tech, once I'd stopped titting about with boulders and helicopters. They've built New York, as it happens, and after that - this being a videogame - they've trashed it rather artfully, sending seams running through tarmac in a variety of rakish angles, buckling skyscrapers in several attractive ways and filling the air with thick ash-clogged smoke, all the better to bring out the jarring bloom of an oversaturated sunset.
You could argue that Crysis 2 takes the battle to Manhattan because tower blocks and shattered concrete, with their sharp, angular edges and friendly heft, are easier for consoles to handle than the unpredictable curves and gossamers of the previous instalments' jungles.
But there's still no getting around the fact that this is one of the prettiest titles you're going to see this hardware generation - certainly on the consoles, and probably on the PC too. The developer's not getting into specifics as to how the game will differ across the three platforms, but Crytek seems to be aiming for parity.
And the results are unlikely be too upsetting for high-end PC gamers, even though I was initially so affronted at the idea of Crysis on an Xbox that I snapped my mechanical pencil plain in two. The areas Crytek's ready to reveal so far - all running on 360 code, apparently - are large by the standards of most FPS games, and filled with brilliant detail.
Blades of smoky light halo the glittering mooring mast of the Empire State Building (ever the uncompromising aesthetic perfectionists, Crytek's designers have stubbornly shifted the landmark south a few blocks, so that it can share the skyline more comfortably with the best side of the Flatiron), while the finials and upper-most masonry of even the most distant buildings look sharp no matter how far away you view them from. City streets are filled with tatters of newspapers and the dust-streaked corpses of taxis, and curbside foliage shreds delightfully under heavy gunfire, busying the air with little twills of green confetti.
Gunfire, eh? It's not the first sign that Gotham's in a bit of a fix. Set three years after the events of the original Crysis, the sequel depicts a world that has been thoroughly chewed up by swarms of nasty aliens. Tokyo, London, and a handful of other cities have already been decimated, and good old Nomad's turned up just as the Big Apple takes a gigantic extra-terrestrial shoeing of its own.
The iconography is standard 9/11 stuff - rolling waves of toxic dust, the odd sneaker abandoned in the gutter, and haphazard photo walls of the missing that ensured that, during the presentation of the teaser trailer, nobody really knew where to look - but Crytek's doing it all in the name of emotional engagement.
"One of the things we learnt about the first Crysis was that nobody really cared about why you were being asked to defend this tropical island," admits the company's co-founder and all-purpose dreamboat, Cevat Yerli. "We wanted to elevate the emotional relevance this time. New York is symbolic of our pride in mankind. If I was to pick one city to protect, it would be New York."
Sucks to be you, eh, Nizhny Novgorod? Although the phrasing makes it sound like something that can be tweaked with a slider, emotional relevance comes up quite a lot when Yerli talks about his latest game. Perhaps that's because the original Crysis is too often seen as purely a technological achievement, its "video-realism" and tangled, tousled foliage making it easy for people to forget that its huge environments were tailor-made for intricate firefights and violent self-expression.
This time, the developer wants a strong narrative at the heart of it all. It seems like an odd idea, initially, given the first two games' brilliant capacity to allow players to tell their own stories (granted, they were generally stories about punching sheds). What seems to be on the agenda is a twisting, sneaky kind of yarn that threads through the freeform set-pieces, giving them an added urgency.
The science fiction novelist Richard Morgan has been brought in to handle everything from the broad strokes of the plotting to the detailed textures like NPC dialogue - during a brief chat it turns out that he's a huge Thomas Pynchon fan, which is a fascinating prospect. The developer is promising a storyline that fills in the backdrop of the rather sketchy Crysis universe, and will also make you care about the events taking place in the foreground. This time, when you punch a shed, you may well find yourself crying.
One of the keys to the story is the famous Nanosuit, now upgraded to Nanosuit 2.0 (which probably just means it's got Twitter support and its own iBook store). Nobody's saying just how Nomad's iconic clobber comes to play a pivotal role in the narrative - and it certainly means Crysis 2 will be one of the first pieces of fiction in which a pair of rubbery trousers have their own character arc - but it's a smart choice, as the suit already plays a pivotal role in the games' moment-to-moment action.
And, whatever Morgan has in mind, the Nanosuit's latest incarnation is emblematic of the approach Crytek is taking to the sequel. While its visual design remains largely unchanged - with its slick black piping and silver cinches, it still makes the wearer look like a cross between Captain Amazing and a really fancy car seat - its uses have been both streamlined and expanded.
The original allowed you to essentially respec your character on the fly, hitting the mouse wheel to switch between options for added speed, strength, armour, or, stealth. It was brilliant fun, but Crytek wasn't satisfied. "We looked at the way people were playing, and largely it came down to two decisions," says Yerli. "They tended to focus on either stealth or armour: they were either a predator or a tank."
Armed with that knowledge, Crytek has swapped things about a bit, promoting stealth and armour to your two basic starting points - on the 360 pad, they're mapped, rather wonderfully, to the bumpers - before allowing you to layer on up to two additional traits at any one time, expanding your options in some fascinating ways.
At this juncture, speed and strength are joined by a new arrival, tactical, which heightens your awareness of the immediate surroundings, picking out distant foes and allowing you to eavesdrop on conversations taking place the best part of a block away. When you start combining approaches, that minute-to-minute richness which always defined Crysis becomes faintly overwhelming: blending speed and strength and armour allows you to become a human wrecking ball, while combining tactical, stealth and strength lets you leap around and get the drop on snipers.
Beyond that, there are plenty of other permutations waiting to be exploited - even before you take into account that, in the finished game, the Nanosuit will also have the scope for customisation and upgrades as you move deeper into the story.
Watching a developer play through a few very brief set-pieces reinforces the potential of the new system, while also suggesting that, despite the change in location, the heart of the Crysis experience remains intact. Regardless of the overwhelming odds and the total devastation, this is still one of those shooters that revels in making you feel tremendously powerful.
Dropped onto a skyscraper ledge overlooking an intersection riddled with Crynet Security (a PMC who provide the game's human enemies - and who, despite the extra-terrestrial threat, appear to be gunning primarily for you), it's not so much survival as wringing out the maximum possible enjoyment that plays on your mind.
Tactical mode picks out a number of patrols dotted around the various rooftops between you and your ultimate objective, and it's a pleasure to plot a course through them, turning invisible and hitting armour to survive a 20-storey drop onto the first enemy-held rooftop before switching to strength and bounding all the way across the street to punch another group of unfortunates into the Hudson.
Weapons go off like short bursts of thunder - even the silenced pistol lets out a jarring grumble - and cover, ranging from solar panelling to concrete trestles of flowers, comes apart all too quickly when the real fighting kicks in. Beyond that, the map is linear but enormously broad, meaning there should be plenty of scope for replaying scenarios as you screw around with the smart enemy AI.
A second encounter suggests that Crytek's finally found a way to make its aliens as satisfying to take on as its human opponents. In the first Crysis, the extra-terrestrials were wafty little nuisances, squid-like knots of cabling and diodes that would float around enigmatically before succumbing to a hail of gunfire, often without doing anything that interesting while they had the chance.
Warhead made them a little more entertaining, granted, but the first proper sequel appears to have rethought them entirely. The ones we're treated to today walk on two legs, for starters, bringing them down to the player's level, while simultaneously making them far more threatening.
"Making them bipedal really allowed us to create an enemy you can get a better sense of," says Yerli. "Just seeing something walking tells you far more about it than you could ever learn from watching the first game's aliens float by. You can tell if they're looking for you now, if they are oblivious to you, and even if they're panicking, and we've given them this steel coating which suggests they won't be easy to take down."
They aren't, by the looks of it. Significantly larger than human enemies, and turning up in devastating clusters of three or four, these new aliens are swaggering bullies, stepping on cars, investigating suspicious corners of the map, and mowing through Crynet soldiers with little trouble.
With huge dark bodies and glowing clusters of eyes, they look a little like Venom from the Spider-Man comics, and success against them, given their armour and firepower, seems to be a matter of quickly closing the gap, separating them from one another and then getting up in their grilles: using the Nanosuit's abilities to transform you into both a tank and a predator, in other words.
It's been the shortest of in-game presentations, but it's already proved the supposedly impossible: Crysis 2 is likely to work as well on consoles as it will on the PC, and with little, so far, in the way of obvious compromise. Whether you care about the story or the bump-mapping, Crytek's latest is looking extremely confident, then. Finally perhaps everyone will get a chance to see what all the fuss is about.