Remember Crysis? Crytek's lavish hymn to frozen jungles, nano-machine upgrades and casual illiteracy was the game that gave you a whole archipelago to mess around in, rendered down to the last grain of sand. It was the game that was meant to push graphics technology so far into the future that most PCs would burst into flames the moment you put the disk in the drive. And it's also the game that, less than a year after its release, is already getting a follow-up.
Even by publisher EA's standards, this is something of an achievement. Surely serving up foliage-heavy tropical mayhem on a yearly basis is rather different to grinding another product out of the Madden machine? In fact, the speed with which Crytek Budapest is working seems faintly fishy, especially when you see the polish and quality of what the team has produced so far. Isn't making games of this scope supposed to be difficult?
The explanation for all this may lie with the name. This is Crysis Warhead, not Crysis 2, and while the game is weightier and more considered than a simple expansion pack, it's far from being a direct sequel either.
Rather than take the plot forward, Warhead has decided to fold itself up inside the original narrative and simply tell that first story from a new perspective. This time, it's Nomad's British mate 'Psycho' Sykes who takes the lead, and while the game conforms to the same timeframe as the first title - presumably meaning that it will still suffer from the rather abrupt ending - the developers are using the opportunity to fix a few nagging problems. "When we started making this we sat down and looked at all the reviews and all the things people had said about Crysis and took that on board," says producer Ben O'Donnell. The results are shaping up to be an eerie mix of old and new - the scenery may be familiar, but the action plays out rather differently.
Psycho, as the name might suggest, is not your thoughtful, chess-playing, Times Literary Supplement-reading intellectual - in fact, he's more like an uber-fit Bob Hoskins with a bad mood and a shotgun. While the development team have ensured that the stealth options from the original game are still available for those who want to take things slowly, the new lead's hard-nut temperament has given them an excuse to explore a faster pace of gameplay. In short, this Crysis a lot chattier, a lot more explosive, and - Will Smith will not be happy - far less easy on the swears than the last time around.
The first game was hardly light on action, of course, but it remained at its most comfortable in close quarters, tackling a handful of enemy soldiers in a forest clearing, or taking your time to empty out a small encampment. When things ramped up, the game stuttered slightly. "Crytek were trying to create an open world game, and I think everyone agreed there were moments such as the jeep ride at the end in the original where it was clearly reining you in," admits O'Donnell. "So what we've tried to do is create some really great vehicle sections which are 100 percent open world, and where you can get out at any point, do the level on foot, or whatever."
A chance to play a little of Shore Leave, the second chapter of the game, makes this clear from the off. Our playthrough starts with a request to provide cover for an ally as he heads to an extraction point. We're on a smoky forest roadway, tooling along in an ASV - a new vehicle that looks like a Hummer mated with a futuristic egg box, and can chew through forestry with its roof-mounted machine gun. Escort missions traditionally provide all the fun of getting locked out of your house, naked, on the same night your neighbours are having a barbecue, but for once we don't really have time to complain, due to the sheer mayhem going on around us. Radio voices bark orders in our ear, artillery rounds are shredding the jungle, and there are roadblocks to smash through, murderous soldiers coming at us from all around, and pretty explosions snorting chunks of flaming debris into the air.
And although the presence of the road itself means that only an idiot could get lost (we got lost, twice), there really is no hard and fast rules on how to play. It's probably best to simply put your foot down and race to the extraction point as fast as you can, but you're free to do whatever you like: take things more slowly and relish every firefight, head off road and squish the enemy under-wheel, or even ditch the car entirely and slog your way to safety on foot. The game is still beautiful (foliage sways in the wind, misty mountains rise in the distance, and the fireballs look like they've been lovingly dabbed into existence by Claude Monet) but this time Crysis delivers a scale of conflict that the original could only truly handle when it (gently) put you on rails.
With our ally safely at the extraction point, we head for a nearby harbour. The objective here is to download something or other (probably two-for-one Wagamama vouchers) from an enemy terminal, but for us it's a chance to see a few more of Warhead's new tricks up close, as we fight our way from one building to the next. There are subtle changes, such as the ability to automatically pick up ammo as you move over it, and more noticeable ones, with entirely new weapons like the grenade launcher and twin-wielded SMGs. Large or small, every new idea seems carefully calibrated to speed up the pace of the game, and make the encounters more explosive.
The original nanosuit powers remain unchanged, however, and success in the heat of battle still turns on the speed and imagination with which you can chain your skills together - getting close with stealth and switching to strength to dish out some quick violence before dashing off to safety again at double speed, for instance.
Equally, the game's environment remains as destructible as it is beautiful, and in the middle of a more intense skirmish, with barrels exploding, trees flying through the air and the physics engine getting a real workout, it seems like business as usual. Like Valve, Crytek know how to turn a single object into a set-piece, and there are opportunities for improvisation everywhere: a huge wooden spool of wire from a container ship provides a useful refuge, then switches to moving cover once you realise you can set it in motion, and finally becomes a weapon, as it picks up speed rolling downhill.
The North Koreans we fought seemed slightly smarter this time around, more eager to flank, and happy to fall back and regroup, but a big question still remains over whether this Crysis will suffer like the original when the aliens eventually enter the mix. "We've definitely spent a lot of time and effort working on the alien AI," says O'Donnell, who admits it was one of the main problems with the first game. "What we've tried to do is make them feel more human this time. We've incorporated some of the human AI values in there. They're reacting to your actions: if you throw a grenade, they'll evade it, they'll try and flank you, and it makes the experience more intelligent than just firing at these guys who run across the screen."
With multiplayer slotting in alongside the main campaign, Crytek is clearly hoping that Warhead's generous content, along with a budget price point, will lure in those who stayed away the first time, scared off by the minimum specs. "We got a bad rap in the community because of that. But actually it wasn't nearly as bad as anybody thought, which is what we're trying to make clear now," says O'Donnell.
"The technology's caught up, and it's cheaper to get a decent system." EA is currently unwilling to divulge how much the specs have changed since the original game, however, and the publisher is equally tight-lipped on what kind of copy protection will be in place. Given the effect illegal downloads had on the first game's sales, you can probably expect something involving retinal scans and blood samples.
There are many who argue that there's something perilously old-fashioned about Crytek's fixation with brand new technology. While it's never likely to turn off DirectX 10 and start churning out puzzle games, it remains a brave move to go ahead with another PC exclusive when most other companies are going multi-platform. A console Crysis is inevitable - and there are still genuine sequels planned - but for the time being, whether you view Warhead as a shallow cash-in or pure fan service, what we've seen so far suggests it's still more than enough to make many console gamers slightly jealous.
Crysis Warhead is due out on PC this autumn.