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.