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Much has already been written about the visuals in Crysis. But just how good does it look? This good.
Johnny: I know it's been hyped up and everything, but it does look bloody superb.
Ellie: Yeah. And that's not even running with DirectX 10. The demo bloke just told us this is DirectX 9.
Johnny: What? Really?
Johnny: Oh. [pause] Well now.
We're standing in Crytek's Frankfurt studio, looking at a monitor displaying nothing more exciting than a stream running through a jungle. We can't help it, despite our time here being to find out whether Crysis plays as good as it looks, not just to marvel at visuals.
As it turns out, there's an awful lot of marvelling going on, even though we never see the game - probably the most hyped PC shooter in development - running on DirectX 10 during our entire visit. Which is odd. After all, it's been more than a year since Crytek boss Cevat Yerli proudly demonstrated the difference DirectX 10 makes to Crysis using a side-by-side comparison with DirectX 9. Now we're just three months before release and you'd think he'd want to show the game off at its very best. Why not?
"For different reasons," says Yerli, an instantly likeable chap who'd probably get as much attention as Jade Raymond if more women played games. "We're still receiving drivers which are crashing. That's the main reason. We don't have a stable driver yet.
"Until we get it running on multi-threaded drivers on Vista we don't want to show any more. We're getting performance impact on Vista. We don't want to make Vista look bad either, because it's not Vista's fault. It's the driver right now."
Yerli says he's working closely with Nvidia to resolve the issues and is "absolutely" confident they'll be fixed in time for launch - "We will resolve them in the next two weeks, actually."
But for now, we'll just have to settle - if that can even be considered the right word - for Crysis working on DirectX 9, beginning with the single-player game.
It's a Far Cry
Crysis puts you in the shoes of a US special operative sent on a routine mission gone horribly wrong. In what many will recognize as Crytek's comfort zone, most of the action takes place around jungles and beaches on a lush tropical island.
Comparisons with Far Cry are inevitable, not least, as lead level designer Sten Huebeler explains, because the game's first mission has been designed with fans of Crytek's previous effort in mind.
"While we wanted to show people a little bit of familiarity - players should feel back home in a way - we obviously want to show more of our new tech and how we've advanced. It was not meant to be too close to it: I think when you actually play the game you'll see it takes a different route to Far Cry."
Freedom is a main differentiator for Crysis, says Huebeler. "In general we're a lot more open than Far Cry. For most of the game, you can pretty freely choose your own path."
While open-environment first-person shooting may have become an increasingly crowded evolution of the genre recently - thanks largely to the excellent S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and the impending release of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars - Crysis looks to be rising to the challenge brilliantly. That's partly because each environment is so expansive - in many cases there isn't an obvious path to follow - but in addition to a real sense of explorative freedom you get a huge range of choices when it comes to using objects in the world around you.
Naturally you can take cover in buildings and explode barrels with bullets, but there are more imaginative options in the form of a vast amount of objects which can be used as weapons. As the developer demoing the game informs us gravely, "Even a small banana can be very dangerous." Presumably if you leave the skin at the top of a flight of stairs.
What really gives you freedom of choice is the now-infamous nano suit. A futuristic Spandex all-in-one designed for all-terrain combat, it has four main features, each of which can be turned on and off at will. The default mode is Armour, which makes you twice as hard to kill. Strength allows you to jump higher, kill with one punch and throw heavy objects, including enemies you've picked up by the throat. Speed boosts the rate at which you walk, sprint and reload weapons.
The most interesting mode is Cloak. With this turned on you become invisible, up to a point; get too close to enemies they'll see through your disguise. Or rather, they won't. Obviously useful for sneaking around undetected, Cloak's also handy for getting yourself out of sticky combat situations: turn it on and enemies will be left shooting at your last visible position while you move into cover.
Realists might argue that if someone has the technology to develop a suit that makes you jump higher, punch harder, move faster, live longer and blend invisibly into your environment, they really ought to be clever enough to make it do all those things at the same time. But where would be the gameplay in that?
The nano suit introduces strategy on several levels. Firstly, you can only use one mode at a time. Secondly, you can only use its functions (apart from Armour, which never runs out) for a limited period before recharging. So, for example, you can't just "do a Predator" and spend ages running round the jungle without being seen.
You need to constantly assess the right function for any given situation. Invisibility might get you past a group of guards, but will you make it to the next cover point before the energy runs out and leaves you wide open to the enemy? You could try using Speed to race your way to shelter, but would it be better to choose Armour and take them on? The nano suit is a clever way of giving you choices and making you think, without making you feel like you're playing a strategy game rather than an FPS.
Mass power struggle
The nano suit adds a new dimension to multiplayer too. "Unleashing the nano suit into the Deathmatch experience reimagines the experience. It becomes completely different," says Yerli.
Having tried it out first hand, "completely different" seems a bit strong. You're still running round (landscapes include the obligatory industrial complex complete with iron staircases and a vast amount of oil barrels), picking up mysteriously unattended weapons and blasting anything that moves.
Undeniably, though, there is extra fun to be had jumping way up high and landing right next to an unsuspecting enemy, or turning on Cloak and moving into the perfect position for a close range shotgun hit.
Power Struggle mode is much more original and complex than Deathmatch. Fighting for either the US or North Korea, your mission is to destroy the enemy's HQ, or, if you've set a time limit, conquer the most territory before the clock runs out.
Territory takes the form of bunkers and alien crash sites, which you capture simply by positioning yourself and pressing a button. The complexity comes with deciding which areas will give you the biggest advantage, using a map you can bring up at any time to get an overview of who's captured what and where team-mates and enemies are located.
Strategy, obviously, is key to Power Struggle. Stick together and you've got combined firepower on your side, but you risk leaving positions undefended or letting the enemy spread out and capture multiple points while you're focusing on one.
Weapons are accumulated by earning "prestige points", which are awarded for capturing positions and murdering enemies. Having spawned in a choice of any of your team's occupied bunkers, you can use them to buy guns, ammo and extras such as parachutes and night vision goggles.
It might sound simple, but in practice the learning curve seems steep. The map, so integral to success, can be confusing - icons are small and can be difficult to distinguish. If you don't communicate well enough with your team-mates, it can start to feel like plain old Deathmatch. You seem to spend more time running around trying to find people, hiding from enemies and working out what's going on than following a strategy.
Neither Deathmatch or Power Struggle mode look as good as the single-player game, as you might expect. There were also worrying issues with lag in the version we played - something Crytek has time to sort out, if not much.
FNG or two-tour sarge?
If we're talking about issues, there may be one of length. There are 11 levels in single-player Crysis, and each can be completed in around 45 minutes.
"It really depends on how much time you want to spend with the game," says Huebeler. "We don't hold the player up too much. You have to fight your way through and if you'd like to run through it you can do it in 45 minutes. But you can also spend a lot of time exploring and trying out different tactics."
Apparently in focus tests, many players spent up to two hours on individual missions. This isn't hard to believe considering just how wide-ranging each environment is, how many options you have for side missions and how much room there is to experiment with different routes and strategies.
Length and lag aside, though, the big question is whether or not Crysis will bring anything genuinely new to the FPS genre. The unsurprising answer, according to art director Michael Khaimzon, is yes.
"First of all, there are the production values - I don't think Crysis is comparable to any game out there right now. I don't think people realise how much insane, crazy work it is to make a game at this level.
"People might think we just throw objects in. Every object on this island has a purpose. It takes time for designers to place and think where it has to be, how the eye has to work with it. It's a huge amount of work."
But he's keen to point out that it's not just about stunning effects and detailed environments. "The gameplay is pretty cool. People loved Far Cry for what it was. Now we've taken Far Cry and added more to it, like the possibility for players to play how they want to play - stealthy, fast - and more tools to do that."
Despite the advances, though, Crysis isn't without its clichés. Characters include a shouting Afro American chief and a British thug type who responds to orders with, "Bollocks". The first mission sees you rescuing a woman wearing a vest smaller than something Lara wears when she wants to look slutty. And everyone says things like, "The whole mountain is encased in some kind of energy sphere" with noteworthy regularity.
The review may find Crysis failing to push boundaries too hard when it comes to plot, characterisation or basic gameplay mechanics, but that there are truthfully innovative features, namely the nano suit and the Power Struggle mode. Whatever the final verdict, there's no denying that Crysis's biggest differentiating element is the fact that it looks brilliant - even, as we found out in Frankfurt, if you don't have the very latest technology to play it on.
Cervat Yerli agrees. "I would even say some DirectX 10 games out there won't look as good as ours running DirectX 9. Or as a competitor friend said, "Crysis will be the zenith of graphics for probably the next two or three years.' It's not me saying it: it's another guy saying it."
He won't provide a name. But whoever it was could just be right.
The Crytek visit will appear in the next episode of the Eurogamer TV Show, including interviews, tons more direct feed footage and plenty more. Stay tuned, Johnny fans.