Crysis lead designer Jack Mamais is grinning. Microsoft's game showing at CES is relatively small compared to the insanity that was E3, but the reaction his baby's getting leaves nothing to the imagination. Even in its pre-alpha state, PC shooter Crysis looks absolutely knock-out, especially to the general consumer crowd.
"This isn't even the best stuff," he whispers conspiratorially. "We have stuff that makes this look terrible. It's going to be amazing. I can barely believe it. It looks like photographs. You can get the photos, put them side by side with the engine and you can't even tell the difference."
Describing what's happening on the PC's monitor as "terrible" is enough to induce sweat. Mamais tells us what's new in this build. The last time the game was shown in public was in LA last May (though we caught another glimpse at Leipzig in August behind closed doors).
"We're letting people play it, which we didn't do at E3," he says. "We're really focusing on the suit gameplay in this level. We have full AI, vehicle AI and you can drive some vehicles, so we have lots of great new stuff happening."
The level in question is a North Korean village (the game's plot involves North Korea and some kind of mental asteroid spaceship), and the object of the demo is to clear it of baddies. The code we get to play's designed to show off the AI alarm system as well as the now-famous suit your character wears throughout the game, with careless play attracting the attention of first an armoured car then a helicopter gunship.
"How you fight is up to you," says Mamais. "If you want to be a tank you can get a big gun. If you want to be a stealth guy, you can get a pistol and put a crazy little silencer on there and sneak around."
We get going. Ellie saw a demo of Crysis just before E3 last year where the concept of the power-suit was shown off, but this is the first time they've let people play with it. The suit has three different settings - speed, armour and strength - all accessed by clicking the mouse wheel then selecting a direction once a menu pops up.
The suit modes are what they are. Speed lets you zoom around for short periods set by a decreasing bar in the bottom right of the screen which leaves you walking when it runs out. It also lets you reload your weapon faster, meaning there will be times when you'll need to select speed mode in the middle of firefights to get the edge on reloads before going back to armour mode.
We got told about a very neat trick you can pull with speed mode selected. As in Far Cry, you can swim in Crysis. With speed turned on, you can get up enough velocity to "dolphin" out of the water, select a gun in mid-air and take out whoever needs taking out at the time before diving back in. Practically space age, that.
With armour selected you walk slower, your health regenerates when you're still and you're harder to kill. There are times in the game, we're told, where the only way forward will be to jump off very high cliffs, and the only way you'll survive is by selecting armour mode before you hit the ground.
With strength mode on, you can pick up and throw heavy objects and jump much higher than normal. As Mamais is keen to point out, this takes the play away from the ground and adds a dimension of height advantage. We press the mouse wheel, select strength, jump onto a roof and punch through the panels, falling into the building. He's not wrong. Another benefit of strength mode is that sniper rifles are held steadier.
Strength mode's going to be key to a lot of the game, from the look of it. Under Mamais's direction and still in strength mode, we grab a soldier round the neck with one hand and carry a rifle in the other. You can throw men and slam them into walls. And strength works with everything in the game, so you can throw grenades much further and do funny stuff like strapping C40 to the side of barrels before throwing them into enemies for detonation.
Each time you select a different mode the suit itself takes on a different colour, with its "veins" glowing appropriately. Strength is red, speed is blue and armour's silver. The colouring acts two-fold. Firstly, you get a visual cue as to which mode you're in, so you don't have to keep checking. Secondly, suits also change colour in multiplayer, so you'll be able to see which modes opponents have selected. Shoot the blue chaps: they die faster.
We also get a fiddle with the modular weapon system. Any sight or silencer you're carrying can be attached to any weapon. We kill a North Korean chap and pick up his shotgun, then attach a sniper scope. Useless, yes, but you can do it if you like. The weapon system is accessed by clicking the mouse wheel along with the suit modes. In the final build, we're told, players will get access to tactical bullets, different ammo types, grenade launchers, flashlights and so on.
The other major aspect of the demo is driving a vehicle. Every wheel is modelled, so a shot out tyre means a jeep will spray sparks and the handling will be badly affected. The same works for AI vehicles, so if a jeep carrying three soldiers is coming towards you, shoot at the wheels and there may be a chance it'll veer into a tree and explode. Vehicles can be driven in first- or third-person.
There are some lovely touches in Crysis. When we get into the jeep for the first time, we can barely see through the windscreen because it's dirty. Shoot it out and the pieces of glass remaining keep the dirty texture, but the mountains and jungle trees in the holes are fully visible.
And yes, there are flying vehicles in the game. We didn't ask about m070rb1k3s.
Mamais looks happy when we tell him his game's probably the best thing ever. We know it's been said a thousand times before, but Crysis really does look shockingly good.
"We're super-excited about the press we got in and all the buzz surrounding Crysis," he says. "We're gamers ourselves, so we love seeing it in the magazines. The more the merrier. We hope that we can even surpass expectations."
We hope so too. When's it going to be finished?
"As soon as possible." He's still smiling. "We're hoping this year, but we're not making any commitments or promises at this time."
We can wait. If only to do the dolphin trick with a North Korean.