Microsoft surprised us last week with the backwards-compatible re-release of the Crysis trilogy for Xbox One and Xbox One X. Once again - alas - there's no sign of X-enhanced support for these titles, but what we do get is one of the most dramatic performance upgrades yet, and a chance to revisit a fascinating period of Xbox 360 history.
We all know of the original Crysis' legendary status amongst PC users, and the fact that even today, the game can still bring the most powerful CPU hardware to its knees. But the wider point here is that developer Crytek were pushing the envelope in rendering and simulation in ways that no other game would dare attempt at the time. Suffice to say, when Crytek announced a multi-platform future for the franchise with Crysis 2, there was doubt from all sides. Would PC users be let down with a console port? And did Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have the hardware chops to run CryEngine 3 - even on lower than low settings?
When it did eventually launch in 2011, Crysis 2 - the first of the trilogy to hit Xbox 360 - was definitely a mixed bag. On the one hand, the CryEngine experience was there and the game looked quite unlike anything else on the platform. Aside from various bugs and some obvious, distracting pop-in, it was a stunning visual achievement. On the other, performance was poor, with frame-rates tanking into the teens. And this is where back-compat truly makes a difference. At worse, the standard Xbox One dips to the mid-20s, while Xbox One X mostly hits the 31fps performance target - with only minor drops.
And yes, that's not a typo - historically, CryEngine has had some issues in attaining a locked, properly frame-paced 30fps. The target seems to be set arbitrarily to 31fps, so even on Xbox One X, there is still some residual stutter. Frame-pacing is also off, meaning that frames can be delivered at 16ms, 33ms and 50ms intervals - even in the simplest scenes. Crysis 2 was Crytek's first console title, and it shows, even now, when gifted a vast upgrade in GPU power. What we're looking at on both Xbox One console is an improvement then, but in common with all non-X enhanced games, all we've got to work with is the original code, and it falls a little short.
The Crysis-on-console story continued later on in 2011 with the release of the original series entry, ported to the new CryEngine by Crytek UK. The post-process heavy look of the sequel, its image-based lighting, bokeh depth of field, tone-mapping and motion blur were transplanted into the original game - and we must surely assume that in the back-end there are some heavy multi-core enhancements to get this running in a playable state. With this release, Crytek proved that the more open environments of the original game could be handled on consoles, albeit with a reduction in overall fidelity.
Performance-wise, frame-rates are on par or perhaps even worse than Crysis 2, and there's the same general delta between Xbox 360 and Xbox One consoles - sub-20fps action on original hardware hits the mid 20s on the S, and the high 20s on X. Once again, there's the same bizarre 31fps target, and back-compat gets us to that target far more frequently - especially on Xbox One X. However, once again, there's the same frame-time inconsistency.
All of which brings us to 2013's Crysis 3. Yes, it's still running on what you might call 'lower than low' settings judged by PC terms, but surprisingly perhaps, it is the most performant game out of the entire Crysis trilogy - no mean feat in a world where the PC version still challenges the most powerful hardware of today (albeit at 4K resolution!). Access to lower-level APIs proved useful to Crytek for this one, particularly in handling the fields of grass you'll first see in the Welcome to the Jungle stage.
The end result is close to locked performance on Xbox One X with less noticeable frame-rate drops on S hardware, stacked up against the other titles in the series. Frame-pacing issues seem less pronounced, but there's still the same 31fps target, meaning that the action still isn't quite as smooth as it could have been.
In revisiting the Crysis trilogy on back-compat, it's fascinating to chart the trajectory of the series and the improvements CryEngine made across time as one of the most powerful, technologically progressive game engines gradually found its feet on Xbox 360, with the PS3 versions trailing some way behind. In the here and now, it's Crysis 3 that holds up best on Xbox One - even if relatively low-spec PC hardware like a Pentium and a GTX 750 Ti can hand in a vastly improved 1080p30 experience on high settings.
Meanwhile, the weakest Xbox 360 game in the trilogy - Crysis 2 - has always been a great PC performer, even back in the day on even less capable kit when a Core 2 Duo paired with the classic 8800 GT could provide a decent experience, while a GTX 580 could handily deliver a decent 1080p60 experience. So with all of this in mind, it's Crytek UK's port of the original Crysis that holds the most historical value - it proved that a game that set a new bar in rendering technology could transition onto Xbox 360, and while it's far from perfect, at least Xbox One addresses the worst of its performance problems.
But more than that, as we've said in the past, it's the basic existence of a version of Crysis running on a more modern CryEngine that offers so much potential for an improved PC version of the game, one that should at least get more from today's multi-core processors. Crytek's focus right now seems to be on its fascinating PC multiplayer title, The Hunt: Showdown, which is well worth checking out, but surely at some point, the original Crysis could use a revamp more suited to modern hardware. And a proper Crysis trilogy remaster? Why not?
Over and above the question of remasters or remakes, question marks obviously linger over any future prospects for the franchise itself. Crysis is synonymous with the technological state of the art, and with next-gen hardware actively in development - and arguably here right now via Nvidia RTX - surely now is the time for the nanosuit to return?