Looks aren’t everything, but don’t tell that to Crytek Studios, whose 2007 first-person shooter Crysis remains famous for requiring state-of-the-art PC horsepower to run at full graphical-glory speed, and whose follow-up—which, unlike its predecessors, is also available on consoles—arrives with similar claims of unrivaled visual splendor. Amazingly, such claims are largely backed up by this sterling sequel, which transitions the series to the Xbox 360 and PS3 without losing any of its aesthetic luster, and which—more crucially still—delivers extremely solid gunplay and an alien-invasion narrative smart enough to keep to the background. As a soldier codenamed Alcatraz pitted against both invading extraterrestrial forces and a hostile U.S. military, you traverse a crumbling NYC under siege from warfare and a mysterious virus that’s left most of the population dead, a milieu that, in concept, isn’t all that different from scores of other likeminded games. And yet Crysis 2’s appearance is so fantastic, melding otherworldly sights with a stunningly realistic vision of collapsing Manhattan—all of it bolstered by a blockbuster-cinema patina (original Hans Zimmer theme included) which avoids wink-wink corniness—that the largely standard mechanics at its core prove a non-issue.
Vehicular sequences and cataclysmic events diversify the action, but if Crysis 2 differentiates itself in terms of gameplay, it’s via your hero’s nanosuit, a symbiotic outfit that affords a scanning visor as well as three temporary, rechargeable superpowers: stealth, strength, and armor. As with spacious level design that allows for multiple strategies, these enhancements allow players to choose the style of their own adventure, though regardless of how one approaches skirmishes, the nanosuit’s Predator-style camouflage significantly improves cover-and-fire dynamics, allowing for protection in the wide open but requiring one to constantly be aware of cover spots for when the ability’s energy fully depletes. In terms of actual combat, the disappointingly average array of firearms is helped by constant customization options for both your guns and suit. There’s no getting around the fact that, for all its audio-video beauty and genre-template tweaks, Crytek’s sequel remains a highly polished, largely linear FPS. Still, if familiarity occasionally breeds disenchantment, the game’s design is so sharp as to at least refine clichés, be it through a story that refuses to bog down in ponderous speechifying, to a refusal to ever exit the first-person view, so that everything from menus to scripted sequences are viewed through Alcatraz’s eyes, thus maintaining (and heightening) one’s sense of immersion.
A few technical shortcomings occasionally spoil the game’s fully realized fantasy, most notably uneven AI and enemies who ceaselessly sprint into stationary objects, and the game’s refusal to actually give Alcatraz a voice (like Halo’s Master Chief, he’s a silent proxy for the player) feels awkward considering the number of instances in which a response from your hero seems warranted. De rigueur multiplayer is also available for those who want to frag online competitors, providing a variety of modes that are solid but tread no new terrain, and are somewhat lopsided as a result of the nanosuit camouflage’s effectiveness. Unlike so many of its peers, Crysis 2’s richest offering is its single-player campaign, which—running longer than 10 hours, and rarely allowing more than a transitional second or two to catch one’s breath—has a difficulty that engenders a sense of real accomplishment when areas are finally cleared, and a multifaceted construction that encourages repeat playthroughs. Whether battling human or outer-space adversaries, both of whom employ different tactics, the game feels expertly constructed and yet flexible enough to invite experimentation, all while looking so good as to make it a modest gaming-genre upgrade.