When one thinks of this industry's true tech-driven developers, one doesn't have to think too hard. Count them on one hand — id, Epic, DICE, Valve and Crytek. When these teams reveal their games, the titles often feel more like tech demos than game demos. Last night in San Francisco, Crytek debuted Crysis 3, and it was very much like seeing a tech demo.
OK, it was a tech demo.
So let's be honest: CryEngine 3, which runs Crysis 3, is an in-your-face, razor-edged visual sledgehammer that will wow you. The demo I witnessed didn't stray from the now clearly-understood memes the game industry is known for: dazzling light effects, enormous guns, and even bigger explosions, aliens and deaths. The presentation was a muscular audio-visual display of powerful technology. And demos like this don't come around too often.
But the experience was bigger than just better shaders, more lens flares and bigger vistas. For those who played Crysis for the PC in 2007 or last year's multi-system sequel, you know the Crysis series has always been about setting up new ways of playing. The innovations each of the games has brought, whether they're multifunctional weapon sets or futuristic interfaces and suits, delivers a great gameplay experience, too.
Crysis 3 takes place in 2047, 20 years after the events in Crysis 2, and it returns to New York. The Big Apple has been obliterated, severed and contained. Director of creative development Rasmus Hojengaard explains that in the aftermath of the ongoing war with the Ceph — the futuristic alien race that arrived on earth to eliminate all human life in Crysis 1 — and the ever-expanding control of the international conglomerate, Cell Industries, New York has been sectioned off into containment domes.
Remember the dome in the sci-fi film Logan's Run? How about the Halo in Halo: Combat Evolved?
Cell Industries has developed domes to contain Ceph threats and eradicate remaining alien cells. The drastic cleansing method means that all human life has either been moved out of the nano domes, or wiped out by the alien diseases. The domes also create perfect gameplay sandboxes. "We wanted to go beyond your standard urban war field," says Hojengaard. "The architecture of the domes gives us the ability to create a distinct artistic vision. The domes act like super-accelerated greenhouses, and in each one there are different geographic regions. In this demo we're seeing the swamps. They also tie into our gameplay philosophy."
Our demo started one-third of the way into Crysis 3 in a rainforest dome, replete with croaking frogs that leaped through the level's murky creeks. Called the Liberty Dome, it contains the "Seven Wonders" — a "wonder" represents a different geographical type, such as grasslands, swamps, rain forests, etc. And each wonder shows off Crytek's "AAA" gameplay philosophy: Assess, Adapt and Attack.
Players will slip on the nano suit of the character Prophet, who returns from the dead in Crysis 2 (apparently he didn't die). "We brought Prophet back because he has the most heritage; he's the most layered, flawed, and the most interesting characters in the franchise," says Hojengaard. "He was a good soldier before, but now he's returned to find out what happened to his squad (killed in Crysis 2) and to redeem himself by becoming the hunter, not the hunted. It's the theme of the game, redemption and revenge."
Prophet starts the demo inside an abandoned building within the Liberty Dome and his nano suit enables him to read the new hostile situation accordingly. Sneaking through the shadows, Prophet's gaze identifies enemies, their threat level, and the weapons they wield, giving him an idea of what he's up against. This is the assessment.
Now he can adapt to the situation. Should he run in with guns blazing or pick them off one by one? Prophet's nano suit retains many abilities, the first of which is an invisibility cloak, enabling him to sneak quietly in the shadows — or silently kill. Before dropping down into the swampy muck, Prophet slings his tech bow with a standard arrow and kills a grunt-level Ceph. On the ledge below, he spies three more enemies. He quietly slays them all.
The tech bow might raise some eyebrows. What on Earth is such an archaic weapon doing in such a futuristic game? "The tech bow brings new functionality to Crysis 3," says Hojengaard very seriously. "In the previous games, weapons drained your energy. The tech bow doesn't. Also, you can use it while cloaked, giving Prophet certain advantages."
The arrows come in a couple of different flavours, standard and explosive (and we expect Crytek to reveal more in the future). Moving forward, Prophet sees a new Ceph enemy called a Seeker (or Decloaker), a small, scout hovercraft that can recognise the nano suit and send up an alarm. Silently taking out the Seeker, Hojengaard switches to an explosive warhead and lights up a squadron of Ceph in the near-distance, starting in on the third phase: attack.
The rest of the 10-minute demo featured full-on combat ranging from straight-up headshots to actual melee uppercuts, using assortment of weaponry and attack styles. There were some surprises concerning the new nano suit. In Crysis 1, the nano suit was not a multi-tasking suit. Players had to switch from one mode to another, one at a time. In Crysis 2, the suit could multitask. One of the new features in the third game is Prophet's ability to wield enemy weapons, not an option in previous games. EA hasn't revealed everything about the suit's new functionalities, but it's clear the suit has been infused with alien technology that enables it to adapt to alien weaponry. Crytek's visuals showed how, one-third of the way through the game, the nano suit was having trouble identifying various alien weapons, with confused numbers and tech phrases popping up.
For a sandbox FPS, the bow won't always be useful, so Prophet will have to pick up alien guns. One of them is the Typhoon, which shoots 500 rounds per second (yes, that's not a typo, 500 rounds per second). The other is a heavy mortar, which shoots plasma grenades and plasma missiles.
Another new ability is hacking. After zipping around and kicking the crap out of a bunch of Ceph, Prophet quiets down and sneaks over to a two-story building in the bush and spies a turret. From a distance, he hacks it. As it starts to mow down its own kind, he rushes toward a massive red tower structure, encountering new enemies such as the Scorcher, "the first quadruped in a Crygame," and a Pinger, a Star Wars AT-ST-type walker. "The hacking characteristic gives us a deep and varied level of play we didn't have before," says Hojengaard.
All this splendor, and yet Crysis 3 is still a ways off. Scheduled to appear on the PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 in Q2 2013, Crytek's shooter will likely be one of the last wave games of this current generation. There was no mention of a multiplayer game, although certainly Crysis 3 will have it. We expect to see EA dribble lots of details out across the coming year, with E3, Comic-Con, GamesCom, PAX and TGS coming up between June and September.
EA and Crytek showed off a playable title that, since the series debut with Crysis in 2007, has matured in character and grown in design complexity, has deepened with layers of options and gameplay styles, and continues a path of innovation. It's a tech-driven game, but one that consistently scores high with hardcore gamers. Here's hoping the game remains as important as the tech that's driving it.
Douglass C Perry, former EIC at IGN, is a freelance writer and journalist. You can tweet him @douginsano.