Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: September 16, 2008
In every good game, there's always at least one moment that sears itself into your memory that you'll want to recount to anyone with the patience to listen. In Crysis Warhead, my moment occurred around the time that I was cresting over a frozen ice wave in a military-spec hovercraft next to a rolling oil tanker as tentacled aliens swooped in for the kill. However, this was really only the first of many moments during which I was awestruck by Crytek's masterful handling of cinematic action gaming. Clocking in at less than 10 hours, Crysis Warhead is certainly a short gaming experience, but thankfully, it's priced modestly to match this consideration. When you take into account the evolution of gaming habits where people are less willing to invest their limited time in 40- to 60-hour gaming odysseys, the 10-hour hit offered by Crysis Warhead is a good thing.
Crysis Warhead is a standalone expansion to Crytek's 2007 game Crysis, and while playing or owning the first game is not a requirement, it would certainly help you to jump straight into the action and understand the finer plot points. The game takes place concurrently with the events from the first Crysis but follows the violent exploits of "Psycho" Sykes on the other side of the island as he fights to save the world from the devious exploits of invading aliens and North Koreans.
Like the first game, your character comes fully equipped in a state-of-the-art nano-suit that taps directly into your bloodstream to give you bursts of armor, invisibility, speed or strength. As you use each skill, your suit's energy gradually depletes, which forces you to use the powers strategically and sparingly. If you're into stealth gaming, it's great fun to turn on your cloak and creep around like a cybernetic ninja closing in for the silent and deadly kills. If you fancy yourself as more of a Schwarzenegger than a Solid Snake, you can use maximum speed to hurtle toward your enemies before engaging maximum strength to brutally pummel them to the ground. This ability to tailor your gameplay style on the fly is a strong selling point and encourages you to revisit the title again to explore new tactics.
Without a doubt, Crysis Warhead's greatest asset is in the quality of its bar-setting graphical presentation. The tropical island backdrop at the outset is alive, lush and varied. There are so many deeply detailed and believable atmospheric effects, like the swaying vegetation, that manage to make you feel fully immersed in the world. Later in the game, the icy permafrost is a stark but equally well-crafted contrast with lazily drifting snowflakes and frozen surf. Then there are subtle effects, like the motion blur when you quickly whip your mouse around or the wonderful heat blur that shimmers hazily off the barrel of your freshly fired weapon. The skill and artistry of the locations create many Kodak moments, where you'd almost rather enjoy the way the sun plays off the sea instead of brutally slaying North Korean soldiers.
But duty calls, and thankfully the mayhem-filled action is unrelenting and highly enjoyable. The great thing about the sandbox model is that you get a fair degree of choice in how to approach the encounters marked on your objective map; you can make an amphibious beach landing from the sea or soften the area by sniping at soldiers from the hillside. You could even hijack an APC and drive it straight into the hornet's nest. The weapons, from standard automatic guns to near future sci-fi models, are all highly satisfying to wield, and there are plenty of them thoughtfully scattered around the environment. One complaint at the normal difficulty level is that the game isn't particularly challenging. There are some exhilarating moments when you're held down by a mounted artillery position and the AI works together intelligently to flush you out with pinpoint grenade lobs and flank attacks, but unless they're clad in the same gear as you, both alien and human adversaries tend to drop without much ado. Of course, the wise inclusion of different difficulty settings pretty much negates this minor quibble.
It's not all wide-open jungles and vast frozen wastelands, though, as the intelligently thought-out level design includes some wonderfully claustrophobic interiors, such as the vast insides of a frozen aircraft carrier and the dark confines of an abandoned mineshaft. Here, the tight scripting of movement and encounters never really feels too linear and works really well to deliver a different kind of gameplay, which is slightly more pressured and also manages to instill a sort of creeping horror through the use of long, stark shadows and judicious lighting. This works well as a refreshing alternative to the more straightforward action set pieces.
Of course, the beauty that Crysis Warhead delivers comes at a price, and you'll need a fairly good rig to get the most out of it. The good news is that Crytek claims to have tuned and optimized the game engine to run more evenly on a greater range of PCs than the first game ever did. While I had no problem squeezing a smooth average of between 40 and 60 frames per second at most times on my gaming rig (Intel dual core E6600, 2GB RAM, 8800 GTX), there were some noticeable draw distance and pop-in issues on the recommended settings, occasional choppiness and some frustrating stuttering during autosaves. On the unforgivable side of things, there were some glaring bugs, such as invincible enemy soldiers with no collision detection and a couple of crashes to desktop, which brought me to the brink of a minor conniption fit.
The dramatic elements are expertly handled through tight VO and well-structured, in-game cut scenes, and the action builds up to a stunning and oh-so-satisfying climax. I did have issues with one thematic thread, which runs through the game and tries to examine the human, emotional burden of war. The Geneva Convention is mentioned a couple of times in reference to dealing humanely with the enemy, and a particularly poignant cut scene shows Psycho wrestling with the implications of killing an unarmed enemy soldier out of revenge. While it was well-acted and skillfully executed, you can't help but wonder about the absurdity of pondering the morality of life and death in a game that revolves almost entirely around killing and is much more Rambo than it is Rousseau.
The constant comparisons to a blockbuster action movie are helped by a rousing orchestral soundtrack, which accompanies you through most of the game eddying, swirling and reaching a crescendo when the action or drama peaks. There are explosions aplenty, which growl and rumble with a satisfying sense of violence; the frosty grinding sound of an alien ice ray attempting to draw a bead on your character quite literally sends chills.
Warhead's online multiplayer component is labeled Crysis Wars and exists as a separate install. It's not sufficiently outstanding by itself to stand up as a unique selling point for the title, but if you enjoy combat on large open maps with vehicles and choppers thrown in, you'll be able to make your $30 go much further than the single-player mode allows. Far more satisfying was the instant-action team deathmatch mode, which spawns you close to different weapons caches and, like the title suggests, leads you fairly quickly into some decent gunplay on close-combat maps.
Like the first game, Crysis Warhead works well because of the imaginative audacity in the level design, which takes you on an intense roller coaster thrill ride from steamy tropical jungles to icy permafrost, all for the same reasonable ticket price. You never get a chance to feel that any location is becoming monotonous or overused, and even though it's a huge, free-roaming environment, the pace and structure of encounters is set up in such a way that you never have time to feel bored or at a loss for something to do. The clear efforts to improve on the first game's shortcomings pay off in a big way, and when it comes to cinematic action shooters, Crysis Warhead is an exemplary game to hold aloft as a challenge to future game creators to either match or exceed.
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