There are aliens out there in the chin-high foliage. You hear the rustling and glimpse a black carapace between blades of grass, but you can’t tell if you’re being stalked by a single grotesque beast, or a horde of them. You sprint through the derelict trainyard, surrounded by lush overgrowth and rusted railroad cars, then vault to the top of a car to get a better view of your surroundings. A disgusting alien leaps upon the car as well–and you gun him down with your electricity-infused submachine gun. The creature erupts in goo, and you scan the yard, looking for more telltale signs of crazed attackers.
It’s a tense sequence in a gorgeous first-person shooter. “Can it runCrysis?” was a criterion for the value of a gaming PC upon the release of the original, yet as wonderful as Crysis 2 looked, it never inspired the same system-crushing awe among PC enthusiasts. Crysis 3, however, seeks to annihilate modern PCs, many of which will suffer under the weight of its “high” setting, let alone “very high.” And you can admire the fruits of developer Crytek’s labors the moment you enter the first level as returning character Prophet. Your buddy Psycho gets up in your face so that you can see every pore and every facial tic. The pouring rain clouds your vision, sheets of water bending the light and prompting you to head to the game’s menus and tweak the settings, seeking that sweet spot between beauty and performance.
There’s no shame in lowering your settings even if your machine can handle most other games without trouble: Crysis 3 is undoubtedly a beauty even on medium settings. Crysis 2 left behind the original game’s literal jungle for one of the urban type. Crysis 3 melds the two, returning you to a New York City where destruction and decay have been softened by overbearing greenery. The private military company known has CELL has erected a dome over the city, turning the crumbling metropolis into a gargantuan greenhouse in which trees take root in building foundations and rise through their stairwells towards the sky.
This mix of nature and destruction makes Crysis 3 look striking; you couldn’t accuse its makers of sacrificing artistic creativity in favor of technology, though like its predecessors, this sequel aims for realism–or at least, as much realism as can be expected for a game featuring high-tech nanosuits and flame-spewing extraterrestrial walkers. The attention to detail is astounding, even in the character models, which is just as well, considering how often you get up close and personal with your co-stars. Only in a few select cases does the camera pull back and let you see Prophet from a third-person view. This means that you always see supporting characters express their anger, fear, and distrust from Prophet’s point of view, which magnifies the tension of various personal exchanges.
Indeed, Crysis 3 tells a much more personal story than the previous games, focusing on three main characters: Prophet; former Raptor Team comrade Psycho; and Claire, Psycho’s girlfriend and communications expert for a group of freedom fighters seeking to take down CELL once and for all. CELL has ripped Psycho’s nanosuit from his body–a painful process that has only fueled his abhorrence of them, and leaves Prophet as the sole “post-human warrior” left to fight. Claire doesn’t trust Prophet, who sees him more as hardware than human, and for good reason: his nanosuit makes him increasingly prone to visions apparently originating from the grandaddy of ceph aliens known as the Alpha Ceph.
Prophet’s connection to this being fuels much of the story, as does Psycho’s seething desire for revenge over those that forced him to be simply human. There are a number of touching moments that spawn from rising tensions–a newfound emotional heft that the series never before portrayed. The final level, unfortunately, is problematic, because it leaves behind the game’s make-your-own-fun structure and requires only a little stick maneuvering and a button press. But you can at least come to Crysis 3 with the comfort of knowing that the game brings the series’ continuing story to an apparent close.
Happily, several hours of entertaining action precede this moment, and it’s the game’s futuristic bow that sometimes drives that entertainment. With it, you zoom in, pull back, and unleash silent fury on the human or alien grunt of choice. Firing standard arrows has just the right feel: you sense the weight of the pull and release, and feel the impact when the arrow reaches its mark.
As before, you can activate your nanosuit’s cloak to hide in plain sight, which amplifies the feeling of being a bow-wielding predator in the urban wilds of New York. Special explosive arrows and those that electrify liquid can also be a blast to play with, just for the kick of finding new ways to make CELL soldiers die horrible deaths. The bow’s downside is that combined with cloaking, it makes the game too easy; you can annihilate a huge number of foes this way without breaking a sweat or fearing the consequences of being caught. It doesn’t help matters that Crysis 3’s soldiers and aliens are not the intelligent type. While they’re not the dunderheads they could be in Crysis 2, enemies take no notice of arrows that land right next to them, run into obstacles and just keep trying to run, and sometimes ignore you even when you’re in plain sight.
You can boost the level of challenge by choosing higher difficulties, and if you find that the cloak-and-arrow method is too exploitative, you can go in guns blazing. Even so, Crysis 3’s battles lack the grandness of its predecessors’. Remember Crysis Warhead‘s raging exosuit battle? What about Crysis 2’s Grand Central Station encounter with the pinger? Crysis 3’s central battles are fun but not as thrilling, and its two primary boss battles are easily won, requiring little in the way of tactics. Certain stretches do a great job of drawing you into the world, flooding your vision with awe-inspiring collages juxtaposing nature’s bucolic touch, the remnants of humanity’s metal-and-stone triumphs, and fearsome alien technology. But the tension such exploration creates is not always relieved by explosive battle.
Yet even if Crysis 3’s action doesn’t usually burn with the intensity of the ceph’s home galaxy, it’s still good, in part because the series continues to hew its own path with regard to level design and structural openness. Crysis 3 is neither a pure linear shooter in the way popularized by Call of Duty, nor an open-world romp like Far Cry 3. Instead, its levels are sometimes large but always manageable, giving you freedom to put as much room between you and your foes as you like. The nanosuit encourages further experimentation, once again allowing you to activate the aforementioned cloak mode (which renders you invisible) and armor mode (which lets you soak up more damage). And once again, you can leap a good distance should you wish to reach higher ground in a hurry.
Stirring weapons into this mix makes for some rousing fun. The bow provides one way to approach battle, but it’s not the only notable method of alien destruction. You can select various weapon attachments like scopes and silencers to suit your preferred approach. The basic guns feel just right: their power is properly communicated via plenty of muzzle flash and recoil animations that give the shooting a kick. A large battlefield patrolled by giant ceph allows you to pull out all the stops, firing rockets, manning rumbling battle tanks, and scanning the environment with your binoculars to mark enemies, ammo stashes, and available vehicles. But much of this action is optional: you can sprint right through Crysis 3’s most intriguing battlefield, getting only a taste of what it has to offer.
Prophet isn’t just limited to using human weaponry, though. The plasma-spewing pinch rifle is the most common alien weapon you stumble upon, but the incinerator is more gratifying to use, especially when you aim it at the meandering alien sentries that equip the same flame-spewing behemoth. Watching these ceph scorchers soak up all that fire before dramatically erupting is a mean-spirited delight. You equip alien cannons and mortars too, and they are enjoyable to shoot because they feel so powerful.
Stealth remains unchanged for the most part, though there are reasons to cloak yourself beyond the gruesome pleasure of a silent takedown. You can now hack into turrets, minefields, and other systems, which often means cloaking and sneaking close enough to your electronic target. Hacking requires you to perform a simple, easy minigame–and while it’s enjoyable to watch a pinger walk into a hacked minefield, hacking isn’t a game-changer. In fact, gaining the assistance of a ceph-murdering turret only makes the surreptitious route even easier.
Crysis 3’s multiplayer modes don’t encourage such exploitation, however, and are an improvement over Crysis 2’s. The returning Crash Site mode provides plenty of entertainment, and is essentially a king-of-the-hill mode with a moving hill. Teams must capture and retain pods that are airdropped in, which keeps players moving around the map. Pods typically drop in open spaces, reducing the possibility of players finding hidey-holes to camp from–and allowing pingers to get in on the action. Indeed, a team lucky enough to nab a mech is sure to put it to good use, gunning down and stomping on their unlucky victims.
The addition of nanosuit powers keeps the flow fast-paced and unpredictable. One scenario: you rip a riot shield from a dropped pod so that you can defend yourself while retaining control of the area. An enemy combatant approached and cloaks, hoping to fill your backside with bullets. He uncloaks and begins to fire, and you rapidly turn and fling the shield at him, sending him flying and successfully defending your life–and the pod. The other modes–Team Deathmatch, Assault, and Capture the Relay among them–benefit from the same mechanics.
Standing apart is the new Hunter mode, which also features two teams in conflict, but with much different results. This round-based mode initially pits CELL operatives against a couple of fully-cloaked competitors armed only with bows. Your goal as a stealthed hunter is to eliminate as many operatives as possible; each operative you kill then joins you as a cloaked hunter. One by one, hunters stalk their fully armed enemies, whose main purpose is to stay alive long enough for the timer to run out. Sometimes, the mode results in CELL members camping out in a small room and running down the clock, which can feel anticlimactic for both teams. But the mode can also capture a unique sense of fear as your teammates are felled one by one, and your beeping monitor betrays the presence of a nearby hunter.
Crysis 3 is stunning to look at, successfully portraying an uneasy partnership of the natural and the artificial. As the story presses on, the conflict deepens and the visuals darken; it’s as if you can feel the evil spreading throughout the city. As a piece of technology, Crysis 3 lives up to the series’ legacy. As a game, it doesn’t reach the same heights. The campaign is several hours shorter than Crysis 2’s, and doesn’t reproduce the thrills that lit up the previous games. Yet on its own terms, this is a full-featured sci-fi shooter that makes it a lot of fun to torture extraterrestrial abominations with the burning rage of their own weapons.