Crysis Warhead: Time To Go Atomic

October 6, 2008

It’s time to return to Lingshan, the sprawling tropical archipelago where North Korea, the US Delta Force, and some aliens have been trading lead. This is the setting for Crysis Warhead. As a standalone expansion with Crysis Wars as a multiplayer component at $30, it seems like a tremendous value. Does it go atomic or is it a bomb?

Warhead tells a parallel tale to Nomad’s jungle romp in the original Crysis. This time the nanosuit is worn by Psycho, a witty Brit hunting down mysterious cargo that everyone from the Koreans to extraterrestrials want. The story still leaves the bigger mystery of Crysis, namely the aliens, up in the air. Nomad’s plights come through the radio chatter on occasion, while there’s also a more sentimental back story told via audio-only flashbacks between Psycho and a pilot, but this isn’t Brokeback Lingshan Island, and the sappy story doesn’t take. Though new third-person cinemas help extols the action, Psycho’s chronicle is less engaging and epic than the original.

Psycho’s journey takes a page from the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, but add some more guns” book. The nanosuit still allows for a variety of play styles with speed, shields, stealth and strength all begging to be picked for the next battle. Objectives still primarily consist of getting to a designated point any way you want. There are more choke points and linear stopgaps to tackle; though you can still handle the tackling with the tactics of your choosing. Surprisingly, some of the on-rails segments actually standout from the sprawling sandbox wilderness, with clever takes on some classic clichés. Others are just as formulaic as ever.

As an expansion, the game is also a lot shorter than the original. We finished in under five hours, but imaginative A.I. and difficulty levels add some legs to the single-player, while Crysis Wars packs a ton of maps, the power struggle strategic team mode, and team deathmatch, which was curiously missing from the original.

There a few new weapons, but the short length stunts the overall experience. While you’ll have close encounters of the third kind much earlier than the first game, you’ll also get to the part where you lose your arsenal sooner. The uneven pacing and short length are the biggest dents, but they’re not enough to be a full deterrents.

While the overarching journey may be diminished, getting there is way more than half the fun. While Crysis’ core mechanics ache for a kudzu-like expansive battleground, there’s still enough room to maneuver your motives.

The Korean forces feature much more realistic A.I. this time around, and the aliens actively dog you, making them easily identifiable targets instead of ominous shadows. In a nod to Team Fortress 2, two of them will tether together, with one providing fire power and the other a protective shield. The new hovercraft, and its accompanying chase sequence, is also a great gameplay nugget and leagues better than the alien hive from the first game.

The nanosuit is still the star, though. Some escort and stand-your-ground missions will have you juggling the suit’s full array of powers as Psycho struggles for survival. The game does a good a job of not playing to the suit, but asking you to use the suit to play the game. This sort of emergent ellipsis of play is appreciated.

The last year has been kind to CryEngine 2. It runs better and looks better, with tight physics and animation. Not that the occasional floating corpse doesn’t haunt the landscape. Pop-in, draw distance, and the whole litany of graphical benchmarks are dependant on the machine that’s running it. Unlike the original when it was released, Warhead has no problem being played on a run-of-the-mill rig while still looking stunning. Multiplayer is less consistent, depending on the amount of players and variables swarming the server. The musical score is great, really accenting the action. The new in-game cinemas may seem like an odd choice, but they’re done well and as fun to watch as any action movie. Though it does have a bit of the Metal Gear syndrome in that we’re constantly asking ourselves why we can’t play these amazing scenes instead of watching them.

Crysis Warhead is undeniably fun, great looking, and includes a strong multiplayer component—all for $30. It’s also short, and has some awkward pacing. You’re really getting your money’s worth from the multiplayer, and if you can run it on the enthusiast settings you’ll have a great time just watching your machine get a workout.