on Mar 28, 2011
Crysis 2 takes place in near-future New York. You play as a Marine Corps Force Recon unit nicknamed Alcatraz. You find yourself inadvertently volunteered to wear a nanosuit, an exotic and incredibly advanced bit of hardware that basically turns you into a superhero. You arrive in the city to find it’s being destroyed by an alien invasion. The alien activity underground is causing tremors, which leads to stunning moments of destruction and upheaval.
The story in Crysis 2 is actually a nice step up from the Uwe Boll-level schlock of the earlier games. It’s muddled, occasionally contrived, predictable, and poorly paced, but worse stories have been told about space marines. Of course, you don’t play Crytek games for the story, so it’s not fair to pick it apart. Let’s talk about the graphics.
|Background:The Statue of Liberty. Bottom: Dudes what need shooting. Aside:Wow. The visuals in this game are ridiculously gorgeous.|
Just kidding. Let’s talk about the story. I’ve never understood the, “They weren’t trying so you’re not allowed to criticize it,” defense. It’s true that it would be foolishly optimistic to fire up a Crytek game hoping for a tale full of deep truths, emotional high notes, and thematic profundities. These are games about shooting dudes and blowing stuff up. But the story is there and you spend some hours watching it, so it’s a worthy topic of discussion. Moreover, I think they were trying to tell a good story here, which makes me happy. I’d rather see a developer try and fail than see a developer fail to try.
Crysis 2 suffers from an overstuffed cast of underdeveloped characters. Actually, I guess the number of characters is fine, it’s that the story never has them do anything besides bicker with each other. You’ve got scientist conspiracy-nut Nathan Gould. You’ve also got 2D bad guy commander Dominic Lockhart, Ex-Navy SEAL Tara Strickland, Illuminati-esque leader Jacob Hargreave, and beleaguered Marine Colonel Barclay. Each of these characters represents their own side or faction in the conflict and are frequently at odds with one another. You bounce from the service of one faction to another, pretty much with no explanation.
|Suddenly we find the arm of the Statue of Liberty on the mainland. Was it… ‘thrown’ here by an earthquake? Or brought here by aliens? I have no idea.|
The game commits the horrible sin of having characters harangue your silent protagonist. Valve discovered in Half-Life 2 that no matter how fun or interesting you make an NPC, the player can quickly come to hate them if they badger the player or hurry them forward. (They fixed this in the subsequent episodes, and it made the characters much more endearing.) Hurry up Gordon. This way Gordon. Over here Dr. Freeman. We need to get moving Gordon. C’mon Gordon. We need to get out of here, Gordon. Hey GordSHUT UP. SHUT YOUR PIE HOLE YOU STUPID NPC. I’M TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO OPEN THIS SECRET DOOR.
Every taskmaster in Crysis 2 spends their time screaming in your ear about how you need to hurry. If you take a drink every time someone utters a variant of “time is running out”, you’ll be unconscious before the end of the first act. (Which is good, because the endgame would kill you.) At one point near the end you have two different characters telling you to hurry and and demanding to know what’s taking so long – right in the middle of a firefight. It’s hard to believe these characters are so stupid they need to ask what might be delaying you in an alien-packed, crumbling, flooded city, which is also brimming with mercenaries who lust your blood.
|In the green coat is Nathan Gould, who is trying hard to be The Truth from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. But he has neither the voice of Peter Fonda nor the wit of Rockstar’s writers. His character concept is a solid hook, and in the hands of a skilled writer he could have delivered his exposition with levity. In the end, his character ends up being merely ‘serviceable’.|
Their endless pestering became a constantly ringing phone that I couldn’t answer. It also led to a bad case of intensity fatigue. We spend so much of the game in THE LAST POSSIBLE MOMENT mode that it becomes commonplace and boring to hear about how little time we have left. By the end I no longer felt a sense of urgency. I just felt like the idiots bossing me around were prone to anxiety and didn’t have anything better to do than to irritate me. A little modulation of intensity would have helped a lot.
|You get captured or disabled a lot. Your plot-driven nanosuit will power down and you’ll become helpless. Characters will lead you around and talk about their plans for you, and then the suit will finish rebooting and you’ll get your powers back.|
The thing is, there are the ingredients of an excellent story, here. It has the same hook as Half-Life 2, which is an alien invasion in a big city. Fighting oppression, saving civilians, uncovering the secrets to victory. Thematically, this could all have worked. The guy behind the pen at Crytek is getting better at his job. He’s certainly come a long way from the original Far Cry.
The problem is not with concept or theme, but with pacing and clarity. One character is telling you that the fate of the world hinges on you doing something or getting somewhere. Then another one comes along and gives you a series of completely unrelated objectives. Your character is mute, so you can’t clear up any of the confusion that’s going on, or tell people you have more pressing business to attend to. You just do whatever people shout at you. The characters argue with each other about what you should be doing, like parents fighting over custody. But despite the fact that you’re an indestructible superman, you never get any say in the matter. You just stand there and wait to be told to do something. Gordon Freeman lacks a voice, but Alcatraz doesn’t have his own will.
|You must help these people escape the city.|
The NPC’s spend entirely too much time yattering at each other on the radio built into your suit. Sometimes they hack into each other’s broadcast signals. Sometimes they inexplicably end up on the same channel. Sometimes they’re aware of what’s been said and sometimes they aren’t. They meet, introduce themselves to each other, and bring each other up to speed on events. Think about that: One NPC delivers exposition on what you’ve just done, for the benefit of another NPC, while you listen in. There is entirely too much talking for the meager amount of information and character development being delivered.
To fix this, I would have collapsed the myriad factions into one or two, particularly at the outset. Having conflict between characters is good, but I would make the good guys all have a common goal, and simply disagree on methods. This would reveal the attitudes of their characters without cluttering up the story. Having them meet and explain things to each other on the ham radio in your head is where most of the dialog cruft comes from, and eliminating that would free up that dialog to be cut, or put to better use.
|Maligned in earlier titles, the vehicle sections here are short and mostly optional.|
Maybe it seems unfair to spend a whole post on the story of Crysis 2, but think of it this way: What separates Crysis 2 from Half-Life 2? What makes Alyx Vance more interesting than Tara Strickland? What causes Wallace Breen to be so much more infuriating than Jacob Hargreave? What makes Gordon Freeman an icon and Alcatraz a mere cipher? What makes the death of Eli Vance in HL2 a potent and emotional turning point while the the death of Prophet is a mere plot device?
It’s the writing. That’s all. That’s the magic ingredient that turned a great game into a legend. People are still talking about the Half-Life 2 cast. Alyx. Issac. Eli. Breen. They’re iconic, powerful, interesting, and they feel deep (even though they aren’t) because of the way the game alludes to their lives outside of the gameworld and works in little character details without simply drowning us in exposition.
The game concepts are similar. So similar that I suspect the guys at Crytek are trying to capture the magic of Valve. You’ve got a city besieged by aliens. NPC’s with personal rivalries. A silent protagonist in a super-suit. Some mumbo-jumbo science to elevate the story above “Find alien boss. Shoot Boss until dead.” A self-serving guy who is acquiring lots of power with the alleged goal of helping humanity. An eccentric scientist who delivers incomprehensible techno-babble exposition. A tough woman who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.
The right ingredients are here, it just needed a more skillful execution. A less cluttered delivery. Less telling and more showing. Less exposition and more extrapolation.
In the end, I have to say I’m impressed with Crytek. The story here is clunky, but I see them improving their craft and striving for something better.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.