Crysis Warhead

December 5, 2008

If Crysis Warhead has taught me one thing, it is that I should avoid playing on a game’s hardest difficulty setting at all costs. I’ve been taught this lesson before, more sternly than I was taught this time in fact, by Call of Duty 4, where Veteran difficulty brought me no end of stress and frustration. Alas, I am a forgetful fool, and so it was that on a Saturday morning whim many weeks ago, with Warhead installed on Steam, I set aside that lesson, and chose instead to (pigheadedly) play on ‘Delta’.

How I have come to regret that decision—though not immediately at the start of the game as one might have expected. Warhead is a deceptive mistress, in that it starts at a light but brisk pace, once again dumping the player on a tropical island occupied by the Korean People’s Army (KPA) in the year 2020. The player character Michael ‘Psycho’ Sykes, is as effortlessly detestable as he is tediously dull—if you’re like me you’ll take against him instantly. But as was the case playing as ‘Nomad’ (a far more agreeable silent-but-deadly type) in Crysis, what sets you strides ahead of the low-ranking Koreans in combat isn’t your badly conceived one-liners; it’s your ultra high-tech nanosuit.

Crysis Warhead screenshot

Up until about half-way through the game, things are peachy. The nanosuit’s cocktail of maximum strength, speed, and armour, in addition to the cloak mode, is lethal. The suit’s batteries still drain rapidly (though less rapidly than with Nomad’s suit), but there’s more than enough power to cruise through enemy encampments with ease. Many’s the time I’ve decloaked into strength mode (thereby lessening recoil on my weapon) for five second bursts, dispatching entire squads of soldiers before they’re able to react, then cloaking again and recovering my power while hidden behind the nearest available cover.

That’s just my style though—I’m much like Jack Bauer or Batman, if I do say so myself. Perhaps the greatest strength of the Crysis games is that they let you imprint your style of play on the game; rather than the other way around. So, if you’re more comfortable deploying the less sophisticated, but no less effective, tactics of John Rambo or the Terminator, you can forego stealth in favour of rockets, grenades and incendiary rounds, and the enemy will be none the wiser, not least because they’ll all be dead.

Warhead presents a playground of epic proportions. The enormous jungles and mountainous snowscapes (occasionally interrupted by concrete military bases) that completed Crysis’ limited but quite wondrous environmental palette return with hardly a single noticeable change. And the nanosuit only enhances the joyous sandbox-lite theme. But when the better trained quarter of the KPA (including a regiment wearing their own suits) turns up at that half-way point, the shit begins to drift gracefully toward the proverbial fan. The game’s deceptive nature is revealed.

Crysis Warhead screenshot

And you might think this was because of an increase in the complexity of the artifical intelligence, but I’m not so sure. Warhead’s AI is a curious specimen. On the one hand, there’s no doubt it can tax the health meter—there were plenty of stages during and in the run up to the end game where I struggled to survive, having to reload from quick saves time and again. But on the other hand, it almost always looks incredibly stupid.

The enemy are programmed with the fundamentals of locating a target, closing in on that target, and aiming to fire, but there’s no evidence of any form of squad cohesion or coordination. Squads of KPA will happily bunch-up in tight formations, making themselves more vulnerable to well-placed grenades. They rush immediately to the source of any disturbance, exposing their flanks and losing any semblance of a defensive position in the process. And they apparently have no regard whatsoever for the importance of concealment, merrily prancing out from behind solid cover (presumably for a clearer view) and straight into the line of fire, or charging like lunatic jihadists toward my mounted chaingun.

Crysis Warhead screenshot

Simplistic AI was a thorn in the side of Crysis, and it hasn’t been addressed in any major way by Warhead. And it presents what at first seems a paradox: how can enemies be so punishing while simultaneously exhibiting behaviour so suggestive of imbecility? I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not the AI that lies behind the punishment at all, rather, the increasing number of enemies on screen, and the increasing potency (and in many cases, size) of their weapons simply ramps up the damage taken per hit. The enemy just gets bigger and badder, inevitably resulting in an increased frequency of player death—a crude and not at all praiseworthy design approach by Crytek.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only area where Warhead fails to meet the benchmark set by its more glamorous peers. It also fails to deliver in a big way in terms of plot, which might not have been worth mentioning if we were discussing Crysis (where narrative complexity was never on the menu to begin with), but Warhead opens itself up to criticism when it attempts, between firefights, to tell a story.

The central problem with the story is well illustrated by the fact that if you were to ask me to summarise it for you, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. It’s told chiefly through in-game cutscenes, which range in quality and description from nonsensical to dull, and from poorly acted to badly shot. It has something to do with a past relationship between Psycho and a fellow soldier of his by the name of O’Neill, or at least I think it does. You see, I can’t even tell you with certainty what the subject matter is, let alone go into any detail.

Crysis Warhead screenshot

Frankly it reeks of Crytek trying to make Warhead into something more than a plain sequel, and falling down in the process. And it’s odd that they’ve even made the attempt, considering that every other element of the game is entirely by the numbers, sticking religiously to the enjoyable but ultimately shallow gameplay formula of the previous outing.

True, some good work has been done on the technical side of things—I’ve spoken before of my appreciation for Warhead’s improved optimization on lower-end PCs—but I can’t think of any other features that would count as even slightly innovative.

With all that said, Warhead’s greatest flaw is its mediocrity. It never grabbed me. It belongs in that cursed category of games that I have difficulty playing for more than half an hour at a time, another recent example being Prey. There is something to be said for giving the player more freedom than they’re accustomed to by opening up the battlefield in the way that Crysis and Warhead have done, but it’s a thin line to tread.

What Crytek have failed to achieve is a balance between creating that openness and building meaningful connections between the player and the game world. The few characters that there are in Warhead are emotionally barren. For instance, the bare minimum of effort was put into portraying Psycho (who you’d think Crytek might’ve wanted to concentrate on) as someone who’s torn between getting a bit angry sometimes (the outer limit of his psychosis) and upholding the Geneva Conventions.

There’s a scene three quarters of the way through where he kills a KPA soldier and then sits down on a rock to cry; incredibly poignant when acted by Kiefer Sutherland in the third season of 24, but pitifully unengaging in Warhead, where the essential preceding character development never gets off the ground.

It’s not just the characters that are impossible to relate to either. There’s also zero emotion invested in the combat, which may sound confused to a less demanding “I just wanna have fun” shooter fan, but it’s a lingering concern for someone (like myself) who experienced something quite profound in the electrifying battles of the Call of Duty series.

Crysis Warhead

Firing your weapon and being able to recognise the resulting impact on your target (albeit in a multitude of ways, some more explosive than others) is one thing, but if the significance of critical events in an engagement doesn’t resonate with the player, those events are demoted to white noise. How can I possibly immerse myself in a combat scenario when the environment so perfectly resembles a playground, when the friendlies around me start opening fire on an enemy I can’t even see, and when I feel absolutely no need to protect my men? It is fun, but it’s not enough for a connoisseur.

And that pretty much summarises my opinion of Warhead. It’s the quintessential action gaming romp, with a twist we’ve come to expect: you get to attack camps from different directions, in different ways, and occasionally avoid them altogether, rather than being funneled into them in a fashion typical of a genre so persistently unwilling to escape from its ubiquitous linearity.

Crysis Warhead screenshot

Do I regret my purchase? Not a great deal. Let’s not forget that Crysis Wars, an offering for which I’ve already expressed my moderately high regard, comes bundled with Warhead. And let’s not lose sight of the enduring fact that, though I probably won’t revisit Warhead in future, it is a relatively solid FPS. It’s just not in the same league as a Half-Life 2, a Call of Duty 4, or a Bioshock. Give it a go if my report hasn’t discouraged you, but don’t expect anything spectacular.

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