Do you know what I love about the original Crysis? Apart from the graphics, that is? The sense of freedom. Sneaking through wide-open environments, choosing my own routes through the terrain, preying on hapless guards like a nightmarish jungle legend made flesh and occasionally throwing caution to the wind in Armour mode-fueled rampages. As such, Crysis 2 left me thoroughly cold. Its linear trappings never gave us the freedom to fully experiment with new approaches and tactics, worse, its depressing colour palette was a lousy way to show off a new engine.
Crysis 3 has the chance to make good on its predecessor's failings, however, and Crytek have a bold new mission statement. Yerli and co plan to merge Crysis 2's improved armour system and vertical environments with the enormous, wide levels of the original; all while giving us a sneaky new compound bow, hacking skills and bombastic alien technology to play with. Even the over-used New York setting doesn't seem quite so bad now that the Big Apple is encased in a Nanodome, allowing a lush rainforest to take root amongst the ruins of familiar buildings.
When given the choice between sitting through a twenty minute briefing or actually getting hands-on with the new demo level at E3 2012, I obviously jumped at the chance to get some first-hand contact time. I'm glad I did, because from what I played, Crysis 3 is shaping up to be a vastly superior shooter. Better yet, it seems set to make good on its remit: it's big, fat, tall and stuffed full of choice.
Once sat down in front of a monstrous liquid-cooled rig, Cyborg R.A.T. 5 mouse in hand - my weapon of choice, which is nice - it was clear that the demo level was the same we saw (albeit in a heavily edited fasion) during EA's E3 media briefing. Prophet was tasked with infiltrating a dam and destroying its generator in order to power down Cell Defences in the area, with tactics entirely up to the player. This PMC group makes a return from Crysis 2, and thanks to some armoured APCs, flanking AI and incredibly dangerous weaponry, present a much stiffer challenge than before. The demo started in a wide open creek flanked by high walls and ledges, with a large mesa in the middle and Cell troopers patrolling the base of the valley. After a brief introduction, the gloves came off, and I was instantly paralysed by indecision.
The environment was huge. Not only was the creek itself a pleasingly expansive area, but its boundaries were rimmed with raised plateaus, ripe for sniping and tagging enemies with the visor from hundreds of yards away. The mesa could be scaled to provide a perfect way of bypassing Cell troopers, while plenty of cover and foliage could facilitate some hectic gunfights. Prophet could sneak low through the river bed, avoiding or stealthily murdering troopers on the way, flank right over the high ground to get overwatch on the enemies below. Big, fat and tall. Crytek promises that this sense of scale, along with the tactical options it presents, will feature in all of the levels, vastly increasing replayability while providing unique playthroughs for each player depending on their own personal tastes.
A stealthy approach over the high ground (quietly knifing some unwary guards en route) was the perfect opportunity to try out Prophet's new signature weapon: the compound bow. This silent and deadly equaliser can be fired without breaking your cloak, making it a sensationally powerful terror weapon that neutralises lone guards without incident or puts the fear of God into groups. Using it to create distractions or disable priority targets will be the order of the day for the more nuanced gamer.
However, Prophet will have plenty of nifty toys when things get good and loud. The bow comes complete with a number of alternate ammo types, including a Thermite tip that sticks into surfaces or enemies during a time-delayed detonation (always a crowd-pleaser), and a proximity Airburst arrow that explodes when close to targets. This powerful tool, while rare, essentially nullifies enemy cover: just fire it over the top and let the proximity sensor take care of the rest. An obliging squad of Cell infantry also unwillingly agreed to act as test subjects for the new Typhoon SMG, which fires shreds and tatters of white-hot shrapnel at 700 rounds per second. Nothing can stand against this outrageous armament at point-blank range, it makes even combat shotguns look like pea shooters in comparison.
My silly stealth-breaking Typhoon shenanigans naturally riled up the hornets' nest, causing Cell troopers to boil out of the base of the dam and bring some fixed turrets to bear on Prophet's position. Like the first two games, being caught in the open is a recipe for disaster, but some alien technology was close at hand to even the odds. Prophet can now freely loot Ceph weaponry from downed troopers and supply caches, and these extraterrestrial firearms pack one hell of a punch. An enormous ice mortar allows Prophet to bring punishing indirect firepower to bear while safely ensconced behind cover, arcing four shots hundreds of metres over the terrain to smash open entrenched positions, while a plasma grenade launcher smears its targets into a fine paste. Against this overwhelming firepower, a couple of turrets didn't stand much of a chance, though I could have just as easily sneaked past them, flanked them or silently killed their operators with the compound bow. Again, Crysis 3 lived up to its promise of being both wide and tall, granting players the big fat tools they need to get the job done regardless of their tactical predilections.
Scaling the dam yielded another hugely expansive environment: a labyrinthine assemblage of multi-leveled buildings and catwalks suspended over the surface of a lake. Prophet could ground-pound his way through the cover-strewn walkways, using the airburst arrows, Typhoon and the improved melee combat (it finally packs the punch you'd expect from a cybernetically-enhanced battlesuit) to advantage. He could cloak and leap over rooftops, infiltrating from above, or swim below the facility to emerge onto unguarded locations. Locked doors and AI Turrets can be hacked with a simple minigame, creating new entry points or perfect distractions. Brilliantly, no single tactic is superior to any other, and I thus brought ruinous destruction onto Cell patrols using my alien tech, melting back into the stealthy shadows with the cloak when reinforcements arrived.
It's also rather gratifying to see Crytek injecting some much-needed colour into the proceedings. Bright blue skies, green foliage, red bunkers and glittering azure waters all made for a far more eye-popping demonstration of CryEngine 3's newly-enhanced capabilities, which looked stunning on their monstrous rigs (though nowhere near as impressive on consoles, I'm willing to bet). Lush foliage sways in the breeze, while little ambient animals scurry away from the gunfire. Crysis 3 finally seems to have some real personality that sets it apart from just another gritty military shooter, and is all the better for it.
Of course, I only played a single level, and it remains to be seen whether Crytek will genuinely splice this level of big scale, tall verticality and fat player choice into all of Crysis 3's DNA. But if it does, Crytek may be onto a winner, and a shooter that plays as good as it looks.