Last week I went skydiving with my friends.
We were headed towards the tropical Lingshan Islands, to be specific. After a brief pep-talk on the plane, we took the inevitable leap of faith and plummeted through the night sky. Some turbulence split me from my buddies on the way down, ensuring that I landed alone in the island’s crystal clear waters. Damn. I went for a brisk swim before eventually trudging myself up towards its pristine beach in search of my friends.
On the way a cute little turtle having a sandy midnight stroll caught my eye. I named him Squirt as I picked him up, if you were wondering, before deciding to carefully throw him back into the water to be with his pals. The impact from hitting the ocean somehow killed him–but life goes on. After a short period of mourning for my shelled acquaintance, I crawled under a rocky arch and proceeded to an already-lit campfire jubilantly crackling away. Without question I crouched down on an already-made bench at the fire–not sat, genre conventions wouldn’t allow for that, you see–and happily listened to the lapping of the water against the sand and the nightly cacophony of tropical wildlife.
“Bah,” I said to myself. “I’ll look for them tomorrow.”
Of course, this wasn’t an actual vacation that I had the liberty of embarking upon. It was, however, one very special virtual holiday made possible thanks to a game that, quite frankly, I’d never pictured making such an experience possible.
Yep, I’m talking about Crysis–and I believe that it’s the pinnacle of the sandbox genre.
Last week I had the opportunity to play through the Xbox 360 re-release of the futuristic FPS for the second time, and I was completely perplexed as to why I was having so much damn fun throughout. “I’m playing through a first person shooter campaign that I’ve already completed and… I’m really enjoying it!”, I kept telling myself almost the entire way through. There was no switching of the difficulty slider to somehow make a second play-through more bearable, no determined achievement hunting to somehow soften the keen been-there-done-that sting of familiarity that comes with replaying a recognized title. Instead I selected normal mode, activated the gruff British voice integrated into my Nanosuit–“Maximum Speed,” he suavely notified me–and went off on my tropical escapades.
And how fun those escapades were. Crysis succeeds because it has its cake and eats it too; it combines the jubilant freedom of a non-linear sandbox title with the expertly paced gameplay of a scripted corridor shooter. The player is guided along by an intensely focused, fairly linear single-player campaign, but the way in which that campaign can be interacted with is deeply layered. Players are able to traverse any number of paths in the game’s semi-open jungle and laterally tackle each firefight as either a bare-fisted brute, closeted assassin, aimed marksman, vehicular gunner, or any amalgamation of the lot. And these aren’t simply rigid roles belonging to a “job” system, they’re interchangeable play-styles that can be pursued simply by the act of doing, rather than investing in any single one for the entire game.
It’s for this reason that I soon began to play Crysis almost like a virtual Bear Grylls. I scavenged for ammo when my reserves were at survival horror-level lows, maneuvered through split paths in the dense jungle to gain the advantage, guilefully crawled through enemy bivouacs with my stealth cloak or swam through the ocean with my speed boots to flank the enemy. Crysis achieved this level of non-linearity without sacrificing the cogency of its gameplay and story like so many other sandbox titles do. I was never left to aimlessly wander around and tangentially avoid the main plot by spelunking or treasure hunting, and although I’m not advocating against open-world games, I believe that the tautness of Crysis’ sandbox-but-not-sandbox approach deserves commendation for its approach.
And Crysis’ approach is the reason why I appropriate Warren Spector’s high-concept slogan “play-style matters” to Crysis. Spector’s tagline may refer more to narrative-based consequences proposed to players with his Wii title Epic Mickey, but I think it’s much more productive to think about those “consequences” from a gameplay perspective rather than a plot-based one. Play-style matters in Crysis, because the end “consequence” is how much fun you are generating for yourself, relative to how you play. And sure, more traditional open world games such as Far Cry 2, Grand Theft Auto and Just Cause are often awarded the epithet of allowing players to “generate fun”, but these titles often ascribe their strengths to the sheer amount of content on display, without asking players if they will actually have any fun interacting with all of it.
I’ll pick and choose Far Cry 2 as an example from that list, not only because its progenitor was developed by Crytek, but because Far Cry 2 is as much designed to be a technical showcase as Crysis is. In Far Cry 2, an open-ended, explorable Africa featuring dozens of side-quests, collectable gems and unlockable safe houses bookends what is unashamedly a feature-bloated first-person shooter designed to “wow” audiences. The thing is, Crysis is every bit designed to “wow” us, too. But unlike Far Cry 2’s vapid reliance on its shiny exterior, Crysis’ success lies in its pacing. Each environment or “level” in the title is a self-contained pocket of landmass, tied together perfectly to create a pseudo-sandbox, encouraging players to think laterally and interact with each combat scenario as uniquely as possible. You aren’t overwhelmed with options: Crysis won’t ask (or even let) you go off frolicking for diamonds, shooting secreted pigeons or collecting one-hundred secret packages. Instead, the player’s sole focus is on tackling one single obstacle at a time in a unique fashion, as opposed to tackling multiple repeated obstacles in an insipid fashion.
It’s for these reasons and more that Crysis’ campaign is one of the best that I’ve played through in a long time. Crysis is like that parent that you always wished you had: carefully guiding and able to scold when necessary, but also mercifully lenient and always ready to let you off the hook to be a free in your own little world. Where other shooters are merely content to indulge in the artifices of their scripted gameplay with little consideration for the player’s imagination, Crysis takes a left turn and lets you do things your way.
And I like doing things my way.