I'd Spent Half-An-liour back in the frosted glades of Korean-patrolled paradise when the Wizard of Oz's curtain was pulled back on the PC I was using. Despite the fact that I was playing Crysis Warhead on high settings with a smooth frame rate and barely an ounce of pop up, the guys from Crytek dropped the information that I was playing on a machine they'd bought for the Euro equivalent of $380 pounds. You see, over the past year they've tamed the beast that is the CryEngine 2 and now I was apparently getting high settings from 2GB of RAM, an Intel Core 2 Duo E6750 processor and an NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT video card.
Sure, it's a fairly decent rig, but aspiration-wise it's a hell of a lot more realistic for the average gamer. Crytek are dead set on taking their game away from the PC elite and turning it into the people's plaything. Viva la Revolution!
"When we started doing Crysis, being the tech-happy company we are, we started working with the latest and greatest in technology that we could get our hands on,'' explains senior game designer Bernd Diemer. "1 mean we had the first DirectX 10-capable card on the planet in the office, it was fantastic, but it also caused us a lot of pain. We were trying to get our minds around this new technology and we focussed on the ultra high-end part of the spectrum, the enthusiast part, the guys who really want the latest and greatest. This was our focus, and this is where the system specs came from, which were pretty steep at the time of release.
"Now the technology has matured a bit and we know how to use it better and how to optimise it - we've taken the high setting, which is still one of the best-looking games on the market and given it to our Budapest team with a games PC that cost about C480: we just said that was the machine it had to run on.
"What's more, we asked for whatever could be optimised down from the ultra high setting to be put into it as well. Warhead really isn't running on some super-secret ultra-high prototype thing." Crysis was undeniably something special, but seeing as countless PC gamers dithered on playing it beyond the demo because they didn't yet own a super-powerful rig many will have missed its supreme action bubble, washing machine lobbing and maximum armour combat. In the process they will also have missed its somewhat duff final missions, occasionally confused Al and an irritating cockney geezer who went by the name of Psycho. But these are three things that Crytek are dead-set on striking from the balance. Well, almost. Two out of three isn't bad is it?
For a character who cruised straight into the PC roll call of the most irritating game characters at a respectable number 10, suffice to say when this issue's cover ail, featuring Psycho's mug, appeared in the office there was a stir. Still, Crytek are promising a far less apple-'n'-pear eyerolling this time round.
"I know lie's perceived as a bit of a stereotype, but we do use stereotypes as they're fun - especially for people who aren't familiar with Europe. The American market basically," admits Diemer. "But we've now, honestly, put a British guy in charge of making the character. So I hope lie's not too much for your.„ er..." Our more delicate tastes Mr Crytek? "Yes, just that Your more delicate sensibilities. And we also have Susan O'Connor of BioShock fame working on the dialogue."
Problem, hopefully, fixed then. While we're at it, those who wondered if Psycho's accent was a product of the Dick Van Dyke school of pavement art jabbering can rest easy that his voice actor actually is British too - so British in fact that IMDb informs he's been in Emmerdale, Peak Practice and Grange Hill.
With Psycho comes a whole new fixation with all-out action: more enemies, more explosions, bigger guns and far more casually discarded rocket launchers. The cloaked stealth build-up to any assault remains sacrosanct, should you want it to be, but when everything goes wrong (as it always does) the pace of the game and the amount of flames on-screen far outstrips Nomad's more reserved outing. The parts of the island Psycho is exploring are clearly the parts marked out by the North Koreans for explosive barrel storage and parking facilities for vehicles with extra-big guns.
The game itself will cover eight hours, ending with the bit where Psycho greeted you back on the US carrier, accompanied by a captured half-dead alien craft, close to the game's ending with the line "Oi Nomad! Get a load of this ugly bastard!". Meanwhile, it begins with the moment that he was called away from the harbour assault after sniping from a crane gantry. In fact, that harbour assault - with its relentless military bombardment, encroaching dawn and complete open sandbox mentality - is very much the template for Warhead.
"We basically said to the design team - look at this, then make a game out of it." explains Diemer. "We wanted to improve on the pacing and in the assault mission there's a very high level of intensity at the beginning, then it gets really, really quiet, then all action again - it goes up and down."
The plan for Warhead, then, is to make levels tighter, more varied in the number of approaches you can take and to never ever lock you tight in the generic 'gun emplacement' or 'vehicle section' dynamics that Crysis reverted to during its Medal of Honor: Alien Assault closing chapters. You'll never be securely strapped into a VTOL or Humvee without the option to hop out and blow stuff up on foot instead.
The game opens with a level called Ambush - and what follows is a balls-out study of licking flame and the heady aroma of petroleum gas. The amount of military chatter in your ear has been upped considerably, there's more friendlies and enemies on screen than ever before and there's a VTOL pilot raining death from the skies, while you re-accustom yourself to which way you have to point the mouse for your various suit powers. Even better is another new arrival: flittering in the tall grass between frozen Koreans teetering on the edges of frosty craters, there are butterflies that you can shoot out of the air. Hoorah!
Soon enough though, the pilot is shot down and you're sent off to grab his black box recorder and kill everyone who lies between. Around this point an experienced Crysis player starts to see slight differences - notably in the Al.
"Some of the changes we've made are honestly really subtle," explains Diemer as I attempt to tag some distant Koreans while failing to realise that there are five approaching from the bank of trees behind me. "One of which allows the Al to react a lot more fluidly, so they hesitate less and thereby look less stupid.
"In Crysis they were thinking Maybe I should run over there? No... over there? Or maybe I should reload?' They were bogged down by a decision tree. You know, drill sergeants tell every soldier that doing something constructive immediately is better than working out the perfect plan too late."
Korean Al isn't the only digital brain to get a screwdriver set jabbed into it though, a major thing that Crytek know they have to get right in Warhead are the smarts of the aliens. Essentially they're now more like humans both in combat and in the way you approach them - being moved away from the relentless tactic-eschewing horde they once were.
"We started by making a bastard hybrid child of human and alien Al, with the group tactics that humans use -flanking, calling for reinforcements, cover fire," explains Diemer, before moving on to explain that you'll now be able to tag them from afar and plan your assault just as you do with the Koreans. But alien Hunters can't exactly smoke cigarettes, lug boxes around and casually piss against trees can they? How do they act when they think they're alone?
"They're curious about their new environment. They've come out of their ship after, how many years? It's a different world they're encountering, there are these humans running around with this strange technology. When they're not fighting they're curious about what's going on, wondering what the big yellow machine over there is, or curious about buildings."
At which point, presumably, just as their questioning tendrils are poking into the inner workings of a JCB you decloak, fire off a volley, incur their wrath and get killed by a spinning metal blade to the back of your neck.
Now let's get back to the levels at hand: the downed pilot is a chap called Sean O'Neill, who knows Psycho from way back for expositional background characterisation plot purposes. There's a lot of (decent) back and forth about Tucking hell, I knew it... Sean O'Neill!" and tales about drinking beer back in various army placements ("Lovely!") before you have to escort him through the assembled enemy throngs and their conveniently placed petrol stations.
As is the mantra in this second age of Crysis, the vehicle you're initially presented with as you protect O'Neill's jeep has a bloody big minigun on it - but should you choose to pick your way through the bullet hailstorm on foot you very much can. Even if the chances of death are somewhat higher. As ever, the anything-goes mentality of the game conjures up all manner of unscripted celebration - none bettered by myself reducing a hovering helicopter to constituent parts with my rooftop armament before holding its flaming hulk in the air solely with bullet strikes and somehow knocking it straight on top of an open-backed truck containing four terrified passengers. Believe it or not said truck was even sitting next to a large cylindrical gas tank - and I went as far as punching the air when it went up in a ball of beautiful CryEngine flame.
Sooner rather than later, I find myself at a hastily constructed US landing pad on a valley ridge where I drop off my Irish-named comrade - and choose to hang around fending off an enemy encroaching from all angles, taking them down one by one before picking any enemy survivors up and power-throwing them into cliff faces -as is so often my wont. Presumably this behaviour not only earned my character the name of Psycho, but clearing the landing area would allow for airborne support in the final stages of the level -a seaside assault on a cargo-strewn base where the Korean's warhead had been stashed for my examination and retrieval. Even though, as was conveyed to me in a series of winks, nods and how's-ya-fathers from the Crytek team, it's highly unlikely for said warhead to be of the military nuclear persuasion that Psycho is anticipating.
Every which way you look in Warhead, there's an exploding barrel and, system requirement downsizing aside, that's probably the primary thing you'll notice when you play it. Believe me, there's no feeling like winging a Korean with a power-thrown barrel and watching him struggling to stand back up while a casket of flammable liquid merrily smoulders a few feet away from him. Destruction and physics objects being tossed all over a sunny seaside are the order of the day - it's a simple mandate, but one that doesn't fail to entertain when placed in Crytek's more than competent hands.
Other vital changes include the menu system being coloured orange rather than green and a new suit voice that's a more sultry, feminine version that the previous two on offer. Another neat detail that'll only thrill Crysis obsessives, is that you'll now be able to set spring-loaded mines in the single-player campaign, should you want to surprise those tracking you with an explosion around their midriff.
Ultimately, what Crytek want you to know (are desperate for you to know, some might say) is that Crysis is no longer a beast to be feared. They're not saying that it'll run on a series of diodes attached to a Casio LCD watch, but it's now certainly far further within the remit (and budget) of the average PC gamer. Tiling is though, that's not the most important thing. The most vital piece of information, and the one that Crytek are most tight-lipped on, are what new animals are due to inhabit the new swathe of island that Psycho will merrily dance through.
As already stated, butterflies that can be shot from the air are a definite. The 'bigger, better, more' ethos means that where there was one bird casually flying far above your head there are now 10 and where there were two crabs scuttling away from the wheels of your jeep on the seashore there are now 20. As for anything else, a glorious return of the Far Cry pig perhaps, Crytek are defiantly silent.
"I'm not telling yet. It's for you to discover," sternly tuts Diemer, "and it breaks my heart when people like shooting them." The petition starts now people, if we start clamouring for goats and monkeys as soon as possible then they might make it in by the time of release. Go to it!
Al rumble in the jungle
Far Cry's focus on NPC tussles gets revisited
Something notable in its absence from Crysis were the Al set-tos between beast and man that made some scenes in Far Cry so remarkably unpredictable.
Thankfully then, scenes of alien-on-Korean combat are going to be commonplace in Warhead- and you'll be able to either wade on into the action or casually cloak and saunter straight past your brawling foes. What with the emphasis now on all-out action, multiple on-screen enemies and opening up the full-scale war raging around you, you can confidently expect these confrontations to be fairly epic.
Another action scene that's a definite involves "carrying around your own action bubble". This bit of Crytek-speak means marines follow you around while everything goes to hell.
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode