Crysis 3 review: Pernicious effects of patience

Crysis 3 distills its story down to an identifiable and simple problem – the big bad CELL corporation controls all of the power on the planet, and indentured servitude is pretty much the only way to survive. The alien race called the Ceph take a backseat for a majority of the campaign, which helps Crysis 3 to avoid the pitfalls of Crysis 2, namely that it was hard to know what was going on if you weren't already invested in the series.

This time around, it's simple. A man called Prophet, clad in a powerful Nanosuit, has to help a group of rebels take down CELL for the good of all humanity. It's hardly groundbreaking narrative, but at least it's something practically anyone can identify with.

The real beauty of the campaign, however, comes courtesy of its sandbox encounters. In each of these skirmishes, Crysis 3 proves a malleable melange of mayhem, a series of situations that adapt to however you wish to play.
Crysis 3 succeeds not only as a shooter, but as a stealth game too. It's entirely possible to sneak through the game and minimize casualties, and doing so is challenging and incredibly rewarding (should you succeed). The same goes for players who prefer to quietly assassinate every enemy one-by-one. The inclusion of the bow – a silent weapon that doesn't force you to break your cloak when you use it – is a big boon to the stealth experience in Crysis 3.

If, on the other hand, you decide you'd rather just shoot your guns until everything is dead, the game will recognize this and respond with a higher enemy count. Backup arrives whenever Prophet has been sighted, providing him with more bodies to gleefully riddle with holes before moving on. It's a simple formula, but an effective one that rewards different styles of play.

Prophet is a mobile powerhouse, and his Nanosuit gives players plenty of options for tackling a given situation. He can run incredibly fast, disappear instantly with his cloak, walk straight into enemy fire with his armor mode active, or he can scale buildings with ease, gaining a great vantage point for some non-confrontational sniping. Each encounter is essentially an entertaining riddle with multiple answers, and discovering your own key to success is a freedom and thrill that most shooters don't offer nowadays.

A major component of solving these puzzles is Prophet's tagging system, which allows him to highlight enemies and items of interest at great distances and through objects in the environment. Whenever you reach a new area, it's easy to find enemies, analyze their patrol patterns and react accordingly.

The tagging system was present in Crysis 2, but the color-coded enemy outlines were sometimes hard to distinguish through walls and other objects – especially grey stone. In Crysis 3, each enemy gets a big, unmistakable arrow above their head, color-coordinated to indicate their alert level. In addition to enemies, you can tag valuable objects like arrows for your bow. You can only carry 9 standard arrows at a time and must pull them from corpses, making tagging invaluable for heavy bow users like me.

Besides, diligent tagging offers a few other rewards, too, if you're willing to work for them. It may take patience to tag a guard and wait for him to cross in front of a derelict car, for example, but the payoff of kicking said car into his face is well worth it.

Tagging is also useful when foraging for Nanosuit upgrades, which are littered throughout the environment. Different sets of four upgrades can be switched back and forth depending on the situation. Once you add an upgrade, it will improve over time as you meet certain criteria during the campaign. For example, one ability allows you to engage cloak faster and, as you use the ability throughout the game, it steadily decreases the amount of energy cloak requires.

The only problem with these upgrades is that there isn't much variety once you have four perks that complement your play style. If you prefer the stealthy approach, deviating from the four available stealth upgrades doesn't make much sense. It's nice to have the option of switching to shooting upgrades if you've been spotted – or just want a firefight – but it can be easy to forget about that in the heat of the moment.

Crysis 3 also brings back vehicles, though their introduction late into the campaign is less than inspired. [Update: The review originally said "Crysis 3 is the first game in the series to include vehicles," a factual inaccuracy. The review has been updated accordingly.] One segment has Prophet racing to shut down anti-aircraft batteries, scrambling across a flooded and decimated New York City from behind the wheel of an armored dune buggy. Unfortunately, what should be a heart-pumping spectacle is marred by poor control. The buggy itself is far too sensitive and stiff, and it will spin out at the slightest turn or bump in the road.

This sequence culminates in an on-rails dogfight in which Prophet mans the guns of a plane, shooting down enemy aircraft while the pilot navigates between dilapidated skyscrapers. The game attempts to hypnotize you into submission with explosions and loud radio chatter, but really it's just masking another standard on-rails turret sequence that fails to surprise. Its execution falls flat, especially so close to the game's climax.

The multiplayer side of Crysis 3 offers a smattering of team-based modes and objective game types similar to those found in Crysis 2, save for two new additions: Spears and the flagship mode Hunter. Spears has two teams battle over nodes, attempting to control them for points. It's kind of a mixture between the Crysis series' staple Crash Site mode, where teams scramble to capture random beacons dropped on the map, and Battlefield's conquest mode, where players fight over established territories.

Spears does a good job of combining traditional deathmatch with team goals. If you want to be the guy who just murders other guys, that's fine – you're helping your team by doing that, even if you aren't racing to capture nodes. It's not a groundbreaking multiplayer mode, but it's strengthened by Crysis 3's core – a marriage of strong shooter mechanics and the powerful Nanosuit, which gives players the same tactical options and mobility seen in the campaign.

Hunter presents something much different. An asymmetrical mode, Hunter has two players spawn with cloaked Nanosuits and bows, their goal to methodically hunt down and dispatch an opposing group of CELL operatives. Meanwhile, players on the CELL team choose from three different classes outfitted with close-range, sniper or assault kits. Similar to "zombies" game types in other shooters, CELL operatives killed by a Hunter will respawn as a Hunter themselves.

Unfortunately, while the class kits are designed to give the CELL team some strategic options, they wind up mattering very little. It's all about surviving as long as you can throughout the five rounds; or killing as many CELL operatives as possible. The inherent flaw in the design is that nothing keeps CELL players from picking up a shield, backing into a corner and hiding while the clock ticks down each and every round.

Any time you're exposed, a Hunter can slam you with an arrow from across the map and recruit you to their side. If, however, they're forced to attack you head-on, and you see them, you can throw the shield in their face, casually walk over and pick it back up – rinse and repeat. Short of four hunters rushing me at once, the tactic was nigh unstoppable.

Furthermore, though Hunters can see the CELL operatives on a map, the verticality of each locale means that finding them is often times more difficult than it seems. The CELL operative could be atop a large building, hiding in the storm drain beneath it or lingering in one of the abandoned rooms permeating the building's interior. The Hunters, seemingly outfitted with every possible advantage in this scenario, become impotent, and matches devolve into a boring and uneventful mess. For a flagship mode, Hunter just doesn't have lasting appeal.

Thankfully, the remainder of Crysis 3's eight multiplayer modes are a familiar mix of objective-based and deathmatch modes that anyone who's played a shooter will be familiar with. You've got Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and the aforementioned Crash Site, which has two teams duke it out on a map and try to capture a beacon randomly dropped on the map in intervals.

There's also Extraction, which has one team guarding power cells while the other attempts to steal them. When carrying a power cell, you only have access to your pistol, so escorts are key. Furthermore, multiple power cells are in play simultaneously, so coordination and team work are equally important. Of all the game modes in Crysis 3, this one is easily my favorite.

Multiplayer features a leveling and unlock system, with several customizable classes for easy switching between game types. At the end of each match you're also able to accept specific challenges for additional experience points. For example, one might require you to kill five players with REX charges in the same match, and you'll have a brief window of two matches to accomplish this goal. It's a smooth top layer of dynamic goals on top of an already robust multiplayer offering.

Crysis 3 is a marked improvement over its predecessors, both from a narrative and gameplay standpoint. It features a simpler, cohesive story with fewer of the constrained corridor crawls and Ceph turkey shoots found in Crysis 2. Even within the confines of its linear level design, Crysis 3 offers a great deal of freedom, allowing you to approach its encounters any way you please, while still making sure you're never lost or wondering where the next point of interest is.

But more importantly, Crysis 3 is a shooter that is comfortable being what you want it to be – even when you don't want it to be a shooter at all.

This review is based on an Xbox 360 retail copy of Crysis 3, provided by EA. Additional multiplayer time was also spent at an event hosted by Electronic Arts. Travel was paid for by Joystiq, in accordance with our editorial policy.

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