Crysis came out in 2007 for the PC and it was widely praised for its open-ended first person shooter gameplay and its amazing graphics, even if it did bust a few vid cards along the way. Grabbing it on Steam last month, I was surprised at how well Crysis holds up even 3 years later and I thought it totally deserved all of that praise. When the Crytek team in Frankfurt, Germany, started work on the sequel, CEO Cevat Yerli wanted to take the greatness of the first game and make it fricking awesome for the next one. Before presenting the first in-game demonstration of Crysis 2 to a room full of journalists at the Tribeca Grand Hotel this week, Yerli said one of the problems was that no one cared about the jungle of Crysis as a setting. Palm trees and pretty beaches didn’t mean anything to the gamer. That’s why he decided to set the game in the streets of the most iconic city in the world, New York City.

“New York is symbolic for the pride of mankind,” Yerli said. “If I would pick one city to protect, it would be New York. If the gamer cannot save New York, then no other city can be safe effectively.”

I’ve heard Americans, especially New Yorkers, express this sentiment before, but Yerli himself is Turkish and he is the head of the biggest game studio in Europe. Most of the Crytek team, from the head writer to the art director, are not from the United States at all. To hear them discuss setting Crysis 2 in New York City, where I lived for ten years, as such an integral part of their design was heartening.

“It’s possibly the most iconic city in the world,” said lead writer Richard Morgan, who is British. “And not just for Americans. It’s massively iconic for people everywhere. Everyone knows New York.”

From the first fragments of music heard in the first Crysis 2 trailer – hosted for your convenience above – it’s clear that the decision to set the game in that city had paid off. A breathless child-like voice sings, “Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today,” as we see a poster board spattered with messages of lost children and lovers from an alien attack in Central Park. A soldier wearing the Nanosuit 2 looks at the iconic Flatiron and Empire State Buildings while a group of flying alien creatures, which you might remember from the endgame of Crysis, stage a devastating ambush on American military helicopters. Through it all, that voice sings over plunking piano notes, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere – It’s up to you, New York, New York.”

It’s sad and emotionally evocative in a way that Crysis wasn’t. I couldn’t help but think of September 11th, and how it felt to live in the city that day. The similarity of imagery is not lost on the creative team behind Crysis 2.

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“That was quite a sobering and somber time,” said Frank Kitson, the Senior Art Director of Crysis 2, who is a Brit but has family in the metropolitan area. “It clearly framed our respect for New York as a city. We never wanted to deal in clichés … We never wanted to take a cheap shot, because it’s clearly still a raw nerve shared within our family and others.”

Richard Morgan spoke of the importance of 9/11 that he felt on a global level. “Something that got lost in the bullshit Bush-ite nationalist storm that blew up afterwards was that people on my side of the Atlantic, what we were all saying was, ‘Look, an attack on New York, that’s not an attack on America, that is an attack on the whole human race.'” The whole idea of Crysis 2 boils down to “If the aliens take [New York], then they’ve won. It’s emblematic of the whole planet.”

Kitson said that, early on in the process, his artistic team did look at a lot of footage of the Twin Towers’ collapse and the aftermath, but ultimately the lighting and effects of the aliens and their Spore technology in Crysis 2 differed greatly from the white powder that was prevalent during the attack. It was more essential for Kitson to capture the specific quality of light that is only found in New York, and the technology of the new Crytek 3 engine gave him the tools to be able to accomplish that task.

“If you don’t understand light [as an artist], well you’re either faking it or you’re not really doing your job,” said Kitson. “If somebody, say Cevat Yerli, goes ‘Give me a New York experience,’ it’s got to look right. Then if I want to take that, and make it look like there’s an alien spore invasion, I need to be able to control and deliver that lighting. Then the animation, the effects, all of the other things that go into it, are driven by that core lighting, that look and feel.”

The Crytek 3 engine is such a robust tool that an artist like Kitson, as well as art director Magnus Larbrant, can use a myriad of sliders and painting tools to perfectly match their vision. To see the concept art on display of New York landmarks, such as Madison Square Garden and the Brooklyn Bridge, after the attack and then see the results in a fight near Wall Street during the demo, I have no doubt that Crysis 2 will feel authentic.

The other thing that the Crytek 3 engine allows is for the game to look as great as Crysis did on PCs on current gen consoles. That’s right, Crysis 2 will be released on the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, as well as the PC. And judging by the bit I got to see played, it looks really, really good. It looks so good, in fact, that the executive producer Nathan Camarillo was asked to prove that the demo was actually played on an Xbox 360. “Look at the cables,” he told the inquiring journalists. “It’s all right there.”

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It’s clear that bringing Crysis 2 to the console market opens up the game to a lot more consumers and publisher Electronic Arts seems to be pushing it as a tent-pole title for the upcoming holiday season.

Cevat Yeri thinks that on top of the urban setting, the team had to focus on one aspect of the game which was lacking in the first game, the story, if they wanted the sequel to succeed on a level as, say, Modern Warfare 2. To that end, Yeri hired acclaimed science fiction writer Richard Morgan as head writer on Crysis 2.

If you’re not familiar with Morgan, you should be if you are excited about the future of science-fiction. His novels, such as Altered Carbon, have combined elements of hardboiled detective fiction with cyberpunk sci-fi, or war fiction and sci fi, as seen in the sequel Broken Angels. He received the Philip K. Dick Award in 2003 for his debut novel and the movie rights of his books have earned him a substantial sum.

The predictability of the Crysis story was something that Morgan is trying to alleviate, as well as give the gameplay elements, such as the Nanosuit, its own story line and arc – essentially making the suit a character. For him the experience writing Crysis 2 has been rewarding and, as a gamer himself, he hopes what he’s doing will be recognized the rest of the industry.

“Because so much game storytelling is such shit, I’m kind of hoping that what I’m doing at Crytek is going to set some sort of industry standard,” Morgan told me sitting down outside the theater at the Soho Grand. The level of collaboration that he has forged with the rest of the team is the backbone of what’s going to set Crysis 2 apart. For Morgan, there is no separation between the gameplay and the story; they must be intertwined.

Morgan said that he’s not one of those writers who shouts, “You’re ruining my story!” His response to that kind of mentality: “Dude, your story exists to support the gameplay, if it’s not, then it might be a great story, but what’s it doing in this game?” There must be collaboration between all of the people working on a game. “I imagine it’s what playing jazz is like,” he said. “You’re collaborating with these other musicians and you’ve got to be constantly referencing back to what they’re doing to make sure that what you’re doing gels with that. Of course, they have to do the same with you.”

As for what the story of Crysis 2 actually will entail, the details the team provided us were pretty sparse. It takes place in 2023, three years after the events of the first game. The aliens have evolved (hence the “Spore” that Kitson mentioned) and attacked New York, but no one could tell me if there were still people living in Manhattan or not. There is a military presence on the island, both the main character and an organization called Crynet Security, which is one of your early enemies on the ground, much like the Koreans were in the first game.

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We were not given any details on who the protagonist will be (if it’s Nomad from the first game or Psycho from Warhead, or someone new altogether), but I can confirm that Prophet is back. Whether he’s on your side, or working against you, is unclear. My favorite part of the demo was a snippet of conversation between two Crynet grunts that mentioned that Prophet is in New York and that he’d gone AWOL or crazy or both, taking out an entire Crynet company, Bravo 14, on his own on the FDR.

Perhaps part of why Prophet survived the climactic events of the first game was his Nanosuit. I got the impression that the alien technology interacted with the suit, and that trend continued in the demo with the new Nanosuit 2. In Crysis, you had four modes on your suit – strength, speed, cloaking and armor. That interface is streamlined with the new suit, with the two modes of Hunter and Tank. The hunter involves cloaking, stealth and speed, while the tank setting offers better armor and additional strength. Also new in Crysis 2 is the ability to upgrade your suit over the course of the game. The Crytek team kept details pretty close to the chest, only confirming that each player will start with the same abilities but those will diverge greatly from the abilities players will have access to at the end. Whether that means branching tech trees, a leveling up or purchasing system is up for speculation. One thing I can confirm is that the HUD is completely different, with a more organic green color that feels like it is projected onto the visor of your suit.

Despite all of these updates, the game played similar to the first one. You can choose to stealth and take out enemies slowly or go in guns blazing. You can destroy pretty much everything you see, blowing up cars or smashing down lampposts with reckless abandon. The guns available seemed the same, with one notable exception being the much needed grenade launcher. This wasn’t in the demo, but the executive producer Camarillo, who was actually playing the demo for us, said that as a secondary function, you can stick grenades to any surface, including enemies, and blow them up on a delay or through proximity sensors. That opens up some nasty combinations of stealthing in, dropping a sticky grenade, and then watching the bodies fly. The combat in the demo was fast-paced, with the aliens being extremely difficult to kill.

Electronic Arts is putting their full weight behind Crysis 2 and it’s easy to see why. The technology and the gameplay are there; if the sequel plays on consoles as well as the first game did on PCs, it will definitely be fun. What Cevat Yerli, Richard Morgan, Frank Kitson, and the rest of the Crytek team are trying to accomplish is to push the story forward so that it’s on par with the greatest games of our time like Half-Life 2 or Deus Ex. By setting Crysis 2 in New York and bringing in some top-notch fiction talent, they may just pull it off.

Greg Tito will probably buy Crysis 2 because he’s homesick for New York.

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