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PC Game Review: Crysis Warhead

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Just finished the single player campaign of Crysis: Warhead. I'm not going to talk about the multiplayer component — Crysis Wars — here, as I've not dabbled in it yet. After fighting over version numbers forever in the original game's MP, I never did find a server I could join, but that's another issue. I hear Warhead's MP has a new mode and some new maps, new guns, and other tweaks. Run with that if you want.

Warhead follows the exploits of Michael "Psycho" Sykes, a comrade to the original's main character, call sign Nomad, as well as squad mates Prophet, Jester, and Aztec. Now that I've mentioned them, forget about them entirely. They don't make so much as a cameo in Warhead which is not only a bit ridiculous, it's a wasted opportunity. In Crysis, the entire squad was the crux of the story, and you merely moved from interaction to interaction, blowing away bad guys and sneaking through the underbrush in the meantime. I thoroughly enjoyed said interactions, loved using the nanosuit to undermine even the cleverest A.I., and felt the story as a whole was just that…more whole.

It's not even entirely clear when this standalone expansion starts in relation to the original storyline, though it is supposed to run parallel to it and intertwine with it from time to time (they accomplished the former, at best). Astute players have been nagging over discrepancies already on the inCrysis forums ranging from time passage and general chronology to why none of the other squad members show up at any time in the story.

Case in point, there's a part in the first third of Crysis where Nomad (you) is tasked with entering a village, subduing all hostiles, and securing a hostage being held in the middle of town. Psycho (you in Warhead) announces that he's in the surrounding area to the town and will provide cover during Nomad's insertion into the village. When Nomad reaches the hostage building, Psycho tells him over the radio that he's right behind him, and moments later shows up, cueing a cutscene of the hostage being freed. Psycho then protects the hostage while Nomad goes outside to deal with some tanks that have been called in as reinforcements. Absolutely none of this is included in Warhead.

OK, fine, Warhead's story starts after this point perhaps. That doesn't excuse the fact that this would have been a brilliant moment for fans of the original, getting to play out the same scene where both characters work together, but from an entirely different perspective and working cooperatively, not unlike Nomad's escort mission with a wounded Prophet in Crysis. Sure, an A.I. version of Nomad might not have done it exactly how you did (and who can really play through the same sequence the exact same way twice in this franchise? That's the beauty of it) … so what? Without any banter between colleagues or building on the original story or its characters at all, the story arc here feels detached and often a bit flat.

That's saying nothing about Psycho's characterization now as opposed to how it was in the original. He's still a bit rough around the edges, but comes across nowhere near as brash, macho, and nearly insubordinate as he was in the original. The new boom-boom toys in Warhead's arsenal lend themselves to his "blow up everything" mentality, but that's sort of putting the cart in front of the horse.

Two moments relay anything about who this character is. The first is when he disobeys a direct order and gets all support suspended while he goes off-mission to rescue his "friend" Sean O'Neill. There are murky sound bites relating to O'Neill's origins as they pertain to Psycho, but they really aren't fleshed out at all and wind up tacked onto the rest of the story. As Psycho stalks intercepting KPA soldiers to rescue Sean, we sort of see his rebellious side, though he ends up smack dab in the middle of his next objective waypoint by doing so. So, it didn't feel all that off-mission after all.

The other moment (potential spoiler alert) is the change between how Psycho refuses to kill an unarmed soldier he gets the drop on in a cutscene, then later rather forcefully drowns a disarmed enemy for killing a single random U.S. marine. One marine. Nevermind that Psycho has been mowing down hundreds of North Korean militia. That aside, seeing him go from someone who won't break moral guidelines to the darker cold-blooded opposite was compelling, if not Oscar-worthy acting/writing. Of course, then he's dropped right back into the player's hands, where they might revert to simply using tranquilizer darts on all enemies. Thus is the omnipresent flaw for games, which let players tell their own stories.

The conclusion of the game (another potential spoiler alert) doesn't entirely coincide with the original (though it doesn't refute it either), and also lacks some of the desperation and punch we saw previously with Nomad's denouement. Nomad really had all the odds against him and seemed on the verge of throwing in the towel. On the other hand, just when Psycho's about to be completely outmanned, O'Neill unveils the PAX cannon for him, which takes out all but the very largest of alien enemies in a single shot. It can rip a Humvee in two. It can flatten a building. It's a fun weapon. Too bad you only get to use it for one fight, and it's not quite the crowd-pleaser that the TAC cannon was for the finale of the original Crysis.

The most annoying part of Crytek's original groundbreaking jungle-runner—Far Cry—was the introduction of mutants, who dropped no ammo and were a bitch to kill. They are why I never finished Far Cry. Crytek tried it again in Crysis, dropping aliens into my perfectly happy soup of tearing apart shanty-filled villages in the jungles of southeast Asia, to the detriment of the flow of things. While the story ended up being decent overall and much more manageable than Far Cry, the aliens never stopped being annoying. The same holds true for Warhead, though since Psycho never went inside the alien mothership (a domain known only to Nomad in the original), you thankfully spend less time fighting them. Again, discrepancies in the shielding and overall potency of the aliens in Warhead are being hotly debated, but I'm happy they didn't crop up as much as they did in the the first game.

Length is another concern. Where Crysis took me several days to get through and felt like a more complete product, Warhead can be beaten in well under a day, especially if you don't take the scenic route (get off the train on a second play-through; trust me) or emphasize sneaking over 'splosions. However, for $30, it's hard to complain too much, and there's still a fair bit of replayability. Not as much as in the original, since many areas are cramped and isolated and linear, but the new toys and range of enemies warrant at least one extra play-through. And who doesn't like sitting back in cloak mode, watching the KPA duke it out with the aliens, all oblivious to your presence, while you munch popcorn and wait to collect all the dropped ammo?

If you've not played the original Crysis, despite this being a "standalone" expansion, this is most definitely NOT the place to jump into the storyline. Nothing is explained up front, and you really have no idea what the heck is going on unless you played Crysis, which even then you may not understand a few things here and there. For one, I'm not sure why Psycho was taking orders from an entirely different commanding officer (Emerson) than Nomad did (Strickland). The same goes for the Koreans, who apparently had two commanders on either side of the island, each with their own completely independent agendas. It's not really clear how all this ties together, and the story makes no attempt to do so throughout, even at the end.

Now, that's not to say Warhead doesn't do anything better than its predecessor. New to this expansion is the ability to auto-collect ammo by simply walking over it, rather than having to spot it and manually pick it up like you did in the original. This is on by default in the first two difficulty levels, and off in the higher two. I'd have rather it just be a toggle, though, as I ended up grabbing a 30-round clip when I really only had room for a few rounds in my inventory, the rest going to waste. This also empowers players to wing it and run around like crazy, which may be a good thing for some, but I preferred the more deliberate, selective, stealthy trappings established in the beginning of the franchise. You can still play both ways, more or less. They just made it easier to be a maniac here.

New weapons have arrived, dual-wielding automatic pistols is on the menu, higher grenade capacities, new explosives (EMP grenades disable nanosuits), and vehicle handling has also been improved somewhat, though I don't recall seeing a single patrol boat in Warhead (those were some of my favorite things to take over in Crysis). You can also play it with a Xbox 360 controller, as depicted in the manual. Missing are any missions requiring piloting VTOLs or anything else in the air, for better or worse. All land, no sea or air travel this time. The damage taken when running into vehicles, walls, or even having a barrel tip over on you is still ridiculous much of the time. I was chasing down a tank to stick some C4 on its tail, and when I bumped into the back of said tank, which was driving AWAY from me, I died. Instantly.

Apparently, the visual performance was smoothed out a bit, though I had a hard time telling. Running both games on the same Nvidia Geforce 7950GT 512MB card, I ran the original with mostly medium graphics settings and high shader detail with very few lost frames or stuttering. With Warhead at the same settings, it seemed the whole thing took longer to get everything together to run smoothly. There was a lot more stuttering and freezing toward the beginning of a level or when walking into a new region, bad enough that I eventually had to turn shaders down. Still problematic are the snowy areas, which required me in both games to turn down detail settings to almost nil to get reasonable playability. Seems odd to me that countless fluttering leaves and glossy HDR effects are less taxing to the frame rate than flat, frosty terrain. Also a little weird is that they changed the settings from Low, Medium, High, and Very High to Minimum, Mainstream, Gamer, and Enthusiast. This seems mildly less intuitive, and I don't see why they changed it. If I thought about it too hard, I might feel patronized.

Little things stand out a bit more, like sometimes overbearing glowy sky effects, and some colors are a little more vibrant than before, but overall you're still confronted mostly with lush greenery in the jungle and framerate killing snow once the ice dome makes its debut. This comes at the expense of slightly longer pre-mission load times in Warhead (in my experience).

Another change is that cutscenes are now shown in third-person, not first-person as they were in Crysis. It's somewhat up to the individual, but I preferred the old method, since never leaving the eyes of Nomad made reveals of new enemies, territories, and story elements that much more immersive, as it is in the Half-Life series of games. I felt like I WAS Nomad, and getting to know myself a bit more every step of the way. In Warhead, I found the transition to third-person took me out of the action, made me feel I was merely watching the story unfold rather than being a key part of it. This isn't helped by the fact that not only are the in-engine cutscenes sometimes painfully choppy (depending on your specs, I suppose), some of the coolest moments in the game happen in these non-interactive cutscenes, leaving you to do nothing but sit and watch rather than participate and be the badass you so badly want to be. Another potentially missed opportunity is those moments where someone else's life is entirely in your hands, and you could have been made able to choose to save them or let them perish.

This brings up another couple of issues with the story There are two places in particular where simply using the suit could have changed things drastically (potential spoilers incoming). One is where Psycho is hanging off the bridge by one hand and holding up the marine from plummeting into the river below. Rather than dropping him and trying to grab the detonator, why not activate strength mode, toss the marine back up onto the bridge, then go toe-to-toe with the nanosuited Koreans and the chopper? The other is when Psycho goes…well, psycho on General Lee (not from Hazzard County) and steals his (don't tase me bro!) taser. He drops it out the back of the VTOL where the General picks it right back up again, perfectly functional. As this was one of the few things that really put a vice grip on the safety of someone in a nanosuit, why not again use strength mode to crush the damn thing and drop the bits n pieces, scattering the remnants around the General? Missed opportunities, and could have been good moments for sort of "choose your own adventure" style choices to play out.

The game's got some bugs, too. Once, it crashed hard, offering to send an error report. Another time I was adjusting some video settings and the whole thing disappeared off my screen, with no errors or anything. Later in the game, I actually fell through the floor inside a building, and dropped to my death in the ethereal realm outside the intended game world. I imagine a patch is inevitable. Maybe said patch will get rid of the DRM as well.

Ah yes, the extremely hot and spiky topic of the Digital Rights Management (DRM) on the software. Electronic Arts (the game's publisher) loves their DRM lately, and caught more headlines than they probably would have liked with the DRM in Spore's limited activations and other problems. The same red flags have gone up with Warhead (and people are giving it terrible reviews on Amazon to try to kill it, just like they did with Spore), but here's what I've seen first-hand. First, the Warhead FAQ says you're allowed unlimited installs on five unique PC configurations. This means that unless you change out your motherboard or some other huge chunk of the system's hardware, you can remove and reinstall the game an unlimited number of times on that machine, and any four others of your choosing. Should you manage somehow to go over that limit in a legitimate fashion, contact EA support to get more activations by running an "activation removal tool" they will provide. I recently went round with EA's support over problems installing and activating Battlefield 2: Complete Collection, and while it took a while to get all the info I wanted and their system was needlessly convoluted, they did the job competently more or less. I'm not terribly worried about them trying to screw me over on activations or installations.

The actual process of installing Warhead took a while (5GB+ to install, I'm not surprised), and the "activation" took place immediately after the installation, all automated. I had to put in the CD serial key during the installation, something Crytek said wouldn't be required except for online play, but I don't really care since I have to do that with most games anyway.

The more troubling thing is that SecuROM 7 supposedly installs silently with the game. Opinions of the program run from "I'm annoyed that it's there, but it doesn't really do much" to "OMG, it's the next StarForce!" which was a bit of disc anti-copy software reported to have damaged CD- and DVD-ROM drives of users. StarForce gained such negative notoriety and so many boycotts were put against products that employed it that publishers finally caved and stopped dealing with the StarForce DRM entirely.

I contacted Crytek directly about whether SecuROM was included with the installation, but they have yet to get back to me. This could easily be viewed as "them not talking about it because it's true," but I'm not so quick to judge. For one, as I understand it, previous iterations of SecuROM were largely used to check that the user had a valid play disc, either a CD or DVD, in the drive before it would allow the game to run. However, once activated, Warhead doesn't require the disc to be in the drive at all after that. I haven't taken it out of the case even once since I installed. Hence, why would they even need SecuROM?

The online activation process with Battlefield 2 seemed to take care of any concerns of piracy there, and nothing has flinched on my system since either game has been installed. Are the anti-DRM people getting in an uproar over nothing? I can't say definitively, but I've had no problems. A search of my registry did find some SecuROM 7x entries, though I can't swear whether they were there or not prior to installing Warhead, and nothing within the keys links it to this game specifically (registry keys from an older version of SecuROM linked Tribes: Vengeance clearly to it on another system). It's also not showing up as a service running on my system, and I can't find any files named "uaservice" anywhere. I haven't rebooted or anything between the time I stopped playing Warhead and I wrote this, either. So either it's not there, or they radically modified how it works. Do with that info what you will.

Really, Crysis: Warhead is more of the same with minor tweaks here and there. If you liked the game play of Crysis and have a machine that can run it well, by all means, check out Warhead. It's $30 to start, and will only get cheaper, and can be purchased at retail or digitally through a service like Steam. Whether or not you want to contend with any potential problems down the road due to the DRM is entirely your call, though I'm not worried about it in this case. I basically got what I wanted from Warhead's single player campaign and enjoyed the new tweaks and content, though I felt it could still have been better in several ways.

Crysis: Warhead is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood, Strong Language, and Violence.


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About Mark Buckingham

  • Mark Buckingham

    Speaking of EA and their obsession with DRM, this showed up in a Google ad:

    SecuROM Investigation

    I can’t verify it, and I’m not suggesting you necessarily get involved. Just found it interesting. I’d love to know if this is legit and whether anyone hears more about it down the road.