The journey from left-field innovation to mainstream mediocrity has been a long one for German developer Crytek. The company's first outing, 2005's Far Cry, was nearly a killing blow for the nascent studio. Despite a second act that ascended distinctly into familiar corridor-based run-and-gun gameplay, Far Cry contained dangerously interesting amounts of sandbox gameplay and squad-based tactical enemy AI mechanics.
Far Cry was barely boilerplate enough to give Crytek the breathing room the studio needed to release the thoroughly bland Far Cry Instincts and Far Cry Vengeance pseudo-sequels, games that served to clip the franchise's wings and send it tumbling safely groundward.
Instincts and Vengeance proved that despite troublesome tendencies toward innovative thinking, Crytek could be relied upon to roll over and make nice cash-grabby console ports like a good developer. Unfortunately, this goodwill was somewhat squandered by Crysis, a return to form for Crytek that threatened the valuable work they had done cementing themselves as just another game-development house
Crysis was only saved from true greatness by virtue of the fact that it did many of the same things that Far Cry had already innovated. Open-world first-person combat was Crysis' foundation, with a series of Predator-like stealth-tech jaunts through the jungle punctuated by military squad massacres and the occasional freewheeling hijack of an armored vehicle or two. Disgustingly refreshing when compared to the safely lackluster Far Cry sequels, perhaps, but nothing that Crytek hadn't done previously.
Crysis could have been the turning point that set Crytek back on the wrong track, forcing them to accept their fate as a studio doomed to critical expectations set at a bar too high to lazily reach. Crytek responded admirably, churning out Crysis 2, a game seemingly custom-built to dispel the scandalous rumors that Crytek is something more than a one-trick pony.
Dropping all vestiges of original design (while ironically producing the first Crytek game not set in a jungle), Crysis 2 is a pale copy of its predecessor laid out across the New York City environmental asset code that apparently has shipped with every game development kit since the mid-2000s. On its surface it's a masterful marketing feint, pointing out the unoriginality of staging a game in the burning remains of an alien-virus-infested New York City in an era when "alien virus in NYC" might as well have its own census check-box.
But that gives Crytek too little credit. In a nod to critics who might otherwise find this problematic, Crysis 2 avoids the cliché by squandering its locale, reducing NYC to its lowest common denominator—a series of crumbling asphalt corridors walled off by faceless skyscrapers.
New York is a city whose recognition factor works best when seen from a Superman's eye view. Compared to its peers, Crysis 2 is a bit lax in this department, giving its nanosuit-clad hero meh-level abilities across the board. He may be able to leap a tall bus or two, but getting a better view of his surroundings than your average well-equipped sniper isn't in his future.
But have no fear! By losing the arms race of steadily escalating protagonist superpowers, Crysis 2 opens up a world of alternate-reality gameplay options. Don't want to save NYC again? Just pretend that you're saving Sandusky instead. With the exception of a few ubiquitous landmarks, you won't be able to tell the difference.
Going all-in on the Crysis: Generic Urban Assault Edition idea wasn't enough for Crytek; no, Crysis 2 goes all-in on the Crytek idea altogether, cribbing all the least interesting ideas from Crytek's catalog and distilling them into a contiguous, unexceptional pudding of gameplay.
The effect here is twofold. Basing Crysis 2 wholly on rehashed, unappreciated ideas like "player character vs. bio-monsters vs. belligerent paramilitary types" and "not bothering with interesting or original weapons" allows those ideas to flourish unfettered by the prospect of being overshadowed by "winning" concepts. Additionally, by relieving its developers of the burden of creating something new, Crytek essentially gave itself a paid vacation. That kind of dedication to employee well-being is refreshing in these troubled times.
Crysis 2 is a tour de force of insignificance, an A-list B-movie of a game that blasts dullness from both barrels. A value-free experience, Crysis 2 serves to prove that the malfunctioning valve that was leaking inspiration into the air at the Crytek offices has finally been fixed. The good people at Crytek are free to live the dream of mainstream game development, resting on their laurels and hoping that their inflated marketing budgets are enough to push interest in their future projects.
I'm sure they're glad of that.