(Warning: spoilers below!)
I'm not sure if my preference has been stated in this blog before, but I'm decidedly not a fan of Crysis. My taste in gaming is probably pretty questionable; I do love Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Portal just like anyone else, but there have been sacred cows I just didn't care for. I thought Half-Life 2 was grossly overrated, and I still think the series didn't really get to the point where I could say "this is a great game" until Episode Two. I've also had a general distaste for Crysis. I did beat it, so I can at least say I've played through the whole game to know to dislike it.
My problems with Crysis are many: it's punishing even on today's hardware, and it's experienced such a minimal performance jump going from the previous hardware generation to this one that I've had to question the quality of its coding. I also felt like the weapons weren't balanced well, with the alien weapon being straight up weak. The story and the gung-ho, battle-hungry Americans drove me insane. I've never cared for how Cevat Yerli represented himself or his company when he's spoken in public, and the "A Cevat Yerli Game" credit at the beginning of Crysis seems gauche, especially now that the "A Film By" credit is going out of fashion in movies. The vehicles handle badly, especially the VTOL at the end, which I dub the "hippocopter" in deference to Yahtzee's Zero Punctuation review. And finally, Crysis has the same problem Far Cry did: when the non-human enemies show up, the game suddenly begins to suck, and the gameplay loses the lion's share of its depth.
Yeah, I'm not a fan of Crysis.
I'm also a writer and reviewer, though, and since Crysis Warhead now stands in for the original in most hardware reviews, the upgrade had to be made. I put it off for too long. I had to bite the bullet and buy the game.
Sojourns into Crysis-land have, if nothing else, been pretty ones. I figured the worst that could happen with Warhead was that I'd see some cool stuff before eventually getting sick of the poor design decisions, poor performance, and so on. Surprisingly, none of these things happened. Warhead is a better-looking game for sure, but I also found that the overwhelming majority of my problems with the original had been ameliorated.
One of the major improvements was getting largely rid of the gung-ho American crap. Psycho is a vastly more interesting and amusing character to spend a game with than the original's Nomad, due in no small part to the use of third-person cut scenes. The fact that he comes off with strong hints of Jason Statham make him much more likable as an action hero. Any red-blooded male that doesn't want to spend a game pretending to be Jason Statham or some equivalent British badass is going to be missing some programming.
The more action-oriented gameplay tailors itself nicely around Psycho's character, too. Where Crysis was slower-paced, Warhead's willingness to provide you with plenty of ammo and powerful guns and then make the nanosuited KPA soldiers more common was the right call. Spending less of the game sneaking up on and gunning down helpless KPA jobbers and more time fighting enemies that can actually present a real challenge was a big plus.
The vastly improved alien A.I. didn't hurt, either. The tremendous shift in gameplay that brings the original Crysis into sub-Doom levels of complexity just doesn't really happen in Crysis Warhead, where Crytek opts to instead make the alien enemies much smarter. The new ones are more evasive, work in teams, and there are even new aliens that improve the defensiveness of the existing ones. The dynamic has changed radically, and combat regains some of the decision-making that was completely lost when the aliens were introduced in the first game.
Ultimately, that's what made the title work for me: Crytek finally figured out how not to completely screw up a game with a gameplay shift. The freeze comes early in Crysis Warhead, and the game smartly intersperses human and alien encounters, sometimes combining the two. It completely changes the dynamic of the game, and the more action-oriented pacing goes a long way toward making alien encounters feel less like a dramatic style shift. Compare this to where the trigens are introduced in Far Cry and all of your tactical gameplay is suddenly for naught, or as I mentioned before, when the aliens show up in Crysis and the game degenerates into Painkiller without the cool gun that shoots shurikens and lightning.
I recognize I may be in the minority here, and some people like the original far more than Warhead for its more measured gameplay. However, I'd just like to point out that Warhead doesn't feature an absurdly overlong and nightmarishly irritating-to-navigate floating journey through an alien spaceship. The worst parts of Warhead are the vehicle sections (go figure), but they're sparse, and none of them are as frustrating and badly handled as the hippocopter VTOL in Crysis. Warhead is able to maintain a consistent tone and minimize the parts of the game (hovercraft section, I'm looking at you) that bleed the fun out of it and turn it into an exercise in tedium.
As a last point: I'd just like to say that, while the C.U.D.A.A.T.s software noticeably improved the look of Crysis for me without impacting performance much, I found Warhead ran perfectly fine and looked much better on its own. Warhead makes a strong case for a 1GB video card, too, but let's be realistic—if you're going to be gaming seriously at this point, are you really going to buy a 512MB one?
While I'll never get over Cevat Yerli's griping about piracy throttling Crysis sales (gee, Cevat, it couldn't possibly be because no one wanted to invest in a game they weren't even sure they could run well), especially after they posted million-plus sales, at least his name isn't plastered all over Warhead. Now that Crytek has more or less perfected its gameplay, or at least improved it to the point where it doesn't take a swan dive at a certain point of the game, I can safely say I'll actually look forward to the next game the studio has in store.