We've been swept away by a wave of talk about next-gen consoles since Sony unveiled the specs for the PlayStation 4, and we're due for another round when Microsoft reveals the next Xbox. The reception for the PS4 specs has largely been positive, even among PC gamers, because of what it means for future games. The PS4 looks to match the graphics horsepower of today's mid-range GPUs, something like a Radeon HD 7850. Making that sort of hardware the baseline for the next generation of consoles is probably a good thing for gaming, the argument goes.
Much of this talk is about potential, about the future possibilities for games as a medium, about fluidity and visual fidelity that your rods and cones will soak up like a sponge, crying out for more.
And I'm all for it.
But what if somebody had released a game that already realized that potential, that used the very best of today's graphics and CPU power to advance the state of the art in plainly revolutionary fashion, and nobody noticed?
Seems to me, that's pretty much what has happened with Crysis 3. I installed the game earlier this week, aware of the hype around it and expecting, heck, I dunno what—a bit of an improvement over Crysis 2, I suppose, that would probably run sluggishly even on high-end hardware. (And yes, I'm using high-end hardware, of course: dual Radeon HD 7970s on one rig and a GeForce GTX Titan on the other, both attached to a four-megapixel 30" monitor. Job perk, you know.)
Nothing had prepared me for what I encountered when the game got underway.
I've seen Far Cry 3 and Assasin's Creed 3 and other big-name games with "three" in their titles that pump out the eye candy, some of them very decent and impressive and such, but what Crytek has accomplished with Crysis 3 moves well beyond anything else out there. The experience they're creating in real time simply hasn't been seen before, not all in one place. You can break it down to a host of component parts—an advanced lighting model, high-res textures, complex environments and models, a convincing physics simulation, expressive facial animation, great artwork, and what have you. Each one of those components in Crysis 3 is probably the best I've ever seen in an interactive medium.
And yes, the jaw-dropping cinematics are all created in real time in the game engine, not pre-rendered to video.
But that's boring. What's exciting is how all of those things come together to make the world you're seeing projected in front of your face seem real, alive, and dangerous. To me, this game is a milestone; it advances the frontiers of the medium and illustrates how much better games can be. This is one of those "a-ha!" moments in tech, where expectations are reset with a tingly, positive feeling. Progress has happened, and it's not hard to see.
Once I realized that fact, I popped open a browser tab and started looking at reviews of Crysis 3, to find out what others had to say about the game. I suppose that was the wrong place to go, since game reviewing has long since moved into fancy-pants criticism that worries about whether the title in question successfully spans genres or does other things that sound vaguely French in origin. Yeah, I like games that push those sorts of boundaries, too, but sometimes you have to stop and see the forest full of impeccably lit, perfectly rendered trees.
Seems to me like, particularly in North America, gamers have somehow lost sight of the value of high-quality visuals and how they contribute to the sense of immersion and, yes, fun in gaming. Perhaps we've scanned through too many low-IQ forum arguments about visual quality versus gameplay, as if the two things were somehow part of an engineering tradeoff, where more of one equals less of the other. Perhaps the makers of big-budget games have provided too many examples of games that seem to bear out that logic. I think we could include Crytek in that mix, with the way Crysis 2 wrapped an infuriatingly mediocre game in ridiculously high-zoot clothing.
Whatever our malfunction is, we ought to get past it. Visuals aren't everything, but these visuals sure are something. A game this gorgeous is inherently more compelling than a sad, Xboxy-looking console port where all surfaces appear to be the same brand of shiny, blurry plastic, where the people talking look like eerily animated mannequins. Even if Crytek has too closely answered, you know, the call of duty when it comes to gameplay and storylines, they have undoubtedly achieved something momentous in Crysis 3. They've made grass look real, bridged the uncanny valley with incredible-looking human characters, and packed more detail into each square inch of this game than you'll find anywhere else. Crysis 3's core conceit, that you're stealthily hunting down bad guys while navigating through this incredibly rich environment, works well because of the stellar visuals, sound, and physics.
My sense is that Crysis 3 should run pretty well at "high" settings on most decent gaming PCs, too. If not on yours, well, it may be time to upgrade. Doing so will buy you a ticket to a whole new generation of visual fidelity in real-time graphics. I'd say that's worth it. To give you a sense of what you'd be getting, have a look at the images in the gallery below. Click "view full size" to see them in their full four-megapixel glory. About half the shots were take in Crysis 3's "high" image quality mode, since "very high" was a little sluggish, so yes, it can get even better as PC graphics continues marching forward.