All of the claims you may have heard that Crysis could only run on nuclear-powered supermachines were greatly exaggerated. But if for some reason you worry that this stand-alone companion to the ultragorgeous first-person shooter will bring your PC to its knees, you should know that it's highly scalable and ran smoothly on a number of machines during our testing. It also looks better, with clear attention given to the game's artistic sensibilities and the lusher, denser environments. But rest assured, developer Crytek has enhanced more than just the graphics engine. Vehicles are more fun to drive, firefights are more intense and focused, and aliens do more than just float around you. More emphasis on the open-ended environments would have been welcome, but a more exciting (though shorter) campaign, a new multiplayer mode, and a whole bunch of new maps make Crysis Warhead an excellent expansion to one of last year's best shooters.
These big boys are back, and will still give you a chill. Literally.
If you didn't play Crysis, Warhead's story may be initially confusing, given that you hit the ground running with little exposition. You play as Sergeant "Psycho" Sykes, the brash Brit who was a bit player in the original game. Psycho tends to play by his own rules, always willing to ignore orders and jump into the fray if that's what the situation requires. The story runs parallel to the events of Crysis, though his strident attitude--and a dramatic cutscene near the end of the game--definitely make this Psycho's tale, even if the actual plot remains the same. In any case, you and your US Special Forces team are investigating a tropical island besieged by North Korean invaders. However, your greatest menace comes in the form of aggressive aliens that turn the luxuriant jungles and glowing beaches into a frozen wasteland. You and your teammates, clad in nanosuits that grant you special abilities such as super strength, temporary cloaking, super speed, and additional armor, confront both threats across a variety of large environments.
Psycho's brazen confidence does more than just establish a gutsy protagonist: It sets the stage for a more focused and intense series of battles that keep the pace moving more smoothly than before. Warhead still offers some of the same kind of sandbox levels, but thoughtful enemy placement and map bottlenecks keep downtime to a minimum. You can approach assaults on beachfronts and Korean encampments in a number of ways, so if you're a stealth enthusiast, you can employ your suit's cloak setting and sneak in, or attach a silencer to your sniper rifle and take out your human foes from a distance. If you would rather employ hit-and-run tactics, you can jump into the heat of battle, cause a ruckus, and use your suit's speed function to zoom away. However, Warhead is clearly focused on the guns-blazing approach, gently nudging you into full-on encounters with its mission objectives, character dialogue, and level design. When you reach primary and secondary destinations, you'll get besieged by large numbers of enemies, both human and (later on) alien. Given that human foes also don nanosuits, they're not necessarily quick to fall; as a result, these sequences are exciting and challenging, and you'll need to use your suit abilities and cover opportunities to your advantage. The easily triggered explosions of enemy vehicles and hazardous barrels further intensify these pockets of activity.
A number of set-piece battles confirm this slight shift toward action-packed mayhem. Your first encounter with a hulking alien war machine may not have the same impact as a similar one in Crysis, but it happens earlier than you'd expect, and it establishes the alien presence with adrenaline-fueled drama. That battle is a wonder, as is a later defensive mission that has you fending off a series of aliens, and requires you to shift focus frequently and use every weapon in your inventory. Another great sequence is a train level that, at first, seems much like similar sequences in a number of other shooters. You can stay on the train and use turrets to gun down the opposition, as expected--but you can also jump off and engage the opposition at any time, giving even this near-cliche sequence plenty of replay value. A linear journey through an underground mine is the obvious misstep in regard to level design, given that it never so much as hints at the open-ended action that makes Warhead a superb shooter.
Better vehicle handling makes for better action.