It's amazing how sterile really great graphics can seem, in the absence of similarly distinctive art direction. Crysis 3 is, in all likelihood, one of the prettiest games you'll play, an open world shooter that aims to "melt" PCs and shame the bulk of its console competitors - but for all its feats of geometry, seductive lighting and rippling water effects, I'd struggle to distinguish its vision of a torn-down Western world from any other.
The setting is intricately imagined but almost too realistic for its own good, with little of the stylisation that makes the likes of Halo pop. This, perhaps, explains why the game has yet to attract the fame enjoyed by its most obvious competitor, the rather zestier Far Cry series.
Somewhat unhelpfully, our latest hands-on takes place in a swamp, that least charismatic of settings. But as with prior games in the series, Crysis 3 offers plentiful compensation for its occasional shortage of visual character. It's a Predator game in all but name, pitting a dementedly high tech assassin against armies of identikit soldiers and rather more formidable alien wildlife - and an attempt at building a halfway house between the original's sheer open-endedness and the second game's more focused campaign. That's a process of evolution the environment design makes literal - we're in New York again, but it's a New York overrun by extra-terrestrial Ceth and equally rapacious vegetation, as though the first Crysis had mounted a vengeful invasion of its successor.
You play Prophet, an Action Man wearing very fancy pyjamas. Once again, the game's Nanosuit allows players to bounce wildly up and down the tactical spectrum, an invisible wraith one second, an all-conquering robot tank the next - providing, that is, you keep a close eye on your self-replenishing energy bar. Donning Prophet's steel-capped boots, I promptly demonstrate both the right and wrong way to use the suit by gliding behind an unaware guard and slicing open his jugular, then attempting to ground-pound another man on the floor below. This fit of showboating drains the suit's tank and attracts the attention of a squad a hundred metres off, who eventually corner me on a stairwell and blow my head off. The controls are much as they were in Crysis 2, and veterans should thus have no trouble finding their feet.
The demo level is broader than most of those we saw in Crysis 2, a sweep of soggy earth filled with collapsed, vine-hung red brick buildings and clumps of tropical fern. It can be hard to see the tree for the woods, and I stray more than once into the sightlines of snipers and auto-turrets while making my way towards the objective - a terminal containing important data I'm not at liberty to discuss because I managed to skip the voiceover. But the Nanosuit once again comes with a very helpful tactical visor, picking out soldiers, equipment dumps, explosives and the like even when out of view. Linger over each VR targeting diamond till it fills, and the object of your scrutiny will still be marked on your HUD when you turn the visor off.
Having tagged all the nearby soldiers for disposal, I decide to try my hand at one of the new weapons - a beautifully high-tech recurved bow, the perfect choice for mid-ranged silent kills. As with all the game's tools of destruction, it can be customised extensively to suit the occasion. Adding weight to the draw makes shots hit harder, sometimes pinning unlucky victims to surfaces, but lengthens the time it takes to pull back the string. There are different ammunition types, too, including explosive-tipped arrows and an electrical barb that would have Robin Hood drooling with envy. I down a soldier with standard issue arrows, then take advantage of the watery ground conditions to electrocute a pack of investigating comrades. Then I'm caught in a spotlight, and an auto-turret fills my steely hide with lead.