crysis1.jpg['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by Raven game designer Manveer Heir. The challenge is to play a game from start to completion - and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at Crysis, the most recent PC first-person shooter from German developer Crytek.]

I've always been an advocate of choice in games. Performing the same action over and over in a game can be monotonous and boring. This is probably why I enjoy RPG games so much; by their very nature they often offer the player a multitude of different things to choose from.

Shooters, unlike RPGs, usually offer only one thing to do during the entire game: shoot. Yet, even in this genre there is a growing amount in variety of actions that the player can perform. Halo showed how integrating vehicles into portions of the game could make for even more frantic feeling to the game. Duke Nukem 3D showed how various different, unconventional weapons in a game could radically change the feeling of combat during the game.

Whether choosing what weapons you are using or what strategies you will use to fight the enemies, shooters do offer small amounts of choice. As technology advances, we are seeing more and more meaningful choices being offered in games. It's not enough to just give the player a choice, however.

Design Lesson: Once you give the player the power to choose, you must not take that ability away from the player.

Crysis is the spiritual successor to Far Cry, a game that was heralded for its wide open nature. Crysis continues that tradition, putting the player on an island in the Philippines and allowing him to go almost anywhere.

This is what sets the game apart from other shooters. Players are truly free to approach each combat situation from their own perspective. You can charge into the base from the well-guarded front. You can swim down the river and enter the base from the exposed rear. You can even jump over the high wall that surrounds the base and drop in the middle. The choice is yours.

The choices are vast and this is a large part of why Crysis is so successful as a shooter. It gives options that most shooters are unable to offer. As a result, the game plays out in a very unique fashion.

The game starts out with you fighting against a group of Korean soldiers that have taken a group of archaeologists hostage. As the game progresses, you learn that the Koreans are not the real threat, but rather something more sinister (It shouldn't be hard to figure out what that is if you have watched any of the trailers for the game).

When you start meeting the other enemies in the game, a little after the halfway point of the game, the style of the game shifts. It becomes much more linear and constrained, like a traditional shooter.

There are a couple of levels, including the final level, that are pure linear corridor levels. One would expect levels such as these out of a game such as Quake, but not this game. These become the weakest parts of the game, by far, because they go against all the strengths of Crysis.

The strength of Crysis lies in choice. The choice to enter the situation on your own terms and from your own perspective. The game gives you powers, such as cloaking, speed, and strength, that can be used to turn the tide of battle. This adds more choice to how you handle a given combat situation.

The linear, corridor levels go against that sense of choice that the rest of the game has set up. The problem is that this other style of level does not compliment the more open style the rest of the game has set up. It feels far more restricting, in fact. You have less places to move around, less ways to approach a situation, and less opportunities to use your nanosuit powers.

crysis1.jpg Another thing that changes towards the latter part of the game is the enemy types. You stop fighting humans and start fighting mysterious creatures. This, in an of itself, is actually a good thing.

To me, this is a great way to add variety to a game, especially a shooter where your options are limited. Give the player new enemies to fight that are radically different from all of the other enemies that have been fought against the rest of the game.

Where Crysis fails with respect to the new enemies, however, is the fact that powers the player has becomes nearly useless. I spent the first half of the game using my cloaking capabilities a lot.

It would get me out of dangerous combat situations, let me get the jump on the AI, and allow me to change my style of play from run-and-gun to stealthy, depending on what situation I was in.

This choice virtually went away with the new enemies. They could often see through my cloaking and it became almost useless. I played the rest of the game barely using my special abilities, which changed the way the game felt and played. Couple that in with the more linear levels, and it becomes evident that the end of the game offers far less choice than the beginning.

CryTek would have been better off making the last third of the game more like the first two-thirds, in my opinion. They proved they can do the wide open combat game well, and they had enough variety in enemies and weapons to keep the game interesting.

By removing a lot of the choice towards the end of the game, Crysis loses part of its uniqueness that sets it apart from other shooters. The linear levels minimize the elements of strategic choice available to the player, which is the major strength of the game. The new enemies make the cloaking ability almost useless, which is another choice that then goes away.

Changing the style of the game part-way through isn't inherently a bad idea. I think it's important to understand why changing that style is detrimental to this game, however. By removing the choice that the player is given the rest of the game, the player feels less empowered. Had the game never introduced these choices, it wouldn't be a problem.

It did, however, so it should have allowed the player to continue to make those choices until the credits. If you are going to remove a choice from the game, at least offer the player a different, equally valuable choice to make in its place.

[Manveer Heir is currently a game designer at Raven Software. He updates his design blog, Design Rampage, regularly. He is interested in thoughtful critique and commentary on the gaming industry.]