|Cryostasis: Sleep Of Reason|
|Written by Starfox|
|Wednesday, 17 June 2009 00:33|
Suggested secondary title: Technically Unreasonable Even When Awake
Developer: Action Forms Ltd
Publisher: 1C Company
Official Cryostasis Site
Demo link (1.05 GB - hosted by Filefront)
Average price at review time: USD 28
ESRB rating: Teen (violence)
PEGI Rating: 16+ (violence)
Sometimes, the gaming industry actors seem to be completely devoted to ruining the gaming experience for their audience. Cryostasis sadly enters this category of games that could have been great and ended up frustrating a lot of people due to some choices that have more to do with marketing than pure gaming. But before discussing what is wrong, how about the game itself?
Alexander Nesterov is a Russian scientist working in a polar station in Arctic in the 80's. One day, he receives the order to leave the station and to rejoin a set of coordinates where he would find and board the nuclear icebreaker Northwind which would eventually bring him back home in Russia. Nesterov finds the Northwind, all right, but it appears that the ship is abandoned, rusted and has been probably stuck in the ice for the past 20 years. How comes that he received a message instructing him to board a deserted, broken and rusty ship? That will be his task to determine what happened to the Northwind and why someone wanted him there.
Cryostasis is heavily story-driven and as such appeals to people who want more than just gameplay and graphics in their games. The story itself is told in different ways, first by some booklets scattered around the ship telling a weird story that at first seems to have nothing to do with the Northwind and what happened aboard but that makes sense at the end. Then there are also some parts of the Captain's log that tell a bit more about what really happened to the ship also scattered around the levels.
However, these pieces of paper are nothing compared to the testimony of the crew itself. Granted, at Nesterov's time, the ship is totally empty (at least empty of humans) but Nesterov seems to be able to caught some emanations of the past, reliving flashbacks as an observer. In some cases, he even has the possibility to change past events, temporarily taking the place of one of the crewmen in an attempt to modify the fate of the said individual as well as modifying parts of the ship at the same time. For example some piece of wreckage may hamper the progression of Nesterov at some point but modifying the past and preventing the death of a crewmen can radically change the aspect of the ship allowing the player to progress further. These events where player can interact with past events are called "Mental Echo".
To spare gamers some confusion, the difference between mere flashback and mental echo is easy to tell. Aside the fact that Mental Echo scenes must be triggered while flashbacks come and go without the player wanting them, flashbacks are in black and white with a movie grain and mental echo scenes are in full color with a movie grain too, the movie grain being purposedly here so one can tell the difference with normal gameplay at Nesterov's time. Additionally to movie grain, the heat gauge is absent in both flashbacks and mental echo scenes.
The gameplay of Cryostasis has nothing really innovative in itself but at least the elements are well integrated beginning by the way the health is handled. There's no med kit in the game and essentially Nesterov's health is irrelevant. Instead the system built up by the Ukrainian developers is heat based. The gauge you see at the bottom left of most screens in this review display three things. The outer red ring indicates the external temperature while the internal red disc indicates Nesterov's body temperature. Both are interconnected since when the external temperature goes down, Nesterov's temperature goes down too. If Nesterov stands long enough in a room without doing anything, his temperature will slowly rise or decrease to the level of ambient temperature. It's in the best interest of players to maintain the internal health of their avatar to the maximum available and to speed up the process they can use heat sources. Scattered across the different levels they come in various forms, from a torch to a machinery passing by a light bulb, a lot of them requiring to be turned on first.
The yellow circle between the outer ring and the inner disc on the gauge represents stamina. It allows you to run fast, to perform powerful attacks and combos in melee and at the beginning of the game, it empty out pretty fast. However, each "Mental Echo" event you successfully achieve through the game increase your maximum stamina and also heat (health). On the other hand, stamina falls pretty low when Nesterov experiences a Mental Echo or a flashback so if a violent melee fight follows just after one (stamina does not apply to firearms) it may become messy. Stamina replenishes slowly when you don't run or jump or engage in a melee fight but like the heat one can speed up the process warming up oneself with an heat source which replenishes the stamina as well.
These elements aside, the gameplay is typical of the survival horror genre with a bunch of "unreal" enemies (most of them are former crewmen transformed after all those years caught in ice and radiations) thrown at you at the most unexpected moments. However, unlike Penumbra, this is not a stealth game so you'll have to fight your way through no matter what. Fortunately, the number of enemies in the whole game is rather low compared to FPS standards.
Mental Echoes for their part represent the game puzzles since all of them (minus one) must be completed to allow the player to progress further. And since they allow the player to better understand what happened on the Northwind, they actually serve a double purpose.
The enemy AI is not spectacular in any way albeit relatively tough (you don't get to choose the difficulty level, in Cryostasis there's only one). It's a pretty basic AI with some weird rolling moves to avoid your fire and some charging to melee range when their weapon runs dry. The AI gets the job done but that's it and I guess it's enough considering the emphasize that the game puts on story telling.
The weaponry is not as huge as the DVD case proclaims and I quote "you'll have the choice between numerous Russian weapons of the 60's"... in fact the weapons are a Mosin-Nagant M91/30 bolt rifle and it's sniper rifle version, a PPSh 41 machine gun and a semi automatic Tokarev SVT 40 rifle with a 10 rounds magazine. You'll also be able to find a flare gun which has some special properties. When a flare sticks to some enemy (and because of the "icy" nature of the enemies), this enemy will tend in most cases to be disoriented and forget about you as long as the flare burns. The weakest enemies may even die in some cases (because fire damage them). Alas, there are not enough flares to be found in the whole game to have real fun with that. Of course one can also find a few melee combat tools, a chain and padlock that acts as a knuckle buckler, a broken valve and an axe.
Get me out of the freezer!
Arguably the frozen atmosphere of Cryostasis does a perfect oppressing job without being overdone like in some other games that relies far to much on darkness. From bow to stern passing by the nuclear reactor of the Northwind. Ice effects have been particularly detailed. Of course a screenshot doesn't do any justice but below you have two, on the left a frozen room and on the right the same room after the heat was turned on. What you don't notice on the screens is the ice slowly melting down and resulting in water pouring on the walls and the various objects.
It's all very nicely done but some would say it's overworked cause the whole icy stuff comes with a price and a huge one. It's a bit of a shame that some technical (and marketing) choices are impairing the game making the experience less enjoyable that it could have been which leads us directly to the next paragraph: what the hell went wrong?
Hi! I'm the new official NVidia Fanboy!
At this point, it's not a secret for anyone that Cryostasis is heavily optimized for NVidia cards -- even the game developers say so -- hence, the logic being respected, the framerate is crappy even on the top of the line ATI card, the HD4890. When I say "crappy" I mean that performances are nowhere near what such cards are normally capable to achieve considering the level of graphic details of Cryostasis (which would be considered in many ways as dated by today standard). The curious side is that despite the "optimization" the framerate remains kind of crappy on top NVidia hardware as well, with an average of 45 fps for the GTX 295 in 1680x1050 resolution with the graphic quality set at max. So even the specific NVidia optimizations are not... that optimized.
The optimization for NVidia cards resulted from a developer's choice (and probably from some NVidia marketing pressure) of NVidia PhysX in an attempt to manage physics in hardware, making of Cryostasis the first game integrating games physics handled by the GPU. but as pointed in an article of HardOCP specifically dedicated to performances in Cryostasis, the gain of PhysX in hardware is pretty small or even laughable in some cases.
I guess we can expect more of this in the future though since NVidia chose to manage physics in hardware with PhysX (that they bought some time ago) while recent AMD/ATI cards can do hardware physics too but retained Havok for that purpose. Havok has currently the largest installed base (by the number of games using it -- which of course means nothing since Havok won't run on the GPU unless the game is designed for that) but PhysX has the aggressive marketing power of NVidia behind. Which of those two will eventually win the war, it's hard to say at this point since the first GPU hardware physics game for Havok/ATI is yet to be released, but what is sure is that a lot of gamers (both NVidia an ATI owners) will be pissed turn by turn while the battle for the domination of an hardware physics engine rages. The most important for gamers would be to have a standard physics engine running on whatever the card is, not a battle between two behemoths willing to show who has the bigger tool. With time that will probably happen once the battle is over and the dust settled but meanwhile the only people that suffer from this kind of events are the customers.
Moreover to achieve the best performances in game, it appears that you not only need a very recent NVidia graphic card but the Shader Model 4.0 must be enabled and although any recent card may use this shader model it is only enabled in DirectX 10 or in other words, Windows Vista. Definitely Cryostasis is not only a NVidia fanboy but a Vista fanboy as well.
So what kind of performance can you expect on Windows XP (which a lot of gamers are still using, mind you) and with a mainstream graphic card, especially an ATI one? Answer: very crappy unless you play the game at a 1024x768 resolution and with some of the most graphic intensive options switched off in which case you may hope for an average framerate slightly above 30 fps (and if you have a large video RAM, like 1 GB, you may even set the texture resolution to high and still keep a decent framerate). However as soon as you jump to a 1280x1024 resolution and over, the framerate becomes horrible.
For reference, the card I use is a Radeon HD4850 1GB which is able to run Crysis (still considered as the most graphically challenging game) at 1280x1024 resolution and at the maximum settings allowed by XP (HIGH) with an average framerate of 45 fps in the jungle. It runs twice faster than my previous card a X1950 XTX (that was only able to run Crysis with medium settings for the same average fps) and here's the thing: that makes about no difference in Cryostasis since I was able to test this game with both cards and with about the same results. It's a puzzler. What is sucking all the frames in this game considering that the graphic quality is globally inferior to even Crysis Medium quality? The fancy ice effects that stress smart shaders to the max? Probably, since both of my cards under XP used SM 3.0 (even though the HD4850 is capable of SM 4.0 it would take Vista for that). Since there's no way to turn the fancy ice effects off we can't know for sure however.
Maybe things will change in the future because apparently developers promised to better work the performances for ATI users in a future patch (I'll believe it when I'll see it) but for now the situation as far as ATI is concerned is quite poor. Hell, by the look at the game official forums even NVidia owners are pissed -- and considering the performances even on a GTX 295, we can understand them...
Note that developers already released a patch (patch 1.1 internally known as 1.02)... Problem is, this patch doesn't address performances issues and is only aimed at pleasing the *very large* (cough... ha ha... no, no, I'm not laughing) crowd of top of the line NVidia cards owners (they probably forgot that according to latest estimations, owners of high-end graphic cards represent roughly 15% of the market). Indeed, developers even stress that you shouldn't use this patch if you don't have a top of the line NVidia card because chances are bad things would happen like slowdowns, crashes... the Earth suddenly exploding. And having installed the said patch out of a sense of thoroughness for the sake of this review I can say that it's true! The thing mainly add more PhysX goodness resulting in more slowdowns if you don't have the good hardware. It's a shame that most gamers use mainstream hardware (and that includes NVidia owners)... The ridiculous side of this patch is that it solves a problem that prevents smart shaders 4.0 to work correctly on ATI cards but at the same time you shouldn't use it if you don't have NVidia hardware (the patch introduces a new weapon to the game, a water jet gun, that uses an effect that is only visible with... ta da... yeah, you guessed it... a NVidia card -- the effect of the water jet gun with an ATi card is more than ridiculous).
Despite all the slowdowns and the crazy framerate, during the two whole game sessions I had for this review I encountered only one real bug, this bug being the "previous weapon" key that obviously doesn't work as expected. So yeah, only one minor bug, I guess that's making it up for the whole performances mess? To be noted too is a somewhat confusing difficulty of the final boss battle. Really confusing: the first playthrough I was able to get it right the first time while the second playthrough I needed to reload 5 times before getting through it (so apparently the first success was just a lucky strike). This final battle has been revised in the first patch to decrease the confusion but sure, it's the famous patch that only top of the line Nvidia card owners should use.
Cracks In The Ice Bring The Conclusion
Technicalities aside, Cryostasis is a good story-driven game with a good atmosphere and a satisfying ending. It has a touch of Penumbra to it but allows for some FPS combat and the puzzles presented during Mental Echo scenes are varied enough to not be repetitive.
However, and despite all the good points, Cryostasis has more than quite a large room for optimization, both for ATI and NVidia cards. NVidia probably wanted to turn this title into a PhysX showcase, unfortunately for them this part of the experiment seems to have failed if we are to take the figures about hardware PhysX improvements -- 1.6% to 9% more frames according to HardOCP even with top of the line NVidia hardware is quite ridiculous (a 9% improvement over an average of 40 fps doesn't bring much). Moreover, lacking the over-hyped marketing of such games like Crysis, Cryostasis is not the kind of title that hardcore gamers would fight over buying an even more powerful hardware than what they already have. It's not even benchmark material since it is clear that the game lacks optimization and when optimization there is it is clearly aimed at NVidia cards.
Bottom line: although I have nothing against NVidia wanting to show what their PhysX is capable to do, this shouldn't have been done in such a way that the game become relatively unplayable on other cards (even NVidia ones from the previous generation). Being forced to turn off most graphical goodies in a game that is already graphically dated even at it's best is one thing. Being forced after that to decrease the resolution to 1024x768 just to achieve a manageable framerate is unacceptable. F.E.A.R 2 is graphically prettier than Cryostasis and not once did I have my framerate dropping below 60 fps with an average of 80 fps during the whole game on the same rig in 1280x1024 with every graphical options pushed to max. Now that's what I call optimization.
We can add to the bad points the fact that being a story driven game, the replayability value of Cryostasis is about nil. There are kind of 3 ways to finish the game (although the ending remain the same in all cases) but if you make a hard save at the appropriate moment you can experience each of them quite quickly without the need to replay the whole game. Linearity and technical challenge aside, Cryostasis remains an enjoyable experience as long as it last. However (and that's a pretty big however) the whole framerate problem as a chance to ruin the experience for a lot of people because you can't really forget about it. Just turning on the flashlight in some places makes the framerate drop by 20-30 fps in a game that is already severely limited.
So for the first time and because the framerate issues are particularly huge and particularly weird when related to the global graphic quality of the game which is of Doom 3 level and sometimes below, I'm going to do something I generally don't do, I'll give a double score to this game. The green score is the one regarding the gameplay, atmosphere and storyline alone, the red score is for the quality of the technical optimization of the game.
Some more screens I was too lazy to put within the review itself: