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Contrasting Crysis and Call of Duty 4: Why emergent gamplay is the future

Mike Doolittle's picture

Without a doubt, 2007 has been a marquee year for first-person shooters. We've gotten Bioshock, Call of Duty 4, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, Crysis, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Team Fortress 2, Clive Barker's Jericho, Unreal Tournament 3, Timeshift, FEAR expansions, and more. Even the lesser games are above-average, and the best are some of the best games we've ever seen in the genre.

Two of the most acclaimed of this whole bunch are Crysis and Call of Duty 4. Both were hotly anticipated and both have been well-received by gamers. But I thought that these two games are an interesting contrast – both are first-person shooters, but represent two sharply contrasting design philosophies. Crysis features large, open environments that are highly interactive and allow players to approach any given situation in a seemingly limitless number of ways – so-called "sandbox" gameplay. Call of Duty 4, on the other hand, is very tightly scripted, utilizing purely linear levels that are designed to emphasize the drama and intensity of the action.

Just listen to the developers. In an interview with IGN, Grant Collier, head of Call of Duty 4 developer Infinity Ward, had this to say about linearity and interactivity:

"[E]veryone right now is demanding sandbox gameplay and total destructibility. We personally don't think that it's that fun, I mean, 'go anywhere! Do anything!' That's just - I think it's a buzzword, it's a badge, it's a bullet-point option, but a lot of games they get in there and they try to do that and then they're like 'okay we have the sandbox, now why don't we try to make the game fun'. And total destructibility, you can really ruin the gameplay. There's so many spectacular moments that you have when you funnel the action into certain corridors.... I think right now it's a fad, and the fad will pass, we're not going to be bite on in it - we want the game to be fun first, and destructibility comes second."

By contrast, here's Crysis lead designer Cevat Yerli on Crysis' open-ended, interactive style of play:

New gameplay emerges out of these systems. I was running with speed power towards an enemy and shooting and another person came across running as well towards me, and he jumped over me, and in the air increased his strength, landed, and punched me to death. I was like, “%*&# you!” (laughs) It was like life straight out of The Matrix.

Another really cool scenario was when I was in the harbor under the water, and under a boat. I had the pistol, and then switched on speed and literally, like a dolphin, jumped in the air, pow pow pow pow – killed him. He was like, “What the #(*%!” He couldn’t see underwater because of the boat, but I could see him as an enemy on the radar.

This is an aspect that I’m proud of because the systems are working everywhere, and it’s not like it’s a scripted moment or event or just me versus a person or enemy. It’s always fresh. That’s the cool part of it and that’s what I mean when I say I want the player to express his intelligence in ideally the most wide range a shooter can offer.


So with these two games, we're presented with two highly contrasting gameplay designs: scripted gameplay versus emergent gameplay. While these designs are by no means mutually exclusive (both games contain elements of both designs), in my view the scripted design of Call of Duty 4 represents an aging and increasingly archaic design; Crysis' emergent gameplay, on the other hand, is the way of the future. Here's why (warning – spoilers ahead):

Call of Duty 4 showcases some of the strengths of scripting. At times, the levels are very dramatic and intense. There is a level of storytelling that indeed can benefit greatly from scripted events. However, the contrivances of scripting often hurt the immersion of the gameplay, and a few examples in particular stuck out like sore thumbs to me as I played the game:

* At one point, I was under attack by a helicopter, and the goal was to make my way to a nearby farmhouse, which is heavily guarded by enemy troops. I tried to make it to the house a few times unsuccessfully, being gunned down by the helicopter gunner nearly every time. So I decided to do the most logical thing: I shot the gunner. He fell out of the chopper in dramatic fashion, and it slowly flew away. Finally I could make my way to the farm house and focus on killing the infantry. But wait! The helicopter re-emerged, with another gunner. I killed him, too. This sequence repeated itself numerous times, until it became obvious that the helicopter had infinite gunners – the designers had already decided how I was going to take out the helicopter. Sure enough, once I made it to the farm house I was greeted with an infinite supply of Stinger missiles, and my squadmates instructed me to shoot down the helicopter.

* In another sequence, I was on a mission to assassinate a key character with a sniper rifle. The game factors wind direction into the shots, which is pretty clever. What's not clever is that shooting this character is a pre-scripted event; he is maimed by the shot, losing his arm, but he survives. No matter how accurate I am – I could shoot him in the head or in the foot – the final sequence plays out the same.

* Later in that same level during a massive enemy assault, it is possible to stand in an enemy spawn point, which prevents them from spawning and renders the whole scene a cake walk.

* Scripting also hurts the replayability of the game. When I'm playing any given sequence, all of the enemies spawn at the same spot every time and follow the same scripted patterns. So if I round a corner and get killed by an enemy I didn't see, I know exactly where to aim my gun the next time through. I always know that the guy with the rockets is going to run over that way, and the two guys with machine guns will run this way.


Crysis, on the other hand, gave me some very memorable moments of emergent gameplay:

* On the first level, I was pinned down behind a rock, under fire from a mounted machine gun. Stray bullets caught a nearby tree, which fell on me and killed me.

* I decided to ambush a small encampment of enemies. I used the nanosuit's super-strength to jump up a steep rocky hill on one side, rather than walking up the road or creeping through the woods. I mistimed a jump though, and launched myself about fifteen feet into the air above the enemies I'd been planning to ambush. In an amusing moment, they all gasped in unison at the sight of my superhuman ability, and scrambled for cover. So much for that ambush!

* On a number of occasions, I found myself under heavy fire from a patrol boat. I did the logical thing and shot the gunner. The driver would speed off, usually docking at a nearby beach or fleeing into the distance.

* I tried to use the cloak to sneak up on a group of lazy enemies sitting around on a beach. I changed weapons as I approached and suddenly, they were alerted to my presence and started attacking me even though I was still cloaked. At first I thought it might be a glitch, then it hit me: they had seen the flashlight on my gun.

I could go on and on; these are just a few small examples. Because the gameplay is emergent rather than scripted, the possibilities seem almost endless. Peruse any Crysis forum and you're bound to hear many entertaining stories about surprising, amazing, and even humorous emergent gameplay.

I played Call of Duty 4 after I had played Crysis, and Crysis had spoiled me quite a bit. I kept wanting to destroy vehicles, shoot down trees and knock down walls, but everything was static; I wanted to find better vantage points to attack, but there were artificial barriers blocking my path – often as contrived as an impassable wooden fence; I wanted to shoot the gunner in the helicopter, but... well, you know how that went. And while scripted gameplay does allow for some dramatic moments (as exemplified by the mostly excellent Pripyat level), I feel emergent gameplay allows players to discover situations that are every bit as dramatic, but more unique and special since the player's choices are the catalysts.

I believe that games that reward players for creativity and intelligence are the real wave of the future. The problem of course is that it's much more difficult to develop a player-centric game. Many functionalities can clash with each other, and a lot more things can go wrong than in a narrow, scripted environment. Given the escalating costs of videogame development, I feel very few developers will take the risks of using emergent gameplay. It's worth noting for example that Far Cry, Crytek's previous game released in 2004 and a very ambitious game in its own right, has yet to be imitated by other developers despite its success. Ambition is the most costly development expense of all. But every now and then, we see developers taking risks, doing something special and gamers embracing it. In time, I think, more developers will embrace this emergent style of gameplay, and gaming will be better for it.

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is there a reason, besides

is there a reason, besides contrarianism, why you didn't list halo 3 among the first person shooters released this year?

It's possible

It's possible you know, that he's just discussing PC's. You remember those... consoles for adults.


zac wrote: is there a

zac wrote:

is there a reason, besides contrarianism, why you didn't list halo 3 among the first person shooters released this year?

He said among others.

Anyway, I completely agree with the assessment. So many FPS releases this year but for me only a few shown forth. Stalker, Half-Life 2 Episode 2, Bioshock, COD4, and Crysis all made me realize why I enjoy games so much. They all are FPS's but they all do something different. I agree that FPS's will all become sandboxes in the future, but I hope that they don't lose focus on the fun. Linear games provide an outlet for constant variety and action on a scripted level. While sandbox games allow the user to create his own fun by trying out different strategies. Why worry is sandbox games will all become the same. I think Bioshock was a blend of both types of games. It was both sandbox and linear. It allowed the user to try out his own ideas through the plasmids and weapons while providing a compelling narrative to move the player through scripted events. I think the Half-Life games are the perfect example of linear games. They are always moving the player forward and giving them something new to do. Ep.2 was the ultimate ride, it let the player experience the awesome world Valve had created while constantly delivering on the fun. So, I don't think linearity is quite dead yet if it stays at the level of the Half-Life games.

firstly, there is no

firstly, there is no indication i can find within the post which suggests he's speaking only of pc games, except for halo's absense among the list of games (which includes games available on both pc and consoles without reference to which version he's speaking of).

secondly, halo 3, as probably the most hyped release of the year (regardless of merit), is a heckuva game to include "among others" if you're going to talk about big fps releases.

all in all, glaring omission, wouldn't you say?

Lack of Mention

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Halo 3 wasn't particularly great.

It seemingly had everything it needs to be considered great--graphics, audio, spot-on controls, etc.--but in my opinion it faltered in one key area: fun.

Keep in mind that I'm talking strictly about single-player when I talk about this.

Despite having both sandbox and scripted elements and the aforementioned great elements, Halo 3 just didn't strike any cords with me. The lack of the ability to really take any good cover, useless team AI, and other nitpicks I had (including the story!) prevented me from really enjoying any of the experience.

I felt so strongly about all this that I went out and sold the game shortly after buying it to get Beautiful Katamari instead...

zac wrote: halo 3, as

zac wrote:

halo 3, as probably the most hyped release of the year (regardless of merit), is a heckuva game to include "among others" if you're going to talk about big fps releases.

all in all, glaring omission, wouldn't you say?

I'm a PC gamer, so I'm speaking from my own frame of reference. So yeah, Halo 3 is another notable shooter released this year.

I find this article

I find this article rather... subjective. Nothing wrong in that except you make one big error: First you list the flaws of scripted games and then you list the pros of sandbox games. You do mention the good things about scripted games and you mention the bad things about sandbox games but not even close to what i would call a "fair amount" for the reader to make up his or her mind and assess what you have brought to the table for them selves. So yea, you made it clear what you think but you havnt presented a fair comparison between the two philosophies for us as readers to either agree or disagre.

What im saying is that you're comparing the bad things with scripted games to the good stuff of sandbox games. No wonder sandbox games comes out on top.

Personally i dont think either one of these will die but rather they'll merge, taking the best out of both worlds.

I agree with Drevlin

Yup, this article is very subjective - and hastily written. Drevlin is right in pointing out that you've highlighted the flaws without considering the whole. I agree that sandbox games have a charm of their own but they are nothing new - we've had linear and sandbox type games in practically every genre from the earliest console days, and neither has managed to eliminate the other. They both have their intrinsic charms and pleasures - one can't compare both in purely objective terms like you're trying to.

And I wonder why you didn't take Half Life 2 or its subsequent expansions as an example for linear games?

Crysis vs Call of Duty 4

I wrote a rather long article about Crysis vs CoD4 that touches on this subject, so I thought I'd include it here.


Slap me for the shameless self-promotion as you will.

You know what really

You know what really irritates me? People pointing out that an opinion blog piece is subjective. Isn't that a little redundant? I mean, I work for a newspaper, and I'm tired of people calling in saying that an opinion piece was biased and subjective. That's what opinion pieces! You're supposed to be biased and you're supposed to have a preference. If you don't, then you've written a book report, or a news column, and there are places in media for those too.

In any case, I agree with most of the posters here that there will always be a place for more cinematic, scripted storytelling in videogames. At the same time, I find games that merge the design philosophies of BOTH schools of thought (most notably Deus Ex) are often the most thrilling to me. I guess that's why I'm still playing Mass Effect.

Ouch! You're right, my fault

Ouch! You're right, my fault for not treating it as an opinion peice. I saw red the minute I felt the author didn't support his statements properly.

You can't stop the AI from

You can't stop the AI from spawning during the final battle of One Shot One Kill.

There are multiple places that the AI emerge and standing at one just means that more come out from the other.

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