I am on the record as saying that I think that continually spending more money on graphics is foolish. It's not that I hate good graphics, or that I don't want to see graphics improve, but I hate what the rising cost of development is doing to the industry. If games cost a lot to make (and they do) then you need to sell millions of them just to break even. With sales targets like that, you can't afford to experiment. Which is why we have so many bland, same-y shooters. Worse, the increase in graphics power has caused developers to develop this sick fetish for photo-realism that has sucked the color and charm out of far too many titles.
If I can deliver a bit of a beating to one of last year's sacred cows: Mass Effect 2 had some sections that seemed very uncharacteristically bland for BioWare. KOTOR, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect were visually striking journeys with lots of color. (Except for the random planets in Mass Effect, but stop interrupting - I'm making a point here.) Mass Effect 2 had several industrial ruins where everything was the color of rusted metal. When your floors, walls, horizon, and characters are all the same color, you have a recipe for monotony. If the artists who made the lush, vibrant world of Jade Empire are susceptible to this trend, then who can be safe?
Because of this, I was not looking forward to Crysis 2. I heard that it was set in destroyed New York, and I assumed that it was going to be a study in concrete and dirt. The trend has been for games to become ever more visually bland, even as their graphics engines become more advanced, and I just assumed CryTek was chasing after the "brown shooter" market. Instead, the artists at CryTek gave me a visual treat - a feast of color and contrast. About ten minutes into the game I had to admit that they had melted my Grinch-sized heart and created a world I couldn't wait to see. I am actually sickened by my own enthusiasm.
It's odd to realize that the company famous for its technical prowess and making next-next-next gen graphics engines is actually setting itself apart from the competition through the use of art. Yes, the Cry Engine 3 (the graphics engine driving this game) is an amazing piece of technology, but the difference between this engine and the previous one is probably something that's actually hard to spot in a screenshot. This isn't the 90's where a single image is all you need to figure out what year a game was released. Crysis 2 looks better than Half-Life 2, but those games are almost seven years apart. Yet the visual difference between the two is nothing compared to the difference between Doom and Duke Nukem 3D, which were three years apart. Or compare Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, which were only a year apart. Yes, Crysis 2 looks fantastic, but I think the artists deserve as much credit as the programmers who built the foundation.