When it was first announced that Halo 3 Beta keys were being included in the retail release of an Xbox 360 game, I rolled my eyes. I assumed that whatever they were slapping that key onto was going to be a crappy bargain basement eyesore. It has been a great pleasure to learn that, maybe, they bundled the Halo 3 key with Crackdown so that more people would be exposed to the simple greatness this game contains. To be sure, the game has deep flaws; not much of a story, a few racial stereotypes, and somewhat unsatisfying boss fights mar the experience. At the core, though, this is a mindlessly fun game that does a lot of things right. If there's a sequel, and there's no reason not to think there won't be, it's good to know that Realtime Worlds has established an extremely solid base for future endeavors. Read on for my thoughts on this superjumping shooter.
The progression from weak to strong is a staple in videogaming. Leveling up in RPGs, scarfing a mushroom as Mario - they're all abstractions of improvement. The defining characteristic of Crackdown is this gain in power; more than killing gang members or taking out kingpins, the game is about developing from a fairly tough cop to an incredible supersoldier. Where with some titles you're inclined to become more powerful just because it's 'the point of the game', Crackdown makes you want it. More power isn't some minor increase in damage or a shinier sword. Over the course of the game your character moves from mighty hops to leaps that clear buildings effortlessly. Explosions go from minor pops to group-clearing blasts, and the ability to snap off a headshot in midair while falling from a 10-story building is ... pretty much always impressive.
- Title: Crackdown
- Developer/Publisher: Realtime Worlds, Microsoft Game Studios
- System: 360
- Genre: Sandbox-Style Action Shooter
- Score: 3/5 - This game is flawed, but will appeal to genre fans. Any gamer might enjoy renting it, but this won't ever be a classic.
This power progression is wrapped in a paper-thin story wrapping. You're a genetically engineered police officer cooked up to combat an overwhelming gang presence on the planet's capital city. As a part of a world-girding (kind of fascist-sounding) law enforcement organization called 'The Agency', your character is charged with the general task of 'killing all the bad guys'. As you bound and drive and run your way around the island-based city, you'll get intel on the kingpins who run the three gangs that run the town. You're given leave to take out the crime bosses and their henchmen any way you please. The only time the Agency gets cranky is when civilians get caught in the crossfire (or under an onrushing car). Individually, none of these criminals are a challenge to take out. The bosses are also fairly easy targets; all that separates them from their underlings is a bit more health. (Though you do get a well-voiced cut-scene after each.) The challenge here is that in a given fight you may be facing upwards of 15 or 20 gang members at once. If you allow them to surround you and set up a crossfire, even a super-powered agent can succumb to the stinging of gnats. This backdrop and the 'plot progression' of killing crime lords is all you'll get for a storyline. While it's disappointing, it's just barely enough to keep your attention.
Where the game fails with story, it excels with presentation. Over the course of the game you'll raise your character's skills by taking out gang members. It's immediately obvious what skills you are improving: kill a ganger with a gun, and little colored spheres with guns in them rush into your character. The game's voiceover enthusiastically calls that 'skills for kills'. Your five skills are Agility, Firearms, Explosives, Driving, and Strength. You start with zero stars, and can advance to four stars in each skill. Agility is the only skill that is raised through different means. Beautiful green glowing orbs on the tops of buildings (500 in all) tempt you to reach new heights and leap wider gaps. The collection of that sweet, sweet candy will probably be what catches your attention in the early part of the game. There's a wonderfully formed hum that alerts you to the presence of nearby orbs, and a cheery 'ping!' that sounds when you collect one. This mechanic is easily the most addictive in the game, but pretty much everything you can do is amusing in one way or another. Seeing how far you can throw things (like, say, cars in the later game), discovering the hidden orbs which improve all of your skills at once, running the rooftop and street-level races scattered across the map; giving you the chance to make your own fun is what this game excels at. The comparisons to Grand Theft Auto are understandable insofar as this is a well-made sandbox of a world, but Crackdown offers you even fewer barriers than GTA does in what you can and can't do.
And, on that note, anything you find you can't do by yourself can probably be achieved in co-op play. Online co-op mode is as flexible as any other portion of the game, allowing you and one friend to bound and race around the city in whatever fashion you desire. The whole city is open to your duo, and if you're not interested in staying together there's no reason to do so. Unlike with Gears, say, the co-op is only the icing on the cake for Crackdown; there's plenty of fun to be had on your own. It's still tremendous to play in such a wide-open environment with another voice ringing in your ears. We can only hope that GTA IV and future sandbox games take a page from Crackdown's very attractive book.
That attractiveness extends beyond the game's design to its visual style. Using a mild form of cell shading and an incredible draw distance, the city you've been charged with protecting is occasionally breathtaking. It's certainly not pushing the limits of UT-style imagery, but the game's look is still extremely appealing. The title's sound presentation is equally engaging, and especially in high places really adds to the game's sensation. Standing atop the Agency building, the highest in the gameworld, the wind rushing past you adds a real sense of vertigo to your extreme height. Beyond the sound, I especially enjoyed the city's architecture. Each portion of the city has a distinct look, and within the districts every building (it seems) has its own personality. From two-story flats to the black and neon skyscrapers, they've made your urban playground as varied as they can. They urge you to ever greater heights, and it's hard to overstate just how much fun it is to leap from a tall building into the midst of a firefight; it just never gets old.
Like a Burnout for action games, Crackdown has pared away superfluous things like 'characters', 'story' or 'originality' to get at the meat of the game mechanics on offer. For those that expect a little more from their games, be forewarned that you're not going to experience the next step in storytelling here. For a great time, though, and a heaping portion of extremely enjoyable mindless entertainment, it's hard to ignore Crackdown's charms. It doesn't hurt that, as advertised, you'll eventually get access to the Halo 3 multiplayer beta. There's talk that the beta for this retail offering may not be until May and, to be honest, this title won't keep you occupied until then. It's still a good few weeks worth of entertainment, and well worth your time for a rental or a borrow from a friend. Just don't forget to give co-op a try; racing from rooftop to rooftop with a friend is an experience not to be missed.