Epic's oft-repeated motto for Gears of War 2 was, "Bigger, better, and more badass." For Ruffian's follow-up to Crackdown, it feels like the motto was, "Don't rock the boat." Here is a sequel that feels near identical to its predecessor in just about every way. The open world action formula is the same. The game's location is the same. The graphics look about the same. And the shortcomings, well they're about the same too.
Is it fun? Yes. That hasn't changed either.
Of course, not everything in Crackdown 2 is identical to its predecessor. There's four-player co-op now, some new weapons and gizmos, a few new vehicles and missions, as well as a 16-player arena combat mode. And, of course, there are more orbs. Tasty, tasty orbs. But before we get to all that, let's take a step back to get everyone up to speed.
In the years since the events of Crackdown 1, mutant freaks have destroyed much of the beautiful Pacific City. Marauding terrorists who call themselves The Cell have done their best to destroy the rest. The city is on the brink and it's up to you, a superhero member of the Agency, to restore order so that the good citizens can go back to life as usual. That's the introduction you'll get at the start of Crackdown 2, and you pretty much won't get any more exposition outside of collectible audio logs until the disappointing finish. To say that Crackdown 2 has a story at all is being generous.
At the outset of Crackdown 2, you'll find yourself in the shoes of a general badass, capable of doling out pain and stomping squads of freaks. You've got a few guns in the arsenal, a decent car, and your athletic abilities are well above average. That's only the beginning. By the end you'll be able to leap from rooftop to rooftop with ease, pick up and toss cars and trucks, fill the sky with homing missiles, and even glide through the air like a flying squirrel. To become that ultimate superhero, you'll have to collect orbs. And that is really the whole point of the game.
Orbs for the driving skill can be earned by running over enemies, winning races, doing little stunts or soaring through rings in the air. Grab enough, and you'll unlock new cars. Similar progressions work for strength, guns and explosives. As you use these skills in combat, you'll earn streams of orbs and be rewarded with new weapons and special moves.
But Crackdown 2 is really a game for people who like collecting things. The main prize is agility orbs, found on rooftops or other places that require a bit of platforming. You can also find hidden orbs, or the new renegade orbs -- which annoyingly run away from you -- and Xbox Live orbs which can only be snagged while playing online co-op. Add in some audio file collectibles and you have roughly 1,000 things to seek out. It may sound like an odd focus to build a game around, but this platformer-meets-pac-man formula is seriously addictive.
If you played Crackdown 1, this probably all sounds very familiar to you. That's because it is, though small tweaks have been made here and there. There's now an echo ping feature that will tell you if orbs are nearby, cars are unlocked instead of just having one transforming vehicle, and melee combat has a few extra combos. A couple of new side quests and weapons have been included. Add in mutant freaks of various sizes to fight, a helicopter and a tank, and a few new moves like the wingsuit glide and you've got Crackdown 2.
Once again, it all boils down to collecting orbs and then creating your own sandbox fun with friends. Some of the new gadgets and gizmos make this process a great deal easier and more enjoyable. Helicopters are great for orb hunting. And the mag grenade -- an explosive that can first stick several things together -- is the perfect addition to a friendly little rampage. Riding around with friends and laying waste to an already wasted city or hunting orbs with a few friends is just plain fun, and it really makes you feel like every other sandbox game that doesn't have co-op is missing a key ingredient.
Unfortunately, Ruffian didn't include many tools to help players coordinate with each other. On the maps, every player is a triangle with nothing to let you know who is who. You can't lay down waypoints or mark locations, either, which makes giving directions a pain. And there aren't nearly enough vehicles that all four players can get inside at once.
Even with all of the additions, the game doesn't feel new by any means and Ruffian still hasn't addressed many of the issues that people had with Crackdown 1. The story is nonexistent. The gun targeting is wonky and doesn't work well with the camera. Certain ledges look climbable but aren't. Lots of buildings have frustrating geometry that cause you to bump overhanging ledges and fall. Melee combat, though improved, still isn't any fun. The vast majority of missions are just cut and pasted from a small handful of designs.
The main campaign simply involves doing the same mission nine times in a row. Several oft-repeated side quests are no more complex than running to a set area and shooting everything. Outside of that, there are just races and stunt rings, both of which have vehicle and on-foot varieties. This somehow manages to be a step backwards in terms of mission design and structure from the already lacking Crackdown 1.
And boy are the graphics in Crackdown 2 not helping matters. For starters, this is the same city that everybody already explored in Crackdown 1. It's gone through a few changes and much of the roads and buildings are in disrepair, but it's the same place alright. That kind of killed the whole exploration bit for me as I quickly realized I'd already done just that, though seeing memorable landmarks now destroyed was occasionally interesting.
That's not the worst part, though. The worst parts are the atrocious textures, effects and attention to detail. Crackdown 2 often looks like a standard definition game blown up onto an HD screen. The graphics are blurry, lacking in detail, and underwhelming. The agents you play as look dull, have no personality, and don't offer any evolution or good customization. The explosions, though they may be big and easily link together into something massive, don't pack any punch. And though Crackdown 2 can toss dozens of freaks on screen at once for a massive battle, it oftentimes can't keep up with the action and the framerate stutters. Like much of the rest of Crackdown 2, the work here feels rushed.
You can kill each other to your heart's content in the co-op game, but if you want more live targets you'll have to head over to the arena combat mode. Up to 16 players can take part in three different modes -- deathmatch, team deathmatch, and Rocket Tag. The names of the modes pretty much sum up the experience. The deathmatch games don't feel particularly well balanced, though. Rockets and grenades dominate the landscape, while vehicles like the helicopter can offer huge killing spree advantages. Outside of the uniqueness of a deathmatch game that allows you to leap around like a maniac, there isn't a whole lot to get excited about here.
Rocket Tag is a fun little diversion -- things get pretty crazy when everybody is targeting just one player with rocket launchers -- but the adversarial multiplayer mode as a whole feels more like a missed opportunity than anything else, rushed to make a deadline. Where are the free form races or climbing challenges? Where is the game customization? What we get here is far too limited in scope and ambition to be a real selling point.