There is a fundamental dichotomy at the core of Crackdown. This huge, streaming game, the third Grand Theft Auto-style game on Xbox 360 (after The Godfather and Saints Row), is built around simple basics: Shooting bosses and collecting orbs. So how can Crackdown, designed by Real Time Worlds and led by David Jones, the original creator of Grand Theft Auto, be so simple yet so god-damned addictive?
When you pare it down, Crackdown is built upon the most fundamental "play" principle. Just like we all discovered in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 and 2 or in Super Mario 64, Crackdown enables gamers to lose themselves completely, discarding time and priorities, hunger, and bodily functions, even ignoring natural disasters. Once you boot it up, the game's allure -- to collect orbs, jump higher and wield more powerful weapons -- will suck you in and leave you wanting more. It's called Crackdown for a reason.
It's simple and straight-forward, really. Real Time Worlds' Crackdown is a third-person perspective action game taking place in a fictitious place called Pacific City, a sandbox-style environment consisting of three islands. In a brief outline provided by the narrator, a man that sounds like a TV game show host, you learn the world isn't safe. Local governments are weakened and powerful weapon and drug-rich gangs have spread across the world. In Pacific City, three of them rule the roost: Los Muertos, the Volk, and Shai-Gen. You start as a rookie Agency cop in Pacific City. The Agency is the world union of police as it were, joined together to create a more powerful alliance of peace keepers. It has taken questionable ethical steps to use biogenetic engineering in order to increase Agents' superhuman powers, and it's fully incorporated human cloning. If you die, which you will do regularly, a clone will replace you. Simple as that.
While the action carries Crackdown, unfortunately the story couldn't carry a bundle of sticks. The characters you pick from the outset are fully interchangeable, which the ending clearly proves, and the lack of a central identifiable character leaves a void. The story only works to open that hole wider. It exists in only the most basic form, to meld the action into a cohesive whole. Let's just say you wouldn't buy this game for the enthralling narrative and compelling characters. You'll buy it to become a slobbering mindless slave to orb collecting. And be quite content to do so.
Crackdown starts players off in the Agency hub, a small island in between the other three, with zero powers and a simple choice of one of three cars, a muscle car, an SUV and a truck cab. As you power up, so will the vehicles, which transform into more powerful versions. The game's goal is to wipe out the enemy gangs and the bosses ruling them to re-establish order in Pacific City, and you'll do this by wielding two standard issue weapons and a grenade type and collecting enemy weapons throughout the campaign. Weapons can be brought to supply points, which you discover as you progress. Once stored there, they can be retrieved, fully reloaded. The game also provides three levels of difficulty, tough, ruthless, and psychotic. It's worth it to start and finish your first game on Tough, which is equivalent to medium or normal. To change your game entirely, switch straight to Psychotic, which becomes insanely difficult in a good and very challenging way.
The meat and potatoes of Crackdown consists of Campaign and Time-Trials modes, the latter being mini-games unlocked from within the campaign. It's primarily a single-player experience, but Real Time Worlds has heeded the great call from Xbox fans and implemented online cooperative gaming for yourself and one other to play simultaneously over either Xbox Live or System Link. Sadly, there is no local or split-screen play. Meaning, if there is only one copy of the game and a friend comes over to play, tough luck. It's a shame, and there is no multiplayer.
But playing cooperatively is a blast. Gamers can jump in and out of a friend's game at any time without restrictions, and if desired, players can complete the entire game together (garnering a special Achievement). The world is open for both players. Each gamer can play the game independently or join as a pair. Fighting one another is evil fun, as is racing the foot and car races. But it's the ability to just talk while playing through the campaign that's really the greatest quality of all. In a masterful touch, players can collect orbs in each other's game independently of the other, meaning there will never be any competition for orbs. Using Xbox Live, players can also check leaderboards for mini-races and time trials.
Microsoft gave us reviewable discs that we played on our own retail Xbox 360s. When experiencing the System Link co-op games, there was little lag and only the occasional hiccup, but nothing worth writing home about. Playing on Xbox Live, however, we encountered massive lag every couple minutes. Microsoft assured us the lag issue already was identified and as soon as the game ships, an auto-update will instantly solve the problem. So today, eight days before ship date, we cannot determine if that lag has been dealt with properly. All we know is that the Xbox Live version we played was great fun, but suffered big time with lag and slowdown. We await the auto-update.
Thanks to bio-engineering, physically leveling up is a big part of Crackdown. Like a role-playing game with level-ups, your agent improves five core skills -- agility, strength, firearms, explosives, and driving -- by using each one. The first one you'll want to start with is the agility power simply because it's the most rewarding. Once you're fully maxed out, you'll leap around the city like the Incredible Hulk. The agility power-up is so crucial and fun you'll find leaping from roof-top to roof-top is far preferable to diving or running. To power up using the other abilities, you'll drive in races to gain driving experience; use grenades, grenade launchers, and rocket launchers to build explosives; pick up and throw things and people to build strength; and finally, you'll shoot people to maximize the firearms power. The visual particle effect that demonstrates a level power-up is pretty and rewarding all in one swift movement.
Controlling an agent is straightforward. Aim his body with the left analog; rotate the camera by using the right analog. Agents can walk, run, crouch, jump, swim, shimmy, hang from ledges, wield weapons, and drive cars (any car in the game). The swimming feels fantastic. It's quick and you can jump straight out of the water like a frickin' dolphin. The aiming mechanic mixes free-form shooting with lock-on targeting. Free-form is similar in feel to Saints Row, though not quite as evenly balanced. The lock-on shooting is also functional: Press the left trigger to lock onto a target and press the right trigger to shoot. You can shoot flat-footed or while jumping. And you can spin in air and target multiple enemies while leaping. I'm not sure why, but I preferred lock-on targeting over free-form shooting. I was able to quickly target, release, target and release, while happily bounding through the air. Neither method is perfect. Instead, both feel like good but not great options.
The biggest complaint I have about the controls is that Real Time Worlds specifically carried over a problem from GTA: Once you've killed an enemy, auto-aim sticks to him. A team producer told me the reason they did this was because people liked to do things with the bodies after they were killed, such as hurling them into the air and shooting explosives into them to see how long they could juggle them. As part of the creative, experimental aspect of Crackdown, I agree; that is fun. But in a crowded street fight with 10 to 20 enemies shooting at me, the last thing I want my gun to do is stick to a dead guy. To be fair, Crackdown doesn't present the same circumstances as GTA, i.e., it's more forgiving. Therefore, it's less of a pain in the ass (and you won't have to start the entire mission from the beginning all over again).
I love racing and driving games so I'm always up for an action-adventure game with racing. I even liked the driving in The Godfather, mainly because I mastered the e-brake. While everything else in Crackdown feels really good, the driving suffers the most both mechanically and from a design standpoint. For starters, the civilian cars drive like Big Wheels in mud. They're meant to drive poorly to contrast the awesome Agency vehicles. But they drive poorly just the same. They're slow, they turn poorly, and they generally offer no acceleration. Only a few sports cars are worth driving at all.
Second, the car races are purely laborious. The only reason to play these is to earn Achievements. They're badly designed for a few reasons. First, you don't need to drive. Once your agility power is built up, jumping is the preferable means of transportation. Swimming is damn fun too. But driving is always a hazard. The traffic is erratic. For instance, you'll encounter random crashes in every part of the city. Second, during races, the courses lead you right through crowded public walkways. It's fun to smash innocents, but if you hit enough, it lowers your level-up numbers. If the whole reason to complete a course is to build up race points and the races force you into the masses of pedestrians, you end up losing more points than you gain. The racing in Crackdown should be way more fun than this.
Instead of continually building outward and expanding the physical space in a 2D plane like Rockstar North did with Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, Real Time Worlds built out and up. Rookies can hardly jump in the beginning because the agility ability isn't developed. But because Jones' team created the world of Pacific City like a giant toy construction set, collecting green agility orbs quickly becomes a mad, wonderful, psychotic obsession. The more you collect, the higher your agent jumps. The higher he jumps, the more orbs he can see and collect, enabling him to jump higher and see and collect more. You'll start off in Los Muertos' district, and as you progress to fight the Volk and finally the Shai-Gen the city structures grow taller and taller, until you see 100-story skyscrapers. It's a mad cycle of rewards and expansion, and the artful design pays off beautifully. At some point, and nobody really realizes this at first, fighting bosses honestly becomes secondary to collecting orbs. It's all about orb hunting.
Just to add to the frenzy, there are secret blue orbs and three kinds of green orbs. The green orbs comprise single, double, triple and even quadruple strength agility power-ups. The doubles and triples are found in higher places and garner more points toward leveling up. The secret blue orbs are the equivalent of secret packages in GTA. They're fun to gather and, when all collected, you'll earn an Achievement; but they don't do all that much. The most brilliant and yet simple element to it all is that you aren't required to collect a single one to unlock the next level. Unlike the half-dozen PS one platform games that shove collecting widgets down your throat, these exist only if you want them.
On the downside, exploration is limited to only two orb types. Sure, there are 500 agility orbs, and 300 secret orbs, which is a lot. But other than orbs, you got nothing. There aren't enough weapons, and secret weapons or even cars would be awesome things to collect, for instance. But no. While the huge world is cool, as a designer you have to put more things in the world to warrant exploration. To make matters a little less cheery, the game proper isn't that long. After beating the main story, which is a relatively quick six to eight hours in Tough, there is little to do except gun for Achievements -- which means hopping around looking for blue orbs, racing in car or foot races, and trying to pull off car stunts.
Still, during the heat of thee campaign, the game has its merits. It feels natural and fluid in structure because the only place you can go at first is Los Muertos' district. Your world starts out small, grows a little and then blossoms quickly. You'll notice that, at first, the Los Muertos buildings are shorter to accommodate your early and feeble jumping abilities. But the truth is, this district is filled with agility orbs, so it's easy to go anywhere and fight enemies and collect all in the same motion. It also feels well designed for two other reasons. First, once you get close to a boss, a game tracker identifies him or her. If you take a moment to read the dossier, you'll learn how he or she fits into the organization. Some bosses are trainers, weapons specialists, and communications experts, while others are security fanatics, mad scientists, or vehicle professionals. By working your way to the final boss by defeating the sub-bosses first, you weaken the big boss and increase the chances of defeating him or her in substantial ways.
For instance, I tried fighting the Shai-Gen boss right away. I got the crap knocked out of me every single time. Why? The enemy had dozens upon dozens of henchmen wielding rocket launchers and grenade launchers. So, after pounding my head against a brick wall, I went and methodically took out all of the sub-bosses, and each time I did, the narrator explained which part of the enemy operation was weakened, whether it was firearms, vehicles or explosives. The second time I went in for the final attack, only one guy was firing rockets at me. I had taken out the high-level weapons boss, rendering the final boss's henchmen badly armed. By reading the full dossier, I also learned that each boss lair has a second or secret entrance. Exploring the world, and in particular, discovering the boss entrances, is killer fun.
As you progress, the unfortunate aspect to the bosses is that they never get any smarter, wilier, or harder to predict. Neither the enemy nor the boss AI develops. The game basically surrounds a boss with increasingly difficult henchmen, and as you peel back the onion of enemies, the boss, surprisingly, isn't as tough as his toughest henchmen. His strengths are always a long health bar and one really nice weapon. The bosses remain stupid and easy to kill all the way to the end. In many instances, I stood in one spot and shot rockets into the bosses' face until he died.
Visually and sonically, the final reviewable build of Crackdown is much improved over its two E3 showings. The original previews we witnessed showed off heavy, thick black outlines around each character. The simplicity of the art direction and the comic-book affect countered most gamers' perceptions of, and desire for, true, next-gen graphics. Real Time Worlds took notes -- and action. The final build shows off characters with far prettier and denser texture work, and the black lines were minimized to almost nothing. But perhaps Crackdown will be best remembered for its explosions. The physics and particles here create so much trajectory chaos that half of the fun is just blowing stuff up. The game is running eight passes during every frame, and it's running two times anti-aliasing. There is a lot going on behind the scenes. Still, games like Gears of War and Rainbow Six Vegas have set high standards with which to compare. So despite its technical prowess, Crackdown is no better than decent looking.
From a purely technical standpoint, most games of this nature -- open world thug simulators -- emphasize pure polygon counts, draw-distances, and quantity over high-res textures, variety, and great special effects. Crackdown, which has the benefit of being a next-generation game, offers crisp textures, long draw distances, great explosions, and a huge living, breathing world that's filled with cars and people. But what does it sound like? For such a big world, little is said. And what is said is forgettable. Not only does your character say nada, the denizens of Pacific City say nothing worth remembering either. They're all just interchangeable polygonal puppets. Since the story is minimal, the dialog is also minimal. Mostly, you hear the narrator, whose game show tone will eventually wear thin.
Still, at least the special effects sound cool, and they're nicely implemented in 5.1. You'll really get a kick out of the audio when multiple objects explode. Finally, the licensed music was the most forgettable audio I've heard in the last 25 games I've played. It's bland to the point where no music is just as good as this music.
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