Crackdown 2 poses a question players have subconsciously been answering since their first contact with a controller or joystick: Would you rather spend your time in a video game jumping? Or shooting?
Three years ago with little preceding hype, Microsoft released the marvellous Crackdown, a gameplay-centric game created by Real Time Worlds and overseen by one of the creators of Grand Theft Auto. Crackdown cast players as a super-powered policeman who could leap and shoot with impunity in the open terrain of Pacific City, cleansing the architecturally interesting metropolis of several nasty gangs. This month, Crackdown 2 arrives, developed by ex-Real Time Worlds developers at start-up Ruffian Games. The setting is the same Pacific City, its architecture, years after the first game, now as cracked as used eggshells. The original game's gangs have been replaced by two factions, the heavily-armed Cell gang and the nocturnal zombie-like monstrous Freaks.
The first Crackdown was essentially a story-light, mayhem-heavy riff on Grand Theft Auto with an intoxicating addition of role-playing game and Super Mario - all that big jumping and the collecting of shiny things! The second Crackdown sees its stew infiltrated by the likes of Space Invaders, Robotron, Dead Rising and the rest of the long line of games that have been all about shooting and killing hordes of bad guys. Hopefully that's the seasoning you wanted.
Hurdling Buildings: Let's get this out in the open right away. My favourite part of the first Crackdown was collecting the green, glowing agility orbs that gradually improved my character's ability to jump higher and higher, until I could leap over short buildings, span the gaps between blocks of skyscrapers and treat Pacific City as an urban World 1-1. Those orbs were placed at the urban peaks of Pacific City, each one a challenge toward which to summit. The orbs are back, 500 of them placed high on buildings, all able to help you gradually increase your jumping height and running speed. Also back is the ability to raise the level of your shooting, punching, driving, and explosive-throwing capabilities, by shooting, punching, driving over bad guys and throwing explosives. Reaching level 5 of some of these abilities unlocks special abilities. Upgrading also grants you access to better weapons and vehicles, all accessible at any Agency drop-off point that has been cleared of Cell fighters.
Causing Chaos: One thing you do to have fun in a Crackdown game is wait for a few enemy cars to bunch up, let their passengers get out to shoot you, and then you toss a grenade. You will witness, seconds later, a chain reaction of exploding gas tanks and engines as car parts and gangsters fly into the sky. In Crackdown 2, shambling crowds of Freaks clog streets at night with the thickness of hair stopping a drain. These guys exist seemingly only to be run over, which is the new signature spectacle for Crackdown 2. You can drive through the Freak crowd with the irrepressible flush of a half-bottle of Drano. And as before, the method with which you dispatch your enemies will fly at your characters face in the form of orbs that are colour-coded to represent the means you used to dispatch them. A runner-up for best new attack in Crackdown 2 is the blast from the UV shotgun, a freak obliterating blast from the best of the many machine guns and enhanced rocket launchers added to the sequel's improved arsenal.
Still Not Trying To Tell A Story: Storylines in open-world video games can be a waste of time. Well, stories in most games can be a waste of time. But with open-world games, developers have to compete with the narrative skills deployed in category leader Grand Theft Auto. The first Crackdown and the sequel have been wisely designed to avoid narrative comparison. Gameplay is king here. There is barely a story in Crackdown 2 other than some chatter heard in found audio logs and the back-story drips received by your character's commander, the head of the Agency (He doesn't reveal too much, because he spends most of his time just taunting you or perversely cheering you on.) The story is that Pacific City is wracked by the Freaks and Cell. You have to stop them. It's all about as complex as Bowser nabbing Princess Peach. That's for the better, because Crackdown 2 is the kind of game that lets its gameplay do all the telling that needs to be told.
Easily Co-Opped Cops: The new Crackdown doubles the number of potential online co-op players to four. A quartet of Agents can tackle missions together in Pacific City. Unfortunately, only the host player gets credit for completed storyline missions and there isn't a ton of stuff for players to do together that will count for both players. The actual ease of getting into and out of another player's game is nevertheless a victory for simple interfaces and smooth online play. Screwing around in co-op is a blast, which is the point, since this is a game that is most enjoyable when you are ignoring what you are supposed to do. Competitive multiplayer, which includes a handful of modes including death match and "Rocket Tag", is also easily joined and enjoyably, violently unhinged
Renegade Orbs: In Crackdown 2, the orbs we Crackdown players enjoyed scaling smokestacks to snatch sometimes fly away from you. They are Renegade Orbs, a minor but clever idea that doubles as one of the baldest displays of carrot-on-stick game design in a game. No disguising the teasing and cajoling of the player here!
This Nine-Part Quest: A player who uses Crackdown 2 as a sandbox in which to mess around will be easily satisfied by the game. A player who wants the fifth of the game's nine main missions to feel different from the first or the eighth or any other, will not. The first Crackdown game let players choose the order in which they assaulted a gang's henchmen, gradually crippling the gang's weapons, vehicle and recruiting capabilities through successful firefights in various urban locations. The new game's system is simpler, requiring the player to, in the order of their choosing, climb to activate trios of modules that cast rays toward a place where, deep below the surface, a beacon must be placed. Dropping to the depths and calling for the beacon puts the player in an increasingly tense shootout against swarming Freaks. Hold them off long enough and the beacon activates. That mission flow is repeated eight more times in Crackdown 2 with little variation. Ruffian's designers turn something that is enjoyable once or twice into a mission flow that is tedious by the time the game is half-completed. The less-interesting nature of Crackdown 2's bland enemies is surely part of the problem. I missed gangs with hierarchies.
The New Angle: I played the first Crackdown with my player frequently looking up. He looked up for agility orbs, for buildings to scale, for water towers to hurdle. The dramatic increase in the number of enemies on the ground in Crackdown 2 inhibits such upward-gazing. You need to keep your eyes much more on the streets, so that you can shot and punch the impressive clusters of enemies almost always in the neighbourhood. Some players will love this, especially if you were more of a Robotron person back in the day, or more of a Dead Rising or Left 4 Dead person now. But I was always more of a Mario guy and remain an Assassin's Creed and Mirror's Edge kind of player. I'd rather be an assassinating acrobat than a million-enemy-machine-gunner. As over-the-top action movie as the first Crackdown was, it still offered enough calm on the ground to let a player tackle its heights. Almost every open-world game encourages rampant shooting. The jumping mixed with combat is what made Crackdown special. The new game will keep you busier in combat on the ground, leaving you fewer occasions to look up and prep a leap. Many will love this adjustment. If that's you, consider this paragraph blue.
The Victory of The Achievement-Hunters: The head of the Agency, the man who is the persistent voice in your ear in Crackdown games, often breaks the fourth wall in this sequel in order to tell you that something you have done is a great Achievement (unlocked). That's cute. But something has gone awry with the reason we play video games if the collecting of each audio log - ostensibly fetched in order to reveal more of the game's back-story - triggers a reminder message that obtaining all of them unlocks an Achievement. I don't play for Achievements nor do I care about them, so it is odd and grating to play a game that is so certain that I do.
The Odd Small Things Why is it that special rooftop races must be completed by a certain amount of time, but there is no visible timer to warn you that time is ticking down? Why is there a map that doesn't allow the player to place waypoints? Why can't I punch an approaching guy if I was locked onto him to shoot him, not until I cease locking on? Why must a day-night cycle make it too hard to see handholds in a series that is already inconsistent about which window panes can be grasped for an assent and which are, well, mere window-dressing? And why in the world can one explosion from an enemy-thrown grenade cause my Agent to convulse long enough that he gets caught in another and another and another until he has been juggled to death? May some of these small frustrations be answered with a patch.
Crackdown 2 is an odd sequel. You can often expect a video game sequel to simply be better than its predecessor. This follow-up, however, is good mostly in the ways it imitates its predecessor and less winning in the ways that it has changed. In the abstract, change is good and expanded online play is always welcome. But Crackdown 2 specifically omits some of the strengths of the first game to replace them with elements that are, at best, only as good rather than superior. For this Crackdown 1 fan, those changes make the new game less fun. Like its starring Agent, Crackdown would benefit from a leap. Crackdown 2 is good, especially when you are not following orders, but does not hop over its predecessor.
Crackdown 2 was developed by Ruffian Games and published by Microsoft Game Studios for the Xbox 360 on July 6. Retails for $US59.99/$AU99.95. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Tried co-op and multiplayer; spent most of my dozen hours with the game on the campaign, raising my Agent to Level 5 in all abilities except driving and strength, the latter of which was boosted to Level 6.