It’s been over three years since the original Crackdown game was something of a surprise hit on the Xbox 360. Three years which have seen the busiest period in the short history of video gaming for open-world, sand-box style games. Those years have also seen a raft of Crackdown-inspired super-powered games, each one trying to refine the genre, add something to the control system and narrative style or simply just make the play-area larger and more engaging.
The first Crackdown sold well, although some might suggest that the Halo 3 beta code that was packed in with it may cloud those sales figures. It received a certain degree of critical and consumer praise. It was like a breath of fresh air at a time when games were trying their hardest to be serious, weighty and mature.
Crackdown was all about manic fun, eschewing many of the traditional rules of narrative by just throwing open the city and telling the player “There, you go. Do it however you want to”. The aim was to quash a series of gangs with strongholds in each area of the city but how to achieve that goal was entirely left up to the player.
For many, that was the main criticism of the first Crackdown game: It didn’t gel together as a cohesive experience, rather feeling like a series of similar tasks which just happened to be performed near each other. And then it just ended with a couple of minutes of dialogue which added the big plot twist and wrapped up the story.
Fast forward ten years and Pacific City, the setting for the first game, is derelict (size and, for the most part, layout are identical to the first game’s play-area). The gang wars are long passed and the city faces a new threat. The shady industrial-military organisation which provided the protagonist for the first game is rebuilding, starting with you. You play as an Agent from the imaginatively-titled Agency. A clone with augmented abilities allowing you to run, jump, aim and fight with superhuman capabilities.
Collecting the glowing orbs from around the city once again upgrades your skill levels, as does killing enemies in certain ways (firearms, melee or explosives) and driving. There are also a series of foot and driving races around the city which can be used to boost your levels.
These foot races are spread across rooftops and timed. With little direction they become a slight case of trial and error, needing to repeat the race a few times before you find the right line and memorise the checkpoints. The driving races are let down by the fact that the car handling is awful. Cars turn jerkily, don’t slide through handbrake turns convincingly and often make erratic movements, seemingly unaided. The game can, and probably should, be played entirely without the aid of cars.
One of the additions that this game brings to the franchise is that of “Renegade Orbs”. Essentially these are like the agility orbs (there are renegade driving orbs too) but they float away from you when you get close. Catching them gives a larger bonus than for the stationary orbs but it is often difficult. They seem to follow a roughly set path but are proximity-sensitive. Meaning any time you get close, they float away. Too often tantalisingly out of reach and infuriatingly difficult to predict, these offer nothing more than a frustration-aid for self-loathing collectors. They feel like a fun idea that was never fully tuned.
The big headline feature in the build up to the game’s release was the glide suit. To be fair, it is very useful and a lot of fun. This makes it all the more unfortunate that you only really earn it (unless you neglect campaign missions until you’ve collected all the agility orbs) at the very end of the game. Once the game finishes you will have to re-start (although you can use your upgraded agent) if you want to get back into the city to play around. So the headline feature feels more like an un-lockable completion-bonus.
The multiple gangs from the previous game have been replaced with one – The Cell. In addition to this enemy the city is also blighted with Freaks, former humans who have been mutated by a virus. The Cell fill the streets during daylight hours and the Freaks come out at night.
The narrative and story exposition in the sequel is no better than the first game. You are guided through your time in the game-world by a voice-over from the head of The Agency. He watches, guides and assesses your progress as you take on The Cell. With the exception of the few minutes at the start and a brief scene upon completion, there are no cut-scenes.
The gameplay is still manic, still hugely enjoyable and still not quite perfect. A large part of traversing the city is centred around climbing the many tall buildings but with no visual indicator to let you know which ledges are “grab-able” and which are just texture effects it can be a frustrating exercise. Couple this frustration with the fact that often there will be a climbing route involving one or many ledges which slightly overhang, causing the need to jump out from the building and try to float back to grip the overhanging ledge. This is an imprecise task at best, not aided by the camera which is often difficult and occasionally impossible to control.
The targeting system, too, is not only unimproved from the first game but actually feels as though it is more erratic. The lock-on targeting is far too attracted to vehicles and often doesn’t seem to admit the existence of those multiple goons who are ten feet away riddling you with bullets. Try to catch a couple of enemies as they get out of their car on a busy road and you’re just as likely to lock on to any one of a dozen civilian vehicles trying to drive around them. Accidentally kill those civilians and the teams of Peacekeepers, who had previously backed you up, will turn on you.