I love Crackdown. It's my favourite game on the 360, bar none. It's the epitome of fun, as you leap from rooftop to rooftop, ascend impossibly tall skyscrapers and rain destruction on the hapless residents of Pacific City. I've lost countless hours simply running around, stumbling on a surprise avenue of fun, like throwing my SUV on top of a house, then utilizing its jump ability to hop across the chasms between buildings.
It's been three years since Crackdown released, and since then, the original developers, Realtime Worlds, moved on to other projects. But such is Microsoft's enthusiasm for the Crackdown brand, they helped set up a brand new studio, Ruffian Games, comprised of the original creators nabbed from Realtime Worlds, to bring life to a Crackdown sequel. Yesterday, the demo for Crackdown 2 plummeted onto the Live servers. Thirty minutes of pure, unadulterated fun? Or half an hour of endless disappointment?
Welcome Back, Agent
You begin Crackdown 2 by selecting your very own Agent from a variety of - quite ugly - faces, and a colour scheme for your soon-to-evolve suit. You're immediately dropped into a firefight with Cell, the new militia plaguing Pacific City, at the industrial docks on the coast, a sprawling city of rusted steel containers, stacked high amongst cranes and loading bays. The familiar baritone of the Agency informs you to remove the Cell presence. I politely disagreed, instead running in the opposite direction, climbing up a small building to nab the Agility Orb pulsing on its roof.
Ah, Agility Orbs. The crack of Crackdown. Not much has changed in the sequel. Their glowing green forms still scattered across the city like luminous breadcrumbs. Joining their ranks are the Renegade Orbs, of both the Agility and Driving variety. You'll have to chase them, on foot or in a car, although they're extremely fast and nippy. It's a great addition, however, as the sense of reward once you've caught them, greeted by the familiar sprinkling soundbite, is immensely satisfying.
With my mischievous desires sated, I returned to the locations marked on my map to remove Cell soldiers and begin activating 'beacons' for Project Sunburst. If you've missed the recent Crackdown 2 animation videos, then in the wake of the original Agent's exploits, Pacific City succumbed to a mutant outbreak. 'Freaks', as they're so lovingly referred to, emerge at night to shuffle around the streets, ostensibly in search of new victims to add to their ranks, but really just for your own amusement.
So, Project Sunburst. Essentially, an attempt by Ruffian to include a smidgen of strategy to the game, and an overall narrative arc, too. Scattered across Pacific City are 'beacons', which, once activated, pinpoint a 'Freak Lair', located underground, and hold off wave after wave of 'Freaks' so an Agency super-weapon, can power up and unleash a purging burst of UV light. Activating all the beacons and subsequent super-weapons will, presumably, remove the 'Freaks' from Pacific City, and allow the Agency to resume its totalitarian regime plans once again.
Your Skills Are Improving, Agent
The actual missions of Crackdown 2 appear disappointingly bland. Removing Cell and activating 'beacons' is formulaic and gratingly repetitive, and the 'Freak Lair' objectives suffer from the same problems, but are essentially stationary escort-missions. Personally, I preferred the gangs from the original, with their hierarchical layout. Sure, the bosses themselves were pushovers, but some, like the mustached villain holed up in the top of an oil rig, was an exercise in combat prowess and agility acumen to reach.But fret not, dear reader. Where Crackdown 2 excels is in supplying the player with great tools to mess around with, and an ever-evolving suite of powers and features.
You can upgrade your agility, strength, firearms, explosives and driving skills, simply by performing relevant actions. Find an Agility Orb, upgrade your agility. Smack a soldier across the street, upgrade your strength. Unload a clip into a 'Freak', upgrade your firearms. Lob a grenade at a Cell truck, upgrade your explosives. Power-slide into a Cell stronghold... You get the picture. Crackdown is all about rewarding the player for using their tool-set to the fullest. If you're not evolving, you're simply not trying hard enough.
In the original, upgrading your powers only meant an increase in, say, jump height or firearm strength. Now, reaching each level of a respective skill means you'll unlock new abilities. Upgrade strength, for instance, and soon you'll be ripping turrets from their mounts or, my personal favourite, picking up lamp-posts and swinging them around like an impromptu bat! The upper echelons of agility result in a Wing-Suit, allowing you to glide for a brief moment as you plummet from high-altitude.
While I appreciate the upgrades Ruffian has made to the Crackdown formula, it's painfully apparent how much has not changed. It's still the same Pacific City, bar some crumbled masonry, blazing fires and a few new structures, but the nostalgia soon curdles into boredom. Even worse are the visuals. The graphics appear unchanged, excluding new sky-boxes. Particle affects, competent in 2007, now appear downright ugly, like when a car explodes into a fuzzy ball of pixellated flame and smoke.
Crackdown 2 was only announced this time last year, and Ruffian Games was assembled hastily only a few months before. You can imagine the team were instructed to produce a sequel to the award-winning original in under a year. I respect what the team has done, as Crackdown 2 isn't an unplayable mess of a game. It's fun, it's crazy and with four player co-op, they've upped the ante. But as far as sequels go, Crackdown 2 isn't deserving of its full-game price. It is, essentially, a beefed-up expansion pack. It's inception is very similar to Halo 3: ODST, except Crackdown doesn't have the brand recognition nor the ardent fans of that particular series. I'd love to see a Crackdown 3, but I have serious doubts it'll sell well enough for Microsoft to commission one.
It's In The Game
Rant aside, I enjoyed the Crackdown 2 demo immensely. Although the timer means you must enjoy Pacific City in bites, it does force you to explore its features fast and furiously, resulting in a mad-dash, chaotic speedrun, upgrading your skills, catching brief glimpses of potential avenues of destruction only for another to emerge before your eyes.
I recommend simply messing around with the toolbox Ruffian has so kindly supplied. Mag-Grenades are particular fun. Throw one on a car, then stick another on a wall, and whatever is weakest will be pulled towards what's heaviest. Stick another on an opposing wall, and you can tug the car back and release it like a tethered catapult. The opportunities for the Crackdown community to exploit the Mag-Grenade is well worth looking forward to. Ruffian has also made steps towards making the driving skills easier to upgrade. In the original, it was difficult to avoid hitting pedestrians and losing experience. But with the 'Freak' onslaught at night, where hundreds pile onto the streets, it's a joy to simply plow through their masses, their pulsating bodies exploding into goo, sparkling with purple driving orbs.
I definitely recommend the Crackdown 2 demo, if not to confirm your purchase, for the pure fun you can have. Crackdown understands what it means to be a videogame. With the medium drawn in two directions, one towards appealing to the casual crowd, the other to the somewhat pretentious lot who demand games leapfrog films in cinematic quality, Crackdown 2 stands almost alone, holding Mario and Sonic's mantle.
Second Opinion: I'd sum up my time with the Crackdown 2 demo with two simple (albeit French) words: Déjà vu. Having played a few hours of Crackdown to prepare myself for the demo, I was shocked by how little has changed. The obnoxiously slow turrets, new weapons and Michael McConnohie's masterful VA did little to assuage the feeling that I'd played exactly the same game 3 years ago- and even the huge hordes of shambling freaks didn't really shake up the formula as much as I thought it would. After a little while, however, a whole slew of little tweaks and improvements really started to make themselves known. Everything is much smoother and crisper this time around; from the snap targeting to the speedy clambering animations.
Most impressively, the melee system has undergone a complete overhaul; focusing on furious combos of quick jabs, punches and kicks rather than the repetitive, sluggish animations of its predecessor. After a couple of upgrades, you'll tear through swathes of enemies in seconds with brutal flurries- and the process can be sped up by brandishing an environmental object such as a car door... or an entire car. My personal highlight of the demo was flooring two dozen abominations with a deftly-wielded bus stop. However, it's currently impossible to melee a targeted enemy- and whilst this might be an oversight rather than a bug, it's still extremely annoying.
So basically, prepare yourself for more of the same next month. But better. - Jon