Written : Sunday, June 24, 2007
By: Steve Klinger (GT: graf1k)
Despite it's relative youth in the video games industry, Realtime Worlds already has quite a pedigree behind it, namely in founder and creator David Jones. While the name might not be familiar, Jones did have some success with the last development house he founded back in 1988, DMA Designs. You might know them better as Rockstar North, creators of the mack-daddy of urban sandbox games, Grand Theft Auto. While in the same vein of the Grand Theft Auto series, Crackdown is more than just a carbon-copy of it's predecessor and is different enough to stand alone as a unique experience in the urban sandbox sub-genre.
In stark contrast to the large and fleshy plot of a GTA game with all it's side-plots and minutia, Crackdown is bluntly straightforward with it's story. "It's all gone to shit", as the voice-over says at the beginning of the game. Crime has become so rampant and is so completely out of control, the entire country is on the brink of complete and total anarchy. In an attempt to make a last stand against lawlessness, the law enforcement organizations of the world have united to form The Agency, the last best hope to return order to the world. With the research of disgraced scientist Dr. Baltazar Czernenko, the Agency has developed a group of super-human law enforcement agents to rage all-out war against the criminal element. Taking control of one of these agents, you'll take to the streets of Pacific City, the operations site of The Agency, to take down the three local gangs that control burrows of the city. Los Muertos ("The Dead") in the west, The Volk in the south, and the Shai-Gen corporation in the north. Each gang has 7 bosses to take out, including one capo that is the 'boss of bosses' for each group.
Break yo' self, fool!
What Crackdown lacks in plot, it makes up for with innovative gameplay. Taking control of an Agent is one of the most satisfying abuses of power to ever grace a video game. As you start out, the Agents, while powerful, are still easily bested by a well-trained horde of gang members. However, as you level your five core abilities (Agility, Driving, Explosives, Strength and Firearms) your agent will become an unstoppable force, able to take out dozens of enemies at a time without much trouble. Basically, you are the Terminator except you don't walk and talk like a robot. Well, you don't really talk at all, but that is besides the point. A maxed out agent is like a mini superhero, able to leap buildings in a single bound and throw cars like they were pebbles. The mechanic for leveling your abilities in Crackdown is like that of a very basic RPG. The more you use an ability, the better you become at it. Need to increase your strength? Take people down using only your melee attacks. The more shooting you do, the better your aim becomes. The more kills with explosives, the bigger and more devastating your explosions will be. To increase your driving skill, you can do a multitude of things including complete street races, clear stunt rings, or just run over enemies. The only ability that cannot be increased just by using it is agility. To increase your agility, you'll have to collect the multitude of agility orbs scattered along the rooftops of Pacific City, as well as complete the rooftop races. There are 500 orbs in all and you'll have to collect a good deal of them to completely max out your characters abilities. Shooting enemies from on high will also increase your agility, although only by a very small amount. Agility is easily the most fun to max out and the most fun to use when maxed out. The city is cleverly designed to limit how much of it you can access by your agility level, without using invisible barriers. Instead, ledges and rooftops are placed just out of your reach until you are the appropriate level. This also helps to keep each area fresh as you level your agility. When maxed, you'll be bounding up buildings and from rooftop to rooftop like it was an everyday thing. This alone distinguishes Crackdown from the rest of the games in the field so much, that it's honestly hard to even group them together anymore.
With four levels to reach in each discipline, and then another quasi-level of maxing out the fourth ability level, you'll find yourself getting better as the enemies become more difficult. Leveling is rather quick for the first two or three levels, while the fourth takes a considerably longer time, but is still easy enough to achieve. As such, you'll rarely find yourself having to grind to level your agent, if ever. In that respect, the leveling in Crackdown is superior to most modern RPGs. While this no doubt factors into the games generally short campaign, it makes for a much tighter and more satisfying experience. This actually makes for a pretty satisfying balance throughout the game as, even a maxed out agent can find himself in trouble in the wrong parts of the Shai-Gen territory. So what is an Agent to do when the odds are even too much for him? Why, call in the cavalry of course. One of the biggest selling points of Crackdown is the ability to play the entire game through online co-op because, you know, sometimes it gets lonely up on those rooftops. While co-op doesn't really change the way you play Crackdown much, it's still all the more fun to take out the garbage in the cool, vigilante way with a buddy over Xbox Live than all by your lonesome.
"Clean up, Isle 5"
While Crackdown is a sandbox game in the truest sense that you can do whatever you want in it, there is a considerable lack of side missions in the game. Other than killing the 21 bosses, completing all the rooftop and road races, and finding all the orbs, it can be argued that there is nothing structured to do in the game. While this is true, the game itself with it's co-op and the super-human abilities of the agents lends itself to the player discovering things to do in the game. Whether that is playing soccer with the observatory globe, playing tag with cars, or an impromptu death match between missions, there are literally hundreds of things to do in Crackdown once the campaign is complete. Still, it would have been nice to have some super-hero specific side-missions to add some legs to the game and make it stand out even more from the crowd of other sandbox games out there.
The mechanics are also pretty solid, with a control scheme that never feels awkward, even if it is rather simplistic. You basically have one melee attack, a nice roundhouse kick, to dispose of your enemies with. Seeing as jumping is key to game with Pacific City being such a vertical place, jumping is mapped to the A button and makes use of the analog buttons so that a short press will result in a short jump and a hard press results in a full jump. It works well for the most part, although there will be the occasion when your Agent will inexplicably not grab a ledge for some reason. It would have been nice if they had ironed out this mechanic a little bit more, but on the whole, it's a minor annoyance to get around. Shooting in Crackdown is handled rather cleverly with an auto-aim feature that locks on to a target, and then offers you the ability to focus your fire on a specific area such as the legs, arms, chest, and head. It's quite an ingenious targeting system in that you can chose whether you want to just hammer the enemy in the chest and do medium damage but not have to wait for your reticule to close in, incapacitate your enemy by shooting the gun out of their hand, or their legs out from under them, or risk a head shot for maximum damage. The only frustration you'll find with the auto-aim feature is the lack of the ability to scroll targets once you've locked onto them. Instead, you'll have to lock in on one target, dispose of them, release the auto-aim trigger, and then pull it again to lock on a new target. While it sounds convoluted, it works well enough, although you'll occasionally find yourself locking in on the same dead body rather than a fresh target. It would have been nice to be able to use the left and right bumpers to scroll targets, but then again, they feel so natural for reloading and throwing grenades. One thing that is definitely lacking in Crackdown, though, is the in-game map. It is entirely too small and lacks the ability to zoom in at all which can be a real pain at times. Also, the lack of the ability to set any kind of way point is rather annoying and means you'll basically have to memorize the territory. While it's not as big of a deal as it would be if Pacific City was more spread out, it is rather annoying and something that could have easily been fixed. The ability to set a way point when playing co-op would have been invaluable.
Graphically Crackdown is a little hard to categorize. The art style fits the game perfectly as a mix of cel-shading and comic book art style that really looks quite good. The scope of the city and lack of loading screens definitely benefit from the art style and yet, while it doesn't hurt the game in any way, some people may look at Crackdown as a graphically inferior game because it doesn't go for the hyper-realistic look of most other next-generation games. Personally, I don't mind an art style like Crackdowns as long as it fits the genre (which it does in this case) and honestly it is rather refreshing. The colors are vibrant, the textures are crisp and detailed, as are the Agents themselves. The vehicles won't be mistaken for PGR3 and the enemies and pedestrians are lacking some detail, but overall there are no graphical short comings that stick out like a sore thumb. Still, some people will overlook Crackdown for not being as detailed and awe-inspiring graphically as Gears of War, which is ridiculous considering the scope of the world, and the completely free reign the player has.
"Your co-op partner can also be used as a mounted turret!"
The audio of Crackdown is more of a mixed bag. The game has hardly any dialogue in it, aside from the mysterious voice of the Agency that seems to come from nowhere, as if God himself was scolding you for killing those innocent civilians, or praising your work of taking down a boss. Some of dialogue from this omnipresent voice can be rather funny ("Violetta Sanchez! BITCH!!") but for the most part he'll get rather annoying after a while with his running commentary. The ambient sounds of the world are spot on though, and everything from the traffic, to the street noise, to the howl of the wind as you ascend ever higher up the skyscrapers sounds perfect. Weapon noises are quite good as well, with each weapon being aurally distinct from the others. The music in the game is rather bland though and is often hard to even hear at default levels. More variety in the soundtrack would have been welcome although anyone who is a fan of trance and trip-hop music will be pleased with the inclusion of artists like Amon Tobin, DJ Krush, and Dieselboy.
Where Crackdown really shines is it's achievements. So varied and unique are the achievements for Crackdown that they are among the best achievements for any game yet, and are easily the best since the achievements for Gears of War, possibly even eclipsing them. From achievements for killing people with a giant globe, to one for blowing up 100 items in 60 seconds, the achievements in Crackdown aren't so much there for rewarding you for your progress through the game, but more for your creativity. They definitely add to the replayability of the game and are genuinely fun to do and are rarely tedious, save the 800 orbs you'll have to gather for two of the achievements. They also are good for getting the creative juices flowing for things for you and your buddies to do in the game. That said, some of them can be rather annoying, specifically the stunt rings and the orbs. The orbs simply because there are so many to find and unless you do them in order, there is a good chance you'll find yourself scouring the city for one or two orbs, all the time wanting to pull your hair out when you can't find them. The stunt rings on the other hand are annoying because of a simple design flaw, namely, making the player trigger the ring before they can even attempt to go through the ring. Luckily the latest update that includes the new achievements fixes this glitch it seems. The rings are visible longer and any glitches involved with them seem to have disappeared. Unfortunately the new achievements that were added in the latest update are rather bland considering the creativity put into Crackdown's original achievement set. The free update adds two new achievements for the final 140 achievement points. "Psych Out" is awarded for completing all Time Trials on Psychotic difficulty whether in single player or co-op and is worth 100 achievement points. The second new achievement is "Confiscator" which requires you to steal and bring back to the Agency building one of every gang car and a couple civilian cars as well for 40 achievement points. You begin to see what I mean about these achievements lacking the creativity of the originals.
"... And THAT'S how my insurance premium went up!"
On the other hand, the free update also adds some unique new features to the game with the 'Keys to the City' mode, which functions basically as a built in cheat/editor mode allowing you to max your agents abilities, enable God mode, set the time of day, and even spawn objects and vehicles where ever you want. It definitely adds some life to the game once you've done everything else there is to do and keeps things fresh a little bit longer by giving you more options to tinker with. It is important to note though that while playing 'Keys to the City', you are completely unable to unlock any achievements, so keep that in mind.
Released at the same time as the free update, there was also some 'premium' (read: pay) content released as well which adds new vehicles, new weapons and 250 more achievement points to the game, as well as some new game modes. The new weapons range from a harpoon gun to a new mini-rocket launcher, to a mini-gun but unfortunately none of them are all that practical to use in combat. The harpoon gun has a very small clip and once the fun of sticking people to walls and cars has passed (probably about the time you get the "Body Armor" achievement) the gun isn't worth holding up one of your weapons slots. The MSK Lobber launches mini-rockets that swarm a target but unfortunately their arc after firing means they will almost never hit your target dead-on and are so weak, you'll need to unload more than once to kill most enemies. You're much better off packing with the Watson Grenadier or the Firefly. The new Mini-gun, at first look, would appear to be a big improvement over the HMG-90 in both stopping power and clip size, but unfortunately it's 2-3 second warm up time means you'll probably be dead before you can unleash the full power of the thing. About the only really cool new 'weapon' is the cloaking device, which will take up your grenade spot in your inventory. Unfortunately, it is gimped as well as it depletes your armor while in use and will automatically shut down when you run out of armor. That must be someones' idea of a sick joke to make you visible to the enemies at the exact moment you run out of armor.
"Did you feel a bump just now?"
The new game modes aren't much better either. You get 'Stockpile' mode which is basically timed orb-hunting. Checkpoint races are pretty much point to point races and are rather bland. About the only new mode that's worth a damn is Rocket Tag, in which one agent is the hunter, equipped with the non-homing rocket launcher, the Hotshot, and the hunted who is equipped merely with a pistol. It might as well be spit wads as the hunted attempts to avoid being tagged by a rocket for 60 seconds which as it turns out, is much harder than you'd think. This mode can be rather fun for you and a friend when killing off gang members has lost it's luster and you want to take on someone with similar skills. It's about the closest thing Crackdown has to a deathmatch mode, but also serves to remind you how freaking cool a full on DM game would be between multiple super-human Agents. Maybe they are saving that for Crackdown 2? You also get a lot of new street races in the premium pack and some new vehicles which again pale in comparison to the original vehicles to the most part. The dune buggy is a slightly faster, slight more agile version of the SUV with much less armor and is a bit more tricky to control. The Pursuit vehicle looks like a prototype 40s race car and is faster than even the Agency super car and with handling so insanely good, you'll barely have to slow down to take a 90-degree turn. Unfortunately it only seats one and it's easily the most fragile Agency car. About the only new vehicle I found myself using frequently is the new Armored vehicle, which is confusingly in the list of Peacekeeper vehicles. It's big and yet pretty quick and with good handling for it's size. Not to mention is comes equipped with a rather large cannon that will definitely help increasing your explosives kills.
The achievements included in the premium content are only really worth it if you want to increase your gamerscore as they aren't very inventive either, and some of them can be downright annoying to achieve, such as the 'Street Racer Elite' achievement for beating all the new street races with every vehicle type (Here's a hint: do it co-op and have a buddy sabotage the other drivers by shooting out their tires with his pistol). Most of the new achievements simply reward you for trying the new game types, weapons, or vehicles out and the street racing aside, can all be achieved in under an hour.
All in all, Crackdown is an enjoyable and unique sandbox game that some, but not all people will appreciate. While some people will buy the game solely for the Halo 3 beta, those that put the time in and are able to look past or even appreciate the games art style will experience a fresh and unique game experience that, while slightly repetitive, is so much fun, you'll hardly care. Given the length though, anyone not interested in completing all the achievements, including the seven as-yet undecided achievements, or the Halo 3 beta could be satisfied with a week-long rental.
Little variety in the music dings the score some, but quality ambient sound makes up for it. Dialogue? What Dialogue?
While not the most realistic art style, the textures are crisp, the environments look good, and the character models are quite detailed for a cel-shaded game.
Despite the campaign having a serious case of tunnel vision, the game is so fun you'll lose yourself in it for hours, especially when playing in co-op. Solid controls and unique gameplay mechanics add to the experience while a somewhat basic leveling system keeps things challenging.
The 'God-voice' announcer gets annoying very quick and what little story there is is a bit cliched and not very well fleshed out. A little more information about the gangs, bosses, and their motives would have helped some.
Crackdown gets a gold star for it's unique and fun achievements. Few developers have gotten the idea of achievements as right as Realtime Worlds has with Crackdown. Unfortunately the new achievements that come with the latest Crackdown update aren't very imaginative and leave one wondering why they didn't do more with the new achievements.
Despite unique achievements and an open world to do what you want in, there is literally no side missions in Crackdown. With a campaign that will last you anywhere from 12-20 hours, unless you really dig killing people over and over, the game can get stale rather quickly. Co-op helps somewhat, but even killing with a friend can get tiresome without any variety. It's a game that can be completed in a rental and may be best experienced that way.