Genre: Open World
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Realtime Worlds
Release Date: February 20, 2007
Crackdown is one of the manliest games you will ever play. The only acceptable way to play Crackdown is with a cold beer and a bowl of salty snacks (popcorn, nuts, or chips are all acceptable) at your side. At times, I wondered if it was in fact possible for me, a mere woman, to faithfully review a game that was so explosively masculine. In these moments of doubt, I paused, and thought, "What would SPARTAN-458 do?" And I already knew the answer: "Go shoot some guys. Or kick their heads off." In Crackdown, basically all problems can be solved by going and shooting some guys, or kicking their heads off. That's what makes the game so incredible.
Crackdown is the product of GTA creator Dave Jones and shows an obvious desire to expand the potential of Open World gaming beyond the bounds of ... well, simple GTA clones. Oddly, it seems to take its cue from Spider-Man titles, which introduced the idea both of playing as a do-gooder and playing with superhuman abilities. Crackdown offers a more nuanced and fully developed experience in that vein than the prior, licensed attempts could. Best of all, with no license, Crackdown is free to tailor the protagonist's powers to what makes sense in a video game. This means playing as an agent tailored for superhuman performance and given a superhuman power suit whose parameters enhance through use. If you die, don't worry; the secret agency you work for can just download your mind into another body. Those glowing mission markers you see at important locations? Data from the HUD wired into your eyeballs. These touches are small, perhaps details, but go a long way toward establishing Crackdown's unique sense of hyper-violent verisimilitude. Everything you do in the game makes sense on a narrative level, and as such, feels very "right."
Your mission in Crackdown is to clean up Pacific City, where crime is so rampant that some neighborhoods are open war zones. You need to do the missions the game presents you, in that you can't really travel freely around Pacific City until you've cleared enough missions to be granted access to new sectors of the city. Story missions consist of infiltrating the hideouts of the generals in a given gang before going in to take on the gang's kingpin, which is more interesting than it sounds. There are usually at least four ways to take on a given mission, since every location can be infiltrated from multiple routes. In the meantime, you'll probably spend hours exploring the area around you before you remember to get around to killing the guys you're supposed to kill.
Crackdown is the rare open world game that actually gives you incentive to explore every nook and cranny of the city around you. You can find power-ups that let you increase your agent's performance parameters hidden all over the city, often in places that require some careful leaping to reach. You begin with the ability to leap about 10 feet in the air, and at higher power levels can actually leap tall buildings in a single bound. Likewise, your initially superhuman strength increases until you're able to throw around huge pipes and cars if you use melee attacks to defeat enemies. If you prefer to do damage with a firearm, then shooting down thugs makes you a better shot. Effectively, you get better at whatever you do the most. So, if you really want to get to that super-leaping power in a hurry, then you may find yourself ignoring missions so you can run around the rooftops of the city, trying to find ways to crawl to the Agility Up icons hidden away on rooftops that at first seem inaccessible.
You can opt to explore the city on foot, which is feasible if you increase your Agility until you can outrun cars, or with a vehicle. While you can simply grab vehicles off the street in GTA fashion, one of the pleasant things about Crackdown is that you don't have to scrounge for rides like this. You're offered three basic, useful vehicles right from the outset, since you are a government agent, and you can also snag police cars whenever you like. The driving controls in Crackdown are particularly deserving of praise. They are superior to the driving controls present in basically any other similar title for the 360, and quite nearly on par with the controls in pure racing games. The racing mission in Crackdown are, as a result, a complete joy to play, when in titles like Saints Row, poor driving controls rendered them a chore. Crackdown also rewards players for abusing their vehicles in the craziest ways possible, placing ramps on parking garages so you can jump them onto nearby rooftops, or the ground below. If you can flip your vehicles in midair, you can get Achievement points. If you get very good at scouting out the Pacific City map, you can often find out-of-the-way roads that make sneaking into mission compounds much easier.
Crackdown is a somewhat plain-looking game, although soon the sheer scope and realistic detail presented in Pacific City's design drowns out any complaints about poor textures or ugly character models. Everything in Pacific City feels just real enough to be believable, from the traffic patterns to the way your agent's body spins if you opt to attack an enemy with a spin kick. It's not a flashy game, and arguably a graphical step down from Saints Row, but the graphics serve the gameplay to an extraordinary degree. Likewise, most of the "soundtrack" is just sound effects, explosions, impacts, and crowd noise. It's all perfectly good but basically what you'd expect.
The only music in the game comes in the form of licensed tracks you listen to while driving. What's interesting about the Crackdown licensed music is that it's not a Rockstar or Electronic Arts type collection of Top 40 singles. Instead, the music is considerably more obscure and covers a much wider range of genres, like Latin Pop and Trance. Many of the songs, artists, and labels you'll probably be seeing for the first time. The music is clearly intended to express the "personality" both of the car and its original driver, and this adds the most wonderful atmosphere to the game itself. It's fun and appropriate to hear Spanish rapping when you steal a car from the Los Muertos gang, even if that is certainly not something most players would choose to listen to or buy. It's such a breath of fresh air after Saints Row presented possibly the worst use of licensed music in any GTA clone ever.
One final element that no Crackdown review is complete without is a discussion of the online multiplayer. A pre-release review can really only scratch the surface of such a massive and interactive part of the gameplay experience, but as anyone playing the Crackdown demo has long since learned: This is an absolutely incredible game for co-op. There's a full co-op campaign available, as well as numerous smaller co-op events that are perfect for killing a little time with a friend. Of course, with Crackdown, a little time tends to turn into a long time astonishingly quickly. Playing in co-op mode lets players who've gone for different agent "builds" really complement each other in their teamwork, and it brings a new dimension to the frankly unprecedented strategic elements inherent in Crackdown's spin on the open world genre. Best of all, there's no poorly implemented, tacked-on versus multiplayer to muddy up the waters. Crackdown is a title clearly designed for co-op, and it only deals in fresh, interesting new co-op opportunities, rather than warmed-over Deathmatch variants.
There has been a certain amount of ragging on Crackdown for being little more than Halo 3 Beta Invite With Free Crackdown Game Included, and that characterization is extremely unfair. Crackdown would be a AAA title without the Halo 3 beta invite included, and the gameplay is certainly compelling on its own. If anything, it's smarter to think of it in terms of Crackdown being the game chosen worthy of being the delivery vector for the Halo 3 beta. This is a game that Microsoft expected the vast majority of 360 owners to want to have this spring, and rightly so. Games like Crackdown are the cornerstone the 360's passionate user community is built upon, and why the 360 is developing an increasingly deserved reputation for being the next-gen console of choice.
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