Pacific City has seen better days. It once was a thriving metropolis filled with sleek skyscrapers, a booming oil and gas industry and highways buzzing with traffic. Now it lies broken, destitute and for the most part eerily devoid of pedestrians. Things were hardly better when the place was run by three massive crime syndicates, but at least you wouldn't get shot by terrorists who claimed they were fighting your corner, and you could go out at night without being stomped on by a mutant.
The sprawling futuristic city of Crackdown 2 is just as colourful as its predecessor, but don't let the game's cel-shaded comic-book palette fool you - Ruffian Games has turned Pacific City into a far bleaker place than the one Realtime Worlds built for its 2007 cult hit.
Buildings and overpasses have crumbled and collapsed. Fires eat away at the insides of apartment blocks. The streets are mostly empty; during the day, snipers turn most of the city into a killzone and hordes of mutated freaks roam the streets at night. The only signs of life aside from the odd passing car are panhandlers selling food out of stolen containers at the docks to the city's desperate citizens. To put it bluntly, the place is in even worse shape than before.
Of course, all of this means that players will have even more fun hurtling around Pacific City as a super-powered agent than they did in the first game. As bad as things are, they haven't slowed down the people responsible for turning the place into a hellhole; the Agency cops still prowl the streets, shooting at anything that moves and leaping from building to building.
Crackdown 2's environment offers tons of power-ups, races, collectibles, weapons and (most important) targets for players to get stuck into, and this time they don't even have to worry about collateral damage. The Agency top brass (once again superbly voiced by Michael McConnohie) doesn't seem to care if its agents inflict civilian casualties; the game's "skills for kills" aspect applies to any living target the player dispatches.
This is just one of the many changes Ruffian Games has made to Crackdown's brutally simple template, and like all the others, it has only one aim in mind: to make the game more fun. All Crackdown 2's enhancements are geared towards having a good time and anything in the first game that stood in the way of the player's enjoyment has been either tweaked or removed.
For example, the Crackdown faithful may remember that levelling up an agent's driving ability was a massive pain in the first game due to the penalties for running down civilians, and the paucity of areas filled exclusively with gang members. This isn't a problem in Crackdown 2; civilians are now legitimate targets and at night there are so many freaks roaming the streets that the player is spoiled for choice for roadkill targets. According to Ruffian Games, the levelling barrier has been lowered across the board, meaning players spend less time transforming their Agent into a walking slaughterhouse.
This isn't to say that everything is handed to you on a plate. Some power-ups make the player work harder for them than in the last game. There are both jumping and driving orbs which lead the player on a merry chase before they offer their rewards. Attacking freaks may be a great way to earn levelling-up orbs, but doing so also means bigger and nastier freaks will converge on the player in ever increasing numbers. In small groups, freaks are manageable but they become positively lethal when they attack the player en masse.
Also, the game's target-lock-on mechanism is a little flaky - or at least, it was in the build I played. I lost count of the number of times I hit the left trigger to draw a bead on an enemy just inches away from my Agent, and instead he would target another opponent that was even further away.
On the plus side, the Agency weapons are bigger and more brutal than before. Players start the game with machine guns, shotguns and handguns, and once again can also nab weapons from enemies and store them at Agency-controlled points around the map.
Arsenal growth isn't just down to simply nicking weapons and placing them at a save point; players now unlock guns with each level of firearms earned. This opens up some particularly brutal weapons; some are fairly predictable, such as Grenade and Rocket launchers, but some are nastily outlandish, such as the Harpoon Gun, the Homing Rocket Launcher and the Turret Flack Gun.
These are most effective against human targets, but freaks are another matter. The weapon of choice against the afflicted is a UV shotgun which burns these nocturnal creatures to a crisp.
One of the weirdest weapons, and also one of the most fun to use, is the Mag Grenande. This is a sticky grenade which works in tandem with other Mags to produce a thin magnetic field which can then be used to create all kinds of mayhem.
For example, you can hurl one of them at an opponent and the other at a passing car, and then sit back and watch as the poor unfortunate is dragged down the road for a block or three. If you're more imaginative, you can attach a couple of these to a car and then to two buildings on either side of the street, producing a setup that enables you to slingshot a vehicle at your enemies. In this as in many other aspects of the game, the player's potential for chaos is only limited by his or her own creativity
The levelling-up/unlock mechanic also applies to vehicles. Players begin the game with an Agency cruiser, but before long they can open up other modes of transport including buggies, supercars, trucks, SUVs, tanks and helicopters. I didn't have enough time to max out my driving abilities during my hands-on, so I don't know about any added extras many of the vehicles may have, but I can report the buggy now has a Gatling Gun turret attached to it.
There's also an Agency Glide-Suit, which I didn't manage to unlock, but it adds an extra dynamic to the free-running aspect that Crackdown is known for. From what I saw of it in the previous hands-on demo sessions, it works on a system of boosters and timed thrusts allowing players to extend air time and glide and dive throughout the city.
All weapons and gear are accessed and stored at Strongholds. In the first game these were simply access points dotted around the map and were reclaimed really easily. Now they need to be won back from The Cell, the freedom fighters trying to break the Agency's tenuous stranglehold on Pacific City.
Seizing a Stronghold works the same way as taking down a gang hideout in the first game. Once the player has cleared Cell operatives, Agency forces will arrive and secure the perimeter. Then players can use that point to reload up on ammo, select new weapons, fly in any vehicles they've unlocked and fast-travel to other Strongholds of which they've taken control.
Crackdown 2 can be played as a single-player or four-player co-op experience; the latter is a very impressive setup offering seamless drop-in/drop-out play, new approaches to the vehicles and a slightly harder difficulty level to prevent things from becoming laughably easy.
The game also offers a 16-man PVP multiplayer, which will be music to the ears of anyone who ever kicked a mate off the top of the Agency tower in the first game. Every aspect of Crackdown 2 is geared towards dishing out damage and granting as much freedom as possible to the player.
Pacific City is an open-world playground in the truest sense and Ruffian Games' stated aim is that as little as possible should impeded the player's enjoyment of it. It's a testament, then, to the developers that Crackdown 2 manages to accomplish this while fleshing out both the game's paper-thin story and its formerly non-existent mission structure.
Indeed, although at a cursory glance it would seem Crackdown 2 has simply updated Crackdown's driving premise of "kill all baddies" to "kill all baddies and freaks", the main objective of the game is to assemble a giant UV weapon to reduce all the city's freaks to ash piles.
To this end, players need to secure Strongholds, reactivate radar dishes held by The Cell and then infiltrate the freak hives. Once this is done, the Agency drops a UV bomb into the hive and the player needs to defend it against the hordes of freaks who will swarm towards it. The UV shotgun comes in very handy in these crescendo events, though players are advised to be significantly levelled-up and armed to the teeth before raiding a hive.
While the hive battles give the game more structure, Ruffian has added a couple more aspects to give the plot more ballast. First there's The Cell; the Agency Director's commands are filled with venom when the player lays into these terrorists, but they'll also hear The Cell's leadership criticising the Agency's scorched-earth policy on speakers throughout the city.
While a lot of it can be dismissed as standard pleading and threatening, players do get the creeping sensation from the odd comment that there's more going than the Director's letting them know about. And then there's a enigmatic weirdo who is studying the freaks and leaving his findings on audio diaries throughout the city.
It's too early to say whether these aspects are simply there for atmosphere, or whether they'll prove important later in the game. Whatever the case, there's more going on in Crackdown 2 plot-wise than in its predecessor.
What makes it all the more compelling is that the plot doesn't impinge on the player's enjoyment. Whether you care about the world-building or not doesn't matter, as the chaotic Crackdown gameplay and its joyous sense of freedom is still present and correct. It's just impressive that a game that looks this barmy can be so subversive at the same time.
For a game that places the freedom to unleash gleeful carnage at will as its main draw, Crackdown 2 certainly has a lot to say about authority and the abuse of power. The game's "kill all baddies and freaks" central conceit translates into hours of fun, but Ruffian Games makes Pacific City act as a mirror which reflects the effects all the player's brutal behavior.
Whether the player takes it in or not doesn't matter, but the message is clear: unchecked authority is a very bad idea. Whereas the Pacific City in the original Crackdown depicted society on the brink, Crackdown 2 shows what happens when it goes over the edge and down into hell. That's not bad for a game based on a premise thin enough to fit on the back of a matchbox.
Crackdown 2 is due out exclusively for Xbox 360 on 9th July.