Version tested: Xbox 360
It's powered, and powered brilliantly, by some big fat contradictions. Crackdown 2's built from an epic move set, with every jump, roundhouse and ground-pound crafted to make you feel utterly heroic - but all of that's blended with a satirical narrative that slyly undermines you at every step.
Its seamless four-player co-op provides access to intoxicating multiplayer chaos, but it's stuffed inside a design that works at its very best when it's tempting you towards an evening of lonesome rooftop exploration.
And, yes, up close, it's a game of jagged edges and over-stretched textures, but that's in order to power the most expansive - and most essential - draw distance in modern gaming: a vista three islands deep that allows you to plan your next jackbooted disaster without muddling through mini-maps and pause menus.
The most fundamental contradiction of all, however, is this: like the original, Crackdown 2 only really begins at the point where most other games would be wrapping up.
Only with the campaign behind you will you start to get a true sense of just how good this game can be. Like Realtime Worlds before it, Ruffian has crafted a city-wide adventure where the defining moments all come after the hectic street battles and monster-mashes have died away. Only then can you truly enjoy the set-piece skyscrapers (of which there are one or two brilliant new additions), the wind-blown silence and the hunt for those devilishly desirable Agility Orbs.
As bizarre as it is to suggest, this isn't a go-to game as much as a come-back-to game: it's something you'll be happy to play for 10 minutes in between other, busier offerings, because there's always something useful or hilarious you can do in that space of time, and because a powered-up agent with a homing rocket launcher (and an SUV in the garage) offers more fun per single button press than anything else in the world.
That's possibly being a bit unfair to the main campaign, however, which has had plenty of clever tweaks this time around. Ten years have passed since the first Crackdown and Pacific City is in ruins, overrun by mutant Freaks and beset by an anti-Agency pressure group turned terrorist outfit known as the Cell. In their knitwear and arm-bands, the Cell are a bit Save the Whales, but they've chosen to save these particular whales with the help of armoured pick-up trucks and grenade launchers.
These two factions - the former ruling the streets by night while the latter picks away at you during the day - power the game's new objectives, as Ruffian ditches the original's simple roster of assassination targets in favour of a range of new set-piece activities, all of which revolve around holding onto territory in the midst of nasty battles.
Above all else, this shift exemplifies a game that's been rebuilt for co-op. Try soloing the main missions in Crackdown 2 and it can seem a bit gruelling, particularly when the Godzilla-sized enemies and armour-clad militia units start to turn up. Play with friends, however, and it's a breezy delight, as you reclaim stronghold areas from the Cell by clearing tactical landing zones of enemy resistance, or battle the Freaks by restarting a network of rooftop Absorption units before taking the fight into underground raid areas where beacons tear the mutants to shreds with bursts of pure daylight.
(Of course, this being Crackdown, you can ignore all of this and simply head to the nearest highway to juggle cars, or spend your free time throwing friends off the tops of tall buildings.)
The new missions are smart, if repetitive. Reclaiming strongholds often requires you to take control of a handful of different locations first, meaning the tougher areas of the game can turn into tactical tennis matches as the balance of power shifts back and forth, while the addition of the Freaks leads to nail-biting moments as you protect charging light beacons in subterranean caves while waves of monsters turn up to knock you around.
And although the Freaks do a decent enough job of providing a range of herd-style enemies to take on alongside the smarter, more ballistically-inclined Cell, their main value is as a clever means of easing the game's grind. When dusk falls and the mutants come out to flood the streets, you know you'll always have a ready supply of things to shoot, punch, or drive over in order to boost your skills. New weapons let you take them on in droves, too, with the UV shotgun blasting dozens of them into the sky with a single squeeze of the trigger, while the item-based melee system lets you pick up giant Q-Tips of reinforced concrete with which to cave their heads in.
But it's the game waiting for you after the end credits that provides the most fun. Crackdown 2, like the original, reminds its players that "open world" is a device rather than a genre, and that setting your shooter within a sprawl of real estate is no more a guarantee of fun than buying a ring is a guarantee of getting married.
Realtime Worlds used its spaces elegantly, as a jungle gym in which to stage the greatest treasure hunt ever conceived as players raced around for those green dots of light. Crackdown 2 stays true to that conceit, and ensures that all of its new quirks tie into that same central mechanic. Whether it's the missions themselves, an expansion of the Orb ecology that throws in Renegade Orbs (modelled on Harry Potter's Golden Snitch) and Live Orbs which can only be collected with online company, or a range of new audio logs to pick up, everything's built around tracking things down and ticking things off.
Along the way, irritations have been purged and ideas have been refined. You can now get a new vehicle air-lifted to you at regular spots throughout the city - meaning you won't have to stomp back to the Agency Tower when you ditch your SUV in the ocean - and new powers and weapon unlocks have been spread out more evenly across the levelling curve of your main skills.
Speaking of which, although I miss the original trio of vehicles that morphed with each level-up, they're replaced with a system that is probably more satisfying, as every rung on the driving skills ladder provides you with an entirely new car to muck about with, ranging from a zippy little buggy to something approaching a tank. Elsewhere, new additions the Wingsuit and the Agency Chopper (both of which may sound like heresy in a game that's all about taking to the skies by stoically picking your way up buildings) earn their respective places in your heart because they're brilliant fun to use, and are given to you late in proceedings when you could do with a nice shot of gimmickry anyway.
Even Ruffian's controversial cost-cutting measure of staging the sequel within the same space as the first game pays off. Pacific City is both warmly familiar and rendered new again by the ravages of a back-story that has toppled skyscrapers and ruptured concrete, providing you with lots of lovely new things to climb.
It offers you the rare pleasure, given the endless iterative rush of most games, to revisit an old playground, and the thrill of exploration is joined by the haunting charm of seeing how your favourite districts have changed: how the kidney bean racetrack around Shai-Gen has been broken up with barricades, how the old gym down by the beach has been swallowed by a quake, and how an ugly shanty town has erupted around that big house in the mountains where I once managed to get a truck stuck on a chimney pot. (Embarrassing!)
Everything clips into place sweetly and creates a game that, beneath its generic coating of crime, mutants and street-battling, is surprisingly hard to classify. Pacific City is snug compared to the likes of Just Cause 2 and in the very early stages you may find yourself longing for the speed offered by Rico's grapple hook - but you're rewarded with more detail and thought per square inch than Panau could ever afford you, and a gradual expansion of your own powers that makes your progress intoxicating.
Equally, the story may be negligible when held up against the Rockstar games, but Ruffian ultimately provides the perfect compliment to their appreciation of stage-setting and character: a glorious, free-wheeling playground where the focus is on action rather than motivation.
There are some disappointments, the biggest being the bespoke multiplayer modes. There's plenty of fun to be had in the game's roomy arenas, and that magical mixture of left-trigger targeting and traversal makes the transition to player-versus-player with admirable grace. But three modes - two of which have "deathmatch" in their titles - probably aren't going to be enough to lure people away from Modern Warfare. Rocket Tag, which revels in asymmetric combat as a tooled-up clan chases a lone player armed only with grenades, is thrilling to play, but it's not enough to make Crackdown's competitive online battling seem like anything other a victim of a hectic release schedule, a blueprint that will hopefully be expanded on in a sequel.
Beyond that, there are a few low-level glitches (one saw me triggering an Achievement before I'd actually earned it, which made me feel oddly guilty, while on another occasion the game failed to register the completion of a task at first) and some fiddly moments with controls, particularly when picking up new weapons, but frustrations tend to be minor and hardly game-ruining.
Besides, they're offset by everything that Ruffian gets right: the masterful way the developers have turned simple neighbourhoods into set-pieces; the moments where nightfall triggers neon signage that reveals a hidden pathway up the side of a skyscraper; the way in which a chain of seemingly random Agility Orbs picks out a perfect racing line of superhero bounds from one chimney to the next and off into the horizon. The cliché regarding this sort of game is that it changes the way you view your own world: I know for sure that I'll be seeing those last few Orbs in my dreams for months to come.
If you need any indication of Crackdown's brilliance, that's surely it, right? If you seek its monument, look around you.
8 / 10