Making the sequel to a blockbuster hit must be tough. On the one hand, you've got to keep the existing fanbase happy by offering more of what made it a hit in the first place. On the other you're expected to be all innovative and bold, and come up with fresh ideas which will attract new admirers without annoying the old ones. And on top of all that you've got to fix everything that was wrong with the original, make the visuals prettier, construct a new plot, create new characters, invent new weapons... No wonder George Lucas struggled.
So is Ruffian Games up to the challenge? The studio itself is something of a spin-off as it's mainly staffed by former Realtime Worlds employees. They all worked on the first Crackdown, which ought to give them an advantage when it comes to developing the sequel. Producer James Cope and lead designer Steve Iannetta, who conduct a demo presentation at the Tokyo Game Show, certainly seem to know what they're talking about - and what they're tasked with.
"There is an awful lot of new stuff in Crackdown 2," says Iannetta. "However, I believe we've kept to what the essence of it... The core of it is still Crackdown. We believe we've augmented the areas which need to be augmented, but retained the essence of what people really love."
"The verticality, the exploration of the city, the orb collecting - those are the kinds of things people love," Cope chimes in. "The situation we've always been in with Crackdown is you've got such a broad brush of things to play with and talk about. Now there's scope to play with all those things in different ways."
The new stuff includes that brand new storyline. Once again Crackdown 2 is set in Pacific City, and you're still an Agent charged with cleaning up the streets. But 10 years have passed since the end of the last game, during which time a mysterious virus has ravaged the city. Your new targets are the Freaks, infected mutants who run riot when night falls. Humans are able to roam freely during the day, but life's still a bit of a struggle as they spend their time trading limited resources and trying to find a safe place to spend the night.
As Cope explains, the contrast between these periods is key to the dynamic Ruffian wants to establish in Crackdown 2. "This is really important stuff because we're setting up a big gameplay contrast between day and night. In the daytime there's going to be an element where things are controlled by the Cell and you're fighting against them. Then at night-time the Freaks come out, and you're going to have some pretty wild battles with them. That's the kind of light and dark contrast we're trying to create."
The Freaks aren't just there to add a bit of narrative colour - they're also there to balance the gameplay. They're faster and more aggressive than enemies in the previous game, they attack in greater numbers and they can jump just as high as you. "In the first Crackdown the Agent was always pretty much the most powerful thing in the world, and that kind of left you unthreatened," says Cope. "So we wanted to add a bit of threat and think a bit more carefully about how to use the vertical space. So the Freaks will meet and exceed the Agent's abilities in some cases. You'll have scenarios, for example, where you're chased across rooftops by a bunch of Freaks, which is great fun."
The other advantage the Freaks have is strength in numbers. Ruffian shows us a night-time scene where dozens and dozens of them are lumbering through the streets, complete with varied animations and move-sets. "As you can see there's a huge amount of them in there just now, and hopefully we'll have the ability to have thousands on screen at any one time," says Iannetta.
It's a good job, then, that your character has new combat moves at his disposal. "The hand-to-hand combat in Crackdown was pretty weak. It was very repetitive, basically the same moves over and over again," Cope observes. "We wanted to create a situation where you're fighting against many AI-controlled characters and without good a hand-to-hand combat system it just wasn't fun, so we've completely redesigned it all." Sure enough, the Agent's melee moves seem a lot more complex and powerful now. Punches are crunchier and he's able to pull off some impressive roundhouse kicks, causing Freaks to explode in a shower of yellow goo and gobbets of blood.
Ruffian has also taken a fresh look at the way objects can be used in combat. "You could always throw things at people in Crackdown but it was a hit and miss affair - more miss than hit," says Cope. "So we've introduced a new system, one that's very physical. Crackdown is a very physical game and we want to make sure it's over the top." To demonstrate this, the Agent grabs a concrete pillar which has a steel rod sticking out of one end. He starts wielding it like a giant mallet, smashing away at whatever happens to be in the vicinity.
Naturally there are new firearms too, such as the UV shotgun. It's an energy weapon which is ideal for attacking Freaks directly as it can send even huge gangs of them flying. However, there's also scope for using it on physical objects - so you could shoot a truck high up into the air, for example. "With all the YouTube videos of the first game, we've seen people do things we never thought were possible," says Iannetta. "Now we want to offer them a range of toys which really allows them to push the boundaries."
That'll include the mag grenade, which can be used to attach two objects together by creating a sort of electrified elastic band - one which explodes on demand. "That's the premise. How you then use that as a player, it's really up to you and your own creativity," says Cope. But to give us an idea, he sticks one mag grenade to a wall and another to a truck to create an improvised slingshot. He then picks up the truck, stretches the slingshot right back and lets go, sending the truck smash-bang into a big group of enemies before it explodes.
We're also shown an example of another new addition, gas cylinders ("Probably my favourite thing we've put in the game," Cope says). Shooting them any old how will cause an impressive explosion. But shoot the cap off and they become improvised projectile weapons - they whirl and fly around the environment like deflating balloons before detonating. Cope uses a mag grenade to stick a cylinder to the ground, then fires off the cap. The cylinder zooms round madly but remains tethered to the grenade, creating a spinning deathtrap.
Then, to demonstrate the larger scale potential of the gas cylinders, Cope hops up to the top of a huge industrial chimney and chucks a load of them in the bottom. He throws a few cars on top, lobs in a couple of grenades and retreats to a safe distance. There's a huge bang and a spectacular explosion, followed by a giant cloud of black smoke billowing into the sky. "We loved the fact people used to create loads of daft scenarios and big explosions with Crackdown," Cope says. "With the kind of tools and toys we're giving players now, it's just going to get even more crazy."
Crackdown 2 isn't just about mucking around with new toys (unless you want it to be - this is Crackdown, after all). There's a long list of new missions to complete, and this time around there's not such an emphasis on assassinations. We're shown one of the new missions set in an oil refinery. Four valves have been sabotaged by the Cell, which is preventing the Agency from accessing fuel and chemical supplies. Your mission is to infiltrate the refinery and clean it out of all the supplies you can find. This might turn out to be easier if you have a friend by your side, or perhaps even three - Crackdown 2's co-op mode supports up to four players rather than the previous game's two - but we're not able to see this in action today.
One thing which hasn't changed is the level of freedom you have when it comes to both completing missions and playing co-operatively. "There's nothing to stop you going off and doing your own thing," says Iannetta. "You can go wherever you want to, you can join in, you can split up the tasks... It's absolutely freeform, open gameplay."
"The other thing is, we want to make sure the missions have consequences," adds Cope. "With regard to telling the story of Crackdown 2, the missions play a vital part in that. They come together to reveal more about the Agency - we're really learning a lot more about them this time."
As the demo comes to an end, let's see how Ruffian's doing with that checklist. They're clearly aware of the issues with the original Crackdown and are working to fix them. The sequel already looks prettier - lacking polish at this stage perhaps, but according to Cope, "The game's only about 60 per cent done, so we're still heavily in development." There's a new plot, new characters and new weapons. There's still exploration, orb collecting, giant jumps and big bangs. There's a co-op mode for twice as many people as there was before. And there's still 40 per cent to come. Let's just hope that doesn't include any sort of equivalent to Jar Jar Binks.
Crackdown 2 is due out for Xbox 360 in 2010.