Version tested: Xbox 360
Mr Publisher pays the bills, and Mr Publisher wants a GTA game. What do we make? Well, let's have bigger guns than GTA, obviously. Let's have faster cars. Let's have more swearwords. And, I dunno, protection rackets? A better lock-on camera? It's not like you can do much else in a city!
If GTA games were an entrance exam for developers, that would be the wrong answer. The right answer would be something like Crackdown, and would involve taking people who submit that kind of answer, kicking them 50 feet into the air and juggling them with heat-seeking rockets for bonus points.
The difference between GTA and Crackdown isn't that you used to be a villain and now you're a cop. It's that you are the Incredible Hulk of cops. You start off a complete weakling, except you can already leap 15 feet, throw cinderblocks the length of a cricket square, and regenerate your health in-between absorbing hails of bullets. No wonder nobody messes with you. Well, everybody messes with you, because they're programmed to, but you like it that way. It gives you an excuse to kick them off the tops of buildings.
Kicking people off the tops of buildings contributes to your Strength stat. As one of a few pre-rolled supercops, you have five stats - the others are Agility, Explosives, Firearms and Driving. The more fun you have in any area, the more that particular ability increases. And, as the sardonic Marlborough Man of a narrator puts it, "Skills equals kills". Which is to say, blowing things up means your next explosions will be bigger, with more splash damage, while running over criminals and winning races improves your vehicle handling, and allows you greater control of your ride during aerial stunts. By Crackdown's reckoning, brushing properly should result in clean teeth, but also more women putting their tongues in your mouth, and someone from Colgate coming round to clean your sink once a week.
It certainly rewards you for doing things that you enjoy, but you should pay attention to all five areas if you want to be able to police the streets effectively. Being strong isn't just about throwing cars into the river and mothers asking you to try and open the mayonnaise; you also get extra health bars for each of the four strength levels you work through. There's no reason to suspect you'd neglect Agility, mind you. After a decade of 3D games that seem embarrassed about jumping, how nice to take entire buildings in a single bound. Another benefit of Agility is increased speed, although Crackdown regards running faster than cars as a superhuman right, and you can do it from the moment you spawn. Speaking of cars, your Agency sports model is noteworthy for its built-in capacity to spoon other road users miles up into the air on contact. The first few hours really lead you to question GTA's attitude toward the player. This is the sort of fun we should be having in free-roaming city games.
Structurally, too, Crackdown is keen to let you go and do your thing. There's very little story - although the hammy narrator does a good job of what there is - and all that really matters is that you're a genetically engineered cop, and you need to take down three gangland kingpins. Each controls a third of Pacific City, which is a virtual warzone at this stage, and, with the Agency Tower in the centre as your initial spawn point, you have to go and reclaim the city by force. Lots and lots of force.
If you really want, you can take a crack at the three kingpins immediately. Nothing is off-limits. As Mr Narrator explains though, your odds of success at this stage are pretty miserable. Better to tackle each of the kingpin's six lieutenants to weaken his position. You're not told where any of them is hiding, but they're not particularly hard to find. Gigantic off-shore oilrig? Fortress-like villa? Enormous research lab? Study the back-button city-map for a little while and you'll spot some obvious candidates. What's more, when you close in on a lieutenant's position or even the kingpin's lair, the Agency will pipe you a dossier of information, giving you an exact mini-map location and even offering a few tips. Fail even to stumble on them, meanwhile, and Mr Narrator will point you irritably in the right direction.
Before you go after anybody though you will want to reclaim some Agency Supply Points, or else you'll keep having to start over from the Agency Tower. The Tower's not so bad - there's the supercar, an awesome drive-over-anything SUV and a truck cab on permanent standby for deployment, along with tunnels to each of the three ganglands - but supply points are nearer to the action, not to mention more, er, vertically exciting. When you're close to one, it shows up on the mini-map and needs to be reclaimed from a token enemy force. Claim it and you can use it to store weapons (any enemy weapon deposited at a supply point is available through the supply point network), respawn in the event of death, or even teleport throughout the network if you fancy heading off somewhere else.
Plus, of course, supply points are usually pretty high up. And this is where the game starts to get a bit tangential, on account of all its moreish distractions. It's not like GTA, where a lack of imagination led to the enforcement of dull rituals like visiting the gym and protecting territory. You don't have to babysit the supply points once you've claimed them. Crackdown never distracts you with anything that isn't fun. Hopping between rooftops is desirable because it also allows you to hunt for "Agility Orbs". There are 500 in the game, and some of them are very difficult to reach. Leaping is also something you do in rooftop races - superhero parkour that has you prancing all over the skyline against the clock. And of course climbing all over the city is also fun because it's just fun. The freedom itself is liberating. Every review you read will point out that you can climb the Agency Tower, which is immense, but that shouldn't demean the experience of doing so. It's a thrilling climb, and a fantastic, extraordinary visual pay-off.
Crackdown is certainly no technical slouch, and nothing demonstrates this like the tower's summit. Screenshots bring the game's relatively low-detail, cel-shaded graphical style into sharp focus, but first-hand exposure reveals an incredibly solid frame rate, unprecedented draw distance, an amazing volume of NPCs whose design, behaviour and animation can't be called into question, along with a lighting system that cycles the days happily alongside your quest for justice. In other words, I'd be surprised if there was disappointment, although if I encountered someone who found it so, I would probably just pat them on the back consolingly with a limpet mine, leap 400 metres in the opposite direction and press the "detonate" button.
It's a tactic of which I'm fond. Sadly, falling back on the same tricks is also rather effective in the bulk of boss encounters. Each of the game's crime lords lurks within a beefy looking fortress, with intel that hints at weak points and multiple entrances, but this isn't your new Deus Ex. You can sometimes sidestep defences by going for a swim, or climbing over rooftops, as opposed to going in the front all-guns-blazing, but the defences you encounter are fairly uniform: masses of enemies who need to be locked onto and shot, while you strafe in and out of visible firing lines and eventually take down a five-health-bar boss. There are occasional variations - alarms that you should try and avoid letting the enemy sound, or switch panels you have to blow up to flush your prey into the open - but otherwise it's a grind. The most entertaining of the 21 encounters are those you can superhumanly circumvent, either by sprinting through ranks of enforcers into areas they cannot follow you, or by sneaking round the back and playing "hide the limpet".
It's hard to know exactly how much to complain here, because while slightly prosaic none is offputtingly so. You may fall foul a few times, but you could always try a slightly different approach, or change your weapon loadout, or go off and upgrade your stats, or attempt a different boss. And the odds are always stacked in your favour anyway: you are The Incredible Filth. And victory is sweet. This is, after all, a game where you can angrily announce that you're going to kick a boss-woman's tits off, before not only roundhousing her to death but then using her limp body to batter the remaining minions about the face. Still, it feels as though the relative banality of the kingpin combat is what stands between Crackdown and true greatness.
You can't stay mad at it, though. Indeed, I never got mad the first time. This is simply stuff Kristan complained about, quite reasonably, when we played some co-op over the weekend. And that leads us onto another reason to kick those complaints off the tops of buildings: Crackdown is a join-whenever-you-like, full campaign co-op Live game, in the same vein as Gears of War, except - as is its wont - completely freeform. Kristan wants to kill one of the bosses. I would rather juggle enemies with rockets to get my Explosives stat up. So we play the same game, without playing together, occasionally calling the other to show them something, or to check what they're up to. Or to stick a limpet mine on their back. There are countless achievements - which, for once, feel entirely at home within the extremely gamey setting - along with even more numerable collectibles, and sometimes it's just fun to sort of, you know, "jam". To play drug-dealer tennis, or to see if you can land on your friend's head by leaping off the Agency Tower.
It's tempting to describe Crackdown in terms of GTA, and it's hardly surprising that the marketing people are keen on that ("GTA? You mean the one that's sold 50 million copies? How dare you?"), but it feels like they approach the same free-roam concept from different corners. Crackdown is more like Naughty Dog's Jak II approach: we're videogame characters, wouldn't it be fun if we had a whole city to play with? Within this construct, things like minor control niggles (you can't cycle between locked-on targets) and the occasional glitch (co-op is sometimes tricky to get going, and some boss sections fail to trigger properly online, meaning you end up running around empty venues, bizarrely) are trivialities. It's telling that the biggest complaint I have is that you're reliant on those Achievement Unlocked notifications to tally up your kills and feats, with no GTA-style stats page to call upon. Think about it: I'm upset with Crackdown because I can't examine how much fun I'm having in periscopic detail.
It's also rather short. I blasted merrily through everything central to the game in a day, and mopped up most of the rest by the end of a weekend. Being able to pick and leap into any of your friends' or even complete strangers' cities is likely to keep that buzz going though, as will the Time Trials (beat bosses quickly), the wealth of sub-achievements, and the prospect of downloadable content, some of which we know will be free.
In other words, being so excellent that you obliterate the single-player in a weekend is not enough to stop it being my favourite Xbox 360 game of recent times. You should definitely buy it, because, on this evidence, waiting for Grand Theft Auto IV would be rather daft. This is what it should do anyway.
9 / 10