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.