Crackdown Reader Review
Crackdown: "the disc that comes with the halo 3 beta". Cynical decision to sell more units of a title many thought would fail? Or clever ploy to divert attention to an excellent game that may have otherwise been missed by many? Whatever your thoughts on Microsoft's decision to include the beta in the initial run, to ignore Crackdown on that basis would be to miss out on one of the more unique gaming experiences in this or any other year. If you own it, put the disc in, try it.
With GTA luminary Dave Jones at the helm of developer Realtime Worlds, it comes as no surprise that Crackdown focusses on a sandbox-style third person shooter approach. Every section of the cell-shaded sci-fi city can be traversed from the start, and linearity apparently doesn't exist in the Realtime Worlds mindset. The amount of freedom is a little daunting at first, and with a sparse amount of story to pull you through, it really is up to you as to how you approach the game. Want to tackle the hardest sub-bosses in the game as the first thing you do? Go right ahead. Feel the need to pile 50 explosive barrels onto a city street and launch your friend into space? No problem!
Its the sort of claim that many publishers put on a game box, 'true freedom in an open-world environment'. Crackdown has one crucial difference, it delivers from the very first moment you set foot in the agency tower, with no artificial barriers to segment the world. The basic premise of the narrative entails you taking control of an 'agent' looking to clean up crime in three distinct areas of your city, held under the grip of various crime groups loosely based on the usual south American, Russian and Chinese stereotypes. In all truth the plot is second fiddle to the mechanics of the world, and is largely superfluous to the experience.
Motivation to comply with the games loose structure comes in the form of the agent upgrade system. This basically entails a loose RPG-style progression for your character in five key areas: Agility, Driving, Explosives, Firearms and Strength. As you progress your agent will level up in these areas according your own play style. For example, shoot enough people from afar and your firearms skill will increase, allowing you to aim quickly at the various body parts or petrol tanks on offer. Alternatively if you spend your time jumping around the rooftops collecting agility orbs eventually you will be able to leap higher and climb further than before, enabling you to scale to some terrific heights.
Indeed the sense of height in Crackdown is spectacular. The game encourages you to take to the rooftops and traverse up the side of massive buildings at every opportunity, with hardly a drop in framerate throughout. Once your agent has a four star agility rating the game becomes almost as much a platformer as a shooter, and making your way to the top of the agency building or Wang tower is a joy in itself. The sense of verticality in the level design is fairly unique, and many shortcuts have been built into the environment for those willing to search. Exploring the exterior of a boss hideout for a secret entrance can become fascinating in itself. Ledges that are seemingly always just out of reach can usually be conquered with a bit of planning and the courage to attempt a jump at 200ft off the ground. It's a long way down.
Achievements are well judged, with most pitched at around 10-20 points. None of them are particularly difficult and there will always be something within reach to aim for in any play session.
The ambient audio design is excellent, with each segment of the city having its own aural personality and distinct separation in acoustics. Gunfire and car engine sounds are meaty and satisfying and if you have a 5.1 setup with a decent subwoofer the explosions will satisfy like few games can. However in-game music is largely absent apart from the tunes blasting out of the various car stereos, with none of it particularly memorable. Certainly no GTA-style licensed soundtrack and radio banter to be found here. Whether or not this detracts from the atmosphere is a largely subjective matter.
Online play is unfortunately lacking any modes apart from co-op with one other person. This mode in itself however is excellent fun, and using and abusing the physics engine with a pal can yield some amusing results. You cant help but feel the games misses out on the ability to play with more than one person though. Running around the streets with a group of friends would be an excellent addition and I hope one that gets some serious consideration if a next instalment is on the cards.
The main issue with Crackdown arises oddly enough from its biggest strength. The lack of structure is refreshing however you cant help feeling that the game can lack direction and atmosphere as a result. Without any character exposition to tie the player in, ultimately it can come across as a shallow experience. You simply wont care about any of the characters or why you are determined to kill them, as these details aren't explained in any depth or to any degree of involvement.
This situation isn't helped by the lack of side-missions or alternative goals for the player to partake in. Structured modes are limited to boss missions, car races and on-foot rooftop races, all of which can be beaten in one or two play sessions. Whilst the environment itself is the biggest star, it wouldn't have hurt to include some more game modes and side activities for those that need motivation to pick up the pad besides just experimenting with player abilities and physics.
Overall though its hard to criticise the game in this manner as the play mechanics are strong enough to carry the experience and make it memorable and immense fun, especially with another human player as company throughout. Its good to see a development team focus entirely on fun play mechanics and an open environment, and simply letting the player make their own entertainment. Whether or not this would have been enough to carry the game financially without the inclusion of the Halo beta is worthy of debate, and I guess is a question we'll never have the answer to.
8 / 10