Xbox 360 at 10: Conquering Crackdown's Pacific City
I didn't expect much of Crackdown. I wanted a next-gen GTA and while this shared the same pedigree, it was about fighting crime rather than causing it, and spoken of mostly as a means to get into the Halo 3 beta. Keenly aware of my inability to keep up with Halo players, I steered clear, and it wasn't until a few months after release that I was persuaded to pick up a second-hand copy.
I discovered an open world that broadly resembled GTA, but with a proper draw distance and almost zero interest in storytelling. The game was the criminal-stuffed city itself, designed for my agent to bound across like the Incredible Hulk with an assault rifle and a cigar-chewing narrator in my ear, and all of its many distractions represented a chance for self-improvement.
The Agility Orbs were the highlight, of course, their tell-tale humming a cue to drop everything and work out if I was capable of traversing increasingly elaborate routes across courtyards, stairwells and air conditioning ducts to reach them. Importantly, solving these 3D puzzles awarded not only Achievements but tangible improvements in my Agent's abilities - and taking time out to thin out even the smallest gang did too. Every enemy punched, shot or ran over spat out a cloud of orbs to boost my Agent's stats, and nothing was wasted time. It was, as many have pointed out, a superhero game, but one in which the hero earned his dominance, and the grind was so rewarding I never resented it.
It was also my first console co-op experience, with an American friend who I'd met on a now long-dead gaming forum. Meeting him in-game was the first time I'd heard him speak, and I can clearly recall the peculiarly foreign sensation of matching a live human to a set of forum posts taking place via the giggling discovery that my previous dedication to roundhouse kicking meant my Agent was twice the size of his and capable of flinging his car across the street. Wading into a gang fight together was anarchic but oddly cosy, a welcome contrast to smack-talking deathmatch, and an experience that it took Rockstar another six years to match with GTA 5's Heists. Being able to tool around fighting crime together was a delight, but most of my time in Crackdown was spent solo, steadily increasing the ease with which my levelled-up agent could bound between buildings, take out enemies with thrown cars or swung lampposts, or barrel through traffic in his steadily less-stoppable vehicle. While the wipe-clean lines of Pacific City didn't have the I-got-your-next-gen-right-here impact of Assassin's Creed, which arrived later that same year, it was a far more entertaining place to be: the city was something I was gradually mastering rather than something I was slogging across between mission markers.
Microsoft, keenly aware of the city's strengths, went on to release two pieces of free DLC that enabled players to skip the story entirely. The first was just four skins and a 100 per cent completed save file, the second, Keys to the City, was just a set of cheat modes. In the age of season passes and day-one DLC this now seems impossibly good-natured, a glimpse into what might have been had Oblivion's horse armour not set the standard. The industry was still working out what connected games could do - like the bizarre in-game advertising, projecting incongruous banners for real-world movies onto Pacific City's signage - but Crackdown was happy to just be a big playground.
I was happy to just play in it, up to a point. Having maxed out my Agent and reached the is-that-it finale of the main narrative I was briefly drawn down the road of 100 per cent completion, perusing Achievement guides for how to nail elusive car-juggling stunts, but after a Saturday afternoon spent trying to cross-reference a map of Agility Orbs with ones I'd already collected I realised I wasn't having fun any more. It was the relentless progression that made Crackdown fun; once I was top of the heap, with a superhero physique and a bomb-proof SUV, everything else felt like busywork. I went back and did it all again, this time with zombies, for 2010's sequel, but the sense of exploration wasn't there - I sincerely hope that next year's release, with its cloud-powered destruction, brings a new next-gen city to conquer.