Crackdown Co-Op Hands On

By Chris Remo, Nov 12, 2006 10:00pm PST David Jones is best known as the founder of DMA Design, the Scottish development studio that created notable games such as Lemmings, Uniracers, and, perhaps most crucially, Grand Theft Auto. By the time the Grand Theft Auto series really hit the big time with the epic 3D reimagining of GTA III and DMA Design had become acquired by Take-Two label Rockstar, Jones had split off to head up a new division of Rage Software. That division eventually became Real Time Worlds, which is now hard at work on two GTA-inspired action games, the MMO All Points Bulletin, and the single-player/co-op Xbox 360 sci-fi destructionfest Crackdown. I recently had the opportunity to catch up on the game's progress as well as play a few hours of co-op with a fellow journalist.

Crackdown's structure

For those unfamiliar with the game's premise, Crackdown places the player in the middle of a sprawling city dominated by three ruthless gangs vying for dominance: Los Muertos, low-level street thugs whose members are recruited via promises of special favors at boss Violeta Sanchez' brothel; the Volk, ex-military hardasses from Eastern Europe with access to military grade weapons, explosives, and vehicles; and Shai-Gen Corporation, which tries to maintain an illusion of running a legitimate business operation but which is corrupt to its core. Each of these three gangs has staked out its territory, and traditional law enforcement is no longer able to combat the threat. You are a genetically enhanced agent sent by the appropriately named Agency to clean up the city essentially single-handedly. To achieve this, you level up skills such as agility, strength, effectiveness with firearms and explosives, and so on, to the point where they can become truly superhuman in their power. By the time you max out your skills it is not uncommon to be tossing trucks into busy streets and leaping to safety on a nearby rooftob as nearly everything on the screen explodes in series of sequential grenade detonations.

To complete the game, you must take out the 21 kingpins, seven per gang, that direct the city's vast crime empire. One thing that makes Crackdown so unique is that you can do this any way you like--in any order, taking any route you like to get to your target and using any method of assassination to take them out. There's a general suggested progression--it's probably best to start with Los Muertos, as they will provide somewhat less of a challenge than their more highly trained counterparts in Volk and Shai-Gen--but everything is up to you. From the first moment of the game, nowhere in the city is artifially blocked off. If you can't reach a certain area, it's probably because your agility skill isn't high enough to leap over a wall or your explosive skill isn't high enough to blow open a gate, but it's never because you simply haven't completed a particular in-game goal. Even if an area does seem unreachable, there's a good chance you can bypass your obstacle by finding a different route. It is a very open, very non-linear game.

The skill system

Fortunately, your character is constantly improving in various skill areas, meaning that even if you don't feel like hunting down and destroying a kingpin and his or her henchmen, you can feel productive just by running around and blowing stuff up. One of the most all around useful skills, agility, is improved by finding agility orbs, which tend to be scattered in hard to reach places such as rooftops, meaning you'll appropriately do a lot of jumping and climbing to find them. Leveling up your agility allows you to jump even higher, and with the ability to grab onto just about any edge, including window sills, it becomes a fairly trivial task to scale skyscrapers with a bit of practice. In fact, one of the game's Achievements is to climb to the top of the incredibly tall Agency keep at the center of the city. Doing so will also net you a breathtaking view of all of the city, complete with vast draw distances and tiny cars driving around. (Another Achievement is to survive the fall from the top of the keep, which requires a bit of creativity.) For players who enjoy such Spider-Man-like activities, the world is scattered with foot race challenges that have you racing from rooftop checkpoint to rooftop checkpoint trying to beat a certain time. Each of these races will have its own Xbox Live leaderboard so you can tell how you stack up against parkour wannabes elsewhere in the world.

Firearms is your other meat and potatoes skill, and is leveled up simply by using your guns. Crackdown's targeting system allows you to lock on to people, vehicles, or other destructible targets with the left trigger, then adjust the particular area you're targeting with the right analog stick. On people, you can select the torso, legs, arms, or head, while on vehicles you can select the front, rear, driver, tires, or gas cap, and so on, as long as you have line of sight to that particular element. Shooting a few rounds into a vehicle's gas cap will of course result in an automotive explosion, a handy trick when a dozen gang members are taking cover behind a couple of parked vehicles. As you use your firearms and level up your firearms skill, you'll become more accurate with your weapons, allowing you to hit targets from longer ranges. You'll also decrease the time it takes for your circular aiming reticule to shrink down, indicating that you've steadied your aim while standing still.

Turn the page for more about Crackdown's skills as well as its co-op mode.

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Driving is an interesting skill in that as you level it up, it actually has the potential to physically modify your vehicle. There are three Agency vehicles--the sports car, the SUV, and the truck cab--that you can pick up from Agency headquarters at any time. Once you get into one of these vehicles, it will "level up" to match your level of driving skill that you've attained by handling vehicles well and running over gang members. This consists of a brief Transformers-like sequence that makes the sports car sleeker and evocative of the Burton-era Batmobile, the SUV beefier and more monster-truck-esque, and the truck cab just plain huger. At that point, the sports car, which at any level acts like a wedge that sends other cars flying when you ram them head on, gains a front mounted machine gun. The SUV gains the curious ability to jump by compressing its wheels then releasing them, as well as the even more curious ability to lock its wheels onto vertical surfaces if you can angle the car's nose upwards after jumping. According to the dev team, that latter ability was actually entirely by accident, but it proved to be so much fun--and to provide even more ways of finding alternate routes--that they kept it in. Finally, the truck cab gains a turbo boost that, with its already substantial size and weight, makes it even more of a roadway menace.

Explosions skill, which is gained simply by taking out enemies with explosives, makes your grenade detonations larger and more powerful, which is always handy. One particularly impressive type of explosive is the limpet grenade. These will stick to a surface after being thrown and will not detonate until you activate them remotely. After doing so, every active limpet grenade will explode sequentially, making for a visually appealing domino effect that the developers explained was implemented because it was too boring if they all exploded at once.

Finally, strength is what allows you to pick up heavier and heavier objects, eventually including cars and trucks. Taking out enemies using strength, be it by beating them up in melee combat or tossing large heavy objects on top of them, will boost strength.

Cooperative mode

I think we can all agree that co-op makes every game better, and that it is a shame that the world of increasingly complex video games it has become more difficult for developers to include such a feature. Fortunately--and somewhat surprisingly, given the feature's relative rarity in this style of open-world single-player game--the Real Time Worlds crew saw fit to implement it into Crackdown. It's actually very straightforward; since the game allows you to traipse around the city and complete objectives in any order you like, having a buddy join you in co-op basically means there's just another super-agent running around causing wanton destruction. You can work together to take out a boss, you can ignore each other and concentrate on boosting your own stats individually, and you can even try and take each other out. Admittedly, the first thing I did once I located my co-op partner in game (who in the real world was seated right next to me using his own Xbox 360) was blow him to bits.

Really, though, Crackdown's mechanics were clearly not intended for player versus player combat, so while that's an amusing diversion for a minute or so, it's a lot more satisfying to back each other up and bust into a kingpin's heavily defended den, where you can outflank (and out-jump, and out-throw) your AI opponents. The game is already fairly insane and extreme with one player, and adding another just makes it all the more so.

Of course, even when the two of you are cooperating, you're not necessarily safe from the other. I managed to inadvertently but utterly destroy my partner while desperately trying to survive an assault from about a dozen gang members. After ramming my own vehicle into a pile of enemy vehicles, running to safety tossing several granades, and plugging my car's gas tank full of lead, I initiated an impressive display of pyrotechnics that consumed most of the street block. Unfortunately, my partner happened to walk over there at the wrong moment.

Respawning isn't too much of an inconvenience, thanks to checkpoints you can uncover throughout the city that also act as weapon and ammo refuelling stations. In the single-player game, they allow you to pick up relatively close to where you left off, and if you've got a co-op partner they allow you to spawn as close as possible to him or her.

The comic book world of Crackdown

Crackdown is clearly intended to evoke the world of a pulp comic book while still maintaining a distinct flavor. You're not quite a superhero, but by the time your skills are maxed out you can come pretty close. The game shies away from heavy cel-shading, a frequently used approach in comic book-inspired games. However, its models are outlined in bold pen-like strokes, and the color contrast is ratcheted up throughout, giving everything a strong and colorful yet gritty look and feel. Crackdown's visual style has taken some criticism on the internet, but it works very well for the setting and is particularly appealing from a good high altitude vantage point that showcases the impressively large cityscape of the game world.

In conclusion

Based on several hours of hands on time in both single-player and co-op mode, Crackdown is shaping up extremely well. Assuming the game's free roaming structure holds up for 21 bosses' worth of infiltrations and shootouts, it should be turn out to be a great game for Xbox 360 owners who are looking for something along the lines of Grand Theft Auto but with a lot more explosions and sheer surface scaling. Plus, more online co-op games are always welcome.

Microsoft Game Studios plans to ship Real Time Worlds' Crackdown for Xbox 360 in early 2007.

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