Crackdown Review

It is nearly impossible to talk about Crackdown without comparing it in some capacity to the Grand Theft Auto franchise. This is unfortunate, because Crackdown is one of the first GTA clones that is not actually a GTA clone. Still, it clearly owes its existence to that now iconic series, taking GTA's revolutionary marriage of a large open urban sandbox with smart narrative and wit, and stripping out the latter elements while exaggerating the destruction-oriented gameplay elements that make the sandbox part of the equation so appealing. The game is the debut effort from Scotland-based Realtime Worlds, formed by original DMA Design (now Rockstar North) founder David Jones. Jones was instrumental in the creation of franchises such as Lemming as well as Grand Theft Auto itself, though he had left the company by the time the series reinvented itself with Grand Theft Auto III in 2001.

Crackdown, published by Microsoft as an Xbox 360 exclusive, thrusts you into an oppressive future society, in which three warring gangs have dominated Pacific City without much hindrance from an ineffective law enforcement bureau. Of course, it is up to you, a genetically enhanced superhuman judge-jury-and-executioner sort agent, to single-handedly clean up the streets. There are no missions in the traditional sense here. Your goal as an agent is to take out the 21 leaders of the city's three gangs. Each gang controls a fairly discrete section of the city, with bridges linking the three and an agency home base at the center of it all. Crackdown does not contain a defined linear narrative or set progression; you are simply deposited into a wide open city filled with skyscrapers, urban complexes, traffic, pedestrians, violent gangsters, law enforcement officers, and lots of explosive objects. Not even the bosses' locations are marked--when you come within a certain proximity of one while traversing the city, it is added to your map. It's a risky design decision, and if Crackdown were simply GTA minus missions, it would fall flat quickly.

Fortunately, it is not. You are aided in your goal of mobster eradication by five dynamic skills that grow more powerful as they are used: agility, driving, explosives, strength, and weapons. The existence of this skill system is what allows Crackdown's almost startlingly open structure to succeed, as throughout the game your character is able to achieve progressively more spectacular acts of destruction as well as extremely unhindered mobility. Explicitly destructive skills are advanced simply as you use them to take out your enemies. Shooting a gangster--or, for example, shooting a nearby explosive barrel or vehicle gas cap that causes a gangster to perish in the resultant explosion--will raise your weapons skill. Tossing a grenade at a gangster--or firing a rocket into a conveniently located armored car that then flies into and crushes several gangsters--will raise your explosives skill, accompanied by gorgeous tendrilled explosions. Throwing a gangster off a cliff--or throwing a car on top of him--will raise your strength skill.

In each of these areas you start off at a fairly typical video gamey level of ability; that is, you're already better at each than the grunts you'll encounter. You can pick up bad guys and crates and toss them around, and fill a guy full of lead with more speed and accuracy than they can you. As you use them more and more, however, you'll surpass that video game level and begin to reach levels verging on superheroism. By the time your skills are brought to their maximum potential, buses can be thrown with ease and you can sustain enormous amounts of damage before reincarnating back at home base or any of the rejuvenating supply points scattered around the city. Grenades and rockets gain a comically wide and powerful blast radius, and once the homing "Firefly" rocket launcher and multiple-charge cluster grenades are acquired you essentially become a walking tank. Guns, which use a lock-on aiming system that increases accuracy the longer one is locked onto a given target, eventually reach their maximum accuracy with deadly quickness. Just as taking out gangsters boosts these stats, so does shooting, blowing up, or maiming innocent bystanders detract from your experience in a skill, which serves to rein in the overall mayhem--that is, until your skills are maxed and losing skill progress becomes impossible.

Despite being broken up into numbered levels as in many RPGs, the skill system has an organic feel to it. Unlike most level-based RPGs, most skills evolve naturally in proportion to their use, but on the other hand, unlike many dynamically leveling RPGs, it is easy to get a fairly precise handle on the speed of your progression in a given area. In the end, it doesn't end up feeling anything like an RPG at all. Crackdown is absolutely an action game, one that allows you to ratchet up the action exponentially based on the effort put into it, outside of a linear scheme.

The effectiveness of these abilities would be greatly diminished, perhaps cripplingly so, without Crackdown's ace in the hole: the agility skill. Agility is what determines the potential length and height of your superhuman leaps, which directly correlates to your mobility in the urban jungle of the game world. Even from the start of the game, you are able to jump nearly two times your own height, but that seems almost painfully weak after experiencing what the game is like at maximum agility, which allows incredibly fast running paired with thirty foot high leaps across vast distances--and when you land, the ground visibly cracks. Thanks to the ability of your character to grab onto handholds and launch upwards to grab the next one, this increased jumping ability makes scaling sheer surfaces easier and easier. Leveling up agility is a more conscious process than leveling up the prior three. Scattered all around high altitude points throughout the city are 500 agility orbs, which can be collected to boost the stat. In many cases, the designers have arranged Tony Hawk-like "lines," allowing smooth rooftop dashes to pick up strings of orbs. For greater agility boosts, you can complete timed foot races, which have you run over and around buildings to pass through checkpoints along a frequently high altitude route. Each of these races even has its own online time leaderboard.

Crucially, jumping is hardly any kind of limiting factor when dealing out destruction. While sailing through the air, you can still lock on to and shoot enemies, toss aimed grenades, reload, and throw things basically just as easily as when on the ground, meaning you can be in motion a great deal of the time. Crackdown makes very few concessions of any kind towards reality, and the ability to conduct all of your job-related duties (you know, blowing stuff up) with full effectiveness while jumping is largely what gives the game its superheroic quality. Rather than feeling simply like the aforementioned heavily armed tank, you become a nimble jumping heavily armed tank, whatever that is. It is immensely satisfying to take a running jump over a barrier while locked on to and firing rounds into an enemy, then plant a satisfying kick into his face to finish him off.

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Few games offer this kind of gratuitous power and free movement, because it would be overkill and generally implausible within a controlled narrative situation. This is where Crackdown's open nature shines. Players who enjoy following GTA's long and varied story campaigns are likely to be let down here, but those who derive enjoyment out of shirking the missions and going on wild rampages will find a deeper experience as a superhuman agent in Pacific City. Many of the truly memorable moments in the game will be the ones that were not planned, but the ones that arose out of the ability to tackle enemies or traverse the city in the way you saw fit at any given moment. The need to discover bosses on your own becomes a great feature, as it encourages exploration--and in Crackdown, exploration is significantly more exploratory than in most games, mainly due to agility granting so many more perspectives from which to view the city.

The game's powerful, superhero-esque flavor is well complimented by the colorful visual style, which utilizes frequent black outlining and high-contrast texture work to give a pulpy, low-color-comic-book aesthetic to the whole thing. It also helps in that it successfully joins the game's enormously violent and destructive happenings to its almost cartoonish and gleeful play style that evokes little of the real world ruthlessness implied by what's happening in-game. Somebody who walks into the room to find you trying to toss corpses as far as you can from the top of a skyscraper after recently having caused those corpses to become corpses with a series of rockets and head-kicks might be taken aback, but when you are playing this game you are not really thinking in those terms. Except when explicitly attempting to take out a gang boss, the game really is a sandbox, with all of the innocent attitudes of discovery that come along with it. Maybe you can get this car to the top of that building and blow it into the air with grenades, then use a rocket launcher to send it sailing across to another rooftop where it will crush a group of half a dozen gangsters. Why not?

That sense of style exuded by the visual design doesn't extend to the rest of the world design. There isn't much of the character and social observation that gives GTA its sharpness. There are flashes of that attitude, such as the billboard for a fictional nightclub named "Pumpers" plastered on the side of a church. Of course, that coexists alongside a very nonfictional in-game billboard campaign for Dodge. All in all, the city doesn't have all that much of a soul--but that's okay, since we're really just there to blow stuff up, and it handles that quite well.

Unfortunately, driving doesn't mesh the way the other four abilities do. For one thing, it is the only one that must be used completely independently; when in a car, you obviously benefit from none of your other skills. It can also be rather unwieldy to level up. There is driving skill to be earned with road races, which like the foot races have you pass through a series of checkpoints as quickly as possible, as well as for pulling off certain stunts--getting various amounts of air time or distance off of a jump, pulling off various types of flips, doing a barrel roll, and so on. You also gain driving points for running over gang members. This last bit is generally the most convenient, as there are almost always gang members in close proximity. However, as with the other killing-related actions, you'll hinder your progress by harming innocent civilians, meaning that attempting to gingerly roll over bad guys while avoiding good guys can sometimes feel like delicate surgery with a scalpel, which is rather at odds with the general sledgehammer approach the game tends to take otherwise.

This wouldn't be as much of a downside if driving were not so much less necessary to begin with than it is in most games of this type. In most cases, it is significantly more efficient and convenient to go from roof to roof to reach your destination than to acquire a car and navigate the city streets without inadvertently hitting any civilians or having your vehicle destroyed by rocket launcher-armed gangs. Even when having to travel to a different gang district, it is frequently easier to seek out the nearest supply point, which allows you to instantly travel to any other supply point you have previously visited.

That is not to say there aren't fun times to be had in cars. Throughout the world there are stunt markers positioned at high up points which, if driven through, will award numerous driving points. Many of the races are also well designed and fun, and trying to pull off tricks can be fun. In general, though, with the exception of some of the tricks from time to time, these are not things that can be enjoyed with the same spontaneity and integration that make the rest of the game's skills seem so much a crucial part of the experience.

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Despite so much of the game's appeal coming from its free structure, there is plenty to experience with the boss battles. Nearly all of the boss compounds have been constructed and placed in such a way that there are multiple entry points and attack routes depending on your particular style of play. There is, of course, always a front door option that simply has you barging in guns blazing, battling through waves of gang members until reaching the boss' inner sanctum. A beach villa, however, might have an underground access tunnel reached via the ocean, while a boss residing at the top of a tall skyscraper might be accessible by scaling the building and climbing in from the roof rather than taking the stairs. Approaching each boss location, your deep voiced narrator--who, in true Xbox platform burly dude action game form, sounds like the Price is Right announcer version of Gears of War's Marcus Fenix, right down to spouting modern day frat boy exclamations like "Niiice"--will inform you whether you're likely to succeed at your level of ability, while a precise percentage rating appears on screen. I was once able to eliminate a boss after being given a 13% chance of success by jumping through his window, tossing down half a dozen grenades, and shooting off a rocket as I leapt out again. Good times.

In a nice touch, each gang's six sub-bosses control a particular supply chain for that gang--weapons, vehicles, new recruits, and so on. Taking out a boss will reduce a gang's effectiveness in the corresponding area. After taking out a gang's final kingpin and battling a last uprising, the district will become crime-free. Upon vanquishing all three gangs, you will be treated to a rather suspect and shoehorned-in cutscene (to cap off the story that never really existed in the first place), after which you are free to roam the city in peace, devoid of gang members. It's a somewhat surreal opportunity, and is a good opportunity to seek out lingering agility orbs and complete races on foot and by car, without being randomly harassed (except by the police when you accidentally run over dozens of pedestrians). Fortunately for the sake of wanton destruction, you can choose to turn on random crimes, which will restore gangster spawns to the streets. It is also possible to replay any of the game's boss missions in a time trial mode, which like races are tracked on online leaderboards.

As discerning gamers know, cooperative play makes everything better, so Realtime Worlds deserves credit for implementing the feature here. There's no same-screen co-op, but having the mode playable online through Xbox Live is highly appreciated. Due to its open structure, co-op in Crackdown is extremely straightforward: you both exist in the same city at the same time. That's about it. Obviously, most of the time you'll be helping one another out to achieve various goals, but there's no reason that need be the case unless you are playing a cooperative time trial. Speaking of that mode, the co-op time trial could use some work; upon completion of each mission, both players are kicked back to the front end menu, at which point the hosting player selects a new mission and waits for the other player to rejoin. A persistent lobby would have been useful.

I have never been particularly interested in Achievements on the Xbox 360, particularly in story-driven games. Crackdown, however, seems like the type of game for which the system was expressly crafted. With the skill system and the lack of a traditional mission structure, the much of the pleasure of the gameplay comes from pulling off amazing acts, and such acts are precisely what the game's Achievements reward. There are the expected standard milestones such as maxing out the various abilities and taking out each gang's string of bosses, but there are also Achievements for killing 200 gang members without dying, killing five gang members while airborne during a single jump, keeping a car in the air for six seconds using explosives, reaching the top of the staggeringly tall Agency Tower (and then another for jumping down), and so on. There is a good spread of Achievements that you are likely to acquire by using your skills to the fullest and Achievements that you will have to work to acquire. The latter includes long term goals such as finding all 500 agility orbs as well as frantic short term ones such as pulling off six car stunts in a minute. In a sense, the Achievements serve as ersatz missions, without having to work in any kind of context or plot.

There are some more minor odd niggles throughout. Targeting is likely to crop up as an issue from time to time, as for some reason the auto-lock occasionally decides you'd much rather be shooting that guy two blocks away instead of the one five feet in front of you. After the system has made up its mind, it can be difficult to make it reconsider in the heat of battle. There also seems to be an odd bug that sometimes causes highway traffic in a given direction to dissipate entirely until you look away and look back, at which point you will inexplicably see several cars that weren't there before, driving away from you. When you do happen to be stranded in the middle of a long bridge and need to go in a particular direction, this can be frustrating. It would also be nice to be able to kick in midair, a strange omission given the range of other tasks that can be performed while airborne.

In GTA, much of the initial non-narrative appeal stems from allowing the player to do fairly extraordinary things within a surprisingly rich and realistic world, at least compared to most video games. In Crackdown, much of that environmental richness is missing--there are really no characters in this game, no meaningful dialogue, nor a set of varied missions--but the sandbox elements are put in such a different context and played up to such an extreme degree that it really does become its own game. A GTA clone it will inevitably be called, but it also makes the strongest case yet for avoiding terms like "GTA clone." By going back to the drawing board with the fundamental elements that have made open world games such a prominent part of the gaming landscape, Realtime Worlds has managed to carve out a new segment that is both enormously compelling and unapologetically fun.