When it comes to open world sandbox games it seems like the only one that can get it right is the hugely popular Grand Theft Auto series. Over the past six years dozens of companies have tried to recreate the magic of Rockstar's crime simulator, but none of them have been very good. Perhaps with the release of games like Saints Row and Crackdown that cliché is finally losing some steam. That's not to say that either of those two games are of the same quality of the Grand Theft Auto series, but it's starting to be that there are some similar games that are actually worth your time and money.
While it's easy to compare Crackdown to the Grand Theft Auto series doing so completely misses the point (and appeal) of Microsoft's first sandbox game. Outside of the fact that both games take place in a huge sprawling environment that you can explore as you see fit, these two games have very little in common. Crackdown is a more free experience, you are literally plopped down in a world and free to do whatever you want … which includes taking on enemies and missions in any order you see fit.
You play an agent tapped to help clean up the streets of Pacific City, a fictional futuristic city full of large buildings and plenty of gang activity. While it might seem a little unfair to have one guy going up against all of these different criminals, the truth is that the various gangs should fear you more than you fear them. You see, you are a genetically enhanced agent who can run fast, jump high and beat the crap out of just about anything. And best of all, you the more you play the game the stronger, faster and more agile you become. Eventually you are able to pick up cars, survive falling off of a 50 story skyscraper, and kill a man with just one kick. Without putting too fine a point on it, you become a one-man killing machine. A superhero, if you will.
Unfortunately that is the extent of the story; you pretty much enter a city and kill a bunch of bad guys and gang leaders. Then when you're done with that, you move on to the next gang and the next boss, and so on so forth. From time to time you may get a brief explanation of who these targets are, but you never really know much about the back story and there's absolutely no character development. This is not a story-based game; instead it's all about action and just having a great time in this virtual city.
The good news is that you can have a lot of fun tooling around Pacific City. The world, while not as diverse as what we've seen in games like San Andreas, is definitely fun to play in and full of possibilities. The city it split up into three different islands each with their own ethnic-based gang: Los Meurtos is the Mexican gang, the Russians are known as Volk, and Shai-Gen is an Asian gang. Each of these gangs has seven bosses each with their own task (weapons, security, etc.). You can tackle them in any order, and once you've crippled one aspect of the gang it will hurt all of the other arms of that gang.
Going around and killing the various gang bosses is really the crux of the game, you won't find any escort missions here, it's just you against a bunch of Mexicans, Asians and Russians. In a lot of ways that frees you up to experiment and just explore the city. You don't even need to kill the bosses if you don't want you, you could have a lot of fun just co-existing with these criminals and looking around the city. In fact, I'm of the mind that the whole killing gang members thing is probably the least interesting part of Crackdown … and that's saying something.
The real star of Crackdown isn't the story or the missions; instead it's all the crazy genetically enhanced stuff you are able to do. Although you start out kind of weak and not very exciting, you quickly build up your character and become one of the greatest action heroes of all time. When your stats are maxed out you are able to jump from building top to building top without batting an eye, you are able to pick up cars and throw them at whoever is unlucky enough to be in your way, and you can withstand dozens (if not hundreds) of bullets without dying. You become everything that is cool about comic book heroes, only this time around you are that character and it's your story that is being told.
You can upgrade your character in a number of different ways, both from items you collect and from just using your abilities. Scattered around Pacific City are 500 (yes, 500) Agility Orbs that you can collect, these green glowing orbs help increase your various stats (which include driving, shooting, explosives, strength and agility). Most of these green orbs are in easy to find locations, usually on the tops of buildings. And unlike the hidden items in other open world games, these Agility Orbs are easy to spot from a distance, especially at night. Of course, these Agility Orbs aren't supposed to be hidden … that's what the 300 hidden orbs are for. Needless to say, if you want to collect all 800 orbs found in this city you are going to have to set aside some time to devote to the hunt.
If you're not interested in looking around for hidden (and not so hidden) orbs, then you can also upgrade your skills by actually playing the game. For example, if you want to increase your strength then you would kill a bunch of gang members with your roundhouse kick. You can easily upgrade your explosives skills by using grenades and missile launchers. And yes, you increase your driving abilities by driving around the city. Most of this you will do over the course of the game, so there's generally no reason for you to devote too much time to leveling up your character until the last few bosses.
What is cool about these character upgrades is that you can tell the difference almost immediately. It's easy to tell when your agility has increased because you can jump higher and you run a lot faster. And that's not all, when you increase your strength you will be able to pick up heavy objects and use them to kill your enemies. Upgrading your character will also give you more health, something that you will need when battling the Russian and Asian gangs. While the game itself isn't all that difficult, things do become a little trickier when the gang members start using homing missiles and other powerful weapons.
While the agility, strength, explosives and weapons skills are important to your survival, it's the driving skill that seems almost completely pointless. You can play all of Crackdown without jumping into a single car; they just aren't very useful in this game. Part of the reason for this is because it's so damn fun to jump from one building to the next and feel like a real superhero. The city is designed with this in mind, and because the agility orbs are mostly on top of buildings the game rewards you for playing like a lunatic and sticking to the roofs. Another reason the cars aren't as practical as they are in other games is because a fully developed character runs almost as fast as the cars, which pretty much defeats the purpose of these vehicles. On the plus side once you've upgraded your driving skill your agency vehicle will change and transform into something bigger and cooler. But it's still useless when it's more fun to use the rooftops to get from here to there.
Having said that, it's worth pointing out that there is one very specific reason to use a vehicle, and that's to play the racing mini-games. Like all sandbox games Crackdown features a number of mini-games you can play when you're not cleaning up the city and killing thousands of gang members. There are basically two different mini-games, one that tests your running and jumping, and other that has you racing through gates in what can only be called a Midnight Club rip-off. Both of these modes are basically the same, the game will give you a bunch of checkmarks you need to pass through in a certain amount of time. Do this and you will complete the mini-game (and be on your way to earning an achievement), take too long and you'll have to try it again. I suppose it's nice to see a little diversity added to the game, but neither of these mini-games is all that exciting and they won't hold your attention after you've gotten rid of all of the gangs.
This brings up the biggest problem with Crackdown; there just isn't much to do. One could argue that the world is free for you to do whatever you want, but outside of experimenting you really don't have a lot to take care of. On one hand I love the freedom this game provides, but at the same time the complete lack of structure makes it feel kind of empty. Saints Row had the right idea; the various mini-games were a lot of fun and made you play the game long after you were done playing through the campaign. But Crackdown doesn't try to do that; instead it hopes that your imagination will make up for a short single player experience.
Another problem with Crackdown is that for all of these grand ideas it had, it just never feels like it hits its potential. On paper it sounds great, you play a superhero cop who is out there ridding the city of crime. With such a great premise to start from you would think that the developers at Realtime Worlds would be able to imagine a bunch of amazing boss creatures that are straight out of a comic book. But that's not what happened; instead the bosses look and play like regular enemies with slightly more health. None of the enemies are cool at all; every single boss in the game is completely forgettable. Towards the end of the "story" the game hints at genetic mutations gone wrong, but that thread is quick abandoned and it's back to killing a bunch of small bosses that aren't all that cool. Given the premise I would have hoped for maybe a flying boss or maybe a large creature terrorizing the city, but instead we get a bunch of bosses that are underwhelming in every possible way. And to add insult to injury, there is no real end boss. The game just kind of ends abruptly, you get a cinema and the city is suddenly peaceful. The whole thing feels anticlimactic.
The bosses aren't the only thing that doesn't feel fully developed; I was also let down by the hand to hand combat. While it's not as big of a problem as some of the other complaints I have, the non-weapon attacks feel like a last minute addition. Even after you've fully developed your strength meter, you still basically have one move: A roundhouse kick. This kick gets the job done, but how cool would it have been to be able to do something other than kick? Don't get me wrong, there's nothing cooler than being able to kick a car and make it fly into the air, but it would have been nice to see a real combo-based attack system implemented.
And it's not just the hand to hand stuff that is disappointing; I would also like to add that the weapons themselves are extremely lame. Towards the end of the game you will have the ability to choose from a couple of different missile launchers, but outside of those effective weapons there just isn't much originality here. For being a futuristic city there just isn't much here that strikes me as being set in the future. Given that the game has a futuristic bent and is inspired by comic books I was hoping for something more, perhaps a few weapons that are way over-the-top and so unrealistic they could only be seen in this game. But instead we get the usual mix of automatic machine guns, a shotgun, pistols and rocket launchers. The guys at Realtime Worlds could learn a thing or two from Sony developer Insomniac.
But despite its flaws Crackdown still remains incredible fun to play. There's no doubt that I would have preferred better bosses, a little structure and a cooler combat system, but as it is Crackdown proves to be one of the most exciting action games I've played in recent history. Now that Realtime Worlds has laid down the groundwork for the series perhaps these are the types of enhancements we can expect from a Crackdown 2.
Crackdown does manage to do one thing right that I never saw coming, and that's multiplayer. While both Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto have recently dabbled with multiplayer modes, Crackdown is the first to really make it work. What's great about the co-op modes is that you can enter and exit a friend's game any time you want to, and you don't even need to be there helping each other. That is to say, if you enter a co-op game each player can be on opposite sides of Pacific City doing different things, just co-existing and having fun playing in this world. Of course, it's probably more fun to actually play with your buddy and help him take out the bosses and rid the city of gang activity. A second player is also good for experiments, such as throwing a car with him in it only to have him jump out and see how high up he can get. There's something to be said about working together to test the limits of the technology, this is definitely one of the best elements of the game. But while this is cool, I can't help but wish that the game allowed more than two people in one room. It would have been nice to see four, eight or even sixteen friends all playing in the way city doing different things (or starting deathmatch-like games).
The graphics in Crackdown do an excellent job of walking the tightrope of being too realistic and too cartoony. The world of Pacific City is made up of cel-shaded graphics, but this isn't the type of cel-shading used in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker or Jet Set Radio. These graphics are detailed, but you can tell where the dark black border of each character is, giving off the impression that you are watching a living comic book. Some of the locations on the map are simply breath taking, there's no doubt that this is a beautiful world you are playing in. It's also worth mentioning that stuff blows up real good, there's nothing quite like stacking a bunch of cars and then blowing them up and watching them fly through the air with their various parts raining down on you.
The sound is equally good, especially when it comes to the sounds of your weapons and special abilities. When you land after a giant leap you can feel the sound effect, it's definitely the type of sound that gets the point across. I'm not the biggest fan of some of the music choices in the game, but obviously those are the types of things you can change thanks to the custom soundtrack. The voice acting is also good, even though there isn't a whole lot of it. Since there aren't any cinema cut scenes, most of the dialog is spoken by your boss who is there to tell you about the various gangs and bosses.
Even with its faults Crackdown is still a solid game that is well worth playing through. While it's not nearly as strong as some of Microsoft's other first party offerings, Crackdown does prove to be a solid first entry into what will no doubt be a franchise. Realtime Worlds is already on record saying that they are going to release some sort of free expansion pack to the game; one can only hope that it includes some better mini-games and a better boss or two. There are going to be a lot of people who buy Crackdown just to be able to play the Halo 3 beta, thankfully they will find that this is a fun game that's worth every penny. It's not perfect, but it's a good start to something that will hopefully be spectacular the next time we visit it.