As the creator of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, David Jones is one of the UK's most revered game developers. Crackdown is the first game to be released from Realtime Worlds, the studio he set up in Scotland in 2002. A free-roaming action game in which you play a futuristic law enforcer, Crackdown looks like it's set to take the genre in an interesting new direction. With a little over a month to go until the game hits the shelves, we took delivery of a preview copy to see how it's shaping up.
Crackdown is set in Pacific City, a futuristic haven for three gangs called the Los Muertos, the Volks, and the Asian Shai Gens. You play the role of an enforcer of The Agency, a government organisation that's aiming to crack down on these gangs and regain control of the city. Out in the field, you're fed mission briefings about key members of each criminal organisation, and it's your job to take those people out. Thankfully, you're supported by the city's street cops, but you're also able to build up your skills to the point where your abilities are at a superhuman level.
While the Xbox Live options were unavailable in our preview build, the meat of the campaign was present and correct. You're given the choice to play as one of eight different avatars of various races and styles--there's even a Marilyn Manson look-alike thrown in for good measure. Before you start, you're able to change the aggression level of enemies, which range from tough to ruthless to psychotic.
Improving skills is one of the core themes of Crackdown, and as you progress, your character will dramatically advance in capability. A Crackdown agent's five skill areas include explosives, athletics, driving, fighting, and shooting, and you improve by putting them into practice in the field. If you choose to employ hand-to-hand combat instead of explosives and shooting, that area will develop, and you'll be able to land more powerful blows. However, if you want to develop as an all-round agent, you need to employ a mixture of tactics and adapt to each individual situation.
While other games in this genre have offered similar character development strategies, the futuristic setting of Crackdown has let the designers amplify these skills in a completely unrealistic way. As you run around the world and collect the 500 agility orbs, your character will start being able to perform moves that free runners can only dream about. After a few hours of play, you should be able to jump three to four times your own height, and as you continue to build up agility, you can even clear small buildings. Your character is also able to hold onto ledges and windowsills, so scaling most buildings in Pacific City is possible right from the off.
While building up agility lets you run away from threats, muscular improvements mean that you can dispatch your enemies in a number of cool ways. For example, if your character runs toward an enemy and performs a roundhouse kick, you'll be able to follow up that move by shooting the bad guy in midair as he flies backward from the initial impact. Most of the objects in the world can be picked up and thrown, although you'll need a certain strength level to pick up the larger objects. It's slightly cumbersome to throw objects in the heat of battle, but we never tired of picking up one gang member and tossing him at another, or ripping off a car door and hurling it into a pack of enemies.
Although the game offers the same freedom as Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, the dynamic is altered by the fact that this time you're a police officer. Although you can still jack civilian cars, it's your executive position that lets you do so. Support is provided on the streets by regular cops, but if you kill too many police officers or civilians, your department will order the cops to take you down. As an agent, you're given access to the regular assortment of pistols, machine guns, submachine guns, and shotguns, as well as grenades and sticky bombs. There are also enemy weapons that can be collected in the field, and if you take them to one of the Agency arms centres dotted around the city, they'll be made available to you permanently.
Being a police officer has other advantages, too, such as the cool selection of vehicles available to you from the beginning. Whenever you start the game or are killed, you can spawn at your headquarters and select from a choice of three vehicles, each with different attributes. The Agency Supercar is fast and light and will overturn vehicles if you ram them. The SUV is slightly slower but can negotiate obstacles, while the heavily armoured Truck Cab can drive through other vehicles, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.
While it's fun to drive around the city and perform your assassination missions, our preview version of Crackdown lacked any real narrative to accompany this action. A serious-sounding voice from Agency HQ lets you know about street races and enemy bases in your proximity, but there was little in the way of explanation about the main character or the agency itself. Instead, information about key gang members is sent to your portable computer, with videos and biographical information explaining their relevance to the three gangs.
We were also able to see the game's 80 achievements in this preview build, although none of them seemed to relate to finishing the main game. Instead, you're awarded the coveted points for completing stunts and races, as well as levelling up your various skill sets. Arguably, one of the main attractions is that the game can be played cooperatively, both locally and over Xbox Live, letting you team up with another agent to clean up the streets of Pacific City. Crackdown is one of the first games of its kind to offer this feature, and with cooperative play proving so popular in games such as Gears of War and Rainbow Six Vegas, we hope that it provides the same draw here. The final mode is time trial, in which you can take on any of the 21 gang leaders that you've killed in the main game against the clock. Again, though, there don't seem to be any achievements linked to completing this mode.
While the futuristic setting is a welcome change for a free-roaming action game, Crackdown seems to be particularly po-faced and possesses none of the humour of the Grand Theft Auto series. There are no cheesy radio DJs or satirical advertisements to be heard on the car radios, for example. Having said that, there are 105 different music tracks covering Latin, rock, and dance genres, and of course you can use custom soundtracks as well. If you listen closely, the din of Pacific City is punctuated by characters talking to each other in imaginative or expletive-laden ways. Hang around at your headquarters and you'll hear officers talk about agents in hushed tones, telling stories about how they can leap buildings.
As for graphics, much has been made of the comic-book style that features thick, black borders and vibrant colours. In practise, it's both an aesthetic and technical treat, as the game suffers absolutely no slowdown at this stage. Crucially, the driving model means that it's fun to just cruise around and take in the city, while you can also compete in both vehicle and foot races to split up the assassination missions.
While the structure of Crackdown looks to be a little disparate at times, there's no doubt that the game offers a suitably different experience from the other games in its genre, and it's great fun to play. The sci-fi setting has let Realtime Worlds create a great playground in the form of Pacific City, with a main character that can take advantage of it in terms of agility and strength. With just over a month until the game is released, we're excited to see whether it's a place we'll end up visiting again and again.