Sometime after the release of Grand Theft Auto III, the popular term used in the game industry to describe open-world, mission-based games became "sandbox." It's kind of a dopey term, but it makes sense and properly conveys the sense of freedom that these games tend to have. But even with the freedom offered by this style of game, most of them tend to have a pretty rigid structure for you to follow if you want to see the game through to its storyline conclusion. Crackdown, from Microsoft and Real Time Worlds, tends to get away from that aspect. The result is an open-world game that feels more open ended than any other game of its type, but that lack of structure makes the game feel half finished and shallow in a few spots.
There's a bit of backstory to the action in Crackdown, but all you really need to know is that you're a new type of supercop that can evolve very quickly, which means your skills improve as you play. You're out to clean up the streets. There are three gangs, each with seven leaders. You can take on any gang leader at any time, but there's a logical order laid out for you that makes the progression scale as your skills increase. There isn't much difference between each individual gang leader--you just need to get to where that gang head is by either working your way through, around, or over the gangsters that surround the leader, then open fire on the boss and take him or her down. Once you eliminate all seven leaders of a gang, a "final crime" occurs, which is really just a mess of street soldiers wandering around in one specific area. When you take all of them out, the gang is vanquished and you'll no longer run into any resistance in that part of the city. Once you've repeated this process through all three parts of the city, you're done cleaning up the city. It's got an abrupt and disappointing conclusion, overall. But before you can have a plot twist, you have to have a plot, and Crackdown has neither.
The weird part is that none of the story really matters, because the whole point of the game is to provide open-ended freedom and a large, interesting city to explore. And on the gameplay side, Crackdown works. The city might not seem huge when you first start moving around, but that's more because you're not thinking vertically. As a man with superhuman abilities, you'll get stronger, faster, and more powerful as you play. The plainest representation of this is your agility rating, which you increase by collecting orbs that are hidden around the city on rooftops. As your agility increases, you can jump higher. So what initially seems like a high, but unimpressive, jump at the beginning turns to your agent flinging himself through the air, from one rooftop to the next, or scaling buildings by clinging to window ledges and jumping up the side. The range of movement you get once your agility is up is really impressive and makes moving around the world a lot of fun. Also, firing from the rooftops or jumping in on your enemies from above is a great way to clean up the opposing gangs, so it's got tactical considerations, as well.
While gaining agility is dependant on collecting orbs, the rest of your skills increase by simply using those skills a lot. You'll earn skill in firearms for shooting enemies, and as it increases, the lock-on targeting system becomes faster and more effective, though it can still be a bit touchy, even when you're at the maximum level. The strength skill increases when you kill enemies with melee attacks. Increasing your strength gives you more health, and, well, you're stronger. When you're pumped up all the way, you can kick cars and they'll go flying. You can also pick up vehicles and jump around with them or throw them, which is often fun. You earn driving points by performing stunts in your car or by running over enemies. As you level up your driving, car handling and speed improves, and special agency vehicles that you can request back at headquarters change shape when you get in them, becoming more effective in the process. When you get a four-star driving rating, the agency vehicles all get special abilities, too. The fast-moving supercar gets machine guns, the SUV gains the ability to jump, and the big rig gets a turbo boost that helps it get up to ramming speed. You also have an explosion rating. As you blow up enemies with grenades or rockets, you gain points in this statistic. Leveling it up increases the radius of your explosive weapons, which is silly when you stop and think about it but devastating and exciting at the same time. So you'll start out at the beginning as a fairly weak cop, but by the end, your increased abilities make the game feel nicely different. Using those abilities and exploring the large city is what makes Crackdown fun.
While you can certainly go through Crackdown by yourself, and it won't take too much time to eliminate all the bosses, you can also play cooperatively. The game tries to make the co-op a seamless experience, but in reality, it's anything but. When you're playing alone, you can set an option to allow other players to request to join your game. You can limit this to friends, if you like, but either way, you can always deny a request if you're in the middle of something. If you accept, the player doesn't jump in alongside you or anything. Instead, you're kicked out of the game, and you have to reload to get back in. If that other player quits, your game ends, as well. A more on-the-fly join/quit setup would have made this mode a bit more effective. Also, the joining player joins the host's version of the city. So if you've beaten the game, joining players aren't going to have much to do, unless you want to set up some impromptu racing contests or devise your own rules for some kind of "who can throw this car on top of this building" competition. New players playing co-op with experienced vets won't get much out of the experience, either, because the easy boss battles become even easier when you're jacked up--the first few just require you to get onto a roof and gun down the boss, which is simple when your jumping is maxed out, but those newer players will have to take the stairs, and by the time they get up there, the fun is already done. So you'll want to find someone that's near the same spot you are in the game, if you want to enjoy it.
Many open-world games offer side missions, and Crackdown is no exception. There are two types of checkpoint races to get into. The standard auto race has you driving cars and passing through gates as you attempt to finish under a certain time. When you finish successfully, you'll earn some driving skill points. Rooftop races are the same, only on foot, and require some acrobatic jumping abilities to pull off. Winning here gets you some agility points. There isn't a ton of either type of race, and they aren't really that much fun, so they don't add a whole lot to the world.
You never really get the feeling that this is a living, breathing city with lots going on. Instead, you feel like the civilians are in your way. Also, your fellow police are ineffective at stopping gang members, and the gang members themselves usually aren't bright enough to take you out, either. Even if you do die, which usually happens because of a lone enemy armed with a rocket launcher or you venturing too close to some exploding barrels while being fired upon, there really isn't any serious consequence. When you respawn, you'll be able to choose from any weapons you've unlocked, and you'll experience some extremely minor setbacks in your skill progression.
Crackdown looks great, though it has a few low points here and there. The city is large and detailed, with many of the buildings having proper names and designs to them. While you'll spend most of your time outside, the indoor areas are also rendered well, and the whole world is streamed in seamlessly, with no pauses for loading unless you die or move to another part of the city. The game's characters and objects have a dark, black line around them, which makes you think of cel-shading, but the characters are textured, giving it a more sophisticated look, rather than the cartoon-like style that cel-shading alone tends to evoke. And the draw distance is impressive. You can climb up to some awfully high buildings in this game, and you'll be able to see most of the city when you do so. The game's frame rate can get low in a couple of spots, but these moments seem to be somewhat rare.
The sound is fairly standard, with all of the explosions and gunfire and such that you'd expect from the typical action game. There's an announcer that gives you tutorial-like advice as you play, and he'll occasionally belt out a line or two when you do something wild. But he never stops talking. You'll get the same not-so-helpful piece of advice the 100th time you play as you did on your first time. And he's often wrong about certain things, like when he starts talking about how you're seeing the best view of the city while you're indoors. He starts out as a nice idea but becomes annoying very quickly. The music only plays when you're in a vehicle, which probably won't be very often, but that's fine, because the music isn't anything too special and the game is sure to pop up a big, gaudy display with the album name, artist, track, and publishing info every time you get into a car. That lame pop-up can't be disabled, even if you turn the music all the way down.
The way Crackdown is designed means that everything comes back to the open-ended nature of its gameplay. If you want to blaze through all the bosses in a hurry, it won't take you more than 8 to 10 hours on the default difficulty--much less if you spend some time early on working on your key skills and manage to find a homing rocket launcher. But just screwing around, blowing up cars for no good reason or kicking people that get in your way, makes for an interesting pastime. The achievements are also nicely thought out and give you some extra things to do. Aside from the requisite collect-everything and beat-everything points, there are also plenty of inventive goals, like blasting a car into the air with explosives and keeping it juggled in the sky for several seconds or climbing to the top of the agency tower and then jumping down into a small pool of water below.
Crackdown feels unfinished. It feels like the developers sat down and crafted a wonderful-looking city and carefully considered how the gameplay and abilities should work, and then they didn't have enough time to plug in enough activities to take advantage of it all. While you'll certainly have a lot of fun playing Crackdown, it's hard not to get the distinct feeling that it was on the cusp of being so much more.