Use of Crackdown is habit forming. Play at your own risk.
Crackdown, the brainchild of David Jones, creator of the Grand Theft Auto series and Lemmings, puts you on the beat of a genetically altered super agent tasked with reclaiming the streets of fictitious Pacific City. Each island of the sprawling metropolis is ruled by seven gang leaders, six of whom are underbosses that report to a ringleader and are tasked with various roles in the criminal organization.
You can take out the bosses in any order you want, but if you go straight to the top without first thinning the ranks you'll face greater numbers of aggressive enemies equipped with superior weaponry guarding the kingpin. By starting at the bottom and working your way up, you'll see the ripple effect of your actions both on the street and inside each enemy stronghold. Neutralize the gang's recruiting officer and you'll see a dip in the number of foot soldiers patrolling the neighborhood. Assassinate the arms buyer and you'll be dodging a few less rockets when you infiltrate your next target's lair. It's a subtle mechanic that will be lost on the inattentive, but it adds a welcome element of strategy to a game that's mostly about using brute force to solve a problem head-on.
As a silent-but-deadly super agent, you have a variety of skills and tools at your disposal. For starters, you have five abilities that, at the start of the game, are markedly more powerful than your average bodybuilder. Climbing to new heights and collecting agility orbs will increase your agility attribute, which in turn makes you run faster and jump higher. Punching, kicking, and throwing enemies to their demise will boost your strength until you're flipping cars like a Gizmondo exec. Sniping enemies from afar will increase your firearms aptitude, while chucking grenades and launching rockets at clusters of goons will boost the destructive power of your explosives. Pulling off wild stunts and mowing down bad guys while behind the wheel will up your driving skill, which affects not only the handling of vehicles but also transforms agency cars into super powered killing machines.
Like in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, to increase an attribute you simply perform an action successfully over and over until your player "levels up." To help speed up the process, there are several hundred "hidden orbs" placed throughout the city in some less-than-obvious places. By gathering these glowing spheres, you'll not only work your way toward unlocking some Achievement points, but you'll also add bonus points to multiple attributes in one fell swoop.
Within the first hour you'll notice a drastic change in your character as he'll leap farther, pick up heavier objects, and create mayhem with ease. Virtual puberty aside, you'll also notice the game scale to fit your newfound powers. As you venture off the first island you'll come across taller buildings and you won't be able to crest the highest peaks without collecting more orbs. And so continues the vicious cycle...
It goes without saying that Crackdown has more than a passing similarity with the Grand Theft Auto franchise, which is really no surprise since Dave Jones is the man behind both. Where Crackdown deviates from the tried-and-true GTA formula is in three key places. For starters, you're the good guy. True, you can direct your massive firepower at civilians and other agency police, but it comes at a cost. You'll take a penalty on one or more attributes for causing too much collateral damage. Keep screwing up and you'll find yourself tagged a rogue agent marked for death. You factor in online and system link co-op and you've already put miles between each game.
At this moment, the co-op feature isn't the seamless experience we'd hoped for. Should you receive a join request from a friend or stranger, you must save and quit your current game and then restart to place your partner in the game world. Also, that person does not have access to your agency supply points (only the ones he unlocked in his game). This can lead to some annoying gaps in team play should one of you get taken out by a baddie and your partner’s closest spawn point is on another island (or the Agency Keep). While co-op is currently limited to Xbox Live and system link, it's amazing fun and worth the price of admission.
Another factor is the city's verticality. Pacific City might not cover the same acreage as San Andreas, but it compensates for this by giving the player *lots* of places to climb and explore. You'll find yourself ditching your agency ride in favor of leaping from rooftop to rooftop while collecting orbs. Though most of the game takes place outdoors, there are many indoor environments you'll venture through. While they are sparsely adorned, you'll find yourself doing a fair amount of platforming inside as well.
Lastly, GTA is a series known for rich characters, witty dialogue, and snarky humor. Crackdown has a paper thin story that serves as nothing more than a backdrop to the action, though in this case that's mostly fine. What laughs you derive from playing the game won't come from well-timed jokes or comedic scenes, but instead from the sheer amount of chaos you can create with the tools in your bag.
It would have been nice if there were at least some characters you could latch onto in the course of your adventure. The agency dispatcher, while humorous in his deadpan delivery, provides nothing more than hardboiled enemy intel and gameplay tips. You won't encounter memorable roles like O.G. Loc, Big Smoke, Lance Vance, or Luigi Goterelli during your tour in Pacific City. Instead you'll hear looping ambient chatter from thugs and panicked denizens. So while you're jumping from skyscraper to skyscraper to save the day, you'll view the locals just how they look from above—like mindless worker ants.
Visually speaking, Crackdown is a pretty game. True, it lacks the graphic punch of the recent classic Gears of War, but then again few games even come close. Instead of gunning for an ultra-realistic look, the artists at Realtime Worlds opted for a "graphic novel" look, which is a marketing term in place of the dreaded "cel-shading" descriptor. But this ain't no comic book. It's dark and foreboding at times...and very violent, almost to the point of ridiculousness.
Sound is sparse. Aside from the ambient noise of cars driving and people walking around, there's not much to the game's audio in between bursts of gunfire. When you enter a vehicle you'll hear a number of licensed tracks, many of which are forgettable techno or rock numbers that aren't bad by any stretch, just not very memorable. Since you'll be spending most of your time leaping from buildings you won't hear every track during an average play through (unless you're striving to max out your driving attribute).
In almost every facet, Crackdown stacks up favorably to Grand Theft Auto. Controls are spot on, save for a finicky target lock feature that sometimes sticks to the wrong enemy or object. Full camera controls are a much welcome improvement to the genre, as is the pinpoint aiming feature. Vehicle driving, while not on par with racing games, is satisfying enough to add depth.
The only place that Crackdown comes up short is in its scope. The core game of defeating all 21 bosses can be completed in 10 hours or less on the default skill level. Side missions consist of rooftop races and driving contests, but nothing more. You can play the game in Time Trial mode to beat your previous records, and likewise you can gun for all 900 Achievement points included with the disc (the last 100 will be available for free download on Xbox Live). While it'll take you some time to nab them all—and without question these are some of the most creative Achievements to date on Xbox 360 (Body Juggling, anyone?)—they almost feel tacked on in place of actual tasks and story missions. Whether the story content was trimmed to make ship date or it was by design is unknown, but the game feels a bit lifeless without it.
It's also worth mentioning that early Crackdown purchasers get an automatic place in the Halo 3 beta. Microsoft cleverly built a launcher into the Crackdown game itself, so you'll need the disc in your 360 to download and run the Halo 3 beta code. Sell or trade in the game and you'll likely lose that spot or be unable to participate when the download becomes available. For some, Crackdown will be enough to keep them happy despite this added perk, though there's little doubt that some trigger-happy kids consider the game a "$60 beta key" and nothing more. Consider us in the former camp.
In the end, Crackdown is a game that gives back to players what they put into it. If you're the kind of person who likes the freedom to approach a problem in multiple ways, you're given ample tools to kick ass and take names. In any boss fight there are multiple paths to reach your goal, so no matter how you've groomed your character you'll have a means to reach your target. But if you need your hand held through an intricate story to keep you captivated, you'll walk away disappointed. This game will appeal to a very specific kind of gamer, but those willing to blaze their own trail through Pacific City's underworld will reap vast rewards and hours of enjoyment.
Highs: Expertly crafted world; great use of physics; game is rich with "water cooler moments" stemming from emergent gameplay; controls are spot on despite some minor gripes with the target-lock feature; co-op is wicked fun; the world provides almost limitless possibilities for player-directed activities; maxed-out abilities turn you into an unstoppable superhero; Halo 3 beta access is a nice bonus
Lows: No real story or characters to speak of; online co-op isn't seamless; game could use some additional mission types
Verdict: Crackdown isn't perfect, but it's damn addictive in a way that not many games are (and it's got online co-op). Whether you're scaling skyscrapers to nab those elusive orbs or kicking thugs halfway across town, it never gets old despite its lack of story content and mission variety. If you love sandbox games, you'll get back everything you put into it and then some. *Originally published at GWN.com