This week sees the release of much anticipated title Crackdown, with opinions varied on why exactly the game is so much anticipated. After a few delays, rumored to be needed to up the game’s quality, Microsoft decided to add an invitation for some other game’s beta in the box. Of course that guarantees a huge number of sales, but would this game be capable of surviving on its own merits, or is it really included for free with the Halo 3 beta?
Reading through the thinner-than-thin manual you immediately get the impression that this game means business. Screw stories, screw complex talk, let’s get in and shoot already! The game’s menu structure supports this no-bullshit approach, and lets you fire up a game within seconds. A comic book style intro sets the scene for the game, detailing how Pacific City has been run over by 3 violent gangs, and the Agency, official peacekeepers of the city, got stuck in the center of the city’s circular islands, incapable of fighting off the amassed gang members of Los Muertos, Volk and Shai-gen.
Luckily, a captured Shai-gen scientist was friendly enough to share some data with the Agency about research his gang was working on: advanced technology capable of enhancing the human body to be able to perform superhuman tasks. The Agency has applied the research for its own wishes, and the result is a genetically enhanced agent that should be capable of wiping out the city’s gangs. Yep, that’s you, and indeed the story is as cheesy as they get.
With the city conveniently split into several main islands by large stretches of sea, each of the gangs controls a clearly separated part of the city. Each gang has a similar structure of authority, with 7 bosses in control of different parts of the gang’s operation in their region. This is where a fascinating aspect kicks in, as you are required to kill some of the lower bosses to increase your chances of taking on the king pin eventually. For example, one of the lower chiefs might be in charge of smuggling explosives into town, and taking him out will mean the king pin’s defenders have less grenades and rocket launchers when you attack them. Going for the king pin right away is an almost certain way to forced regeneration: a nice feature which adds a level to realism to an otherwise far-fetched setting.
Not to say that there’s anything wrong with the setting. Being a cyber-enhanced superagent allows you to jump ridiculously high, take ridiculous damage, and survive ridiculous drops. Apart from that you can pick up cars and everything and throw them at the gang folks, or civilians or other agents should you want to, to take them out. The city is also filled with skyscrapers and high buildings, giving you plenty chance to enjoy your superpowers. Merely jumping around the city’s rooftops can keep you busy for ages, and climbing the huge Agency tower itself even awards you 2 achievements for doing so; providing you don’t miss the sea on your jump down.
Another fun thing about rooftop hopping is that there’s a lot of things to do there. The city is littered with a total of 500 Agility Orbs to pick up, spread openly on most high locations, and 300 Hidden Orbs, subtly hidden in corridors or on hard-to-reach locations. The first boost your Agility skill, and the other ones give bonuses to all of your superagent skills. Apart from that there are also Rooftop Races, requiring you to pass a set number of checkpoints within a limited timeframe. Down on street level we find Road Races, essentially requiring the same but then by car, and Stunt Rings that you can jump through with an appropriately powerful car.
As mentioned, there’s also skills to think off. You start off as a ‘weak’ superagent, if ever there was such a thing, but by applying your skills you can gain stars, further enhancing your powers. Driving over gang members increase your driving skills, kicking them increases strength, blowing them up increases your explosive skills. The system works really well, and is sufficiently balanced that you are close to having your skills maxed if you play the game at a regular pace and do some fun on the side like rooftop races as well. You also feel the need to increase the skills, as the Volk and Shai-gen carry heavier weapons than the relatively weak Los Muertos you start against and it really helps that you automatically become a more efficient shooter and dodger as you invade the later bosses’ locations.
Viewing the game as a whole, the main conclusion is that it’s simply great fun, and the delays brought us a well-balanced and thought out game that will give you hours of fun, even if you decide to ignore the missions and just do the many things you can do as well, or even go rogue and fight the Agency. Excellent Xbox Live integration, akin to Gears of War’s coop mode, gives you even more fun as you can join anyone’s world at any given time and assist them in whatever they’re doing. Just taking on those massive fights together with a friend will keep you busy for many more hours.
However, it’s not all perfect. The Xbox Live integration is fun when played with a friend, but as I was reviewing this game before its official release I didn’t have many friends that had the game yet. Of course the game supports full Xbox Live matchmaking functionality, and even includes a bunch of nice extra options that allow you to prefer talkative or quiet players, or players that specifically focus on one of their killing skills. However, the first time you play the game it asks you whether you want to allow people to join in at any time in your world, and at that time most people blindly click the default option that anyone can join. As a result, finding games to join gives you a list with many hundreds of people available for joining… who then all reject your request because they’re working solo for a minute. Joining a quick match proved no better, since it simply takes the best match it can quickly find, and still asks the player if you can join. In my experience, almost everyone rejected, which makes random matchmaking a cumbersome and useless feature: not being able to find any coop game to join for half an hour is simply overly frustrating.
The problem is complicated further by a drawback that results from one of the best features of the game: the fact that taking out a boss leaves the surrounding part of the city under Agency control, cleansed of gang influences. Yes, that also implies that the city is completely empty and devoid of stuff to do when you finish the campaign. And that also means that you need to join someone else’s game or resort to the time trials if you want to take on bosses. Yes, there is the option to enable ‘random crimes’ when the city is empty, but that just means random fodder spawns up around you all the time. Good for some arcade fun or ventilating surplus aggression, but the challenge is gone. I would’ve liked to have an option to refill the entire city with gang scum again without having to delete my entire save game, including the character progression.
More flaws are in the graphics and world areas. Although the semi-cellshaded approach itself works great, and the characters look and animate fine, the world suffers from general wide-open-game syndrome. Buildings and environments lack detail, and textures are too simple and repetitive: on the side of buildings you can easily see that the same texture is tiled all over, without any variation or crack to break it up. While it’s a well-known disadvantage of the genre that less variety is possible because of memory and storage limitations, I couldn’t help but think the next-generation machines needn’t have this limitation this apparent, and in for example Saints Row the problem was less noticeable. All in all the comic-book settings works fine though, and the oft-lauded explosions of the game do miracles to make up for graphical shortcomings elsewhere. The sound effects are also what you’d expect to find in an ultra-violent game like this: loud and brutal, just the way we like it. Music is absent most of the time, but while driving around a good selection of over a 100 tracks is played which fit the setting nicely.
What we have here in the end is a game that is very well designed and executed, but I fear lacks in one of the most punishing areas: lastability. After you’ve emptied the world in less than 10 hours, and perhaps spent some hours roaming the city and picking up Orbs and completing races, there simply isn’t much reason to go back to the game, unless you’ve got friends on Xbox Live with the game. If you don’t, it’s game over by that time due to the matchmaking flaws and the lack of a splitscreen mode. If you do however, the coop mode is honestly tons of fun. The game attempts to offer some replayability value by supplying Time Trials, in which you try to set Leaderboard records for killing a single boss as fast as possible, but since a beefed agent can do most earlier bosses in under 1 minute that isn’t exactly something that’ll keep you going endlessly either.
Summarizing it all I can definitely highly recommend the game to anyone with a passion for pixelated violence, but with the very strict accompanying note that $60 is a lot of money if you have no plans on playing online coop with friends. Essentially it’s a huge Arcade game that will give you an awful lot of tremendous fun as you blow up half the city and kill everything that moves in the most creative ways possible, and moves to levels beyond fun when playing with a friend, but lasts too short to really stand high above the crowd and be remembered for years to come. But hey, you do get the Halo 3 Beta invitation for after the game loses its own attraction.
Final Score: 8 out of 10 - Good (How do we rate games?)