Whether the original Crackdown would’ve been quite the hot commodity it was had publisher Microsoft not bundled each retail copy with a Halo 3 beta key is anyone’s guess. What’s certain is that Realtime Worlds’ game became a runaway success and a sequel was as inevitable as a new season of Tool Academy.
Crackdown 2 has been in development at Ruffian since June last year. After fifteen minutes with the game, you’ll start to wonder where that development cycle was invested. In many ways, Crackdown 2 feels like a carbon copy - warts and all - of the original.
Due to budget constraints for example, it takes place once again in Pacific City, lifted from the original block for block and given an apocalyptic paintjob. It’s helpful in rubbing that nostalgic itch but is ultimately unsatisfying. It’s not a particularly attractive child either: Crackdown 2 boasts some of the worst tearing and cell shading in the biz.
Gameplay flaws from the original title have been ported into the sequel, the plot is thin and the campaign gameplay is repetitive.
In spite of that, there’s still a lot to like about Crackdown 2. It reminds us just what open world games can be - it’s a veritable sandbox that allows the player (when it responds correctly to their commands) the total freedom to create satisfying and largely inconsequential mayhem on a truly citywide scale.
The premise here is simple - Pacific City has been overrun with "freaks" (apocalyptic mutants) which you're tasked with eradicating, all the while attempting to block the progress of a shadowy terrorist cell called, predictably, "Cell".
In order to tackle both sets of foes with anything approximating success, you'll need to collect orbs, which have made a welcome comeback from Crackdown. The acquisition of these orbs was one of the stronger elements found in the original game, and very little has changed with their appearance in the sequel. Ruffian have introduced a new orb type - the "Renegade", which annoyingly moves at speed around the city, often ducking through alleyways and forcing you to pay close attention to nearby environmental hazards when chasing it. Capture these orbs however, and you'll soon improve virtually all character stats and unlock even more content, such as new Agency vehicles, and even a helicopter.
Unfortunately, utilizing your new-found abilities to massacre Freaks and take down Cell terrorists is made anything but easy by the inaccurate targeting system. It often bafflingly locks on to cars, or exploding barrels, or indeed anything but the terrorist standing directly in front of you. The camera angles are likewise frustrating, it's not always immediately obvious which direction you're facing, or where the gunfire is coming from.
The vehicle dynamics are clunky, and whilst it's great fun running down throngs of Freaks at high speed, it's pretty clear that going around corners was a concept not entirely fleshed out by Ruffian. You'll need a solid four or five hours of gameplay under your belt before your driving skills start to make things entertaining, and that's really a price you shouldn't have to pay. The driving issues aren't helped by the claustrophobic nature of the city, poor low-speed manoeuvrability, and the ease at which your vehicle can get stuck in the environment. We've never seen a real building with a concrete-lined trench around the base, but they exist in Pacific City, and if your car drives into it, it's not coming out again.
We loved the cell shaded art design of last year's Borderlands, and therefore had high hopes that Ruffian would produce something of similar quality. Crackdown 2 however isn't visually any better than its 2007 predecessor, and despite boasting some extreme draw distances, textures and surfaces are often dull, giving the impression that the cell shading has been used as a kind of make-up to gloss over lazy artwork. It's hard to imagine why three separate forces actually want Pacific City, it's about as exciting as Dargaville's CBD. Again we really have to question where exactly the months of development have gone.
No clues are provided by the missions either. The world is split between daylight and nocturnal activities, and you can choose between attacking Freaks at night in an attempt to block their passage through the city, or taking out endless waves of Cell operatives during the day whilst you wait for Agency backup. These missions are optional, and run parallel with the main campaign, which is essentially activating "Absorption Units" throughout the city. These units need to be powered up to facilitate "Project Sunbeam" - an Agency scheme to blast the Freaks with beams of light. Or something. There's really no story to speak of, and the campaign can be rolled through in 8-10 hours.
There are further signs of developer laziness too - the constant narration from your invisible commanding officer is banal, ridiculously repetitive, and wouldn't be out of place in an original Xbox title. There are audio diaries scattered about the city, which may well be the subject of an editorial article shortly entitled "audio diaries stopped being cool in 2007, so please stop using them".
On a more positive note, Crackdown 2 does have a genuinely entertaining co-op online presence. Up to four people can tackle Freaks and Cell members together, and in many cases this is a far superior experience to the single-player campaign. Indeed, it really is as if Crackdown 2 was designed to be played with friends, as difficult missions will change to cakewalks with the addition of just one or two other players. It's unlikely to entertain for long however - staying power seems to be a problem across the board with this title.
Leaping around the city is great fun too - once your abilities are sufficiently honed. You can even gain the ability to fly - given enough agility - although the novelty wears thin after you realise the time investment required to ascent to a tall enough precipice to get a few seconds of glide time in. The ability to climb building surfaces is excellent, however it's often let down by tricky ledges and gaps that just seem too easy to fall into.
For every positive aspect found in Crackdown 2, there's a handful of negative ones. The game is frustratingly bland, lacking in innovation and it really feels like less of a game than the title it's meant to follow on from. There are a number of titles in this genre that do it better - Just Cause 2, inFAMOUS, GTA IV, even Saints Row 2 if we're being honest. We highly recommend any prospective purchaser downloads the demo from XBL before taking the plunge - if you enjoy the demo, you'll enjoy the game, because they're basically the same thing.