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Review: Crackdown

Adam LaMosca | 6 Mar 2007 16:00
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Crackdown begins by dropping the player right into the middle of Pacific City, a sprawling near-future metropolis overrun by a trio of criminal gangs. From the outset the player is free to explore the entire cityscape, on foot or in vehicle, as a genetically enhanced, heavily armed super-agent. Employed by city's sole governing body, a law enforcement outfit known only as The Agency, the player is tasked with a single objective: Restore order to the city by eliminating gang leaders.

Crackdown's criminal syndicates include a hip-hop styled Central American mafia, a militant Eastern European front and an enigmatic, business-oriented dictatorship. Each controls its own sector of the city, and their thugs patrol its streets. The gangs' three kingpins can theoretically be taken down at any time, but the odds of success ramp up dramatically if their lower-level assistants are defeated first. Completion of the single player campaign ultimately requires the offing of all 21 boss characters.

Crackdown takes a unique, partially cel-shaded approach to its visuals that renders the vividly colored city and its inhabitants in crisp, bright detail. The draw distance is nothing short of incredible, lending the game a remarkable sense of scale. The overall effect is that of a vibrant, gritty graphic novel.image

There's no real plot to Crackdown, though, and no fixed series of missions to complete. The game's only story content is delivered in few short cinematics and a series of briefings that pop onscreen whenever a boss is discovered or defeated. The bosses themselves are a mélange of mostly familiar stereotypes: ruthless seductresses, mad scientists, urban mafiosos and the like. Finding them typically involves finding out the poorly hidden back doors to their supervillain lairs and then fighting through swarms of enemy thugs. Combat is a no-frills affair, facilitated by a lock-on targeting system. The actual boss encounters are usually simple, short-lived gun battles.

In the game's early hours, agent abilities allow for some marginally satisfying combat, platforming and driving activities. With a little practice, though, these abilities can be quickly enhanced via the game's "skills for kills" system. Vehicular assaults increase driving skills, for example, and grenade kills bump up explosive power. Melee combat adds strength, eventually allowing the player to lift and toss vehicles. Indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians, on the other hand, results in modest skill setbacks.

Crackdown is just self-aware enough to include a steady dose of understated humor. The player is constantly accompanied by the skillfully acted commentary of an Agency assistant, whose voiceover remarks include instructions, hints and wry observations on player behavior. It's a welcome addition to a game that, owing to its lack of a storyline, sometimes feels a bit empty and mechanical.

imageAlthough Crackdown doesn't allow actual character creation, players can at any time switch between several agent skins (all male, and all cartoonishly badass). With each skill level obtained, the agent's appearance is altered, primarily from the neck up. Agents begin sporting facepaint or tattoos, grow progressively xtreme facial hair and hairstyles, or acquire such cosmetic accoutrements as helmets and goggles. They also bulk up to near-linebacker proportions. Agency vehicles, including a sports car, an SUV and a semi cab, likewise become increasingly souped-up and tricked-out as skill levels rise.

The only ability not enhanced by taking out enemies is the agility skill, which is instead upgraded by collecting hundreds of glowing green agility orbs that are perched in high-altitude locations. Blue hidden orbs that provide across-the-board enhancements for multiple skills are also secreted throughout the city. As simple and mindless as it sounds, hunting down the orbs becomes incredibly addictive.

By the time the player reaches the second agility rank, his agent will be scaling buildings, stories at a time and leaping from rooftop to rooftop. Pacific City's vertical features are as complex as those on the ground, and navigating its mazelike skyline is nothing short of exhilarating. It's a unique platforming experience, one that has more in common with Super Mario Sunshine than anything the urban sandbox genre has previously offered. At times it's hard to shake the impression that the game's supercop premise and combat are merely window dressing for a massive, intricately crafted jungle gym.image

Crackdown also includes plenty of optional skill-enhancing diversions like rooftop races, road races and vehicle stunt challenges. There's also no shortage of simple screwing around to do. Stacking vehicles, throwing stuff around and making things explode are all rewarding distractions. Some of the game's more outlandish activities, like using guided rockets to juggle airborne bodies, are rewarded by specific Xbox Live achievements.

Crackdown's fun potential is highly enhanced by its well-implemented two-player co-op features. Players can essentially drop into each other's games, bringing their customized agents to their partner's city to help (or hinder) the Agency cause as they see fit. The urge to wreak havoc as a team is irresistible, and given the stuntman pyrotechnics the game encourages, moments of hilarity are practically guaranteed.

Crackdown is, in almost every respect, a forgiving and user-friendly game that encourages exploration and experimentation. An onscreen map and radar make navigating and finding bosses a snap, and the city can be quickly traveled by instant teleportation between unlockable supply stations. Death is followed by instant regeneration at any one of these stations, and because player progress is generally saved as it occurs, there aren't any checkpoints or other setbacks.

Despite the abundant entertainment Crackdown offers, it eventually begins to wear a bit thin. By the time agent skills reach their uppermost levels, exploring the skyline isn't especially challenging anymore, and the world begins to feel less like a city and more like an artfully designed façade. Even though time trial modes allow boss hunts to be revisited, and there's an option to allow low-rent thugs back onto the streets, most players will probably find that when they've defeated the final boss they'll have seen everything the game has to offer. And that won't take most gamers more than 15 hours or so, depending how goal-oriented they are.

It's a bit unfortunate that Crackdown doesn't have the thematic content or gameplay depth to warrant a lengthier gaming experience. Still, it offers its share of unique experiences, and it's plenty of fun while it lasts.

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