Spike’s Underrated Games of the Xbox 360: Part 2
The Criteria: It is easy to be suspicious when you are a gamer. If you are a gamer you have three choices about who you buy your console off of. You either side with an American company known for its underhand business tactics and infamous for its steamrolling of smaller companies, or you side with a Japanese conglomerate who have shown remarkable disdain for its user base and untold arrogance, or you go for the small company who actively hate Europe and have been shown to cut off their nose to spite their face. If, as the movie The Corporation told us, all corporations are psychopaths then Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are the kind of nutjobs who wear their mother’s face as a blanket and make chairs out of human femurs.
So when a game is packaged with early access to the multiplayer element of a game EVERYONE is waiting to play it is easy to get a little sceptical about the quality of the game in question. Not only was Crackdown shipped with Halo 3’s beta, but a demo was released onto Xbox Live which effectively condensed every aspect of the game into an hour long portion. Microsoft had essentially created a game whose main focal point was a demo of another game. It wouldn’t be the first time this was done, Sony would pull a similar trick with Zone of the Enders and Metal Gear Solid 2, and the result was to create general suspicion about the quality of the game. Indeed so cynical was the majority of the game world that the initial tone of reviews of the game suggested genuine surprise that the game was actually as good as it was.
The Game: Crackdown is a futuristic open world game; players are dumped in the heart of Pacific City and after a short expository cut scene told to rid the city of scum. That is pretty much a summation of the game; you kill criminals and generally restore law and order to a city in the grips of anarchy. Of course a game can’t subsist on just shooting criminals in the face and as such Crackdown adds a wrinkle to the open world formula. This wrinkle is manifest deification. You see you aren’t just some run of the mill futuristic law enforcer, you are a super sized super soldier law enforcer and as such you five essentially stats that you can level up. These stats are Agility, Strength, Driving, Guns and Explosives. Each stat has four separate levels each level giving you increases pertaining to the stat. So train up your strength stat and you will become stronger and stronger, your character who could initially just about handle himself in a fight gaining the strength to lift articulated Lorries and hurl them hundreds of feet at any gangster foolish enough to look at you.
Similarly your grenades start off worryingly ineffectual but after a few levels have gone into explosives you can create explosions that make the Dresden bombings look a little limp wristed. Every skill can be increased in this way and soon enough your weedy character is leaping 50 foot into the air and hurling Buicks at pimps whilst exploding small housing estates with heat seeking missile launchers. It is this sense of all pervasive power that is Crackdown’s greatest strength, bounding around skyscrapers and bringing down Old Testament style wrath is a joy in of itself and few games can replicate the weight and feel that Crackdown has. Lobbing crime lords off of skyscrapers is far more satisfying when said crime lords have a sense of weight and inertia, especially when they get hit by a lorry on the way down.
Of course physics alone don’t make a game and if Crackdown has one failing point it is that it lacks definition. The central thrust of Crackdown is your mission to destroy three criminal gangs Los Muertos, The Volk and Shai-Gen. Each gang controls one of Pacific Cities three islands and you can attempt to take them on in any order you like. Each gang is made up of one all powerful crime lord and his lieutenants who all bases of operation on the island. The idea is that you kill the lieutenants to weaken the Kingpin and then go and administer the coup de grace. The problem is that the only real variety to these attacks is if a boss is inside or outside.
There are no real tactics involved, you can’t manipulate gangs into fighting each other, you can’t act covertly, and in reality the most you can really do is attack a base from a different angle and take out 75% of the guards instead of 100%. When you are clearing the first island this is fine, the shock and awe of your constantly evolving agent enough to deter from the fact that essentially the only difference from boss to boss is cosmetic. So the fight against the gang’s vehicle expert will be exactly the same as the fight against the gang’s weapon supplier and exactly the same as the fight against the gang’s fitness trainer. The only difference is that one fight takes place in a garage; one takes place in and around a lighthouse and one takes place in the grounds of a health club. You won’t meet specific enemies, you won’t see tactics, the only increase in difficulty is the number of people shooting at you and the accuracy they have. In fact the developer seem to understand all to well the ease in which an upgraded agent can swoop in and destroy everything he sees and as such as you progress through the game there are artificial bumps in difficulty.
The most evident is the fact that after the first island the bosses are largely found indoors effectively nullifying your agility skill and your explosive skills (if you max out your explosives you become more of a danger to yourself than anything else in tight confines). It is these later interior missions which almost prove Crackdown’s undoing, the finesse and grace of movement required showcasing just how unwieldy the character is. When you are leaping tall buildings in a single bound the floatiness of the controls is never really an issue, each movement is big and grand and very rarely requires deft control. When you’re attempting to scale a gigantic wind chime to continue an ascent up a skyscraper and your character over jumps or simply fails to latch onto a perfectly graspable ledge the control problems become infuriating.
If that makes it sound like I don’t like the game then it shouldn’t, Crackdown really is quite immensely fun to play it just suffers from the kind of teething problems you’d expect from any game engine trying to do something vaguely new. What Crackdown feels like at times is a test run for a continued series, an attempt to iron out any kinks and see what works before they move onto a fully fledged product which may explain Microsoft’s decision to package it with Halo 3’s beta.
Despite the nebulous missions there is a lot to love about the game particularly because the developers saw fit to add a lot to distract gamers from the campaign missions. Exploring Pacific City is a joy in of itself with activities littered all over the place. When you are not busy committing acts of genocide against the criminal fraternity you can amuse yourself with races, either on foot across the rooftops of the city, or in the multitude of cars which can be found and commandeered around the city. The rooftop races are probably my favourite thing about the game, perfectly showcasing the freedom of movement offered to the player. Making a pitched leap off of a construction tower, landing heavily on the ground (the sheer force of your impact throwing cars off the road and causing general havoc) before climbing up a skyscraper (King Kong style) is genuinely exhilarating and a noteworthy predecessor to the similar free running of Assassin’s Creed.
Driving, at first, can be a bit hit and miss in Crackdown. Like everything else your driving skill has to be levelled up and as such until you are level two or three most cars handle like bucking broncos dovetailing off the road at the slightest provocation and having the unfortunate knack for seeking out large clusters of civilians. Criminals when presented with a speeding vehicle have such well honed reflexes that it is almost impossible to actually run them over, civilians however tend to actively seek out your car as if being run over was some sort of new extreme sport. It wouldn’t be a problem if the game didn’t punish civilian deaths by stripping back your hard earned levels, as a result increasing your driving skill can be arduous task. As you level your driving skill up it becomes exponentially easier to actually control vehicles and certain cars start to gain new abilities such as bonnet mounted machine guns (think the Batmobile and you’re halfway there).
Crackdown is good for short, sharp, bursts of fun. It is a game built on its little moments like the way your boss lovingly explains “Skills for Kills Agent. Skills for Kills” when you are doing well or the way you can use an observatory globe as a bowling ball, or the way you can kill one gangster by picking up another criminals car and using it as a projectile weapon. What makes Crackdown truly great however is its implementation of co-operative play. If you can find a like minded friend on Xbox Live then the whole world of Crackdown is open you to explore together. There really is nothing like watching two fully levelled agents completely obliterate wave after wave of criminals.
That is what is at heart, a fun game whose priority is entertainment. With its comic book tonality, bright and colourful visual palette and propensity for ridiculously over the top violence Crackdown is a game that should have been a must buy but was instead largely forgotten by the videogame world.
This entry was posted on April 14, 2008 at 3:12 pm and is filed under Button Bashin', Review. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.