Despite the fact the Xbox 360 has been out and about for well over a year now in some territories and close to a year in others, Microsoft have been very quiet when it comes to games produced by their in house publisher Microsoft Game Studios. This is about to change however with the release of Crackdown in the next week or two. From the ideas of David Jones (the game designer responsible for the original GTA and Lemmings, not the chain of upper class retail stores in Australia) and his Scottish based developing house "Real Time Worlds", Crackdown is yet another driving/action hybrid game featuring a large open city with plenty of shooting, bashing and exploding. It all sounds systematic and formularised, but even the most avid fan of this genre would have never experienced gameplay quite like this.
Crackdown is based in a futuristic fictional island like city aptly named "Pacific City". Unfortunately for the peace loving citizens, Pacific City is under siege from three main gangs, with law enforcement in the city on their heels due to the immense build up of violence and kingpin control. However, the law has a secret weapon - a biologically enhanced breed of super agent thanks to the work of a disgraced scientist they have managed to align with. These super agents are only in prototype, and only one is available for the Pacific City peace keepers to deploy. You are this super agent, and it is your job to clean up the city from top (and we do mean top) to bottom, from gang to gang, and from kingpin to kingpin.
Although the premise of Crackdown seems interesting enough, there is no real storyline featured at all. There is a back story detailing the situation Pacific City is currently in, and there is plenty of information gradually revealed as the game progresses about the gangs and their leaders, but there is nothing as far as developing plots and story related character development goes. The game basically tells you what you should be doing, and it is up to you if you want to go do it. It is a little disappointing that Crackdown has no real story or plot to it, as there is a definite lack of soul in games like this, not to mention the developers are running the risk of gamers losing interest without a storyline to hang on to, but luckily for Crackdown, MS Game Studios and its developer Real Time Worlds, the gameplay well and truly makes up for any short coming found, including a non existent storyline.
After you have selected your character (which is for appearance reasons only) and spawn into the Pacific City peace keeper's headquarters for the first time, everything can be a tad confusing as little energy is spent explaining how the game and its mission system works. Luckily, it becomes reasonably obvious a few minutes in as you're literally launched from a ramp in the car of your choosing straight into the action. It is here that you more or less learn buttons and function on the fly, and I must say, while I didn't think much of this approach at first, it's refreshing to see a game that can be so easily taken straight into the action like Crackdown can. At first the controls and the meaning of everything in your HUD can be intimidating as well, but both are actually very well designed and won't take long to become familiar with.
Like GTA and the flock of driving-action hybrid genre games before it, Crackdown's city is free to move around in with few restrictions, which also translates into the game's missions, which can be attempted at your discretion. As you move around the section of the city that is available to play in initially, you will encounter armed gang members who have no qualms about shooting on site, and while you take these guys on and move about elsewhere, occasionally the command centre operator in charge of relaying intel and objectives will verbally update you (and your mini map) on the location of specific leading gang members, and it is your choice then to either undertake the assassination of these leaders, or do something else, which might include working on your character's skills, or scouring the map for ammo reload and re-spawn points in enemy control.
As a few words of advice, "something else" is definitely what you should be doing when your first play the game, as your super agent is a little soft and vulnerable to begin with because you have not yet obtained any upgrade points, which come in five flavours - agility, driving skill, explosives skill, strength and gun skill. These points can be obtained by doing tasks relevant to the category. For example, to get agility points you must navigate the city's building tops by jumping and climbing and finding special agility power-ups, or by completing one of the few agility based time trials. For driving points you must complete driving based time trials found throughout the city. For strength you must defeat enemies using brute tactics such as kicking. As for the explosive and gun skills, you must obviously defeat enemies using explosive devices and guns respectively. Building up on these abilities is a game in itself, particularly the agility power-ups which are very fun and challenging to collect, often requiring you to navigate very lofty heights. At first, without upgrades in these five areas, your character is weak and somewhat boring to use, but once you build up your abilities, Crackdown turns into a completely different game. For example, your character's ability to jump once your ability is increased is borderline insane. Eventually even the city's tallest structures will be like a walk in the park for your super agent to navigate, providing the building has sections you can cling on to like window ledges and other practical designs in the architecture, which most buildings do have. Combine an insane jumping ability with the strength to pick up trucks and it's almost like you're playing a the game based on Superman and Robocop's love child.
The great thing about Crackdown and these abilities is that they translate directly into every element of the gameplay, whether it be jumping around looking for more agility power-ups, or fighting in heavy armed combat with 20+ gang members. The better your character is, the more enjoyable just about everything in the game becomes, and while this does mean the game is initially boring and tame by comparison as stated above, it doesn't take very long before you start seeing the potential this game has with a totally jacked up super agent, and before you know it, you're doing things you didn't even imagine. With that said though, the game doesn't make "leveling up" easy, as the better you get, the harder and longer it takes to get even better than that. In theory, it is probably possible to become a very powerful agent before completing one mission, but the urge to go out and test drive your abilities in real combat situations is too great, so while the game basically allows you to play it at your pace, it does a great job of balancing the development of your character's abilities and the rate you'll typically complete your missions and eliminate the gang leaders.
Unfortunately, there are a few slight issues regarding the character abilities. First of all, driving is almost impossible to do well at first without gaining points in the driving skill. Completing races and jumping through stunt gates (which seem somewhat hard to find) will improve this ability, but it's a catch 22 as it's tough to do well in these at the start because of your poor driving ability, and since the game rarely seems to integrate driving in any of the missions, I often found myself skipping driving altogether, particularly when my character became fast and agile enough to navigate buildings like Tarzan does trees. Secondly, at the other end of the spectrum, sometimes the game can be a tad frustrating when you have upgraded your agility ability to a very high level, as it now becomes hard to do small jumps and move carefully on, say, a skinny pole connecting two buildings due to your quick movement bursts. This sounds trivial but sometimes you don't need a mammoth jump to get where you want to go, which means you'll either over jump your target, under jump your target trying to control your height, or most commonly land exactly where you wanted to, only you went so unnecessarily high up in the air to do so, the landing impacts your health. It's a good thing health does come back automatically when you are resting as I found myself losing it quite often thanks to jumping alone. In any case, these are still only small issues and don't detract from an otherwise impeccable ability system.
Even with the usually awesome abilities aside, the best gameplay found in Crackdown probably comes from the raw combat and action. Like most games in this genre, Crackdown features the ability to both auto aim or manually aim, although the game is definitely built for the auto aiming function in mind as this method allows you to take advantage of location damage, such as targeting legs or arms, or wheels when concerning vehicles. This is a very cool part of the gun combat in Crackdown and it's very simple and effective to utilise - once you are locked onto an enemy with the auto aim, you use your right analog stick to cycle through the location of the target to attack, and fire away. Of course this isn't a necessary task for every kill - the game will automatically lock on to the target's body section by default so it is only a feature useful when you want it to be useful, like if you had a sniper rifle and wanted a clean single heat shot kill. Another area of the gun based combat which really excels is the CPU AI - most enemies are very good shots, and they are quite clever too, trying their best to use cover where possible and flanking your location so you can't escape easily without confrontation.
Outside of the gun and explosives combat, which is awesome to say the least, Crackdown features an equally impressive hand to hand combat system, which not only allows you to kick and punch enemies, but also allows you to attack enemies using just about anything you can think about picking up thanks to the game's huge array of destructible and useable objects. On top of this, once your character is strong enough, you can even pick up small and large vehicles, which, while sometimes having questionable "bouncy ball" physics regarding impact, still reign havoc on enemies, particularly when there are a few close together. Even though ammo is not usually an issue in the game so you're not often forced to use hand to hand combat, I still found myself going out of my way to attack enemies this way for the sheer enjoyment and fun factor. Eventually your character will get to the point where one kick is enough to kill multiple enemies instantly, which becomes particularly enjoyable when fighting on the top of tall buildings (heads up pedestrians!).
Of course, with a combat heavy game comes the inevitable player death or two (or fifty seven) and once again I think Crackdown is right on the money in the way in which the game treats player deaths. Basically, if you do die in combat or by falling from too high up, you simply choose a reload point and carry on like nothing happened - you don't lose ability points, you don't lose weapons, and you don't have lives. If you died in the midst of a gang leader assassination attempt, unfortunately all the enemies you killed guarding the leader will have to be killed again which could induce some repetition, but otherwise this system, even though it may seem overly player friendly, really works well. The whole idea of Crackdown is to obviously have as much fun as possible and it's great to see a game that actively tries to place as few hurdles as possible in the way of that happening. As touched upon earlier in the review though, there is one area to this system that does require some work, and that is you have to actually take the re-spawn and reload points scattered throughout the city from enemy hands if you wish to use them. It would have been kinda cool if the enemies tried to take them back off you once conquered, but I guess that would be a nightmare once you start controlling most of the points in the city.
For a game this strong in the gameplay department on the most online friendly game console out, it is expected to see some sort of online component to the game and Crackdown does not disappoint, at least not if you're a co-op fan as that is the only mode - there is no general death match mode available over Live, which is a little disappointing as it would be very cool in theory, although it probably wouldn't have worked as great in practice as the game is really built for big fights, not death matches. In any case, the co-op mode is at least great to see and will probably be the main mode of play for a lot of gamers as the gameplay really lends itself well to the co-op style. On top of this, there are leaderboards and such for the best times in agility and driving races, as well as for the time trial mode of play which allows you to attempt boss/leader assassination missions instantly with a clock ticking.
Visually, rather than go all out and shoot for ultra gritty realism, RTM have made Crackdown a graphical hybrid - part realistic, part cartoony. The realistic aspects can be seen in how things are shaped and built, for instance people and cars look realistic in the way they're modeled, and the city itself looks very realistic, from the dense and compact way buildings intertwine to the small subtle details, like litter and debris scattered around the streets. The cartoony part comes more from the texturing and the fact the game does feature a significant degree of cel-shading rendering. Combined, the realistic and cartoony elements of the game's visuals work well and while they don't exactly produce visual quality that rivals the best on the 360, it is still well up there on the list. One area of the visuals that Crackdown really hits out of the park however is the draw distance. To put it bluntly, I doubt there is a game out there that can even come close to rivaling the incredibly impressive draw distance Crackdown features while still maintaining a rock solid frame rate - you can literally see the entire city when high enough (which obvious fog effects for the more distant areas), and this is no small city either. This is one game where you will never see draw distance related pop-ups.
Crackdown is probably going to get significant attention simply because it comes with the ability to play Halo 3 Beta for free, but there is no doubt that it would be making some noise even without this attractive addition. The action is sensational and amazingly varied, and the world is totally immersive because of the game's somewhat unique approach to the visuals and environment, not despite of it. As it would happen, the only thing that lets this game down is the fact no real storyline is present, which does create a void in the experience offered and it also tends to restrict the variation of the missions and objectives, but anyone who enjoys top notch action with few limitations should be able to look past that easily enough. Crackdown is just simply unbelievably fun to play, and realistically probably only a really good storyline away from being a classic.