Developer: Realtime Worlds
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: February 2007
Format: XBOX 360
Genre Keywords: Sandbox, Third Person, Shooter, Action, Vehicles
Tagline: Skills for kills, Agent. Skills for kills.

Continuing on my quest to try out every single sandbox-type game in existence, I was pretty hyped for this one even before it was announced that the Halo 3 beta would be bundled with it. Regardless of the real reason for its popularity, Crackdown's developers have received enough financial incentive to come up with 2 packs of downloadable content (a hot new topic in next-gen gaming) for the game, both extending replayability a good deal more than the typical add-on pack of a couple of skins and a map or two. It would seem that the development prowess at Realtime Worlds is considerable.

Crackdown is a third person sandbox shooter in which you play a superpowered "agent" out to beat 3 gangs - all located in different regions of a fictional futuristic city - into submission. At your disposal are: several weapons, from pistols to rocket launchers, and more unlocked during the course of the game; any vehicle in the city, including several specialty Agency vehicles; your own physical prowess, which increases as you administer said beatings.  So there are multiple ways to boost your survivability: collecting weaponry, collecting vehicles, and boosting your own stats - stats are in turn linked to the method in which you've administered the beatdown.

You start out as a novice, unskilled agent with a couple of fairly weak weapons. You can reach the low ledges of buildings, you can knock out the weaker type of thug, your shooting is adequate and your explosives do average damage. Towards the end of the game you will be able to nearly leap tall buidings (not quite Hulk style, you get a lot more horizontal than vertical distance), punt vehicles considerable distances, be able to catch up the slower traffic on foot, snipe heads from a mile away and start explosive chain reactions the size of a city block. 

The city is open to you from the start and you can in theory go anywhere - there are no missions whatsoever - but the three major areas (controlled by three distinct gangs) contain progressively tougher foes. Typically, novice agents will begin by fighting the hispanic-themed Los Muertos gang, progress to the Russian-themed Volk union, and finish off with the super-generic Shai-Gen corporation - but there's nothing to prevent you from heading in any direction you wish right from  the start. In addition to power levels, the three areas of the city get progressively taller and more challenging to scale, so heading directly to Shai Gen will be futile for an agent rated low on Agility.

Within each area however you are completely free to head for any of the 6-8 bosses controlling the sector. In theory, each boss supplies something to the gang - weapons, manpower, tactical training, vehicles - so that taking him or her out should severely impact that aspect of the gang. In practice, the game is so fast-paced and throws so many enemies at you that this doesn't particularly affect the gameplay, which is a pity as it seems like a neat concept. 

The presence of neat concepts that don't quite work out in gameplay is Crackdown's biggest strength and weakness at once. The city is huge and an awesome playground - but it's a little generic and unmemorable. The aspect of bosses and supply seems to promote tactical decisions - but the game throws a bajillion bullets at you anyway with no way to exploit those tactics. Vehicles, guns and physical prowess are all offered as combat options - but a bajillion enemies and lock-on targeting  take finesse out of the equation. Shootouts are an unsatisfying game of mutual attrition, driving is clunky and removes the most interesting dimension (air! where the hell are all the awesome jumps?), and fighting (and the entire physical strength part of your super skills) is limited to a single lethal kick - yes, you can throw objects and even vehicles but the bad guys easily get out of the way of the majestically tumbling projectiles, whilst shooting you all the time.

There are a couple of aspects of the game that are done well and pretty much save the game. The primary one is the scaling up of the city as you gain higher agility skill (through finding glowing orbs located in high places); gaining a level and suddenly having your horizons greatly expand is a fantastic feeling. Secondly is of course the superjumping mechanic itself - it is perfectly balanced and feels just right, from taking off, landing, soaring through the sky and just barely missing your target and grabbing on to the ledge with your hands - that's right, almost every ledge in the game is grabbable. In fact, so few ledges aren't grabbable that I suspect they were an oversight. In any case, it's a very dynamic, Matrix-inspired and physical-feeling rooftop, ledge and derring-do rooftop-leaping. Now, if there was only a purpose to it ...

And there can be, if you do make it by yourself, and with a friend. The game supports full open-city multiplayer (which is a first in open world games if one discounts mods such as multiGTA!) with 2 people (and possibly more on the way), and you can accomplish your objectives or simply mess around with the various city races, collection objectives and even rocket chases (added recently via a free downloadable). Most of the joy is simply in seeing a high place and figuring out how you can get there, and it's this and nearly only this that is done so perfectly in Crackdown.

The other thing that saves the game from itself are the two bits of downloadable content that address some of the complaints. Driving is tightened up, couple of highly entertaining vehicles are added in (available from the start of the campaign), more explosive weaponry is added, a brand new racing mode has been added, the Agency garage has been made available to you, a stealth-suit has been added to your arsenal and finally a super-cheat mode has been enabled that includes excessive (Hulk-level) superpowers and insta-spawning of objects and vehicles for your explosive pleasure. Note that most of these items are mostly peripheral to the campaign and gameplay itself, and instead provide you with more methods of creating your own fun - an implicit nod to the fact that the core game isn't perhaps as stellar as it could have been.

Still, the world of next-gen open world offerings isn't large enough yet to dismiss this one, and it includes a fantastic implementation of gradually scaling superjump and edificeering (I think Terry Pratchett coined that one) to start with, and all the other extras (you know, gangs, driving, massive explosions, beatdowns and all that) as a bonus. It's not quite the open-world supersecret agent game I envisioned, but it's a sufficiently entertaining experience of its own.

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