Many Achievements for the 360 are just a grind to obtain.  Get a gazillion headshots, play a billion deathmatch games and win all of them, fly for 100 hours straight, and nab the golden McGuffin from the evil Foozle.  Granted, I’m exaggerating, but it really does illustrate some of the incessant grinding necessary to obtain those magical 1000 Achievement points.  What if the Achievements were for things like juggling a person in the air for 10 seconds, jumping a vehicle more that 115 feet, or killing 15 gang members with an Observatory globe?  Well, the folks at Realtime Worlds think that all of that sounds like a great deal of fun, and they’ve integrated it into the recently released sandbox-on-meth action title, Crackdown. 


The storyline of Crackdown is fairly simple – misfortune and violence has been visited upon Pacific City, and three crimelords are crushing the citizens under the boot of their collective influence.  The last bastion of hope, dubbed The Agency, has used some illicitly obtained biotech to breed a super soldier capable of crushing these kingpins in order to restore order to the city.  Simply put, The Agency needs somebody who can bring ultraviolence to the enemy’s doorstep, and that agent is you. 

Cel-shading isn’t for every game.  In fact, many games that have attempted it have misused the technology, giving a look to the game that simply didn’t fit it.  Crackdown on the other hand is cel-shaded and it couldn’t fit any better than it does. Rather than a flat paper-like look though, Realtime Worlds filled out the details and then shaded around it, giving the game a next-gen look. The game features a comic book-level of violence that calls to mind Frank Miller novels – the gangs are legion and they are ruthless, so you must be far more ruthless as you are all alone in your mission.  Bringing the fight to the enemy’s doorstep means fantastic explosions, chained rockets, and acrobatics, and while watching the game in action you could easily imagine all of this happening in a graphic novel. 


The cityscape is a complete world with skyscrapers, sports complexes, a beach, an industrial zone, slums, and more.  The buildings are detailed and densely packed, featuring the most vertical height I’ve ever seen in any game in this genre.  The Los Muertes buildings are fairly grungy and quite urban similar to what you might find in downtown Los Angeles.  Conversely, the Shai-Gen buildings are aglow with red neon like you might see in the heart of Beijing China.  It creates a sandbox that looks more like a real city than most games have achieved. 


Animations are a big part of the overall graphic package and Crackdown delivers in this area as well.  The animations look fluid and do a great job of showcasing the Havok-powered ragdoll physics.  Sticking an enemy with a rocket tends to make them go completely limp and flail around like a Frisbee as the shockwave juggles their corpse.  We’ve seen all that before though, right?  Well, I did see something new – I saw enemies leaning slightly over the edge of the roof ledge to fire their weapons on the bystanders below, keeping themselves protected from upward-angled fire. Sneaking up on them and kicking their ass over the edge was almost a game unto itself. 


There is a few areas where the graphics in Crackdown do suffer a bit.  During single play and multiplay, I ran into the occasional framerate hit.  The pace slowed into the mid to low 20s for a brief moment. It wasn’t frequent enough to be too disruptive, but it does bear mentioning.  The other issue is that the buildings that are so well detailed on the outside are barren and almost lifeless on the inside.  Factories have a few explosive items on the outside, but there is almost no furniture to speak of within the building.  Similarly, a laboratory environment didn’t hold a single piece of test equipment, glass beakers, or number-crunching computers.  It would have been nice to see a bit more life inside of the buildings outside of the gang cannon-fodder running around shooting at you.

It’ll only take a few moments with Crackdown to get flashbacks of the announcer from the Unreal Tournament series – further proof that ultraviolence needs an over the top announcer.  The disembodied voice gives you the lay of the land and offers some fairly generic advice, as well as commenting on your overall progress.  Unfortunately he just won’t shut the hell up about it.  The voice will compliment you on an impressive ascent, suggest odds on your ability to take out a particular lieutenant or kingpin, and chastise you if you happen to cause too much collateral civilian damage.  The first few times you hear it, the voice really fits.  Unfortunately once you get through a good chunk of the game it will almost assuredly get annoying.  The voice stops paying attention to what you are doing and starts making comments almost randomly.  During one point I was looking at the side of a short stack of slum buildings and the voice commented how great of an ascent I had just made and then how great the view looked – I hadn’t ascended anything tall, and the view was less than spectacular.  No more than 10 minutes later he complimented the view again as I climbed a staircase in a building with no windows.  I don’t think he was watching the same game I was.  In short, the advice just stops being helpful after an hour or so, and becomes even less helpful when you’ve maxed out your agility but get to hear how gathering agility orbs will help your agility skill.


On the other side of the coin is the in-game music.  When you get into a vehicle, you’ll get a music track that fits the area.  Los Muertes vehicles plays Latin flavor tracks, Volk vehicles stick to mostly Europop tracks, and Shai-Gen are more electronica.  Ultimately they are all fairly forgettable, but I enjoyed the Volk and Shai-Gen tracks.  Since there is only music when you are in a vehicle, you probably won’t hear much of it – if you aren’t on the rooftops, you are doing it wrong.   


Where Crackdown shines in the audio department is in its use of 5.1 and just how awesome explosions become.  When your explosive skill is low your explosions have a small radius of effect.  By the time your explosive skill hits 4 stars the radius is massive, devastating, and plenty loud.  If you are lucky enough to have a good surround sound system, you’ll hear explosions in the distance, the zip of a sniper round whizzing past your skull, and the distinct hum of a nearby collectable orb. 

The controls in Crackdown are not only familiar, but also unusual.  Like many games that could be billed as a GTA clone, the controls are fairly simple.  Left stick for movement, right stick for camera controls. You use the triggers for target lock and fire, and the face buttons to handle manipulation of the environment as well as jumping.  What makes the controls unusual is that they evolve over time.  For instance, your firearms skill dictates a great deal of your tactical approach to enemies.  In the beginning you simply have to pour boxes of bullets into your enemies at close range to put them down.  Taking down enemies nets you a bundle of small orbs that slowly raises the appropriate skill over time.  When you hit a 2 star level you’ll become more accurate and can start taking headshots from a further distance.  By the time you hit a 4 star rating you are a killing machine, allowing you to pull off midair headshots while leaping from one building to another.  The progression is awesome and you can feel the difference as you advance. 


The vehicles provided by The Agency level up as you do, finally granting special powers when your driving skill hits a 4 star level.  The thing is, the vehicles just feel neglected.  Trekking back to the Agency is a bit of a pain, so once you’ve lost your Agency-issued vehicle, you’ll probably just stick to the rooftops until your next death respawn.  As a result, the driving portions of the game and the resultant racing minigames feel like they were not tested as well as they should have been.  Sometimes the vehicles feel far more ‘floaty’ than they should, and they really aren’t as necessary to the story as you may hope.  I completed the game without needing any of the vehicles for any extended length of time. 


There is one particular aspect of the controls that needs a bit of an upgrade – the lock-on function.  Realtime Worlds obviously wanted you to be able to juggle bodies and cars with rockets, but often enough you’ll find that you are still locking onto a corpse instead of the 5 guys around you with automatic weapons pumping rounds into your chest.  Releasing the lock and trying again will often lock you back onto the corpse again.  This can and will result in your unnecessary death several times during the game, I assure you.  It won’t ruin the game, but it does make for some frustration points during heavy gun battles.  

Spending an hour with Crackdown quickly shows how the game was built.  Realtime Worlds wanted to make an open-ended world where players could take on a superhero role that would grow as the player progressed.  They wanted the world to not only be expansive and seamless, they also wanted it to be tall and diverse.  They wanted a world where players would be unbound by the artificial trappings of most games in this genre, with invisible barriers and inexplicably closed bridges.  For all intents and purposes, they succeeded in their objectives in every way.  The only thing they really didn’t do was wrap all of this around a living breathing city.  The civilians in the city are many, but they are also simply filler.  They’ll react to the violence around you by running away, screaming obscenities, flailing their arms wildly – it would be nice if you could interact with them beyond that. 


The game starts out simply enough – The Agency issues you a vehicle and sends you out to stop crime in the local area.  Since Agency intel is fairly sparse at first, they point you towards the first Los Muertes General to get you started.  Each lieutenant is responsible for something that aids the kingpin directly, so taking them out can have a direct and very real effect on that gang.  For instance, if you take out the lieutenant responsible for stealing cars and modding them, the enemies in that area will be driving less powerful cars.  Taking out the supplier of heavy firearms may take rockets out of the hands of the foot soldiers on the ground.  It makes you feel like you are having a real impact on the overall gang, even if the foot soldiers respawn at fairly regular intervals.  One thing that does stay put though is your vehicle.  If you drive a car onto a bridge, go out and kill lieutenants, capture Supply Points (these serve as respawn points and weapons caches to store enemy weapons, also allowing you warp around the city), and then come back to that bridge, your car will still be there.  Bravo to Realtime Worlds to making my car position a priority. 


The beautiful thing about Crackdown is that it is ultimately your game to play as you see fit.  If you want to sit on a water tower near a bosses hideout and snipe his food soldiers from a distance, you are free to do exactly that, ammo permitting.  Feel like you are tough enough to literally kick down the front door and take on your enemies face to face?  Don’t let common sense stop you!  The go anywhere and do anything gameplay element allows players a level of freedom that games like Grand Theft Auto lacked.  Sure, you could go almost anywhere in GTA, but missions had to be accomplished in a certain way and deviance from that path meant failure.  In Crackdown, it is your show to run how you please.  This means that you can challenge the three bosses for the areas from the moment you start the game.  You’ll probably leave the building in a bag, but the option is yours.  Since you will simply respawn at the supply point of your choosing, it is hardly a penalty.


Saving in Crackdown couldn’t be more simple.  When you pick up an orb the game saves.  When you level up a skill the game saves.  When you reload at an agency supply point the game saves.  You’ll see the save message so frequently that eventually you’ll tune it out completely.  If you want to save your progress, simply complete an objective or hit a supply point and you’ll be golden.


The open ended world is not without fault however.  The mission is the same for all three areas of the game which could make the game feel redundant for some.  Once you’ve completed the game you can still play in the sandbox with random crimes occurring to keep you busy, but ultimately your only goal at that point is to find the rest of the orbs and pick up the remainder of your achievements. This brings us to multiplayer.


Multiplayer in Crackdown is simply some of the best entertainment you can have over Live.  It is a lot like letting a 5th Grade class of children into a Piñata factory with aluminum bats – the hilarity and insanity blend together like peanut butter and jelly.  The hilarity is even crazier if the two players have mismatched skills – one may be a 4 Star rocket-jockey tossing explosives and carnage in every direction.  The other player may be a crack shot with the sniper rifle, sitting out on a tall building to pick of enemies. Completing the entire game with a friend will nab you another achievement for your trouble.  I’m shocked that there is no local split screen, but co-op play over Live adds a great deal to the game.  My only complaint with the co-op is the clunky way in which it is implemented.  When a friend requests to join a game, or when you join anyone else’s game, the system pops you out of the current game and makes a new session with both players starting in The Agency’s garage.  I was rather hoping for my friend to simply appear at a supply point near me or appear in the garage on their own.  To maximize your gameplay fun, simply pick someone roughly the same skill level as your own and get your co-op game setup from the word go. 


Even after completing Crackdown I find myself continuing to play it.  I can’t say that many games stay in rotation after completion for me these days, so don’t take that statement lightly.  I look forward to the inevitable sequel.

Crackdown clocks in at roughly 8 to 10 hours to complete.  There are 21 bosses in the game including the kingpins, as well as roof races and road races to keep you busy.  For those who want to make the leaderboards, you can also play through a Time Trial mode for races and boss kills.  It extends to multiplayer, so you can work with a friend to improve your overall times.  To further extend the gameplay, the game features three difficulty levels to keep you busy.  While the “Tough” (default) difficulty doesn’t offer a great deal of resistance, the next two difficulty levels are fairly unforgiving. 


A bit of discussion has been going on in the boards about Crackdown.  The consensus is that the demo on the Xbox Live Marketplace doesn’t really give you an idea of the addictive nature of this game.  I would tend to agree.  For all of its minor flaws, the game compels you to complete it, and then keeps pulling you in for more – very few games manage that feat.

What is there to say?  The first title from Realtime Worlds is a smash hit and more entertaining than many people expected.  The included Halo 3 Beta isn’t necessary to sell this game, it’ll do just fine on its own merits.  Me?  I’m off to launch rockets into unsuspecting gang members while jumping between 30 story buildings. 

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