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Crackdown

Developer: Realtime Worlds | Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Players: 1 to 2 Player Game | Release Date: 02/20/07 | Genre: Action

crackdown.jpgWith Crackdown, Realtime Worlds throws its hat into the ring of open world urban action games. Ever since Grand Theft Auto 3 game designers have been trying to improve upon its formula while providing their own take on the long-named genre, including Rockstar itself. After all, it just released its fourth GTA3 sequel on the PS2. And let's face it, when we say "open world urban action games," we really mean games that are like GTA3, more or less.

So how then does Realtime Worlds aim to excite gamers about its take on the genre? The most apparent innovation is the superhuman protagonist. This might remind you of The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, but another important feature of Crackdown is its setting, Pacific City. The game designers created a city that's much more three-dimensional than you've seen in other GTA3-style games, and it's the key to what makes using the superhuman abilities so much fun.

When you first set out into Pacific City, it may not seem that big. Certainly, you've seen GTA-type games that cover the same or more area than what you see in Crackdown. However, most of those games feature buildings that are little more than flat-faced boxes. The city in Crackdown seems to be much more layered. The buildings and landscapes have lots of three-dimensional features that make them really interesting and provide more depth and complexity to explore than what you were previously used to.

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The mechanics of Crackdown really spur the urge to play, much more so than other GTA-style games. I don't mean that in the particular sense of "play a game" but in the more typical sense, like the way a child plays with a toy. Crackdown has a really fun set of player abilities, game mechanics, and objects that most of the fun lies in experimentation and just plain screwing around.

Players level up their character in five different skills: Agility, Strength, Driving, Weapons, and Explosives. As you level up in these different skills, you'll be able to perform superhuman feats. Think of the havoc you can wreak when you're able to punch gangsters across the block or kick cars a dozen yards. At a certain point, you'll be able to lift even buses and the largest of trucks and jump around with them. Add that to the ability to jump dozens of feet in the air and you'll see why most players enjoy spending most of their time in the game on foot rather than driving around.

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Aside from the plentiful road traffic and pedestrians, there are also a large variety of objects to turn into weapons. You can pick up everything from lose bricks to bus stop shelters and huge dumpsters. If you're creative enough, you can find a lot of fun things to do with these objects besides just hurling them at enemies. You can use them as portable shields, you can stack up objects to help you climb on top of a building, or you can even try creating a huge blockade on the highway. There are all kinds of fun things you can do if you're imaginative. The technology behind Crackdown makes it possible.

Crackdown has a pretty robust physics system. This is pretty important since you can pick up all kinds of objects and carry them almost anywhere. Want see what happens if you drive a sports car off a ten story office complex? If you're clever enough, you can even take cars on top of tall buildings. Another important technical feature of Crackdown is its incredible memory. The game will remember the locations of objects for a very long time. Say for instance you set up a ramp at one end of a block. You could then drive several blocks away to give yourself the distance to accelerate to a great speed and make a spectacular jump. In other GTA-style games, the ramp would have disappeared the moment it was out of sight. You don't have to worry about this in Crackdown, and it lets you do some crazy things. As an example, I stacked up a bunch of cars and trucks to try and climb on top of a building I couldn't yet jump onto. Afterwards, I went all the way across the city for almost two hours. When I returned to the location where I had stacked up the vehicles, I was surprised to find that the objects were all still there. Likewise, if you're driving a particular car but then decide that you want to explore an area on foot, you won't have to worry about the car disappearing when you turn your back. The object memory is such an improvement over other games in the genre and it really enhances the "play" aspect I talked about.

Crackdown also features an incredible draw distance. You won't be crashing into things that suddenly pop-up in front of you. Standing on top of a tall building and being able to see buildings on the other side of Pacific City is one of the most impressive sights on the 360.

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One of the main things that will encourage you to explore and just play around is to level up your character. Enhanced abilities provide a good incentive to fight with gangsters in the street. That's the main way you enhance most of your abilities. Your Strength increases as you beat enemies and throw objects at them. You increase your Weapons and Explosives skills by killing gangsters using guns and explosives respectively. You can max out your Driving skill by running over gangsters, performing stunts and completing checkpoint races. The checkpoint races can get a little tedious as it's just you against the clock, but a few of them require some tricky maneuvers, so it can be fun to put your skills to the test. Agility is probably the most fun and rewarding skill to maximize. The primary way to increase your Agility skill is by collecting green orbs scattered about the city, mainly in high locations. It's not just some tedious collect-a-thon. The fun is in figuring out how to reach certain locations. It's a little bit like a 3D platformer in a way. You see, though you can leap directly on top of the smallest buildings, you can't simply jump over the most of the buildings you see even with a maxed out Agility rating. Instead, you have to figure out how to use the structural features of multiple buildings to reach lofty locations. You might start by grabbing the edge of a third-story window sill. Then maybe you'll jump across to the balcony of a building on the opposite side of an alley. Then from there, you might be able to jump onto a higher walkway, and so on. There's a ton of variety in the building designs, and they're really well designed for this type of vertical exploring. Another really fun activity is the Rooftop Races. These are simple checkpoint races, but they're fun because you'll not only need timing and precision, but in many cases, you'll need to use your noggin to figure out the most efficient way to get from one checkpoint to another.

Once your Driving skill is maximized, you'll be given access to a special ability for each of three special vehicles. Powerful machine guns will be mounted on your sports car, your SUV will be given the ability to jump and climb walls, and your normally slow truck cab will be given a turbo acceleration ability, allowing it to smash through anything on the road. These unique vehicle abilities add just a few more elements into a larger set that really encourage you to play around.

While the open "play" aspect a great strength of Crackdown, its mission mode is a weakness. To be fair, Realtime Worlds tried to do something different and it is somewhat interesting. There are no objective based missions in the game. Instead, there are three gangs controlling three separate areas of Pacific City. Their control is maintained by several gang leaders and one kingpin for each of the three gangs. You play as a futuristic cop. Now the story and motivation are pretty weak too. You're the first of a new breed, given superhuman abilities to help take down the gangsters gripping the city. Though you play as a law enforcement officer, you're allowed to do almost anything. Your fellow cops don't really come after you unless you kill several civilians or police officers. Your superhuman abilities are explained with some quickly glossed over statement about new technology. As you enter the proximity of undiscovered gang leaders, you'll be given a quick bio that's mostly forgettable. No plot or character development happens throughout the game. There's simply a bunch of gangsters in Pacific City and you need to kill all of them. A narrator explains any game particulars you need to know as you come across them. The gangs and their leaders are modeled after racial stereotypes typical of the genre. The random dialogue gangsters spout as you shoot it out with them is poorly delivered and makes the game feel silly.

The game designers were particular about not wanting to have a forced, linear mission structure. What they came up with is interesting, but it soon becomes tedious and they really missed an opportunity to provide unique challenges to the player given the fairly unique elements of their game.

Each gang has several gang leaders and one kingpin. Each one of them resides in their own building guarded by dozens upon dozens of gangsters. You can attempt to take them out in any order. The interesting part is that each gang leader handles a different aspect of the gangs operations. You'll learn about this as each gang leader's bio becomes available. So if you take out the gangster who's responsible for maintaining the gang's fleet of vehicles, then there's going to be less gang squads driving around the streets. If you take out the gang leader in charge of acquiring weapons, then there were be less gangsters using heavy weapons like rocket launchers and grenades at the other gang leaders' hideouts. In this way, there's a little bit of strategy to defeating all of the gang leaders. It's nearly impossible to take out a kingpin if you don't remove his supporting generals first. The game is actually pretty handy in giving you the likelihood of defeating a certain gang leader calculated as a percentage. So if the game says you only have a 30% chance of defeating a certain gang leader, then maybe you need to take out some other ones first or perhaps you simply need to beef up your skills.

Each gangster's hideout usually has multiple methods of approach. If you're Agility skill is high enough, you might be able scale the rear wall of the building, for instance. Or perhaps you can approach from above and take out guards with the sniper rifle. Maybe smashing the front gates with a huge truck is your style. This provides a little variety, but especially once you're a third or so through the game, taking out gang leaders starts to get pretty tedious. By then, you've become strong enough that gangsters don't even pose that much of a threat to you, so being stealthy or careful is kind of a waste of time. The only danger is being overwhelmed by dozens of enemies at once. Otherwise, you have so much health and you can regenerate it so fast that get shot isn't really a big deal. Also it won't take long for you to be able to kill enemies with a single or have access to high powered weapons and explosives.

It doesn't help that the enemy AI is very simple and unvaried. The only way that some are more difficult is that some have more health or carry bigger weapons. In other words, storming gangster hideouts and killing gang leaders gets old pretty quickly. Not only that, but it's also very easy. In fact, you could beat the game in just a few hours if you focused on taking out the gang leaders. The fun and value of Crackdown really depends on the player taking the time play freely and explore the city. If you just try to defeat all the gangs right away, then you'll beat the game very quickly and you may lose motivation to play the game any further. That would be a shame as most of the fun is outside of the gang hideouts, on the streets.

Crackdown achieves several technical highs for the genre, but it's not perfect in this area. While the controls are pretty easy to get used to, the targeting system can be a pain. The player can both lock on to enemies and freely aim. The main problem is that the game will target dead enemies even when there are plenty of live ones pounding you with bullets. The developer's rationale for this is that people may want to play with corpses and there's even one achievement tied to this. Yes, I can't deny that I had a little bit of fun juggling dead bodies with the rocket launcher, but this causes way more problems during the game than it's worth. I've also seen the enemy AI drivers glitch out and just sit there when they should be trying to run me over. The narrator often comments on little events and accomplishments. In the beginning of the game, this worked fine, but after a while, he seemed to frequently make the comments at the wrong time. For instance, I've been complemented many times about the incredible height I've reached when I'm just walking around on the street. Another problem I encountered quite a few times was the (ahem) "appearance" of invisible cars driving around on the road. I would notice them after a spectacular (and very surprising) collision. Who am I kidding? That was actually kind of fun.

I believe I already mentioned the bad voice acting, but the rest of the game sounds are nice. If you've got a 5.1 speaker system, you'll notice the 3D sound effects. There's a good variety of sounds to make the game world seem lively and interactive. The music in Crackdown has been criticized quite a bit, but I think it's alright. It's just likely not going to be anything you care about. You only hear the music when you're driving. The soundtrack is mainly filled with techno and the like. I think people are disappointed that the soundtrack doesn't contain anything familiar. The music isn't bad, and some of it actually fits the driving action, but most of it will just be forgettable. What's really annoying is the large track title, artist, and publisher message that pops up every time you get into a car and whenever a new song starts.

I would've expected a Microsoft Game Studios project specifically designed for the 360 to have more multiplayer content, the co-op play is welcomed. Co-op definitely has its merits, but like the whole game in general, it's what you make of it that counts. There are no missions or activities specifically designed for two players (and by the way, you can only play with another player via Xbox Live; splitscreen is not supported). Both players are simply dropped into the game world. You can work together to take out the gang leaders, or you can just screw around. It can be fun to race each other or try to fight each other, but again, this is play that you'll have to create on your own. There are no special competitive modes.

Some of the achievements are pretty creative and fun to accomplish, and Crackdown is the first game taking advantage of Microsoft's expansion of its Achievements policy. The retail game only has 900 gamerpoints available. The missing 100 points can be earned with an as-of-yet unreleased download. Per Microsoft's new policy, those 100 points must be made available in an expansion that's free to download. Realtime Worlds has mentioned that the upcoming download will include new vehicles (with special abilities), new gadgets, and new game modes. There could be multiple expansions with even more gamerpoints beyond 1000, but at least the first one must be free.

Crackdown really is what you make of it. It's got a lot of great elements and mechanics, and personally, out of all of the GTA-style games I've played, it has the best "screw around" factor. I've wasted a lot of hours accomplishing nothing in the game yet still had tons of fun. It's unfortunate that Realtime Worlds didn't create game challenges that makes the player put all of the game's unique elements to use. Instead, the mission mode just feels like busy work. However, if you're like many gamers, you'll be able to find the fun in the game on your own. I highly recommend trying out the game.

By Andrew Thivyanathan - 03/21/07
ESRB Details: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drug
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Screenshots for Crackdown

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