In the weeks leading up to its release, the original Crackdown was simply the game that came free with the Halo 3 multiplayer beta. If you'd told me at the time that it would go on to become my game of the year, I would have laughed in your face. It was like the free toy in a box of cereal; a nice little incentive to justify dropping the cash on the beta. There was little hype surrounding its appearance, and few people had particularly high hopes for it. This, in part, is the reason Crackdown was received so well. Free from the shackles of expectation, it took the industry completely by surprise, earning the respect of gamers and critics alike. Sequels, however, aren't able to pull off the same trick, and due to the success of its predecessor, Crackdown 2 is burdened with the heavy weight of anticipation.
The responsibility for such hopes fall into the hands of Dundee-based Ruffian Games, a studio formed from the remnants of the original Crackdown team. This sequel picks up ten years after the events of the first game, and despite the efforts made by the cybernetically-enhanced Agents the first time around, the streets of Pacific City are still riddled with crime. Lead by the deadly Catalina Thorne, a resistance movement known as Cell have taken up arms against The Agency. To make matters worse, after dark the city's less desirable residents come out to play. In the absence of sunlight, the streets play host to a mutant carnival, with hundreds of 'Freaks' chanting in unintelligible groans and wreaking havoc wherever they happen to lumber. Zombie fatigue is hitting the games industry pretty hard right now, but the nature of the enemy allows literally hundreds of the buggers on screen at the same time. With Cell and Freaks in control of the streets, Pacific City has never needed a genetically-engineered super agent quite so badly.
And this is where you come in. After choosing one of four (incredibly ugly) preset faces and customising your armour colour, your newly-trained Agent is dropped into the city, ready to dish out some justice. Well, nearly ready: the game first forces you to endure an incredibly dated tutorial. Most developers learned how to successfully disguise the laborious tutorial process years ago, but apparently Ruffian didn't get the memo. After having your hand held for the first ten minutes of the game, the grip is finally relinquished; an Agency helicopter picks you up and drops you into the heart of a Cell stronghold. With the entirety of Pacific City at your disposal, the real fun can begin.
On the whole, Crackdown 2 plays out much like the first game. As you stroll about Pacific City securing Cell strongholds and blowing up Freak lairs, your Agent will be rewarded with stat-enhancing orbs. Kill a bunch of Cell with a machine gun, for example, and your agent will be showered with Firearm Orbs. Drive a lorry into a cluster of Freaks and Driving Orbs will be your prize. Throw a car into an enemy roadblock and a bevy of Strength Orbs are yours for the taking. By collecting enough orbs of each type, your proficiency levels will increase and you'll be rewarded with new weapons, better cars and bigger muscles. Just like the original, Crackdown 2 has a fantastic sense of progression.
The astute Crackdown fan will have noticed the callous omission of Agility Orbs in the previous paragraph, but that's only because they deserve one of their very own. As anybody who has played the original will testify, these glorious green spheres of stat-boosting awesomeness really do put the 'crack' in Crackdown. Ruffian has dotted 500 of the blighters about the city, and hunting them down is one of the most time-consuming distractions the city has to offer. Ruffian has made the hunt more interesting this time around with the inclusion of Renegade Orbs (which also come in a Driving flavour). True to their name, these rebellious globes flit about the city with complete disregard for your efforts to grab them (and indeed your patience). While initially frustrating, they make the collection process far more entertaining.
If you were to remove the guns, cars and enemies, Crackdown 2 would make for an incredibly competent platform game. The architecture that defines Pacific City is designed with your Agent's acrobatic prowess in mind, and traversing the game's varied landscapes is incredibly fun. Ferris wheels, bridges, oil rigs and mountains are all begging to be scaled, and at every seemingly impossible-to-reach location, a green orb will be lying in wait. Crackdown is one of very few games that make the process of getting from A to B enjoyable, and the sequel improves on this in numerous ways. By the end of the campaign, players will have unlocked super cars, buggies, tanks, helicopters and, perhaps best of all, the wing suit. After leaping off a tall building or out of a chopper, your Agent can open his suit and glide about the city in defiance of gravity, much like a mechanical flying squirrel. Suffice to say, it's great fun.