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.
Those that played the original with a friend will have nothing but the fondest memories of their time in Pacific City, and Crackdown 2 builds on that success. This time around, up to four players can romp through the streets at any given time - and this is where the game comes into its own. At its heart, Pacific City is a giant playground, and playgrounds are always more fun with other people. Entertaining situations present themselves around every corner, and whether it's a co-op vehicle, the physics based shenanigans supplied by the MAG grenades, or simply the strategy involved in taking down a particularly tough stronghold, the experience is always better when it's shared. The game also supports 16-player PVP, although so far we've only had the chance to play a handful of deathmatch rounds. Rocket Tag appears to be the most interesting mode on offer, arming each player with nothing more than a rocket launcher and then pitting them against one another in a fiery red orgy of explosions.
So, Crackdown 2 has a lot of good stuff to offer. Unfortunately, it has a few problems too - and the first signs of trouble start appearing in the midst of combat. As mentioned previously, the game does an admirable job of piling as many enemies onto screen as physically possible. As gamers have discovered over the years, the best way of dispatching of large groups of enemies is with explosives. Ruffian was obviously aware of this too, and has been kind enough to furnish each environment with copious amounts of explosive barrels and crates. Here's the problem though; it's nigh-on impossible to lock onto them and then blow them to Kingdom Come - the direct result of a targeting system that plain doesn't work. Even cycling between enemies appears to be impossible, and often you'll find yourself wasting perfectly good ammunition on a target you have no intention of actually shooting.
While annoying, the targeting problems certainly aren't game breaking - and rumour suggests that they'll be fixed in an upcoming patch anyway. No, the game's biggest shortcomings present themselves in the structure and pacing departments. The main criticism levelled at the first game was a lack of variety in the campaign, and while Ruffian has attempted to remedy this, the exact same problem rears its ugly head in Crackdown 2. The game quickly slips into a rigid formula; kill Cell members, activate three absorption units, drop a beacon into a Freak nest, fend off the muties as they try and destroy said beacon, blow up the nest, rinse and repeat. While 'Project Sunburst' - as The Agency refers to it - might sound like a diverse assignment to undertake, it's ultimately no more varied than the campaign of the original.
The game is also much harder than its forebear. The first Crackdown became incredibly easy once you'd maxed out your Agent's stats, but this time around your foes aren't such pushovers. This is fine for the most part, but it often seems as if the game is shoehorning you down a co-operative route, and while the option is always nice, it should never be compulsory in order to succeed. Maybe I'm just justifying my own inadequacies here, but I ended up playing the same section of the game over and over, and eventually conceded that it was impossible to do by myself. It was just lucky that I had friends on hand to help me out.
I've been putting this off, but I suppose it's about time I addressed the visuals. I'm not going to cushion what I'm about to say with an apology or justification that "graphics don't matter", I'm just going to come out and say it: Crackdown 2 looks bad. I'll admit the draw distance is as impressive as it was in the first title, and the frame-rate holds up incredibly well given the vast amount of enemies on screen at any given point, but in all other respects the game looks shabby. The textures are sub-standard (even for an open world game), the cel-shading is barely noticeable, and the game lacks the vibrancy of the original. It looks drab. There's an unwritten rule that a sequel should look better than its predecessor, and this one simply doesn't.
The latter half of this review has taken on a negative tone, but it's only because the bar of expectation was set so high in my head. Despite its structure, targeting and graphical issues, Crackdown 2 is still a great game. The playground of Pacific City has been expertly crafted with fun in mind, and with three other players aboard, you'd be hard pressed not to enjoy yourself. If you're coming into the series afresh, Crackdown 2 is well worth checking out, but for those of us who have patiently waited over three years for a sequel, it's a mild disappointment. Many top-notch sandbox titles have graced us with their presence over the past few years, and while Crackdown once set new heights in the genre, the sequel has failed to keep up with the times.