Crackdown must rank pretty high on the list of games that looked doomed to fail but actually turned out pretty damn well. When it made its public debut the barrage of screenshots that were verging on hideous didn't do it any favours and early buzz was practically nonexistent. Fast forward to early 2007 and the free-roaming action game suddenly seemed like one of the most promising titles for Q1 2007. Sure, the promise of a place on the Halo 3 online beta helped, but the game itself has proven to be more than capable of standing on its own.
The debut title from Dave Jones' Realtime Worlds, Crackdown puts you in the shoes of a laboratory-created super agent, capable of huge feats of strength, incredible agility, extreme fire-power and more. For a change you play as the good guy, roaming the scum-ridden streets on the look out for gang activity. The city itself is split into three districts (Los Muertos, Volk and Shai-gen), each home to a separate gang and their respective gang leaders. Your goal is simple: wipe out each gang's leaders and kingpin.
Although you're super-powered, you don't begin with anything near the level of ability that you'll have towards the end of the game. Your key skills of strength, firearms, agility, driving and explosives can all be levelled up by performing tasks or collecting various orbs that are scattered around the city. Batter a criminal using nothing but brute force and you'll earn some strength orbs; shoot a guy and you'll earn some firearms orbs. I think you get the picture. Agility orbs can be obtained from a variety of ways, but the most fun is to roam the city in search of them.
This whole collectathon nature of the game adds a whole other dimension to the gameplay. Rather than simply being an all-out action fest, a large portion of your time will be spent leaping from building to building, clinging onto window ledges and generally being a much more extreme and male version of Lara Croft. Because of Crackdown's incredible draw distance you can often see these orbs far into the distance, but getting to them is the tricky part.
Jumping around like a slightly more attractive version of the Incredible Hulk can easily take up days of gameplay time, but to progress in the game you'll need to tackle the gang bosses. Thankfully the game's combat is remarkably simple and enjoyable at the same time. Free aiming is an option but the lock-on is invaluable given how frequently you'll be leaping high into the air. As you level-up you'll be able to take down enemies quicker thanks to a faster targeting system, your explosives will cause more damage and you'll generally become a complete bad-ass. Even cars can be picked up and lobbed at hopeless enemies.
Each gang boss is surrounded by gang members, so you have to clean the streets slightly before you can run in and take out the big guy - or girl. Once you've cleared the way the actual boss fight is rarely too difficult, especially if you work your way through the districts instead of jumping from one to the other. For example, the Shai-gen area shouldn't be tackled early on. For a start, the buildings are generally too tall for your agent to climb, but the enemies are also pretty deadly for a low-level player to take on.
What is absolutely not recommended is tackling the kingpins before you've increased your chance of success. After each successful gang leader kill you'll receive an update on your chances against the head honcho, and unless that percentage is in the green you're better off staying well clear. Taking out gang leaders reduces the threat of the gang, weakening them in key areas such as fire-power, vehicles and organisation, making your task a lot easier.
Something I've completely glossed over is the driving. Being a free-roaming game set within a living city you can of course commandeer cars, but you also have access to a number of agency vehicles. As you level up your driving experience these agency vehicles can transform, making them look a lot sharper and perform better too. What's more, when your driving skill is maxed these vehicles gain special abilities: the SUV can jump, the supercar gains machine guns and the truck gets a turbo. These all come in extremely handy, not only for taking down enemies but for general messing about in the environment.
The vehicles are fun enough, but nothing beats leaping around like giant frog on steroids; something that is made all the more fun if you're playing with a friend in co-op over Xbox Live or System Link. Two players can play through the game together or a player can join a game that is already in progress. It's worth pointing out that the joining player will only have the abilities that they've gained in their own game, so completely mismatched characters will cause a few problems. Tackling tricky bosses together is fun, but Crackdown lends itself brilliantly to playing around with the physics. It is effectively a virtual playground, full of explosives.
Great visuals are expected from Xbox 360 games and Crackdown doesn't disappoint. The game uses a cel-shaded look to differentiate itself from other games in the genre and the districts each look significantly different from one another. The real star of the show is the draw distance, which at time is breathtaking. When atop the tallest buildings in the game, you can see across what seems to be the entire game world. The frame rate holds up well too, only dropping when complete chaos breaks out on screen, and even then it's never a huge problem.
From a traditional game perspective the story is pretty weak (verging on nonexistent), but overall presentation is sharp. You'll receive regular updates from the agency, popping up in true special agent style, complete with a suitably agent-like voice over. Your agent is a complete mute and seems to jump in exactly the same fashion each and every time, but these are slight annoyances in a game that is incredibly fun on the whole. Side challenges in vehicles and on foot are also available if you tire of taking out gang leaders, but these vary in quality and are only really worth doing if you want to get the most from the game. The Achievements are far more fun to work towards and are among the most well thought out on the system.
Crackdown is a game that simply must be played if you are at all fond of free-roaming action games. The emphasis on super powers means that it's unlikely you'll have played anything like it before, as they allow you to play in a number of ways. The size and sheer verticality of the environment is key to the experience, and you're simply given the tools to explore and have fun. It's taken a while for Microsoft Game Studios to enter the genre that GTA sits atop of, but Crackdown marks the studio's entry with quite a bang.