Tuesday 20 September 2011


If the Conservatives had their way...

Crackdown, the 2007 Xbox 360 exclusive from Realtime Worlds and Microsoft Game Studios. A game for those who like their Grand Theft Autos served with more guns. It's a game enjoyed by many, though clearly not enough to cause them to post decent screenshots on the internet for me to borrow.

Crackdown is a Grand Theft Auto clone which, unless you move in Xbox circles, you're unlikely to have ever heard of. I can comfortably say this because back in 2007 I was aligned with the Nintendo crowd, and Crackdown only popped onto my radar a few days ago. It's been highly rated by the gaming press and had a development process spanning five years, but as it failed to do anything revolutionary it's easy to forget its existence. It'll likely be remembered as being a GTA game for the man on a budget.

And no, it has nothing to do with Sega's 1989 arcade classic, "Crack Down", though I wish it did because then things might be a bit cooler.

You get cracks down the middle of something if the work hasn't been finished properly, and Crackdown is a good definition of something yet to be perfected. In some respects you can forgive it for not being as huge and immersive as the later Grand Theft Auto games, but the experience is unusually shallow all the same - as if it was shipped too early without much thought. When you're trying to move consoles with this sort of software, that's not the correct line to take.

Yet somehow, Crackdown manages to be very good fun, which I suppose is a testament to how great the ideas of Grand Theft Auto III really are. I choose my words carefully, as having been built by developers absorbed from Rockstar in 2002, it can be seen as an "alternative sequel" to that game - just less controversial in nature and containing no official ties to the franchise.

Crackdown thrusts the nameless player in the crime-ridden world of "Pacific City", forcing you to clean it up for the sake of JUSTICE. You work for a corporation known as "The Agency" and the aim is to single-handedly defeat three large gangs which have taken over parts of the town. To do so, you need to silence the three kingpins along with their generals, destabilising the groups in the process and bringing peace and tranquility to the earth.

On the surface, Crackdown appears to be a carbon copy of Rockstar's efforts, albeit with a much smaller budget. But it's also inspired by the genetically altered super human trend of recent years, where your skills improve by doing things. The more you leap around on rooftops, the higher you'll be able to jump. Punch lots of people in the face and you'll be granted super strength. Run criminals over in vehicles and you'll be granted the powers to drive around corners, rather than circum to the wonders of American engineering and slam straight into a wall. These measures essentially turn GTA into a cheapo super hero 3D action game, where obstacles are a thing of the past and challenge is virtually non-existent.

Crackdown's core gameplay has you find various figures around the city and shoot them in the face. As a super human, your armour and health regenerate when not under fire, opening up the possibility of rampaging through waves of enemies without the fear of death. It's not an overly challenging game and if you know where to look the "missions" can be completed in any order. I don't think there's anything stopping you from beating the "last" boss first, aside from the fact you might not be able to jump high enough, so it's definitely not a linear experience.

The problem is, shooting people is literally all you do. Though the game delivers side offerings in the form of time trial races, they're entirely optional and only exist to boost your stats. There is no story to speak of - you're not meeting and greeting people while attempting to destroy organisations from the inside (like you might in GTA), here it's just run, shoot, run, shoot, and it leads to a much shorter experience than you might hope. Plenty of things to collect and achieve, but once everyone's dead the entertainment value will plummet.

Specifically, you should expect to see more from the vehicle side of Crackdown. Like GTA you can steal cars, though unlike GTA there are no consequences for doing so. But the question soon arises - why would you want to partake in this crime? I've already mentioned the poor handling, but you're also punished for running over citizens - a common occurrence for a game with poor vehicle control. Furthermore, you can jump over half the scenery on foot... so why confine yourself to a metal box? Getting from point A to point B is not a challenge in the small world littered with teleporters, and cars are effectively death traps on wheels thanks to their tendency to explode while under fire.

And it's worth stressing that cars are the only alternative mode of transport here. There are no planes, helicopters, boats or anything fancy, just a few generic cars and a few generic radio stations. Agilty powerups lie on the rooftops and you can't use your weapons while driving, and although some of the agency vehicles are more entertaining it still doesn't disguise the fact you're better on two legs.

The best way to look at Crackdown is to see it as a giant game of deathmatch minus the human opponents (though there is a co-op mode). Instead you have the computer, who sends the same batches of enemies out to get you if you annoy it. There is an endless supply re-enforcements for the computer, in which every man (or woman) has near-perfect aim and x-ray vision. Re-enforcements alone aren't a terrible thing, but "magic doors" which endlessly spawn enemies cheapens the atmosphere significantly.

Of the three gangs you're forced to kill, there are Latin American stereotypes (Los Muertos), eastern European stereotypes (The Volk), and big Chinese/American business stereotypes (Shai-Gen), all of whom behave mostly the same (bar Los Muertos who don't have annoying rocket launchers). Raid a compound and you can enjoy repetitive lines of corny dialogue, such as "prepare to die", "time to die" and my personal favourites "why are you still breathing" and "are your parents related". It's very tedious, especially when these guys are constantly spawned, and throughout the game you've also got an announcer giving you the same advice.

The controls are outdated. The auto targeting system likes to lock on to empty vehicles and barrels instead of people shooting at you and jumping is far from precise, despite the fact some sections require precision jumping. It won't ruin your day too much, though it doesn't feel adqeuately tested at times. The animations are basic at best, so things look a bit strange when you're jumping tens of feet into the air.

On the plus side, the game comes installed with the Havok physics engine, and since you can both pick objects up and cause things to explode, there's definitely some entertainment to be had in there. But I suppose the sad thing is other games have implemented these features too, specifically Grand Theft Auto IV, which for the same price offers you far more open space and things to do.

Contrary to what others may have said, I can't claim Crackdown is a pretty game. It took an easy route when it comes to graphics by portraying much of the game in a "comic book" cell-shaded style - a smart move to get over hurdles regarding graphical fidelity, but not something that really works to the game's advantage. Pacific City looks bland, paired with plenty of visible repetition among the textures. It's a bit more colourful than most 3D games these days, but it's easy to tell this has roots on the original Xbox.

In fact, the entire world of Crackdown is sub-par, even when compared to Grand Theft Auto games released nearly a decade ago. You can go to the uneventful fairground, or the uneventful industrial sector, or the uneventful commercial district, and nothing really stands out as being iconic. You don't get to know your neighbourhood like you might in a GTA game - it's just a generic city - diverse enough for scenery not to repeat, but not interesting enough for you to spend a lot of time sight-seeing. Perhaps this wouldn't be the case if you didn't spend your days scooting past everything to find your next target.

The game is well presented, but it certainly reeks of the early days of the 360. Granted, it's four years out of date at the time of writing, but it's not always clear to see how it betters its sixth generation rivals. It's only really the character models and higher resolutions that set it apart, and there's certainly better examples of both elsewhere.

However, I think I'm right in saying that Crackdown experience makes up for the game's shortfalls. My post may seem negative but Crackdown is not a bad game - it's a blast, assuming you understand that it lacks the depth of other open sandbox titles. Every area is noticeably flawed but not to the point where it's broken, I just find it sad that after five years, so much could still be missing.

Nevertheless it's not an expensive purchase these days, so if what you see looks nice, give it a go. From what I understand it's a better idea than investing in its sequel, anyway.

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