One of my favorites of 2007 was Crackdown from Ruffian and Microsoft. In this futuristic sandbox game, gamers got to play as one of the elite members of The Agency. As an agent, you and up to one co-op buddy had to save Pacific City from the grips of four gangs that were spread out across islands within the city. Utilizing plenty of firepower, vehicles, and super human strength and agility made all this possible, and darn fun in the process.
This Tuesday (tomorrow), the sequel arrives. The core gameplay remains largely the same, with some significant differences. Can Crackdown 2 prove to be as addictive and fun as its predecessor? In a word, yes. In two words, hell yes.
Saving Pacific City - On Your Own Time
Crackdown 2 features the same open world, sandbox style of play as the original. It's played from the third person perspective, encourages co-op play (with support of four players this time, up from two), and is addictive as ever. Whether playing solo or online, the idea is the same -- work your way through the Core Objective when you're ready, but in the meantime, explore and engage in as many battles with the infinite supply of enemies as you'd like. All the while, whether through combat or collecting Orbs, your skills will work their way to max, and you'll be a nearly unstoppable force.
Different Skills give players different bonuses for leveling up -- if you increase your Strength, you can go from picking up barrels to picking up cars, and then eventually execute a powerful ground pound that sends a shockwave out in a circular direction. By increasing your Agility, you move quicker and can jump higher. Firearms, Explosives, and Driving upgrades allow you to wield more powerful weapons and drive faster and more substantially equipped vehicles. Don't forget to check in at Agency controlled Tactical Locations to change out weapons and request a vehicle drop.
So a short opening cinematic shows a member of the Agency at a press conference, under fire for alleged corruption within the Agency. This is a theme that pops up from time to time throughout the campaign. Suddenly an explosion occurs, and soon after you're put into a brief tutorial mode which leads you through the basics. You're informed that Pacific City faces two simultaneous threats: terrorists from a group known as Cell, and bio-mutated humans known as Freaks. You will learn more about the Agency, Cell, and Freaks throughout the campaign from audio logs that are hidden around the massive city. But all you really need to know to enjoy yourself (and work through the campaign) is that you're an Agent, and you must stop Cell and the Freaks at all costs.
Freaks have incredible numbers, and you will see hordes of them in the streets that easily top 100. You can fight them to your heart's content, and early in the game, I suggest you do as you can quickly build up your Strength, Firearms, and Explosives Skills. But to really hurt the Freaks, you have to execute Project Sunburst. This is the heart of the campaign, your Core Objective -- getting around to all three major areas within Pacific City, finding and activating all twenty-seven Absorption Units, and then protecting all nine Beacons (one at a time). Each Beacon is dropped into an underground Freak lair after its three Absorption Units are activated. Once it's dropped, it takes a couple of minutes to charge up before it can unleash a massive amount of UV energy. During this tense charging period, you have to keep waves of Freaks from destroying it. A meter in the HUD shows you time to charge, and remaining HP of the Beacon. Each successful Beacon deployment gives you another three Absorption Units added to your map so that you can repeat the process. Setting off all nine Beacons to stop the Freaks is your Core Objective -- but there are plenty of optional secondary and even tertiary objectives to complete, some familiar and some that are new.
Taking over Cell strongholds and reclaiming Tactical Locations is a respectable challenge and fun. Each of the three major areas in Pacific City has several Cell controlled points that you have to clear out. The strongholds are particularly intense as they require the that player go to as many as three Cell controlled areas and take them over in quick succession. Failure to take them over quickly in a consecutive nature allows the Cell to regroup and reclaim an area you just handed off to the Agency. As expected, these areas get harder to take over as you progress through the campaign, with the Cell resorting to turrets, explosives, heavy armor, and vehicles with chainguns. Most of these Tactical Location take overs -- there are 27 -- take just a few minutes and provide the most intense sequence of combat to be found in the game.
The other two secondary objectives in the game are destroying Freak Breaches (twenty-five of these) and finding all fifty-two audio logs. Freak Breaches are when a stream of Freaks come up from a large hole in the street. A meter in the HUD shows you how far along you are to quelling the breach, at which point a helicopter comes by and seals off the breach. This idea of having a meter to empty, and then a helicopter drop by to finish things off is also used in the Tactical Locations scenarios I just mentioned.
What about tertiary objectives? There are plenty of collectible-based, optional objectives, most of which are taken from the original game. These include 500 Agility Orbs, 300 Hidden Orbs (which give you a boost to all of your Skills), 15 Road Races, 15 Rooftop Races, 40 Vehicle Stunt Rings, 10 Wingnut Stunt Rings, 80 Online Orbs, 15 Driving Renegade Orbs, and 30 Agility Renegade Orbs. The Agility Orbs are as addictive as ever -- you'll see them everywhere, and you can easily spend a few hours going after each of them. I could even go as far as to say that they're one of the most, if not the most, fun collectible to get in any game. I can't tell you how many times I get sidetracked from the core objective by hunting for these. Hidden Orbs are cool, and very hidden -- I managed to find well under a quarter of these so far. Road races and rooftop races pit you against the clock as you go from one virtual gate to the next, earning Skill points upon completion. Online Orbs require that you be online to collect, and the Renegade Orbs, new to Crackdown 2, are Orbs that run away from you as you chase them. Players must catch them to earn them, which is easier said then done, but doing so gives you a nice Skill boost.
Controls, Issues, Presentation
The interface and controls should be familiar to anyone who has played the original. Controls include pressing B for melee attacks, Y for switching between your two weapons, and LB for reloading. Melee is immensely useful for taking out hordes of freaks and quickly building up your Strength. Simply using the left stick and B is all that's required to chain melee attacks. For the amount (read: endless) of enemies you will face, this simplified control system for melee attacking works well, as opposed to a 'complicated' multi-button combo system.
The 'fine tune' aiming system from the previous game is back too. With it, players target enemies and objects by holding LT, and can then fine tune which part of said item they are shooting at by moving the right stick. A small icon pops up next to the targeting reticule that indicates what part of the body or vehicle you're presently shooting at. By default, for enemies, the reticule focuses on the torso, but for disarming, crippling, or quick kills, go for the arms, legs, or head.
Targeting in Crackdown 2 actually took a bit of getting used to. You'll notice just as soon as you get into the action that the Agent will target whatever is closest to your reticule at the time. That works just fine to a degree, but many times you'll find yourself targeting a non-threatening object (like a vehicle or barrel) when right next to it stands a Cell terrorist who is shooting you. You can't target switch by pressing the right stick, as that is tied to fine-tuning your aim on the currently targeted object. Instead, you have to let go of aim, LT, move your cross hair, and re-aim. Thanks to regenerative armor and multiple health meters that are earned throughout play, I never had a real problem with this other than the inconvenience of having to re-adjust the aim. I suppose between giving up fine tune aiming and being able to target switch, I would prefer to keep the fine tune, but it seems like there might have been a way to accomplish both.
Innocent bystanders, while adding a bit of atmosphere, seem to serve no other purpose than to annoy you. There are literally hundreds of these just walking around in the street, as though there aren't hundreds of Freaks in the area attacking them. While you don't automatically target them with LT, you will find that they get in your way when you use explosives, drive, or are running. It's funny (in a frustrating way) because if you're running, and you bump into a pedestrian, you stop in your tracks. They don't fall down and your momentum comes to a halt. If you're driving, it's hard to avoid the numerous pedestrians mulling about. If you kill too many, no matter how accidental, the Agency sends a team after you. It's easy enough to run away and hide for a couple of minutes until the threat blows over. Fortunately, the forces sent against you aren't nearly as frustrating as those damn strike teams in Prototype, but I wasn't sure I liked the decision by Ruffian here. On the one hand, having hundreds of NPCs around adds to the atmosphere of a large city, but shouldn't they have been evacuated or forced to stay indoors?
As for the presentation, the graphics are very much reminiscent of what we saw in 2007. Expect that same type of sleek, not-so-detailed cel-shaded look. A few friends I had over expressed their concern with the visuals, and while they're admittedly not on the scale of something based on Unreal 3, I think they're still plenty good. The cel-shaded look of the original Crackdown just seemed to fit, and even though it's three years later, I think it still looks fitting, even good, today. I will also say that sunrise in Pacific City, while you're standing on top of a tower or mountain, is a beautiful thing to see. I didn't like the night time graphics as much, mainly because it hides the games otherwise eye-appealing color palette, but I never thought the game looked 'bad.' It just may not impress the folks set on high res textures. Technically speaking, I didn't have any issues with clipping or framerate problems, either.
On the whole, Crackdown 2 is a lot of fun to play. It's not the most inventive sequel there is, but then again, if the formula isn't broke, why try to fix it? Ruffian took what worked in the original Crackdown and expanded upon it, and the end result is a fun and addictive game.
To the summary...