Extrajudicial Execution Has Never Been Such Fun

by Arthur B

Arthur reviews Crackdown, a violent rampage of crimefighting for the XBox 360.
The game that Crackdown, the XBox 360's hottest police brutality simulation, is most often compared to is the Grand Theft Auto series, but that isn't really a fair comparison: Grand Theft Auto expends a lot of effort in doing a whole lot of things reasonably well, whereas Crackdown concentrates on providing excellence in a very narrow range of gameplay elements, all of which revolve around killing criminals. While Grand Theft Auto IV is doubtless a superior achievement in terms of graphics, sound, content, variety, and sheer attention to detail, I can't help think that Crackdown is actually a better game.

The premise of Crackdown is simple: you're a genetically-engineered super-cop who's been grown in a vat to fight crime. Your task is to destroy three criminal gangs which are each based in a different district of the sprawling metropolis the game is based in. You're part of an infinitely-replaceable series of clones, so it doesn't matter how often you die - your memories and skills will be dumped into a new body and you'll be sent off to get yourself splattered all over the street yet again. And as you battle crime your key skills - in driving, shooting, explosives, athletics, and strength - will increase, allowing you to evolve superhuman capabilities.

Let me go into more detail about the skill system here, actually, because I think it's the key to Crackdown's compulsive playability. Essentially, there's no such thing as wasted time when you play the game - pretty much everything you do boosts one of your skills, especially if it involves wasting criminal scum. Jumping around on building colllecting agility bonuses, or sniping crooks from obscene heights, boosts your agility. Blowing shit up makes you better with explosives. Shooting gang members makes you shootier. Granted, you can't go mad - kill too many civilians or fellow policemen and the Agency will send people to liquidate you, and you'll get mild skill penalties - but that said, you can get away with a fair amount before you start getting penalised. It's extremely satisfying when one of your skills levels up - there's a big flash of energy that sends your enemies scattering as you are filled with THE POWERRRRRR, your raw ability gets a big boost (so if you max out on agility, for example, you'll end up bouncing around the city like SuperFlea) and every so often your appearance changes (depending on what skills you boosted). You get to pick one of several character models, and I selected the gothy one, so I started out looking like Richard O'Brien's weedy younger brother and ended up looking like a musclebound piercing-studded Elvis. Maddeningly, though, when you beat the game the guy in the last cut scene is the default character model - come on, guys, that's just lazy.

Speaking of beating the game, this one's unusual in terms of providing extremely sandboxy play. There's no running around following a broadly-linear chain of missions: you're just given the basic scenario and left to get on with it, although there's a constant supply of (hilarious) advice, encouragement and occasional exasperated exclamations from the Agency's mysterious Director, whose voice in your head is the only one you can hear clearly, aside from threats and dying gasps from crooks (ooh! Think there's a hidden comment about blindly obeying authority there?). The essential process of taking out each particular gang is the same: annihilate the power structure, then mop up the rioting remnants of what's left. The in-game commentary at first gives you pointers on where to find the lower-ranking members of each gang's leadership as you explore the city, and as you take them out you unlock intelligence briefings on higher-ranking gang members, and in some cases boost your chances of taking out the gang's ultimate leader, but it's entirely possible (though difficult) to stumble across the leader and take him out early on, then mop up his stooges. Each time you approach a particular gangster's stamping grounds you're given an estimate of your chances of taking them out, based on what skills and weapons you have and which other gangsters in that particular power structure you've taken out. And as a final nice touch, the entire map is accessible to you from game start, so you could potentially tackle the gangs in any order you like (although in practice there's a sensible order to do them in - you simply can't take out the third group without buffing up your skills a bit).

What really struck me about Crackdown's gameplay is the willingness it shows to let players completely ignore aspects of the game they dislike. I focused on shooting people and jumping about, and completely neglected the driving aspect, and I found I never had to rely on my driving. Granted, some bits are more optional than others (I will have infinite respect for anyone who can beat the game without shooting anyone), but the fact that the game essentially lets you pick the aspect you like the least and discard it without impairing your ability to complete it (so long as you don't junk shooting) impressed me. In fact, aside from the ignorable driving aspect, most of this game impressed me; my major complaint is that it is extremely short - most gamers will be able to complete it in a handful of sittings. Granted, you're dealing with the same basic scenario in each city district, so on one level it makes sense not to let the game overstay its welcome, but the closing cut scene rabbits on about how the Agency that created you secretly backed the gangs so it could overthrow society and then bring in a fascist New World Order with clones like you as its enforcers. This utterly unoriginal plot twist, or something like it, is probably necessary, because without it the game might be mistaken for loudly advocating police brutality as a solution to gang violence, but I was honestly expecting an endgame where, having cleaned up the three districts, you then have to take down the Agency, blowing up all of the Agency bases/respawn points you'd carefully established during the game before heading to the central Agency tower for a final confrontation with the director. As it is, the game feels incomplete: throwing in the "Agency is evil" angle seems utterly pointless if it never impacts on your game experience, and it would be a nice challenge for people who'd completed the game to try and take out the Agency without any backup.

At the end of the day, though, "it left me wanting more!" is praising with faint damnation. Crackdown is mindless shooting fun... or Spiderman-like acrobatics and sneaking... or GTA-style driving mayhem... or really, just about anything you want it to be, so long as it involves exploding crooks for the good of the city. Don't pay full price for it, but try it out nonetheless.

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 12:53 on 2008-10-21
I'm very impressed - I haven't played a computer games since WoW happened to me. Of course, maybe now that WoW has imploded due to the latest patch and Halloween and everything has dissolved in utter chaos and destruction perhaps I, too, will remember the pleasures of games in which one is not a giant cow.

This sounds quite fun actually. Mindless violence seems like it could be nice about now.
Arthur B at 13:20 on 2008-10-21
If you must have utter chaos and destruction, it may as well be caused by you shooting rockets everywhere whilst jumping over tall buildings and throwing truck at people. :D
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