While the rest of the world was busily getting to second base with Grand Theft Auto IV, I've been spending some quality time with a much earlier open-world game for the XBox 360 and finding that it's quite possibly the best thing since the invention of sherbet.
And by sherbet, I don't mean that frozen-dessert American nonsense. I'm talking about the sweet, sweet bicarbonate powder that bubbles on your tongue and makes small children twitch with pleasure. Crackdown is full of it.
Those who know me will be aware that I've become a bit blase towards Grand Theft Auto and its ill-begotten spawn. My complaints largely boil down to annoying missions, a poorly told story, and some interface issues. Plus I'd rather gargle nails than complete another set of ambulance side-jobs.
The genius of Crackdown is that it strips out all of that silliness and gets right down to letting you leap from building to building and blow up cars with rocket launchers. Let's face it - the unfettered interaction of rocket launchers with cars was easily the best bit of GTA, and here it's like they've built a theme park around the concept.
In Crackdown you play as, essentially, Supercop. The product of some sort of genetic tomfoolery, you're imbued with the ability to leap dozens of feat in the air, pick up and throw nearly anything that isn't nailed down, and nail criminals from astronomical distances using the most paltry of firearms.
It's awesome that you start the game as this kind of a demigod among men, but as you make your explosive progress through what's on offer you'll get even more ridiculous. Practicing your key skills (read: using them to kill criminals) will improve them, and before you know it you'll be ascending the outside of skyscrapers like a particularly nimble chimpanzee and crushing lawbreakers using their own stolen sports utility vehicles.
The conceit of the game is that your home of Pacific City is overrun by ill-tempered lawbreakers, and it's naturally up to you to dispense some brutal justice. There are three gangs, each with a leader and six underbosses, making for a total of 21 kingpins of the underworld to take down. The bosses are right there in the city from the moment you first enter the game world, and you can theoretically rough them up in any order you wish. Each is shacked up in a reasonably defensible position, like a housing project or a casino, with a small cadre of guards.
The game inserts structure by creating gang dependencies. For instance, one underboss of a gang may be that gang's gun-runner; take him down and you'll find the remainder of the gang is now poorly armed. Another leader might be in charge of recruits - once she's down there'll be less gangbangers on the streets and guards will respawn slower. In this way, the player is encouraged to work up to the well-defended overlords by eliminating flunkies and thereby kneecapping the gang's batttle abilities.
That aside, it's entirely up to the player how and when to tackle the 21 gang bosses. You can hit gang fortresses through the front door with guns blazing, wreak havoc from behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, or take the boss by surprise by leaping over the rank-and-file from the top of a nearby building.
There's a fantastic sense of freedom, but it comes with a price. Where a GTA game might typically clock in at over a hundred hours, you'll be done with Crackdown within twelve. Those are an excellent twelve hours, though. There's a clunky online-only co-op mode available to stretch things out, but that requires finding someone on XBox Live who's actually playing the game, and even then it's not as fun as you might think.
The game's greatest strength is probably its acrobatics gameplay. Leaping from building to building is absolutely thrilling - there's a real sense of height and gravity at work, and phenomenal draw distances mean that you when you're at the top of the city you'll be able to see anything under the horizon. It feels like they could have built the entire game just around this concept, and it's well-showcased by a number of optional "rooftop race" sidequests. As your leaping skill levels up you'll also end up running faster, to the point where you can eventually keep up with most vehicles on foot.
The "lifting-and-throwing" mechanic is potentially interesting; however in practice it's not very useful. The animation for lifting items is annoyingly long, and the way the game handles targeting means it's quite difficult to actually hit a criminal with anything you've lifted. There's really no good reason not to knock criminals off with your firearms, or even just deliver a well-placed kick to the face.
The weakest aspect of Crackdown is the driving. Firstly, it's not terribly useful for taking down gang members, as NPCs are quite adept at diving out of the way of fast moving vehicles. Secondly, the fast running speed that you'll quickly develop means that getting around on foot isn't much of a burden.
Car handling is squirrely at anything except the very highest levels of driving skill. It's almost impossible to stay on the road at any reasonable speed, and accidentally running down civilians will soon have your police-agency buddies out for your blood. What's worse, merely driving the car isn't enough to really advance your skills - to get better at driving you'll have to run criminals down, complete road races, or hit stunt markers. (Road races are often frustratingly long and hard, and most stunt markers are unobtainable without a lot of work setting up ramp-trucks and clearing roads of traffic.)
The whole game is narrated by an authoritarian "police contact", who turns in non-stop commentary on your exploits, praising you for daring maneuvers and amazing acrobatics, while brutally chewing you out when your mistakes lead to civilian deaths. It's an audio conceit that could easily have become annoying but yet somehow works well, partly because the comments on offer are varied, and partly through the high calibre of the voice acting.
Crackdown is a game that didn't get the commmendation it deserved at the time of its release; the most common complaint was "it's not GTA". Now that there's some next-gen GTA action available, I'd say it's time for 360 owners to revisit Crackdown on its own merits and appreciate just how incredibly fun this game can be.