A lot has changed in three years. Crackdown emerged into a world where Sony seemed hopelessly stranded, crippled by the enormous expense of a machine that few people wanted to buy. Xbox 360 was already fairly secure in its status as the core gamer’s console of choice, so the fact that Realtime Worlds had delivered a platform exclusive that was perhaps better in concept than execution really didn’t matter. Crackdown wasn’t a reason to own an Xbox 360; it was a gentle pat on the back for having bought one already, and it played its part handsomely.
As we say, things have changed. Xbox 360’s edge in terms of units sold over its great rival has been eroded to the point of insignificance, and the one defence that Microsoft could always rely on in the face of the PlayStation 3’s superior hardware – the games – is the principle area that Sony has gained ground. Killzone 2, inFamous, Uncharted 2, Heavy Rain, ModNation Racers, God Of War III; the console’s platform exclusives in the last year alone have exhibited both quality and diversity, and the next year should herald the release of Killzone 3, inFamous 2, Gran Turismo 5 and The Last Guardian.
Even with Halo: Reach and Gears Of War 3 due this year, Microsoft’s recent past and near-future simply isn’t competitive, and Crackdown 2 will do little to redress the balance. Of course, it would be both unfair and inaccurate to suggest that the hopes of an entire console somehow rest on Ruffian Games’ debut project. The point is that the passage of time has raised the bar considerably, particularly for platform exclusives, and we can reasonably expect a sequel to acknowledge that. Unfortunately, despite marginal improvements in a number of areas, Crackdown 2 doesn’t.
The single most important difference is embedded in the context – we’re tempted to say ‘story’, but outside of a handful of audio diaries Crackdown 2 doesn’t really have one. Pacific City has been overrun by a wave of mutants known as ‘Freaks’ – former civilians infected with a virus that was released from a factory during one of Crackdown’s Shai-Gen missions. As the city plunged inexorably into chaos, a violent organisation called The Cell rose to prominence. The city is now a war zone, torn apart by a Mexican standoff between Cell, the Freaks and the Agency, with the light-sensitive Freaks dominating the streets by night.
Like its predecessor, Crackdown 2 is a sandbox in the purest sense. There are no characters or cut-scenes to drag you through, just a series of overlapping systems that allow you to exert a degree of control on how the experience develops. The main thrust of the gameplay is the activation of ‘absorption units’, which draw in sunlight and project a beam into the sky. When all of the units in a given area are running, their beams cross over at a point of high Freak activity. The Agency then drops a beacon at that location, which you must protect from the mutant horde until it has gathered enough energy to unleash a mighty burst of sunlight, weakening the Freaks’ grip on the city. There are three absorption units in any given area, with nine areas in all, leaving you with the ambiguous pleasure of completing the same basic tasks a disconcerting number of times.
You can make the job easier by capturing tactical locations, which involves killing every member of Cell gathered around a specific point. There are several of these in each area, and capturing them unlocks a location where you can order vehicle and weapon drops, and respawn if you die. It also diminishes Cell presence in that area, allowing you to move around the city with more freedom and, by extension, activate the absorption units with less friction. This leaves you with the ambiguous pleasure of completing the same basic tasks a disconcerting number of times – yes, we realise that exact sentence closes the preceding paragraph, but given how similar the experience of capturing a tactical location is to deploying and protecting a beacon, repetition seems like the only logical reply.
Perversely, where most games get more repetitive the longer you play them, Crackdown 2 works in the opposite way. The progression system works in exactly the same way as the first game – awarding orbs for agility, strength, driving, firearms and explosives based on your performance – and the weaknesses in the gameplay recede into the background as your abilities improve. The game’s tendency to lock-on to passing cars, civilians and enemies in the far distance rather than the Cell member ten feet away can make gunplay a chore, but it matters less when a single bullet is enough to dispatch one target and move on to the next. Similarly, the melee combat is both simplistic and imprecise, sending your agent sailing past his target towards thin-air as you repeatedly push the same button. But when you’re powerful enough to handle huge crowds of Freaks, the damage you can cause is a satisfying pay-off.
Make no mistake: this is a conscious design choice on the part of Ruffian, and Crackdown 2 never entirely loses its power to engage. However, you don’t reach the gameplay’s most rewarding features until you’ve been playing for longer than its core missions can comfortably sustain. We had a fine time leaping from buildings and scattering enemies by pounding a red glowing fist into the asphalt, an absolute ball ploughing the Agency tank through a roiling ocean of Freaks, and made exhilarating escapes using the new Wing Suit. But these new elements – as well as variations of Freak that serve more purpose than to offer an easy way to level-up your driving skill – didn’t arrive until after eight or more hours of play.
Ultimately, Crackdown 2’s most rewarding activity is the very thing that endeared its predecessor to so many: the obsessive-compulsive satisfaction of scaling a towering structure to claim a glowing green agility orb. This also becomes more rewarding as your skill level increases, but unlike other areas of the gameplay leaping between rooftops is always an absolute pleasure. Strangely, Ruffian doesn’t take full advantage of its most valuable asset, placing only 15 rooftop races in the agreeably grand sweep of Pacific City. When Crackdown 2 was announced at E3, it took the sound of a single agility orb being collected to send the crowd into rapturous applause. That will be your abiding memory once again.
Crackdown 2 offers a slew of adjustments and additions to Crackdown’s basic formula, but they result in an experience that, while more refined than its predecessor, is no more or less entertaining. It still has that nagging repetition to its core missions. The narrative is still buried to such a degree that you’re left feeling that the entire game is composed of side-quests. The introduction of the Freaks makes it far easier to level-up your driving and strength – a problem in the first game – but it only tips the imbalance in the other direction, making it seem unreasonably tough to improve your other skills.
These are more niggles than major problems, but the one thing gamers quite reasonably demand from a sequel is a sense of progress, and for the most part that’s strangely absent. If Crackdown’s mix of free-form structure, grinding and exploration was enough to pull you in, then Crackdown 2 will almost certainly do the same. But when all’s said and done, you might be left ruminating over the same question as us: Is that it?