Review: Crackdown 2

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Crackdown 2 is boring, right down to the achievements.

The game strips out a lot of what I liked in the first one: the dossiers, the feeling of taking apart a crime cartel, an actual ‘personality’ to doing the things a super hero normally does. Instead, the game trades all of that to cash in on the current zombie craze by pitting the player against hordes of mindless mutants. It also makes it mandatory to activate mission-critical devices by standing in place for a minute or so, doing nothing, which turns the act of repeatedly waiting into a gameplay objective.

That’s basically the entire game. Find power units, turn them on by standing around, plant beacon, defend beacon, move on to next batch of power units while killing everything that moves. There are a few side activities that you can also do, but they also tend to be just as interesting.

Instead of strategically targeting crime bosses or anyone else with more than a pulse to weaken the opposition, you get to dance the monster mash all game long with an army of hopelessly mundane enemies. Story elements are told from recorded bits that have to be discovered by the player, making the already thin narrative conditionally non-existent. I don’t know why they had even bothered to set up a story in the first place though there are always the downloadable (and free) episodes created as prequels which do a far better job for those thirsty for more ficton.

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If you haven’t played the first Crackdown, don’t worry. All you need to really know is that you’re a genetically enhanced superhuman called an Agent working for the aptly named Agency who is trying to reclaim the ruined spires of Pacific City from mutant “Freaks” as well as a terrorist faction called Cell. Cell is made up of rejects from the Mad Max films who are apparently responsible for creating the Freaks in the first place, though if you had played the first game, you’ll immediately start thinking that something isn’t right here. Too bad that the game never answers that question directly leaving the more interesting bits hidden throughout Pacific City to beg for more of your time.

The gameplay itself has barely changed which is actually a good thing since, outside of hunting for the story, it does a marginally better job in keeping the player motivated.

Most of the basics are back such as the always-fun character development system. Punch an enemy and earn points towards physical strength. Do it enough times and your Agent will be able to jump shoot trucks. Shoot baddies often you’ll discover that your Agent becomes even deadlier with guns. Explosives? At higher levels, you’ll get to create even larger blossoming clouds of punishing fire that would make solar flares jealous. Collect enough Agility orbs and you’ll be leaping your way up buildings and across highways in no time.

Earning levels in these basic stats also unlock a variety of neat rewards at Agency drop sites that you open up by liberating certain areas from Cell’s fanatics. New guns and vehicles can become available and you can also store the weapons that you find by visiting any of these – as long as you are at a high enough level – as well as refilling ammo or changing your loadout when needed.

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There’s also a day and night cycle. During the day, the Freaks hide out but Cell comes out to play causing mayhem and destruction wherever the Agency’s poor Peacekeepers run into them. Or until you decide to clean up the mess yourself. At night, everyone hides as the Freaks come out from sewer grates to flood the streets and attack anything that moves. Freaks hate the sunlight.

This weakness plays right into those power units I mentioned earlier. You need to activate three within a certain area to be able to bring down a beacon. Getting to the units is easy enough as long as you don’t mind climbing buildings and shooting bad guys. Doing it repeatedly over the course of the game without even the illusion that it tries to mix it up with enough differences to make things more interesting is something akin to Chinese water torture.

Once you have enough units activated, you’ll get a beacon marker where you go to signal the Agency to drop one down into a Freak lair. At E3, I thought that we would be looking at a maze of tunnels and warrens underground, a sort of Underground Empire to mirror the ruined splendor of Pacific City. Instead, we get caves of varying sizes that are good for only one visit.

As the beacon powers up, it’s up to the Agent to defend it. Depending on whether it’s night or day, the lair can either be crowded or spaciously empty when you make your attack adding a little strategy to your desperate defense. Later defensive missions become more and more difficult as new, and more powerful, Freaks make their arrival felt with a ten-foot fist to the face. These quickly become the more exciting portions of the game outside of the liberation missions against enemy strongholds.

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After the beacon absorbs enough power, it explodes with UV fury, charring the light-sensitive Freaks and cleansing the lair. And then you get to do this all over again. Nine times total. Multiply that by three, and that’s twenty seven power units to activate. It got stale after I activated enough units to bring down three beacons only to realize that I had more of the same lined up for the rest of the game.

It’s as if Ruffian had decided on one good idea and then decided to clone it as often as you can respawn your Agent from to create Crackdown 2′s experience. Dealing with night and day cycles was a step in the right direction, but failing to give the player any means to simply wait until dusk or dawn – especially when they have almost eliminated Cell from the map by conquering strongholds – results in, you guessed it, more waiting with a little pointless wandering thrown in for good measure.

Climbing buildings also proved to be just as frustrating with a strangely selectable memory deciding on the grippability of surfaces depending on…I’m not sure what. It looks like a window-sill, I’ve been grabbing onto window-sills, but why can’t I grab that one window sill? After the fluid acrobatics of Lara’s jaunt into Underworld, Ezio’s escapades in Assassin’s Creed 2, or even as a Nazi killer in Saboteur, Crackdown 2 could have used a lot more polish when it came to scaling the ruined metropolis of Pacific City. One that made a lot more sense without asking why you can’t grab something that looks…grabbable.

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The targeting system is also spotty. Often, it works as it should with the left trigger automatically taking aim at important bad guys or the nearest ones instead. But occasionally it simply doesn’t want to lock on to anything unless you repeatedly flick the left trigger to “wake it up” and get it going again making its third-person action experience feel glitchy and half-baked when it didn’t need to be. To be sure, I tried the same controller across a few other games without any problems before heading back to Crackdown 2′s lock-on quirkiness.

Visually, the game is a mixed bag but it won’t win any beauty points and by the time you kill so many mutants and Cell members, you won’t care that some of it looks worse than what was seen in the first game. Agent customization is particularly weak with only a thrifty color scheme and even fewer faces to pick from compared to its predecessor, not that it will matter since an improving Agent gets a helmet graphic that covers it up later. Particularly explosion filled sessions, especially online, unexpectedly introduced nasty moments of slowdown.

One or two interesting twists to the original thankfully put in a few new challenges such as rogue orbs that try to run from you. Chasing down a Driving orb in a car can be fun, but it’s also something that can be ignored if you don’t want to go after it. Seizing enemy strongholds brings back some of that tactical goodness that the first game had as you try not to die from Cell’s reinforcements as they come pouring in to stop you with a growing arsenal of pain, and some strongholds require multiple points to be taken against the clock in order to earn them.

But that’s about the extent of if with the rest coming across relatively unchanged as if it were banking that would be enough to hide its fun-draining repetition masquerading as gameplay. Crackdown 2 feels more like a mod, a cobbled together expansion that pretends to be a proper sequel, even with the addition of online features such as PvP.

You can co-op with other Agency players from around the world, but what would the point be in sharing the repetitive minutiae of its experience? Do you hate the world that much? Apparently, other players thought so as most sessions I was in ended with either pointless roaming or when the host was too bored to continue.

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I was probably one of the few that got into the first game without the need to play the Halo 2 demo. It was a fun, sandboxy-type of romp that I reveled in: a super hero’s guilty pleasure strung along exciting missions and the sense that you were doing more than shredding through cannon fodder. Crackdown 2 is all about the meat grinder with little else to look forward to making it one of the more disappointing games that I’ve had to go through this year.

Given that Ruffian was founded by members from the original team at Realtime that actually put the first game together, it’s particularly disappointing and confusing to see the sequel turn out like this. Saving Pacific City again was a slogging march through ten plus hours of numbing repetition though it wasn’t all bad. Developing my Agent was fun while it lasted, punting cars didn’t get old until much later, and watching mutants and Cell members fly through the air from a well placed grenade had its moments. Asking full-price for a sequel that ultimately feels more like DLC, though, is simply criminal.

Crackdown 2
Microsoft Game Studios / Ruffian Games
Xbox 360
Rated M for Mature