Crackdown (Xbox 360) review
"For all of the negative things I’m about to say regarding Crackdown, I suppose it’s worth noting that in a modern gaming culture in which open-ended “sandbox” games have become a cliché, Crackdown stands out. It puts us in the shoes of a nameless government agent who can jump very high, and it places us in an enormous city with no shortage of tall buildings to climb. There is literally nowhere we can’t go from square one. As far as freedom goes – and sandbox games are all ab..."
For all of the negative things I’m about to say regarding Crackdown, I suppose it’s worth noting that in a modern gaming culture in which open-ended “sandbox” games have become a cliché, Crackdown stands out. It puts us in the shoes of a nameless government agent who can jump very high, and it places us in an enormous city with no shortage of tall buildings to climb. There is literally nowhere we can’t go from square one. As far as freedom goes – and sandbox games are all about freedom – Crackdown absolutely nails it. Other designers intent on building free-roaming environments should study the game. I just hope they don’t follow Real Time Worlds’ example too closely, or they’ll get so caught up trying to construct the ultimate sandbox experience that they’ll forget they’re supposed to be making a game, too.
Crackdown tasks us with hunting down eight prolific gang leaders in each of the three districts of Pacific City, and I like that the game never explicitly tells us where they are. We have to find them ourselves, which is a great way to combine story-based objectives with the explorative nature that should accompany any good sandbox game. I also like how the skill system is handled: Rather than distributing anonymous experience points for the completion of tasks, abilities are leveled up as you use them. Your grenades, for example, only become more powerful when you’ve killed a lot of enemies with them, and so on.
The most tactfully handled skill is agility, which is ultimately mastered by collecting little green orbs scattered across rooftops and other hard-to-reach places. As you collect more of them, your agent runs faster and – this is especially important – jumps higher. Having a higher jump means gaining access to places you couldn’t get to before, which in turn leads to the collection of more orbs. It’s an entertaining cycle, and that’s precisely how you handle the open-ended nature that a sandbox game is supposed to exhibit: Give players a big environment, give them the means to explore the big environment, and then reward them for taking advantage of it. You can see how Crackdown’s sandbox element just plain works; for as much of a bandwagon trend as it’s become, few games do it this well.
Where Crackdown grinds to a screeching halt is when it remembers that it has time to fill. Collecting orbs is a satisfying diversion, but it’s also a momentary one; sooner or later, I want to do something. That players can complete the campaign missions in any order they please, and can even hunt down the “final boss” of each district without first killing all of their subordinates, seems to contribute to Crackdown’s free-flowing attitude quite nicely until you realize that several important principles are being outright ignored.
First and foremost, Crackdown has no story. At all. The game has only one legitimate speaking role, in the form of an unseen commander who gives you orders and teaches you how to play. Your actual agent doesn’t talk, and the villains themselves don’t register as identifiable characters, either. They each have only two or three spoken lines, repeated ad nauseum, and the only information we’re given about each of them is a paragraph-long description of their dirty deeds read by the commander when we’ve discovered each hideout. As such, none of Crackdown’s central missions hold any more weight than a run-of-the-mill side quest. A sense of accomplishment is what keeps a good game running, and Crackdown doesn’t have it.
That the combat is nothing to be proud of doesn’t help matters either, largely due to how action-oriented your assignments are. Players can opt to either tangle with the clumsy manual aiming controls or hope for the best with a generic lock-on targeting system, and it ultimately comes down to a choice between gunplay that’s frustrating or boring, respectfully. That the enemies are so mindless (and, from my observation, respawn indefinitely) removes any semblance of strategy the game might’ve had; the lack of strategy means that the environments themselves are reduced to nothing more than set pieces, and after a while it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re just playing through the same one mission over and over in different locations.
What’s worse, though, is that Crackdown actually takes its open-endedness too far, and in the process skewers the sense of pacing and harmony that we would find in a more linear game. You’re actually meant to tackle the three districts in a particular order, evidenced by a slowly ramping difficulty curve. After clearing the first district of crime, however, I accidentally wound up in the last area and proceeded as normal, since the game never told me I was in the wrong place. As a result, the difficulty curve was all over the place, going from normal to obnoxiously hard to insultingly easy. That I didn’t follow the game’s intended path is beyond the point. Crackdown could have stopped me at any time, but opted to let me go about my business instead, lest its free-roaming nature be disrupted.
Crackdown has nothing in the way of a grand finale, either, which means that once you’ve cleared out all three districts of Pacific City, that’s it. You’re done. Not only does this mean that I accidentally wound up in what was supposed to be the “final battle” a mere two-thirds of the way through the game, but it left me with a feeling of emptiness once I’d officially completed everything. No climax, no closure… just a brief, poorly-presented cutscene (couldn’t be more than thirty seconds long) in which your aforementioned commander congratulates you for a job well done and delivers one final twist before signing off and leaving you with nothing else to do. I was so bummed that I actually looked up a walkthrough on GameFAQs just to find out where I was supposed to go next, only to discover: No, I’d just beaten the game. Anticlimactic doesn’t even begin to describe it.
In a way, the fact that Crackdown doesn’t even try to tell a story demonstrates that Real Time Worlds have underestimated how important that aspect of a game can be. Without a context in which to hold everything Crackdown does right – without memorable characters or a distinguishable atmosphere – the game is simply a vacuous placeholder, destined to become eclipsed as soon as another game comes along and does everything better. And that’s already happened with Sucker Punch’s excellent Infamous, another superpowered sandbox game, albeit one with a plot, variety, and some semblance of structure.
A lengthy trip to the top of Agency Tower (or whatever it's called) was easily the most fun I had with Crackdown. The enormous skyscraper has its own island and hangs in the background for most of the game, and I doubt most players will even realize it can be accessed; I only decided to check it out after the campaign’s disappointing ending left me desperate to find something, anything to bookend the experience with. That I found so much pleasure in climbing tall buildings is evidence that there is entertainment to be found here, but Crackdown’s problem is that it challenges players to go looking for said entertainment. That’s not good game design. Sucker Punch succeeded with Infamous because they remembered that games need to give us something to do; otherwise, they’re just glorified tech demos, designed to show off one or two nifty ideas that function as diversions and nothing more. And that’s Crackdown: It just drops us in and says, “Go!”
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