Life is full of little, unexpected surprises. Who would have thought that the longest running television series would be a cartoon. Who would've imagined that the province of British Columbia would welcome the likes of Variation (see: Xboxaddict forums). Imagine the shock in realizing that Symmetric sounds good on a podcast. I am amazed that a guy like me has such an incredible Wife and Daughters. And I'm sure I wasn't the only one surprised by the quality of a 2007 Xbox game that, we all believed, was used only to introduce gamers to Halo 3.
That underrated, overachieving title was, of course, Crackdown; developed by Realtime Worlds and distributed by Microsoft Game Studios. While the original developers had discussed the sequel option it became evident by the 3rd quarter of 2007 that Realtime Worlds and Microsoft had some 'communication issues'. Then at E3 2009 the announcement was made that Ruffian Games would take over the development of the sequel (Microsoft held onto the intellectual rights). Interestingly and as a side note, the Scottish team at Ruffian are comprised primarily of former Realtime Worlds team members. I guess the communication issues between Realtime and Microsoft continue.
With the sequel firmly in the confident hands of the Ruffian Games studio there were several issues to be addressed. How is the story going to advance; should the game take place in the Pacific City that everyone knows; how can they improve on the unique offerings featured in the original and how can they push the limits of the Renderware engine?
One of the most pleasing aspects of this second offering is the story. While some might dismiss the twists and turns, most gamers who are paying attention, will appreciate the depth to which the developers have created a worthwhile tale. It's 10 years since the Agency has cleansed Pacific City of its sinful path and while the 'gangs' have dispersed, it would seem that, a new 'freak' virus has enslaved the populace and that renegade 'Cell' factions are at war with the Agency to bring real justice to our beloved metropolis. The story is told through several different venues, each as rewarding as the next. The first of which are the audio logs...throughout the city there are various logs to be found.... as well as a series of radio broadcast logs there are Agency and Cell logs that share different points of view. Our good friend the, the verbal to our visual, the 'Agency Director' (confidently voiced once again by Michael McConnohie) guides us through the different holes in the plot while adding to much of the intrigue. Anyone that plays the game will think they have the answers to many of the mysteries presented in the game but I'm certain that almost everyone will be pleasantly surprised by the unexpected.
Your mission throughout the game is to reactivate a series of unique generators that work in unison to power specialized 'Sunburst' bombs...these bombs of direct sunlight are implanted into underground freak catacombs before being activated. As the Agent you will have to activate the generators, then infiltrate the catacombs before guarding the bombs while they charge. Because the bombs are essentially concentrated ultraviolet energy they are harmless to humans but devastating to the freak populace. The freaks themselves seem to only populate during sundown and it's in these dark hours that the streets come alive with a seemingly endless number of these freaks. The freaks are presented as mindless and varied savages; some will attack you straight on, while others will throw poisonous fluids, jump to great heights to attack or run at you to tackle you down. In later levels some freaks are presented as gigantic beasts hell bent on destroying you and the Sunburst bombs.
The day/night cycling is a welcome touch and while the freaks are your focus at night the game introduces the 'Cell' to fill in much of your daytime needs for wanton destruction. The Cell gathers in strategic locations within the city and their main actions are to undermine the Agency and, as such, your efforts to rid the city of the freaks. The Cell are presented as a rag tag rebellion group which really brings to mind the Star Wars mythos. Their weapons, clothing and vehicles are a cross section of cobbled together pieces that work surprisingly well against you and the Agency. Taking over the Cell strongholds will allow the Agency to insert their own tactical locations so that vehicle and weapon drops are at your convenient disposal. While the first encounters make these foes seem to be pushovers, you will find yourself in way over your head in no time at all.
Along with the core story line are some interesting augments. When you have cleared an area using a Sunburst bomb nearby Freak breaches become active. These secondary targets are a kind of escape route for trapped Freaks and your job is to control the breach until the Agency can send air support to permanently seal the break. While taking over Cell strongholds offer all the daylight thrashing you can handle it's important to not let up. Strongholds will rise up to take over previous Agency controlled locations unless you eliminate any nearby threats.
The game-play truly expands on what we've come to expect from the Crackdown franchise. Pacific City is bigger and better while still maintaining its familiarity. Almost all of the aspects of the original game are here but modified in ways as to not feel foreign and there are several new additions to add to the entertainment. And for the die-hards, don't worry, the orbs are back! Crackdown 2 takes orb collecting to the next level; there are Agility Orbs, Driving Orbs and Hidden Orbs but now we find Renegade Orbs. Renegade Orbs will challenge your abilities by 'running away' from you...that's right, you'll have to chase them down to absorb them.
The orbs work in the same way as in the original game...working to level up your players abilities. With increased agility and driving skills you'll also need increased strength (take out opponents with melee attacks), increased firepower (let the bullets fly, head shots garner larger increases), increased explosive skills (big booms equals bigger booms). With these increased abilities come additional ways to introduce your enemies to a new kind of hurt. The most satisfying attacks are, by far, the melee attacks. Sure its nice to snipe someone over a large distance, take out groups with top notch automotive skills or even pin them to vehicles using specialized weaponry, but to be able to toss a car into a crowd of freaks, watching as they dissipate to ash, is almost inspiring. For the hardcore escapists try attaching a vehicle to a post using the mag grenade then pick up the post and swing for the fences...then watch as the carnage ensues.
The games controls are immediately familiar to anyone that enjoyed the original Crackdown, even if its been a while since you've picked it up and, as always, the opening tutorial will have even new gamers up and jumping in no time. The difficulty levels are very reasonable, offering you your choice of Fragile, Tough, Ruthless, Psychotic and Sadistic. When starting the game you are given the option of picking your players features by choosing one of four available looks, as well as choosing one of four uniform colors. All of the over the top controls are back; the fast running, the insane jumping even the vehicles return with the likes of the Cruiser, the Buggy, the Supercar, the SUV and the Tank. As an bonus feature players will be able to add to their selection of weapons and vehicles by simply aquiring enemy items and bringing them to your strategic locations (as with any option some items will remain locked until you have the required ability level). You can quickly get to where you want to be (after the tutorial) by utilizing specific drop points; this can allow you to get back into the game when you re-spawn or when continuing the following day. Your new abilities will help you with various 'races' placed in different areas of Pacific City. The game extending moments will tax even the strongest of players....there are Rooftop Races, Road Races, Vehicle Stunt Rings and new to the series, Wingsuit Stunt Rings. That's right, when you get to a certain level with your agility you are granted the Wingsuit but don't fool yourself....it's a lot less flying and a lot more falling with style.
Online play is a stellar part of the game...being able to jump into and out of other players games proves extremely satisfying especially if you have increased abilities that can help out another gamer. Being able to bring in 4 players to a cooperative round should be something introduced to all new Xbox games. Beyond that, the multiplayer matches were limited as of this review but while interesting in the offering they don't seem to offer anything exceptionally new....hopefully my mind will be changed as the game is released to a wider audience.
The sound and visuals are beyond the offerings featured in the first installment. On their own they are more than satisfactory. For the unitiated, the original game offered almost revolutionary visuals with the heavy black borders and detailed surroundings however, I did expect a little more with this new game because of the stellar job done 3 years ago. The draw distances are up to par and the sound reacts like you expect...really the only negative is that it feels like its been done before.
Which brings us to a few of the games issues....while the newly designed Pacific City is immediately familiar, there are many areas that are completely ignored in this title. Also at the start of the game you are able, by foot, to get to any area on the map but it is extremely frustrating to be able to use window ledges to scale buildings in some areas and not others. I know the game wants to control the accessibility of the player while maintaining the sandbox feel but why not just remove the accessibility of the ledges to a height that matches our abilities. And while being able to jump into others games to help out is gratifying I often found myself wishing someone would jump into my game to help me out on some of the harder missions....to the point that I was inviting other gamers to quickly get by certain areas. This new option could easily be abused by someone looking to breeze through the game and would really lower the gamers enjoyability overall (only the most advance players can use the helicopters and watching someone else mow down the masses with missiles can really frustrate you as you chase yet another Orb. And finally why in multiplayer, can I use a wider variety of uniform colors (I should be able to wear yellow in my single-player game).
All in all, Crackdown 2 delivers more of what we loved in the original game while adding enough nuances to drive a very compelling story. For Ruffian to bring the game to its current level is outstanding and anyone that picks this up is in for at least 12 hours of intense single-player action (20 hours plus for the completest and an endless amount of opportunities for gamers that wish to show off their abilities. Is the game perfect? Not yet. Could it be? Well I for one am eager to see where the 'Soap Opera' that is the Crackdown intellectual property takes us next. Just please Microsoft, don't create another 3 year hiatus....but don't rush one to print either....just do it right. If only it were that easy (all of us reviewers would have nothing to do).