At the close of the first Crackdown game, the player discovers that he has been the instrument of a police state. “Cracking down” on gangs throughout Pacific City is a way of eradicating resistance to an authoritarian regime. The player’s acquisition of power (in the form of leveling up his own skills through the acquisition of experience orbs) corresponds to the absolute power gained by the “Agency” through the player-characters’ activities over the course of the game. Basically, the player’s victory appears to be a victory for fascism whether the player is aware of it or not. You’re just following orders.
The sequel to the game begins with nary a reference to this twist ending. Instead, the player once again takes on the role of an agent following the instructions of a bodiless voice in a headset. This time out the Agency is interested in counteracting a kind of zombie menace as well as a terrorist organization called Cell. This places the player that is familiar with the first game’s conclusion in an odd position. Your character may not be aware of the Agency’s duplicitous activities, but you are. The “Freaks” (humans mutated by a virus into shambling zombie types) are obviously a problem for Pacific City but also victims of a virus. Also, given the aforementioned information on the Agency, it is difficult for the player to know what to make of a “terrorist” group that is opposed to the Agency. Are they really so bad?
However, despite the open world approach to the game with that genre’s supposed “do anything, anywhere” model, the player as character has little choice but to engage Cell and the Freaks, following orders that are again pronounced by the Voice of the Agency.
However, I may be paying far too much attention to the plot of the Crackdown series. Folks familiar with the first game are also probably aware that narrative is not the series’s particular interest. This is a game about playing supercop, bounding around a city powered with superhuman strength and near invulnerability, and then just beating the snot out of whatever ne’er do wells get in the way.
Much like the first game, this means that the player will be collecting experience orbs that increase five stats: agility, strength, weapons aptitude, explosives, and driving. These orbs are generally accrued by enacting these skills. Need a strength orb? Punch a guy. Want to be more adept at weapons? Shoot someone. Want to be able to leap higher? Climb some buildings and collect agility orbs.
There are some new additions to orb collection, like having to capture roving agility and driving orbs that give some better boosts to these skills, but the basic “level up by doing what you want” approach to character development remains fundamentally unchanged here.
Which is okay for awhile. Much like the first game, beating up thugs and leaping tall buildings is pretty fun for awhile. However, Crackdown is generally a lot like cotton candy. It is sweet and tempting, but once you’ve had a little, you realize that it isn’t really as good as it looks.
Power progression becomes difficult over time and “leveling up” really makes your superpowered character feel weaker over time, as new regions tend to make life harder on a much steeper scale than player progression can offset. Sure, now you can jump higher, but buildings have fewer hand holds to climb. Yes, you have more health, but now you are getting bombarded by guys with grenade launchers, which isn’t going to kill you, just make it harder to move around. I may be mischaracterizing this “difficulty” level though. It isn’t that the game becomes more challenging, more like more annoying and irritating, since things like chained grenade launcher blasts will result in your “agile” character getting frozen in place for far too long.
Both the main missions (involving getting some beacons set up around the city to staunch the Freak threat) and secondary ones (which involve destroying Cell occupation of areas of the city and similarly freak held “territory”) all boil down to basically the same thing: kill a whole lot of guys in an area.
In an interview, Crackdown 2 producer James Cope explains how gameplay concerns trumped narrative during development:
The couple of design challenges we faced with the ‘Crackdown’ franchise was that it’s built around a completely free-form and open world. Go-anywhere, do-anything in any order. Trying to tell a story in that is very hard. You can’t tell a linear narrative and you can’t direct or expect people to be in certain places at certain times and make anything cohesive in that environment. It’s one of those things that you just have to sweep under the carpet a little bit and focus on the gameplay experience. (Russ Frushstick, “Crackdown 2 Developer Responds to Criticism, Talks DLC”, MTV Multiplayer Blog, 7 July 2010)
This idea that a “go-anywhere, do-anything” design philosophy resulted in Crackdown 2’s gameplay is an odd one, considering that missions fundamentally consist of making three choices: punch everything to death, shoot everything to death, or grenade everything to death. Deus Ex (2000) offers a multiplicity of approaches to dealing with mission objectives. Crackdown 2 offers three flavors of death dealing with fundamentally one thing to do: kill ‘em all.
In this sense, perhaps the gameplay really does mirror the narrative. Crackdown 2 is a game about being told what to do and not thinking too much about it. With enough mindless exercises strung together so repetitiously, it’s easy to just not ask questions and instead to just continue following orders.