If the Grand Theft Auto series is the Godfather of the so-called "sandbox" genre, consider Crackdown to be the Die Hard or the XXX.
Platforms: Xbox 360
Number of players: 1-2
ESRB rating: Mature
Developer: Realtime Worlds
US release date: 2007-02-20
As great as a sprawling epic like The Godfather is, it can admittedly seem slow. It's not a boring flick by any means, but all of the complicated family relationships, the often subtle nuances and slow-burning character development, combined with a three-hour running time can feel exhausting. Sometimes, as sacrilegious as it may sound, you just want to watch a good mindless action flick starring Vin Diesel or Bruce Willis.
The same could be said for video games. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a true masterpiece of a game, but it too can feel like a chore after sitting through long cutscenes, doing banal tasks like driving across town to a salon to get haircuts to increase your style points, and repeating dozens and dozens of missions with no end in sight.
That's why it's so refreshing to see Realtime Worlds' Crackdown, a third-person shooter for the Xbox 360 that may be the equivalent to the summer popcorn action movie. If the Grand Theft Auto series is the Godfather of the so-called "sandbox" genre (which makes sense, considering that Electronic Arts' recent Godfather game was a unabashed GTA clone), consider Crackdown to be the Die Hard or the XXX -– all white-knuckled action, gratuitous explosions, and violent mayhem.
Of course, while Crackdown is an easy game to describe –- it's Grand Theft Auto with super-powered cops as protagonists instead of gangsters –- writing an accurate review of it is a bit of a conundrum.
That's because it is simultaneously perfect and horribly flawed, even if that assertion, on the surface, doesn't make a lot of sense.
Let me attempt to explain. On one hand, Crackdown suffers in terms of the various elements in a game that reviewers typically comment critically about –- the graphics, the plot, the interface, the enemy AI, the originality of the design, the length, and the challenge of the game are all lacking in some way. It would be easy to make a laundry list of issues with the game that, if listed in it's entirety, would make Crackdown sound truly terrible.
But Crackdown is much more than the sum of its flawed parts. In spite of itself, it is quite simply the most addictive fun I've had playing a video game in months, if not years. And when I say addicting I don't mean it in the "C'mon, just five more minutes" way, I mean it in obsessive "I'm having dreams about doing super jumps on building tops to collect orbs" kind of way. It's that good.
There is a catch, however: To truly enjoy Crackdown to it's fullest, you're going to need to have Xbox Live and a friend who does also, because the truly innovative cooperative campaign is where the game really shines.
On it's own as a single-player adventure, it's still quite good. In Crackdown you control one of several nameless, interchangeable government agents that can instantly regenerate after death (almost akin to Cylons from Battlestar Galactica). These agents have a couple of superhero-style abilities –- namely an Incredible Hulk-like super strength, an incredibly high jumping ability, and a few other useful tricks such as more accuracy with weapons.
The plot is weak and ridden with clichés –- three violent street gangs have taken over Pacific City (a strange mashup of New York City, Los Angeles and Tokyo) and the government has sent this team of agents to clean up the streets aka blowing everyone up wearing gang paraphernalia and assassinating the kingpins of each gang. This threadbare plot is simply an excuse to run around Pacific City and do whatever you want. The game gives you things to do in the form of taking down bosses and driving and jumping in races, but much of the fun comes in jumping from rooftop to rooftop to collect orbs. The green agility orbs you collect increase your jumping skill until you go from a juiced up Carl Lewis-like leaper into a near Superman. Increasing your other skills is a lot like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion -– you level them up by simply using them a lot.
You gain strength, for instance, by taking down gang members with your hard-to-target roundhouse kick. In doing so, you receive extra health and you will eventually be able to pick up cars and dumpsters and other heavy objects and toss them to hilarious effect at your enemies.
Crackdown shines in these moments of spontaneity when you decide to use your superpowers for something fun and ridiculous. I remember one sublime moment where, in the heat of road rage, I chased down someone who cut me off in traffic, picked up their flashy sports car over my head, jumped and threw it over a bridge into the ocean.
This is even more entertaining when you play with a friend over Xbox Live. Crackdown marks the first time a sandbox game has been a cooperative experience, and after playing it, it's a wonder that it has never been done before. The thrill of going Crockett and Tubbs (well, maybe Batman and Robin considering your powers) and taking down gangsters together is undeniable.
Crackdown is entertaining enough that it's easy to look past the fact that the action is somewhat repetitive, the graphics are not much more than Playstation 2 quality, enemies tend to stand around and do nothing when you're around, it's often glitchy and buggy (the third part of the city looks unfinished), the ending feels perfunctory, and you'll beat the game in 10 to 15 hours. It will inevitably and probably deservedly be compared to Grand Theft Auto, but it's more fun, even if it's far less polished. Just like a good popcorn movie should be.