Trite, complete end-of-year thing #1: Crackdown

The best game of 2007 was… gosh, I don’t even know. So many candidates. It definitely wasn’t Crackdown, a deeply flawed and laughably shallow exercise in comic book violence. And yet, I enjoyed it more than anything else I played last year. (Except maybe Metal Gear Solid 3, but that doesn’t really count, since that was a “pile of shame” thing.)

How could this be? The answer is simple: I am a complete sucker for sandbox video games.

Real-Time Worlds/Microsoft | Xbox 360 | Action

Of course, the term “sandbox game” is inherently meaningless. The idea behind the phrase is meant to denote a wide-open world that allows free-form gameplay which may not coincide with the precise objectives that the developers had in mind for you. In the hands of a cynical developer, this is a crutch for creators who were too lazy to create worthwhile goals of their own (“Eh, the consumer can make his own fun,”); in more ambitious hands, it means immense freedom that let the player approach the structured, “designed” portion of a game with an enormous amount of flexibility. Usually Grand Theft Auto III is credited with sparking the current craze for sandbox games (or maybe Shenmue), but they’ve been around much longer: The Sims, Tail of the Sun on PSOne, SimCity before that, even Ultima IV, really. But honestly, any game can be a sandbox. I had a friend in high school whose only interest with Super Mario Bros. 3 was to hang around in a little valley in one of the first worlds and jump on Goombas until time ran out. It was infuriating to watch, because it seemed so utterly pointless to an objective-oriented player like me. But it made her happy, and if you’re having fun with a game who’s to say you’re not playing it right?

Eh, that’s just semantic dickering, but it does relate to Crackdown. Because Crackdown is very much the definition of a sandbox game. It’s shaped in the mold of GTA, to a degree: it’s set in a large and completely open urban environment, it’s very violent, it involves frequent carjacking. Unlike GTA, though, it’s absolutely non-linear. The game gives you a single objective: to take down the various crime lords who have set up camp in the three different districts of Pacific City. You can go right after them from the first moments of the game, which is completely foolhardy because you’ll almost certainly die instantly. It’s foolhardy — but it’s possible. A better tactic is to go in the game’s intended sequence, which is to take down the weakest gang, then the Russian gang, then the multi-national genetics corporation. Better, but not strictly required. And within each gang, the better strategy is to gun for the low-level enforcers before taking down their leader; not only does this beef up your stats, it also weakens the boss by reducing the general health of the gang. But you don’t have to do it that way.

It’s a very clever idea that has its roots in western-developed PC RPGs. Of course, it plays out rather differently here, as I don’t think an awful lot of PC RPGs had you playing a super-powered police agent ascending buildings and creating general mayhem in a cityscape set 20 minutes into the future. Details, details. Crackdown has some other RPG-ish elements, I guess — namely, leveling up. But what game doesn’t, these days?

The leveling system in Crackdown is a bit of genius, though. Adding levels to an action game is an inherently difficult proposition — traditional RPG categories like “luck” and “wisdom” don’t really apply to a game where you’re mostly running and shooting. Crackdown, though, offers palpable rewards for pursuing levels. Pacific City is a giant playground of skyscrapers and automobiles and people who want to kill you, and as you upgrade your agent you find you’ll have an easier time of using these game elements to their full potential. When you start out, you’re tough… by the end of the game, though, you’re a total monster, capable of punching a dude so hard he flies a hundred meters, able to make half a city block explode with a well-placed rocket. And most importantly, you can leap higher.

It’s the parkour element that truly makes Crackdown addictive. If you see a high point, you can climb to it. And if not, you can climb to slightly less high places and find some Agility Orbs, which will eventually add up to a level boost that will help you scale that previously insurmountable peak. Other sandbox games tend to take place at ground level, forcing you to scurry about the streets. In Crackdown, buildings are a minor obstacle to be scaled in order to give you an advantage over the bad guys. Just ask Anakin — holding the high ground is everything when it comes to combat. And the online co-op gameplay was fantastic, too, since it basically set another person loose in your city to help you, hinder you, or just run off to their own chunk of the city and do something completely different than you. I didn’t do as much co-op as I would have liked, but our previews minion Alice joined me for a few hours that mostly involved us trying to set up jenga-esque piles of girders to throw one another across the docks. It was essentially the equivalent of standing in a little valley jumping on Goombas for an hour, but it was fun — so who’s to say we weren’t playing the game “right”?

Oh, Crackdown has its shortcomings. There’s a notable lack of truly worthwhile enemies to deal with; by the end of the game, nothing can stop you. The enemy bosses lack variety, and the story is pretty dumb. Some of the weapons are kind of pointless — once you crank up your gun skill, there’s no reason to go with anything but the Shai-Gen pistol and the homing rocket launcher to let you blow up anything you can’t take down in a single headshot. Enemies don’t scale up, so if you go out of the intended mission sequence you’ll find the guys you skipped are a total cakewalk. But compared to 2007’s other big sandbox adventure, Assassin’s Creed, Crackdown does a much better job of keeping the player engaged until the end — new abilities and skill enhancements are doled out as you play, each target requires considerably different tactics. It even does those inevitable random pickups that litter this sort of game well — not only do the collectable orbs make a sound effect when you’re nearby to help you home in on them even if you can’t see them, grabbing them adds considerably to your agent’s repertoire of skills. Yes, an actual, tangible reward for going to the trouble of searching every nook and cranny, not just Gamerscore points. What an inspiration!

So no, it’s not perfect. But it’s the only game I loved enough to play through twice in 2007. And coming at the expense of plenty of other perfectly deserving games as it did, that says something.

Oh, yeah, one last thing. If Crackdown were music? It would be your favorite guilty pleasure band. The one you know isn’t really that good, but you love it anyway, and screw all the haters. So Journey, I guess. Which means that even though Real-Time Worlds isn’t working on a sequel yet, well…. don’t stop believin’.

Also: Retronauts is back. Like, really back. Our new full-time Podcast Producer will kick our butts if we slack off. Enjoy the magic of 1997! Next time: something something.

23 thoughts on “Trite, complete end-of-year thing #1: Crackdown

  1. Dickering is a real word which I have used closely enough to its actual definition to be acceptable. However! I like to think of it as a combination of bickering and being a dick.

  2. An excellent series, Parish. You’ll go far, my boy; why, one day you might even write for EGM.

    I can sort of understand leaving Portal out, as this is a list of what you enjoyed instead of what were the best games – it’s a rollercoaster ride, but it’s really only got one trick. It’s a neat trick, but the theme of the list has been games that open up to let you do more or less what you want, and the focused experience of Portal doesn’t really fit with that.

  3. I looked up dickering. It means to barter or haggle (which often times involves bickering, I soppose). I can’t wait to use it.

  4. Crackdown? This game seems more like a giant ridiculous joke, but I think that’s part of the appeal. God I love blowing shit up.

    I can’t say that I saw this coming at all, but it was fun to read. Now to go make some explosives.

  5. I tried to get into Crackdown but I couldn’t get the hang of the camera, no matter which way I inverted the axes. I’d always turn it the wrong direction so I was punching the floor to my left whilst a guy at ground level shot me in the right side. It tried to combine an action-adventure sort of viewpoint with an over-the-shoulder or first-person shooter one, and I couldn’t deal with it.

    When I cheated enough to unlock all the powerups, it was a blast, but that was primarily because I could safely ignore the enemies and you don’t need to change the camera much to outrun cars down the freeway.

  6. Playing Crackdown’s online co-op with my friend had to be the funnest gaming experience I had all year. I can’t believe how much fun I had with such a short game especially after the content pack came out.

  7. This is exactly why after I finished P0rtal I put this game back in the 360 and have played it everynight since. Still a great title.

  8. Woot! Gotta love Crackdown for being “fun” if not much else… I loved how everyone thought the only reason for getting Crackdown was for the Halo 3 beta… I bought Crackdown for Crackdown, and glad I did! I’ve played Halo 3 once since it came out… I’ve played Crackdown for at least 10 hours, which is a lot for me! ;)

  9. Yeah Retronauts is back, baby, that’s what I’m talking about, and a great episode at that!

    As for Crackdown, its up there with Oblivion in the awesome idea but frustrating product category for me. It is fun, and I probably put more time into that demo (which is better than the real game, although of course you can’t go back to it once you played the full game just outta weirdness of playing a demo instead of your purchased full game) than any game in ages, but its complete lack of diversity made it difficult for me to play for more than 15-30 minutes. The world it takes place in is kinda Bladerunner, but more like Bladerunner Portage, IN, designed by people from Portage, IN, rather than somewhere you would actually interested in being. I understand the lack of pizazz going on around you lets the game sprawl out, its still dull and doesn’t make an excuse for the fact that not that many people can remember the names of anywhere you go, anyone you fight, anything you use/listen to.

    BUT, what is good, not the least of which being the first game to pick up on one of the things that makes Jumping Flash is still super fun, jumping around at super heights (although, baby complaint, baby complaint, baby complaint, I wish you could get to those Jumping Flash heights), the arcadey shooter gameplay, the co-op, its the type of fun where I’m frustrated even more than I am having fun because I can see the potential in the game but it doesn’t. What little of Infamous has been shown does kinda implicate that it could be the Crackdown Crackdown could have been, so hopefully that’ll pan out.

    That demo is definitely some of the most fun with a NEW game I had all year (Episode 2 had the rest, which I have beaten an embarrissing four times), so there you go.

  10. 15-30 minutes at a time I should say, which is usually the same amount of time I can play beat-em-ups before my eyes complete gloss over.

  11. Re: retronauts, are Sony still necessarily any more friendly than Nintendo?

    Well, seeing as how DS is replacing the original PS1…and PS3 having all of these development-code policies and all…

    Also, Einhander h-games, ship-on-ship action…what was that comparison with Valis?

  12. “Ahhh, you got me right where it hurts: in the irony.”

    you mean like your working for a corpofacist org like ZiffDavis?
    You’re practically the main character of Crackdown IRL, Jeremy. Well, minus the super powers and working for law enforcement. But the facist organization using you like a puppet, yes very much.

  13. Oh, I didn’t mean that to come out as a criticism for not choosing Portal, since I haven’t played it and I fully endorse the enjoyment-based favorites idea. Not that I won’t play it, I just lack the HD set and fancy new systems for now. That leaves me working on my own pile of shame as I finish off some past generation titles, and that in turn led me to favor your enjoyment metric over some attempt at ranking objective merit. You see, I recently rather enjoyed a game that wouldn’t quite belong in the game of the year contender bin. The game?

    That’s right, Wild Arms 4.

  14. I’m curious – How is Crackdown not the ‘best’ game of the year if it’s the game that you had the most fun playing this year? Isn’t the point of playing video games to have fun? What games are ‘better’ than Crackdown, and why are they better if you didn’t have as much fun playing them?

    As for the game itself, it’s an absolute blast. Having played both it and Assassin’s Creed recently, I’ve got to say that AC is the ‘fun-lite’ version of Crackdown. Pretty much every situation in both is done with more fun in Crackdown. Scaling tall buildings is a matter of a few leaps in Crackdown and an agonizingly slow climb in AC (among most other games, natch.) Walking through a city is slow and hampered by needing to keep a low profile (broken by almost arbitrarily pissing off guards by walking at a non-1 MPH speed) while in Crackdown you can jack a car or even run faster than driving without having to worry about the law (since, well, you are the law and all.)

    Still, I’ve gotta give game of the year to Rock Band, as it is both the best and most fun game I’ve played in a long time. (Of course, my previous GOTYs were Guitar Hero I and II, so make of that what you will.)

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