The term ‘sandbox gameplay,’ describing open-ended and expansive game worlds with a considerably higher level of freedom than typical gaming experiences has become somewhat of a buzzword as of late. The sub-genre was arguably pioneered by Grand Theft Auto 3, with many games copying or modifying the hugely successful formula that made that game so popular; a game with a large world to explore where the central plot takes place around a series of ’missions’. However, it’s with considerable bravado that Crackdown has dared to be different, placing the protagonist in the large and detailed Pacific City and tasking them with wiping out gang leaders one by one. The game simply advises the player on the order in which to tackle these boss characters, however it’s left entirely up to their judgment, giving the game a feeling of complete freedom that is largely unparalleled by similar titles in the genre. However, this lack of a set structure is both the game’s unique selling point and it’s main flaw. Without a visible path to follow, the game can feel disjointed in parts and even incomplete at times.
Perhaps indicative of the nature of the gameplay is the storyline. The game has an extremely simple plot; Pacific City is gripped in a state of total anarchy; law enforcement is at an all-time low and organized crime is ruling the streets. Enter ’The Agency,’ a monolithic organization that has taken upon itself to restore order within the city, using genetically engineered ’Agents’ to tackle crime as an effective one man army. These agents have the ability to increase their five core skills through continued usage of weaponry and explosives, displays of athletic and physical prowess and competent driving skills. When you are killed in action, rather than dying and simply respawning with no explanation, an agent’s personality and abilities are transferred into a new body allowing you to continue your crime fighting activities indefinitely. The game consists of the central island that houses The Agency and three surrounding island districts, each one home to a different gang. Each gang has six key members and a kingpin, and it’s up to the player in which order they assassinate them. Weakening the kingpin’s defenses by taking out his underlings is advised but not necessary, and once all three gangs have been completely disposed of, the game reaches it’s ending. The ending however, is disappointing and feels rushed but in a game so devoid of an engaging plot it’s not really a hindrance more so an annoyance.
Explosions are extremely satisfying in Crackdown
The plot is however unimportant and serves merely as an excuse for the gameplay, throwing you into a relatively large and expansive cityscape with just you and your own abilities for protection. If you follow the game’s advice on which order to take out the gang members, the learning curve is structured pretty well, the first few bosses perched atop the roofs of low buildings with only a small number of guards for protection. While these do provide the player with a fairly challenging experience at low skill ranks, they are far from difficult, slowly easing the player into the regular routine of assaulting a gang stronghold and what it entails. While these assaults vary throughout the game, the basic formula remains the same; enter that particular gang member’s stronghold, take out their guards, assassinate them and escape. That’s not to say it becomes monotonous though, the game mixes it up enough to keep it feeling fresh at least for the entire duration of the first play-through. One particular highlight is towards the end of the third island (presuming that one is defeating the gang members in the advised order) where the player is given a choice of either storming in all guns blazing, making their way up the spiral lobby towards the top of the skyscraper structure or opting to take an elevator at the risk of leaving behind the guards on the lower levels. Of course, you could also just climb the outside of the building if your agility is high enough and go straight for your target but this can often result in death unless suitably prepared.
The RPG element of the game is fairly well managed, as mentioned you possess five core skills that you can improve in a variety of ways; firearms effectiveness is increased by gunning down enemies, similarly physical strength is leveled up by beating thugs down with your raw strength, however picking up and throwing objects or bodies at criminals also serves to increase this skill. Explosives is increased by either firing an explosive weapon at criminals, akin to the firearms attribute or, interestingly enough, through using explosive items to your advantage such as oil barrels or ammunition crates. Your driving and agility skills are governed differently, however. While you can increase your driving by running down gangsters, you can also complete ’road races’, which are simply just checkpoint races, similar to the way you can increase your agility. ’Rooftop races’ are very similar to road races but as the name would suggest, take place around high points around the city. Bringing in a collector aspect are also ’agility orbs’ which serve as another method of increasing this skill. There are a total of 500 to collect and this can become time consuming, but it’s by no means laborious and it will probably keep the completists playing the game happy. As well as this, there are stunt markers which you can jump through in a vehicle to increase your driving skill and ’Hidden Orbs’. Similar to hidden packages from the Grand Theft Auto series, there are 300 of these orbs and when collected they give a small boost to all five of your core skills.
Look familiar, GTA Fans?
While you can play through the game without experiencing the co-operative element, it’s ill advised to overlook this feature. It feels clumsily implemented, however; when a player requests to join your game in progress, your game saves and then exits to connect to the other user before putting you both back into the game afresh. The overall experience is fun and doesn’t suffer from too many latency issues, despite the sheer scope of the game’s world. The co-op is basically the same as the single player mode but with a few small attractions sprinkled throughout; rocket tag, checkpoint challenges (which typically involve scouring the entire city high and low in a race to get to a faraway checkpoint before your partner) and the ability to play rooftop and road races competitively. A major let down is that when the other player leaves the game, it again exits and pushes you back into single player. A seamless, transitional experience would have been preferred but the actual playability of the co-operative mode is such that it makes up for this easily.
Visually, this title stands out in stark contrast to other games in the genre. It at first appears to be cel-shaded but is given an oddly unique appearance by texturing the characters and objects with more detail than most games using this graphical stylization. It’s pleasing to look at and feels right in accordance with the extraordinary nature of the gameplay. The draw distance is very impressive too, as even in one corner of the map; a lot of the city is visible, albeit less detailed. The frame rate rarely drops noticeably and isn’t a concern.
In terms of sound effects, the game excels, with satisfying explosions, gunshots and engine noises. However, one element of the audio side of the game really grinds; the announcer. Persistent in telling you what you’ve heard hundreds of times before; even if you’ve played the game for an extensive period of time, the game will still advise you that you can jump through stunt markers to increase your driving ability. This feature gets annoying quickly and an option to toggle the voice would have been appreciated. The music that plays in the car is nothing special and to most, unrecognizable. Not to say it’s particularly bad but in the rare times you find yourself in a vehicle you probably won’t end up paying attention to the music and so it feels wasted.
Crackdown is by no means a bad game; on the contrary, it’s actually rather good. It has an addictive quality and enough replay value to keep you busy for a while; however it’s hard not to feel short changed by a game that could have been so much more than it is. As it is, it feels ever-so-slightly rushed but not overly disappointing. It’s worth buying if you enjoy the sandbox genre, but if your thing is more structured or story-led gameplay this title probably won’t grasp you.