© 2010 Gav Ross
Although it’s been just three years between release dates of the original and this sequel, a decade has passed in Pacific City and if you thought that everything turned out all peachy after The Agency cleaned up the previous gang wars at the conclusion of 2007′s Crackdown then you’re in for a shock.
Times are grim. Everything is a shell of its former self. The entire original Pacific City is intact in Crackdown 2 and ready to be revisited, but it’s a decaying, run-down mess of a city – like a nightmare alternate reality of the first game.
Think of when Marty McFly arrives into the alternate 1985 in Back To The Future II, only to find chalk body outlines on the roads and his main street overrun by bikies and misfits – that’s pretty much the feel the new Pacific City gives off.
But there’s a comforting familiarity with being able to revisit your favourite locations from the first game, even if they are in disarray. Remember ‘Funland’ – the fairground area by the beach with the huge ferris wheel? Go there in Crackdown 2 and it’s a desolate, dilapidated ghost fair with maniacal ‘Cell’ members (city residents who’ve turned on The Agency) camping out in the ferris wheel compartments that haven’t fallen apart yet.
The citizens of Pacific City are also miserable: the ones who still stick around to wander about their daily business are constantly fleeing in terror from the city’s various menaces, or they’re hiding out behind buildings with their homeless friends, warming their hands by fire drums.
Many of the refugees have fled to a makeshift ‘Shanty Town’ in a mountainous area (one of the several new expansions of the original map). Visiting these slums with your Agent allows full realization of what’s gone wrong with this city and the importance of getting it back to its former glory.
With instructions from The Agency’s faithful narrator and Director (thankfully the same, often berating-in-tone fellow from the first game), it seems like it’s time to get to work. Then, just when you think the situation couldn’t get any worse for this city, the sun goes down.
We Only Come Out At Night
A popular criticism of Crackdown was that it possessed little or no story. This suited most players just fine since it was the type of experience that didn’t need a formal narrative. This time around there is a bit of back-story to be digested, but it isn’t shoved in your face, begging to be paid attention to.
There’s a brief cutscene at the beginning of the game and a bunch of recordings (ie audio diaries – thanks Bioshock) scattered around the map to be gathered and listened to, but it’s all optional, so if you really want to delve into how things came be so perilous in Pacific City then the information is there. It’s not particularly engrossing, but it’s there.
The basic element that has made the city so dangerous is the introduction of ‘Freaks’ – past Agents who’ve succumbed to a virus unleashed by a rogue Agency scientist. These Freaks vary in size and agility, but most are grotesque, lumbering puss-buckets in a vaguely human form. When night approaches they worm their way out of underground lairs and wreak havoc upon the city in swarms.
They may be much easier to attack due to the fact they can’t point any weapons at you, but the sheer number of them that arrive on the scene at once makes survival a formidable task. At times, Crackdown 2 feels a lot like Dead Rising, as your Agent punches and kicks hordes of these zombie-like cretins in chain attacks, doing his best not to be overrun.
And, just as in Dead Rising, things get fun when you’re able to mow them down in a vehicle, causing toxic green blood to splatter around the environment.
Campaigning For Peace
The mission structure has improved this time around, although there’s still quite a bit of repetition. In the first game, players were assigned to taking down gang bosses that fortified themselves in different buildings and regions of the map. That’s all disappeared now and there are two main types of missions in place.
The first has a direct link to the main story and it’s titled ‘Project Sunburst’ – an initiative created by The Agency to take out the Freaks. By jumping to various (usually high) locations and activating three separate generators, some laser beams shoot into the sky and allow a ‘Beacon’ to be dropped into pits where Freaks reside.
It’s then a matter of going to the cavernous spot yourself and protecting the Beacon from the waves of Freaks that rush out of underground tunnels to destroy it. This has to be done a total of 9 times throughout the game, and each time gets progressively more difficult.
The other mission type is more similar to the combat action from the first game – taking down Cell strongholds. When arriving at one of these spots, your Agent is asked to call an Agency helicopter and fend off attacks from Cell members until they arrive.
t’s chaotic, explosive fun and it too becomes fairly difficult during the latter stages of the game as the Cell recruits hit you in greater numbers and with more dangerous artillery.
Skills For Kills, Agent
The levelling system of an Agent’s five unique skills – Agility, Strength, Firearms, Explosives and Driving – all make a return and max out at the top of the fifth level. It seems that this time around it doesn’t take as much time to level your Agent up to being reasonably impressive, as it only takes a couple of hours to have him hovering around the 3-4 mark.
Getting from 4 to maxing out 5, however, takes some dedication and, just as it was in the first game, it gets to be a grind towards the end if you haven’t been levelling each skill up evenly.
As your Agent’s skills increase, his appearance alters significantly and some new additions are added into his move repertoire: a boisterously more powerful ground pound with his fist and the ability to glide through the air.
The gliding ability is also complimented by ‘ring stunts’ that are available mostly at the top of some of the biggest buildings on the map. These are welcome new accompaniments to the skill family, but the one that remains the most fun to boost is, of course, Agility, as players are cast back into the dangerously addictive world of orb-hunting.
The Orb Effect
It seemed that with the original Crackdown, even gamers who never attempt to go after any collectables in any other game, or pay no attention to achievements, couldn’t resist obsessively tracking down as many Agility orbs as possible.
Seeing certain orbs tantalisingly out of reach that you could later go back to and claim with joy once you’d levelled up was one of those fine examples of using collectables in a rewarding way in games. The Agility orbs make a return in Crackdown 2 (all 500 of them) along with another 300 Hidden orbs (which are actually even harder to find this time around).
There are even an additional 80 ‘Live’ orbs that can only be picked up when there are one or more other Agents playing alongside you. And to make the overall orb-hunting experience even more enriching, developer Ruffian Studios have introduced orbs that run away from you.
It’s amusing when you first come across one of the pesky critters – which come in Agility form (green) and Driving form (purple, and can only be grabbed when in a vehicle) – and they scamper away from you like an excited puppy.
This amusement quickly leads to frustration as not only do they zoom away from your grasp as soon as you think you’ve got them, but they actually start doing fake-outs. So, if you’re speeding down a road in a buggy and there’s a T-intersection coming up, a purple orb will actually fake going right until you start your turn and then quickly whiz to the left! The cheek!
Friend And Foe
The introduction of 4-player co-op for missions and 16-player competitive modes is the main distinction between Crackdown 2 and its predecessor. And when you start playing through the campaign with one or more other players over Live you’ll start to wonder why it couldn’t be like this from the beginning.
Multiplayer is so seamlessly incorporated into all aspects of the campaign now that it feels somewhat lonely when you’re by yourself. Sure, it’s fine to do some rogue orb-hunting and take in the scenery, but when it comes to dealing with Freaks and Cell it’s best to enlist the help of your friends. When the difficulty ramps up towards the game’s conclusion you’ll also be more grateful for having the help on hand.
Even Rooftop and Road Races are now geared towards multiplayer. If you attempt them alone there isn’t even a timer anymore – you can go and make a sandwich, come back and finish the ‘race’ on your own, with the narrator congratulating you for creating a new personal best record.
The competitive lobbies include Team Deathmatch and Rocket Tag. Gamers who’re annoyed by constant jumping in multiplayer titles like Halo 3 should maybe look elsewhere. Crackdown 2 multiplayer is a leap-fest of epic proportions, but it’s a fun leap-fest that includes the dangerous addition of helicopters and 9 times out of 10 you won’t even see who has killed you since they probably did so from miles away.
Small areas of Pacific City are cordoned off for each match and there’s a rank system that’s separate from skills acquired during the campaign to keep things even from the start.
Experimentation with the environment and testing out what the physics engine is capable of remains the most inviting and interesting aspect of Crackdown 2. Simply messing with objects and vehicles will be what takes up a chunk of creative players’ time.
Some of the game’s most beautiful moments are completely accidental. At one point in the volatile third island of the city (known in the original as Shai-Gen) my Agent was minding his own business pouncing between rooftops and executing close-up sniper head-shots when he was suddenly hit by a multitude of homing rockets. As the Agent’s body spiralled into the air, rocket after rocket kept hitting his mangled, flame-ridden body until it seemed like he was close to reaching the clouds.
Then, just as there was a sliver of health left and I was prepared to choose another spawn point, he fell gracefully towards the Earth, health and armour recharging at the same time.
And as the Agent approached the height of an average building, I activated his glide and sailed serenely into the harbour, only to bounce right back out of the water and go back to kick in the skulls of the rocket perpetrators. It was a serene moment in gaming, and it’s what Crackdown is all about.