What I really learnt from Crackdown 2

My original piece on Crackdown 2 was going to be something awfully generic like “10 things I learnt about being a genetically modified agent in Crackdown 2”, my reasoning behind this is that it somehow reflected the simplistic gaming experience. After a short amount of time with the game I began to think that there was no point searching for anything more meaningful in the sequel to a sandbox game with basically zero narrative. How wrong was I?

I approached Crackdown 2 with a little apprehension, having read many previews which described it changing little from it’s predecessor I feared it would be yet another sequel which failed to bring anything new to the experience. I loved Crackdown 1 warts and all, I didn’t buy it just for the Halo 3 Beta and I had felt like a kid in a toy store when they released the “keys to the city” mode, it became my favourite sandbox game. Although, for those of you who have read my pieces on open world games and achievement hunting might assume that  the title “favourite” sandbox game might not mean that much. Well, for me Crackdown (both old and new) has the ability to transcend my usual misgivings of the genre and produces a gaming experience I find amazingly compelling.

In addition from being compelling, it's also rather bloody.

Considering my issues with sandbox games and criticisms of Red Dead Redemption and Just Cause 2 especially, my proclamation of love for the Crackdown series would appear hypocritical, and to an extent I’d agree there is a portion of that going on. For those who aren’t familiar with my prior articles (mentioned above) my main contentions with sandbox games are the poor “tacked on” narratives and collectable items which are shoehorned in, elongating the gaming experience without enriching it. Crackdown has a terrible story, a thin premise and it is also built on it’s collectable hunting. So where, considering all I’ve said is there love for this game? Most importantly, Crackdown knows exactly what it is, in fact Realtime worlds and Ruffian spent a long time making it exactly as it is. This is very important really, your perception of a game will change your experience and how a game is sold will certainly change your perception of it. I know that Crackdown 2 doesn’t boast a complex narrative, host of characters and branching dialogue, but it doesn’t pretend to. I’d imagine the only reason it doesn’t say “the story doesn’t matter” on the back of the box is because it’d never get published.

The most iconic element of the Crackdown games is the agility orbs, and for me it is quite possibly the most important element which makes the game as compelling as it is. The 500 agility orbs placed around Pacific City in Crackdown 2 is quite blatantly the height of collectable items within a game, but the crucial distinction here between this and other games, it is central to your experience. The significance of the agility orbs is linked to your ability to leap higher and run faster and without this the game would be nothing more than Just Cause but without the parachute and grappling hook. The sense of progression you’re given as you gain experience and are able to climb the next building and leap that longer gap is more rewarding than you’d expect. Of course the game isn’t just built around you agility, you’re also have strength, explosives, driving and firearms to improve and experience gained from doing relevant tasks within the game which uses said skills. All of these elements combine very neatly to create a super agent, a character which comes closest to playing a genuinely super-human character within an open gameworld.

Sweet, sweet orbs

The orbs are only one element though, the original Pacific city was a vibrant and bustling place, although one could never really say it was “alive”, it was filled with it’s own eccentricities but it worked. Crackdown did something which is more impressive than creating a realistic city, it created the ultimate play area which happened to look like a city. Crackdown 2 has built on this, perhaps more heavily due to the fact much of the city lays in ruin and the bustling day-time streets replaced with hoards of “freaks” which I can hardly admit to being pleased to see. However, as Crackdown 2′s rendition of Pacific city strayed even further from the “living, breathing world” which open world titles are still chasing, it did, for me at least, the unimaginable, it made it more fun. How exactly though?

To bring about these changes, Ruffian have added many new guns, grenades (including the amazing Mag grenade, the ultimate in “dicking around” accessories) cars, challenges and a 4-player co-op which all display a wealth of “toys” for the new world. As impressive as that all is, I think I’ve found something deeper, something which has actually compelled me to activities within gaming which I have always (and still do) dislike generally. Beneath the obvious, vulgar, brutal, excessive action/adventure sandbox, I believe there is something considerably more subtle going on, something vastly more considered than the game has ever been credit for. What is central to Crackdown? I’d argue it’s more than collecting the orbs and clearing out the city for the agency, it’s more than explosives and trying to do unbelievable stunts in a car, it’s rather simple actually, climbing. Crackdown certainly isn’t the first game to encourage the scaling of tall buildings and many have tried with varying degrees of success, Assassins Creed, Prototype and ImFAMOUS have all attempted this, with varying degrees of success. But I believe that Real Time Worlds and ruffian have crafted the “climbing” element in to something very special. Even considering the often inconsistent nature of slopes and ledges within Pacific city I’d consider this statement something more than just an impromptu bout of hyperbole. To really understand what makes the feeling of scaling the sky scrapers of Crackdown 2 so compelling (not to mention addictive) I’d like you to consider this, I believe beneath the action exterior Crackdown 2 borrows rather a lot from what I’d have originally considered to be it’s antithesis, puzzle games.

Initially this might sound a little tenuous, aside from the basic motor skills and hand-to-eye coordination any similarities between Crackdown and Tetris for example, may be few. There is a lot to be said, however, in the differences between Crackdown 1 and then 2, it is the design changes in which the scaling of buildings becomes a much more cognisant affair. In the first outing in Pacific City it was perfectly clear which buildings were intended to be scaled and which agility level was required from this. The majority of buildings all had very clear ledges and if you simply couldn’t make that next jump you had to go away, find more agility orbs, and try again later. In the apocalyptic Pacific City of Crackdown 2 many of the buildings are recognisable from the first, yet contain subtle (and not so subtle) changes which really affect how you scale them. Because the city is now a battered and withered creature in the second game, many of the buildings bare scars of the conflicts between “The Cell” and the “Freaks”. This change is more than just aesthetic, cracks in the building provide an extra ledge to latch onto, or even make sections of buildings inaccessible forcing you to change your course. In addition though, Ruffian have changed which ledges are actually climbable, which obviously changes the route you have to take in order to gain access to the panoramic views the city has to offer. As I’ve already suggested though, there is a certain inconsistency to which ledges can be grabbed, although whilst this can be frustrating at times, it does force you to consider you route up the tallest sky scrapers much more carefully.

Okay, so it's a little OTT at times...

These changes to the buildings within the city do two things, make them more scalable but also make them harder to scale. The sky scrapers around Hope Tower are like puzzle cubes of sorts requiring varying levels of timing, patience and precision to scale their battered and warn surfaces. Of course, to proclaim that they are metaphorical Rubix cubes or similar is certainly an exaggeration, at first sight they are clearly just buildings, ones which incidentally are heavily guarded by terrorits to boot. As I’ve mentioned though, Crackdown 2 will reward those who are willing to look beyond it’s mindless destruction. Planning your route up the building, traversing it’s many ledges and doing away with all who try and stop you, for me, provides one of the most compelling ludic gaming experiences. The feeling when you reach the top gives a feeling of euphoria which my vertigo fails to quell, and the agility orb is simple the (albeit, green) cherry on top.

Not everyone agrees though, take this review for example from Game Axis.com(this is one arbitrary example, there are many), It’s clear that the very same features I have outlined as being the best feature are also considered the worst and actually position Crackdown 2 as a backwards title when compared to Assassins Creed 2 or InFAMOUS. Whilst I’m not saying that this is wrong, I also don’t feel that the climbing in Assassins Creed 2 felt any more rewarding for being easier and whilst InFAMOUS probably has a more robust system than Crackdown 2, it failed to capture my imagination as much. Crackdown 2 as seen as the sum some of it’s parts is a pretty impressive package, it produces what I’d consider to be the ultimate Sandbox game. However, I’d take one step further to argue it’s more than that, it’s like being let loose in the most awesome play-ground only you’re also playing a strange kind of chess, with guns and cars, only you’re not exactly aware of it. Some may scoff at this, perhaps because I’m giving too much to Ruffian’s latest title, reading what isn’t there, but Ruffian has managed to produce an over the top game which understates much of what it offers and I love it even more for it.

Oh, what I also learnt from Crackdown 2 is collateral damage is unavoidable!

Chr15 6r33n (Follow me on Twitter at chrisgreen87 and for Chronoludic updates click here)


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