This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Crackdown 2.
So let's return to the burning issue of state-sponsored superpowers. We've established that giving them to the armed forces is a terrible idea, because soldiers only have two uses: killing people and being the main characters in gritty coming-of-age dramas. But perhaps a better idea would be to give superpowers to the local law enforcement. Admittedly, yes, I would only be truly essential if the community was in a state of constant gang violence and martial law - or at the very least that there are major congestion problems - and at all other times they'd just be giving random breath tests at 60 miles an hour or returning stray dogs to the pound by flinging them overarm from half a mile away. But think of the boost to the tourist trade!
Of course, if you go this route you have to make doubly sure that they're not the sort of superpowers that make you go insane. Because there's no worse publicity than Officer Hyperion going feral during a photo-op and decapitating five Japanese children with a single throw of his hat.
Crackdown 2 is the sequel to Crackdown - you see, this is the kind of vigorous research that makes me the hard-hitting professional journalist I am - a sandbox game for the early days of the Xbox 360 about superpowered policemen tasked to bring down three highly organized criminal gangs by punching all their members off of high places. But now it's sequel time and we've got a whole new city to. . .oh, no, wait, it's precisely the same city. I suspect the level design team just took the old world map from Crackdown 1, sprinkled bits of it with soot, then clocked off to go home and weep into their timesheets. And instead of three gangs, now there's just one. And instead of the intense boss battles with gang leaders, now there's just mutants gobbing on your shoes.
I miss the days when a sequel having more stuff in it than the original was something that was taken as read. I thought that was the formula: first game makes the money, second game uses the money to expand. Usually it's not 'til the third game that you really knuckle down to start ruining everything.
The plot, such as it is, involves you, an agent of The Agency called Agent, sent into the city some years after the defeat of the gangs in the first game to take on a revolutionary cell called "The Cell" and also contend with a race of mutant zombie freaks called "The Freaks." Who the fuck is in charge of naming things in Pacific City? Probably, on reflection, the same people who came up with "Pacific City". Anyway, I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that The Agency is secretly evil. I mean, when you have a superpowered civil authority that operates out of a building the size of the Earth Mother's most exotic sex aid fighting a scrappy, civilian revolutionary group from the inner city slums, one's sympathies are very rarely expected to side with the former.
But this never really comes to anything. The plot in Crackdown 2 is like a light shower of rain taking place outside a prison cell with a very small window. Occasionally you can look over and catch a little glimpse of it, but it's probably not that amazing. The only character with a face and a name is the rebel leader, and she only shows up at the very end. And by the way, when the enemy leader is an attractive young woman, that's a good sign you're on the wrong side. If fiction has taught me anything, the righteous ones tend to be better looking. And generally white.
Really, though, Crackdown 2 doesn't have a story. It has a setting but no structure. It's less like riding a waterslide from a beginning to an end than more like wallowing in a big Jacuzzi full of gunfights. Your sole mandatory objective is to activate a number of magic problem-solving devices that you defend for a few minutes from waves of zombies before it explodes and wipes them all out like World of Warcraft subscribers in direct sunlight. Almost a set piece from a Gears of War game, but repeated about ten times.
The world is also full of race challenges, enemy strongholds, and hidden collectibles, all of which have no purpose but stat building. And yes, it's fun to jump around on rooftops collecting orbs like a reverse Easter bunny. Yes, it's fun to powerslide through crowds of zombies as their disembodied privates roll over your windshield like floppy hailstones. Yea, it may indeed by fun to kill a rebel by throwing the corpse of his estranged daughter at his head. But it's a fleeting kind of fun while you still have five million other rebels shooting at you and not all of them have family on hand. Without structure, all the game can do is wait for you to get bored and do the same thing one always ends up doing when a sandbox runs out of appeal: climb to the highest point in the map and hurl yourself into the sea.
Crackdown 1 was a great game. It too had a strong emphasis on fucking around, but when you were ready to grow up and behave, there was a structured challenge curve in which you besiege and kill everyone on the kingpin's Christmas card list until the kingpin's own defenses are weakened enough to risk taking on. An important goal makes fucking around all the sweeter when you can imagine your administrator impotently shaking his gnarled fist as you waste another hour throwing trains at children.
Crackdown 2 's critical path is so unabashedly token that fucking around is all we have. I can only assume the developers used all the time they save by copy-pasting the previous world map to sit around flicking each others' ears all day. You couldn't have added some different set pieces or different enemy types? At the very least, you could have fixed Crackdown 1 's control issues, like the auto-target that remains stubbornly glued to the Volkswagen Beetle next to the dude who just fired three healthbars worth of homing missiles at you. Or the temperamental ledge-grabbing system that often leaves you falling down the front of a building praying as the brickwork sands off your face.
Crackdown 2 seems to subscribe to the school of thought that having a multiplayer focus lets you skimp on content (see also Lost Planet 2 and that horrible Unreal Tournament/Quake 3 Arena period in shooters that Half-Life thankfully rescued us from). To go back to this analogy, having a Jacuzzi by yourself is nice, if a bit indulgent, but add more people and now you're sharing everyone's filth and have to be careful you don't put your hand on anyone's dick.
I've got nothing against multiplayer as a concept, but you shouldn't try to make it carry your game, because there are logistical problems. Me and my friends have enough trouble splitting the bill after pizza, and navigating labyrinths of lobbies and servers is rarely worth the effort when everyone would rather just stick Guitar Hero on. And joining online random games is like walking into an aviary full of nitrous oxide and trying to play Scrabble with the kookaburras while they stand around having sex with your mum.
Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Ever try reversing two ramp trucks into each other in Crackdown 1? It's fun if you're into skyboxes
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