Realtime Worlds gave gamers a surprisingly refreshing sandbox treat in 2007 with the release of Crackdown for the Xbox 360. Ruffian Games’ 2010 Crackdown 2 was therefore widely anticipated. Despite featuring numerous thoughtful improvements in game design, Crackdown 2 is altogether less entertaining, missing the charm Crackdown brought to its gameplay experience.
Set ten years after the original Crackdown, Crackdown 2 sees a new batch of genetically-engineered paramilitary police, called “agents,” tasked with overcoming the anarchic Cell terrorist organization while enacting a plan to wipe out a city-wide infestation of mutant “freaks.” As plots go, it is simple to the point of farce, but that is the point. Like Crackdown, the narrative embraces a juvenile simplicity that serves the over the top action, rather than getting in its way.
The real shame of Crackdown 2’s failure is that Ruffian Games clearly did their homework in executing the improvements to the game’s design. The variety of available vehicles and weapons has been streamlined, making each a bit more generic than their equivalents in the previous game. The effect is that each piece of equipment has a distinct purpose and clear role in the player’s arsenal. There seem to be fewer options, but the choices among them feel more important. Tying available gear to agent skill progression was also a canny choice; besides lending skill improvement a more concrete benefit, it also helps preserve the game’s difficulty curve by preventing the player from using the most powerful weapons and fastest cars at the outset. Crackdown 2 also boasts a far greater range of enemies against which to use said skills and equipment. In particular, the addition of freaks plaguing the city at night—requiring a completely different approach to combat than the more conventional Cell terrorists—helps keep the gameplay interesting far longer than it otherwise would be. There are real improvements to be seen in Crackdown 2, as befits a proper sequel.
Arguably, it is all of this progress that keeps Crackdown 2 from being as endearing as its predecessor. Like everything else in the game, the setting has also evolved, and while that evolution looks good on paper, it ultimately does the game a disservice. Pacific City is badly worn by the constant fighting and freak infestation, a wrecked version of its former self. This darker, edgier vision of the city may fit the story, but it also serves to highlight the understated genius of Crackdown by its absence here. The juxtaposition of violence and human corruption within a pristine setting marked by bright colors and clean lines worked with the subtly cel-shaded graphics to make Crackdown feel like a playable comic book. That whimsy, critical to Crackdown‘s success, is lost in the dark ruins of Pacific City.
Crackdown 2 is relatively fun while it last, which is likely only a dozen hours or so for a single player game, but the quality of the improvements that set it above Crackdown are lost to its much less charming presentation.