Creating a successful videogame franchise is dependent, in part, on principles of learning from mistakes and adding to a formula, striking a balance between familiarity and novelty; in order to gain a strong community following, sequels need to build upon one another in meaningful ways. Whether it be continuing a story arc in a multi-title schedule, or simply setting characters into a new conflict with gameplay additives in successive releases under a recognizable banner, franchise-builders should equal, if not surpass, their predecessors.
It's curious, then, that such perceptively commonplace practices don't find their way into Ruffian Games' Crackdown 2. With a sequel to the successful 2007 release from Realtime Worlds, Ruffian is able to recreate Pacific City—albeit ravaged and rundown—with the core elements of the first Crackdown. However, what the fellow Dundee-based developer can't seem to accomplish is emulate anything beyond the bare nuts and bolts gameplay of Realtime's Xbox 360 debut. In short, Crackdown 2 feels more like Crackdown Too.
Where Realtime let players loose on an open world with a character able to progress a set of abilities and become a more powerful tool of an anti-crime “Agency,” Ruffian affords us a nearly identical opportunity—just with zombie-like creatures roaming at night, in what used to be the clean streets of Pacific City. Little setup is given to your prerogative of “Kill, kill, kill!” this time around, other than (and I paraphrase), “Agent, there are mutated humans terrorizing our safe city at night. You must destroy them!”
While you might think dispatching nearly endless hordes of screeching, wandering drones with high-powered weaponry is tirelessly amusing, you'll want to leave your copy of Left for Dead (2) safely in your Xbox. Here, neither ingenuity nor coordinated teamwork is rewarded—simply, track down the game's biggest boom stick and go to town. And such is the repeated strategy for reaching the end of an conceivably six-hour affair, doing the same thing over and over again. The game's even shorter if you have a friend or three who have already trugged through the campaign, as they complete your objectives in co-op play.
Ultimately, to reach Crackdown 2's endgame, you're required to play connect-the-dots in a city that once presented players with at least a veil of purpose to augmenting their avatar. In the first game you had to explore the city, uprooting seeds of evil for a contrived greater good, throughout various locales of ever-greater verticality. It wasn't a mind-blowing feature, but you had a feeling of reward as targets ran for cover, hid behind gauntlets of annoyingly aggressive enemies, or were just plain out of reach. This time, in order to repel an escalating Freak population, you harness the power of ultra-violet radiation by recapturing sets of three relay stations to unleash light bombs, 9 times—that's 9 repetitions of doing the same thing, split up into 27 occurrences of simply standing on a power pad.
Yup, that's it. Of course, you have to protect your UV bombs from Freak attack as they charge up, but doing so might only require a few retries. Don't sweat it though, death carries no penalty. In fact, often times martyrdom or suicide is the quickest way to get from points A to B, especially in cooperative play.
It's not all hopping and skipping about rooftops freely however, as an insurgent rebel group aptly dubbed “Cell” doesn't make booting up the relay stations easy. As you better your agent, Cell's armor and armaments escalate in line, leading to duals of grenade launchers and homing missiles. Stationary and kamikaze AI, on the other hand, defray much of the danger, relegating their presence to a mere nuisance.
Unfortunately, Cell's antagonistic position creates little tension in what could be called a “story.” Apparently, beyond the contexts of quelling the Freak blight, a conspiracy coverup motivates Cell's leader and her group's belligerency. This mystery plays out through a few audio transmissions and hidden audio logs, but neither actually develop the conflict. Poorly realized dialogue sequences coupled with a curious ending only serve to confuse and get in the way of the mindless superhuman parkour activities.
Repetitious mission structure and dubious story aside, Crackdown 2 does still manage to illicit a strange addiction to what we could call “orbwhoring.” Like the game's forerunner, the crux of character development revolves around progressing skills by way of glowing pick-ups scattered about the environment and either killing enemies or driving recklessly. If ever there was a more suited game to the ADD child inside of us, I've failed to find it. Filler, sure, but jumping between rooftops and scouring the streets of Pacific City for glowing orbs of betterment remains an addictive time waster in Ruffian's hands.
Returning to the argument of iteration necessitating innovation, its distressing to see nitpicks pervading what should be a well-rounded extension of a franchise. Though your character may be able to grapple on to ledges and hoist himself to an identical one above him, you're not guaranteed to do so. It might not be a game-breaker, but it's annoying nonetheless. Similarly, a navigable map in the Pause screen is able to point out some objectives and where you've already found orbs, but you can't plot a point or direction to be used on your mini-map in-game; and even more awkward is the inability to zoom in and out of the map to gain perspective. Continuing an IP under a new developer might be a challenge, but with a studio that boasts talent from the prior game's team and ample time to asses the source material should leave us with vetted product.
Whereas the “Main” game adds little to the overall Crackdown experience—well, there is a wingsuit (see flying squirrel suit) to let you gracefully fall from high buildings, and new underground hovels to expel Freaks from—Ruffian have taken it upon themselves to beef up the competitive aspect of the series, and despite some gripes, overall, it has its charm. Realistically I don't expect it to cull droves of players away from more robust online experiences, but deathmatches and team deathmatches achieve a volatile frenzy.
As fully evolved agents in multiplayer, player-versus-player matches involve weapon pick-ups on-the-fly, helicopters and other vehicles, and power-ups scattered about arenas made up of portions from the city. And just like in the core game, killing with either projectile weapons or explosives make you more proficient in such areas (driving skills as well). A third mode, “Rocket Tag,” plays as a variant of “Oddball” from Halo, with a single, orb-wielding agent trying to outrun rocket-launching pursuers. It may be hectic and folly to the aforementioned grapple glitch, but in a world where you either love or hate rocket-based game modes, I find excitement.
A superb marketing maneuver, the bundled access that came along with Realtime World's Crackdown to Halo 3's multiplayer beta build undoubtedly gave unsuspecting gamers an entertaining sandbox in which to soup up a crime-fighting government agent. In Ruffian's case, however, without constructively building on the experience from the first game, Crackdown 2 feels like little more than a full-priced expansion pack. Aurally palatable, remixed classics from the likes of CCR to Bob Dylan can't save audio that sounds like it's coming from someone's Skype-ready microphone; and the now drab, sullen landscape of Pacific City is far less striking than the vibrant portrait of the first game, cel-shading or not. A serious cutback in character choice, however topical it may have been, only makes for a less unique experience when playing with others cooperatively—then again, you're a clone after all.
Though I'm sure the timetable may have been tight and the work not easy, especially with a newly formed studio, to make this sequel, it's simply disappointing to see such light fare being passed off as a new SKU. Crackdown is certainly a franchise-worthy IP, but if Ruffian and Microsoft plan to green light a third iteration, they need to hit more than a few nails on the head.
Thinking of conquering Pacific City a second time, agent? Did you stay inside your mission paramaters on your first deployment, or have you yet to complete them? Let us via Twitter @Gamers_Hell ASAP!