Crackdown 2 – updated impressions

True breaths of fresh air are a rare thing in videogames, but Crackdown was a genuine belter. Three years on, it’s tricky to recall a single release – let alone a rival sandboxer – that’s felt quite so joyously, triumphantly gamey. Nope, not even Saint’s Row 2. Hoarding cars, grannies and barrels in giddy anticipation of one enormous napalm-fuelled bonfire remains an enduring memory. Or our sheer joy after the internet revelation that, yes, it was indeed possible to drive a tricked-out SUV to the top of the Agency Tower.

Early on, we did fret about the handing over of development from Realtime Worlds to the wet-behind-the-ears Ruffian, but after seeing the game we’re mollified. After all, wholesale revolution was always unlikely, foolish even, with the new boys content to flesh out and refine the ginormous potential of our first foray into Pacific City. Looking back, Crackdown’s popularity stemmed from its freeform genius; structurally it was actually a bit of a mess, something the Scottish crew have been keen to address.

Take melee combat – its evolution is indicative of how Ruffian have revamped the upgrade system, making the process more incremental and satisfyingly skill-based than in the original. While we remain cynical as to how many people will actually get up close and personal once they’ve accumulated a decent cache of weapons (apart from the comedy value gleaned from sneaking up on Agent pals in multiplayer and kicking them off a building), you’ll nevertheless be drip-fed upgrades until you’ve got more killing moves than Tony Jaa.

Ruffian certainly haven’t been scared to mix things up when it comes to plot. We initially couldn’t help thinking that the dull old mutants-taking-over-the-city angle was a weird one, especially since half the appeal of the original Crackdown stemmed from that innocent ‘Sega blue sky’ aesthetic. That said, the narrative is a grower: gangs are out, disgruntled terror cells (called, er, The Cell) and genetically mutated freaks (called, um, the Freaks) are in. Our once shiny metropolis of Pacific City is now all destroyed beauty, the Agency is in tatters and its Agents are hanging with the dodos – well, apart from one (or up to an impressive four if you’re co-op inclined).

Aside from romping around a markedly moodier overworld that, at times, feels like PS3 superhero sandboxer inFamous, we’ll also – as in inFamous – be heading under the pavement, rooting out sprawling caverns infested with these ruinous visions of humanity. The Freak populace is also subject to frequent acne-like breakouts onto the Pacific City streets – which translate as on the hoof micro-missions where you’ll need to stem the tide and get the situation under control as rapidly as possible. The mutant angle also imbues the day/night cycle with menace; when the sun disappears the Freaks come out…

Speaking of mutants, Realtime has confessed that the zombie-like cannon fodder being toyed with, mowed down and generally torn to shreds in recent trailers will be accompanied by altogether more capable, sinister types of Freaks. Briefly alluded to was the Reaper variant, a stalker who’s more than able to hunt agile Agents down across rooftops – while even more devastating assailants are also being hinted at. Luckily this new breed of agent can also run faster, punch harder and jump higher than ever before, meaning breaking off from missions to indulge in puerile antics and exploit Crackdown patented insane-o-physics will elicit more ‘laffs’ than ever.

The original game’s missions were gloriously freeform, but structurally kaput. Ruffian remain keen to continue embracing the game’s unique brand of chaos, but they’re also committed to adding various layers of depth to help with pacing and keep things fresh. Get ready for missions employing mechanics like the timeworn destroy-capture-defend, or defending against vicious night-time raids by the massed Freak ranks. Some missions will also benefit from you having a full complement of co-op Agents in tow. For instance, four separate valves need shutting down; do you deploy your forces on lone simultaneous assaults or gather ranks and blitz each emplacement as a team? Hardly likely to scoop level design of the year awards, granted – but compared to the randomness of the original, it sounds like a distinct improvement.

In a new world of possibilities when it comes to fresh Agent skills and kit, the wingsuit is our standout. A variant on Alex Mercer’s glide ability in Prototype, it encourages daring leaps and even synchronised co-op skydives from the new Agency choppers (available when you’ve maxed out your Agent’s agility) into enemy hotspots – soaring out of the sky like a cross between the Dark Knight and a flying squirrel. Obviously it’ll take a wad of game hours to unlock this perk, but it’s worth it. Also confirmed are new orb types, re-appearances by the Agency Supercar (you’ll apparently be able to ramp it up to blindingly fast top spec more quickly this time round – good thing too) and the good old DLC Buggy.

Teases to the last, Ruffian confess to having one or two more major surprises up their sleeves before release, but – hey – they’ve already more than grabbed our attention. Crackdown 2 probably won’t be the best game of 2010, but you’d be crazy to bet against these latest adventures in verticality proving the most fun. Right, Agent?

Mar 3, 2010