For a while in early 2007, Realtime Worlds must have been the most envied developer on the planet. After a five-year, two-console gestation period, its debut game arrived at exactly the right moment for Microsoft to bless it with a promo that was pretty much guaranteed to tack an extra digit on its sales figures. And so it was that Crackdown became the disc a million people got free with the multiplayer beta of Halo 3.
It’s also one of my personal favourite Xbox 360 games. There are many good open-world games, most of which let you wreak havoc on hopelessly outgunned foes, but Crackdown manages to strike a very special balance. Even as your agent grows powerful enough to leap hundreds of feet and fling trucks through crowds of enemies, he remains incredibly fragile.
Playing through it again for the first time in far too long, using my old maxed-out character, I’d forgotten just how easy it is to die. As I fix my sights on a gang hideout and soar across the rooftops towards the boss, I can feel my old Crackdown skills returning. No other game nails the feeling of superhero empowerment quite like this. It’s as exhilarating now as it was when I first played the game eight years ago. I skip over a balustrade, spinning fluidly to target a group of bad guys below, but by the time I land my shield is completely gone and I’m taking damage to my non-recharging health bar.
Panicking, I turn to flee. The boss is right there in front of me! I hit him with a barrage of missiles but he shrugs them off and I’m toast, incinerated by a couple of rocket-launcher goons. From entering the hideout as a slightly rusty agent to becoming a crispy corpse takes maybe ten seconds.
Eventually I start to get the hang of it again, and reenact my old post-boss ritual, in which the body of the fallen crime lord is set alight, hoisted aloft, and used as a blunt weapon to kill any remaining minions. To signal that the area is now safe for law-abiding citizens, I launch the deceased high into the air, lock onto him with a homing missile and blast him out to sea. This is the part where I imagined I would walk back into town to the sound of rousing applause from the grateful locals, but for some reason they’re all running away from me.
The precursor to actually being able to do that sort of stuff is the collection of stat-boosting orbs. There are 500 agility orbs placed on top of buildings, and 300 hidden orbs tucked away in obscure places. I recall finding the 500th agility orb about six months after I beat the final boss – it’s still my proudest achievement. I somehow stumbled upon a surprise hidden orb just yesterday, leaving me a tantalising 15 short of the total.
When you first start out, your character is small and weak. I reset my progress using the ‘Keys to the City’ cheat mode, and the difference is startling. You can forget about jumping between buildings until you’ve spent a fair amount of time shimmying along window ledges on the lower levels.
The thrumming sound of nearby orbs tempts me higher, but progress isn’t all that swift. I can see why Crackdown didn’t click with some players, particularly those who were only loading it up to kill time while they waited for Halo 3 to go live. Compared to what you become later on in the game, it’s like you’re wearing concrete boots at the start.I embraced all of that at the time, however, and I still love the game today. Its humour remains pleasingly dark, its controls are slippery, fast and precise, and the freedom it gives you is unsurpassed. You can forget about missions and forget about plot. The entire city is unlocked from day one, with all of the bosses just waiting for you to come crashing through their gates.
You’ll die, repeatedly, but keep at it and you’ll eventually have the skills you need to conquer crime. And after a while, when orb-hunting in a peaceful world starts to lose its appeal, you can reset the gangs and head back out into the welcoming crackle of gunfire, doing it bigger, better and badder than before.