Contrary to its closing words, Crackdown is not a game about using anarchy to bring about absolute control. In fact it’s quite the opposite. To build a climbing frame, race course and chemistry set the size and shape of a city, load it with dynamite and let its visitors run amok, takes discipline. What kind of engine could drive such a design without grinding to a halt? How could someone fall a hundred feet from their destination without throwing in the towel? When you give a superhero the keys to this city, what’s to stop them getting bored and hanging up their tights (OK, ‘bio-regenerative combat suit’)? Real Time Worlds invited all of these questions upon itself and answered them.
Like Robocop for the Matrix generation, Crackdown casts you as the future of law enforcement in a city ‘gone to shit’ and about to hit the fan. The product of a corrupt regime, you spend the game isolated from the society you’re supposedly trying to protect, bouncing off its rooftops in your own private bubble. You exchange bullets with almost everyone, you exchange words with no one.
Only that isn’t strictly true. The game’s full-bore assault on years of design dogma means it doesn’t speak the language of GTA, but that doesn’t make it mute. Free of movie clichés, conventional narratives and indestructible mission merchants, the only words it deems valuable are those of its most important characters: the ones holding the pads. It may look like a crayoned version of its famously ‘adult’ genre, but step out of Pacific City for a moment and look again, and listen. The game’s real dialogue is that of forum posts, mesmerising YouTube videos and excited Xbox Live requests – stories created not by it, but from it. By championing those it becomes the most mature sandbox game of all.
Given its behind-the-scenes agents, nothing comes as any great surprise.
With Dave Jones and Gary Penn commanding, both instrumental in creating GTA, this was never going to be a routine patrol. When you pick up a car and toss it from one freeway to another – because quite rightly you can’t be bothered to make a three-mile round trip – it’s like throwing it through a conceptual wall. When you pop a tyre and flip a container lorry through the air, kicking it back over the goons that just fell out, it’s like you’ve jumped in afterwards through the hole. GTAIII, to its credit, knew to bend reality for the sake of having fun, but Crackdown scoffs at its reserve.
There is debate, though, over how much fun is left once you’ve scoped out every hidden orb, visited every urban peak and delivered Pacific City into Agency hands. But this is where the game’s role as a pacesetter for Xbox Live takes over. If the game’s downloadable content, which introduced street racing, new vehicles and weapons, a cloaking device, and a raft of new co-op challenges and Achievements, proved one thing, it’s that a world without boundaries allows you to build almost anything on top. You imagine other games beating at the fences they’ve made for themselves as two Crackdown players, on either side of the world, decide one day to scale the Agency Tower and spawn 50 explosive barrels on its roof, jumping the half-mile to safety before setting off the fireworks. Yes, it’s child’s play, and it’s just what the genre needs.
As a crime capital, Pacific City’s a lot less toxic than Liberty City, San Andreas or Saints Row’s Stilwater. Its civilians aren’t idly aggressive, its gangs are more like giggling packs of hyenas than feral youth, and its innuendos play for laughs over cheap controversy. For those mourning the early-’90s amusement arcades it’s the unlikeliest kind of homecoming: a schoolyard riot in a city like those of Double Dragon, Crude Busters and Streets Of Rage, pressed out into neon-lit 3D. Michael McConnohie’s stentorian ‘voice of the Agency’, meanwhile, a career-best performance from a star of over 180 games, lends it a single star performance, by turns thrilled, impressed, shocked and disappointed by what it sees. “Crime waits for no one, Agent!”
As an Edge columnist, Penn would sometimes draw flak for repeat use of the word ‘toys’. But now, hopefully, his critics will understand why it has its place in his vocabulary. While it’s important for most games to keep their strict rules and tell their exciting, coherent stories, it’s doubly important that some games don’t, lest we forget just what that word ‘game’ is supposed to mean.