There was no single off-on moment, no switch that flipped. No particular number between one and 499 indicated the six months of sleepless nights spent in Pacific City thereafter, scouring every rooftop, every gangway, pipe and outcrop for that final 500th glowing Agility Orb. Even those who are usually unmoved by the frivolous, timewasting allure of collectibles found their resolve eroded by Crackdown’s method of subtle, gradual ingratiation – a self-destructive habit formed almost without perception during the course of play. Collecting Agility Orbs may have begun as a distraction from decimating drug cartels – one of a number of side dishes in the buffet meal of Crackdown’s crime-ridden open world – but by the time the murderous main course was being cleared away we were licking the plates, fervently gathering up the remaining morsels. Finding Agility Orbs was now the game’s sole function, the crime bosses having been months in the ground as we tracked down the remaining few. It wasn’t mania or obsession, we told ourselves, it was just tidiness.
Despite the ruthless brilliance with which Crackdown hooked us on hunting Agility Orbs, the game’s imitators have largely failed to realise why it was so successful. Assassin’s Creed’s flags managed only to be boring and obscure. Infamous’ radioactive shards offered some reward, but only increased the player’s power in an indirect, faintly unsatisfactory way. Not even Ubisoft’s second attempt in Assassin’s Creed II managed to nail the perfect feedback loop that Crackdown pioneered. The game has the most comprehensible of all rewards: doing something makes you better at doing that very thing. You start the game as a gene-boosted superhero, but your powers continue to increase; shooting a bad guy amplifies your firearm’s heft, just as roadkill garners you upgrades to your vehicles. Agility Orbs, most palpably and thrillingly super of all, increase the height and distance you can jump, allowing you to scale ever-taller buildings and collect more orbs – feeding the compulsion further.
Collecting Agility Orbs is a reward in itself. Stumbling into a grubby backstreet and finding a flag is no great drama, but leaping over and around the high-rise buildings of Pacific City is a joy, as visually rewarding as it is a reminder of your power, and Agility Orbs are located on every promontory, steeple and skyscraper, commanding you to bound ceaselessly across the rooftops in their pursuit. Their brazen placement is significant because, unlike the flags of Assassin’s Creed, they are there to be seen at all times, challenging you to scale the landmarks they sit upon.
The invitation isn’t a subtle one, given that each Agility Orb glows green, shoots a beam of light into the sky and emits a ringing sound – but this is par for the course in a game so unashamed by its mechanics. While other games fuss with cutscenes in timid reproductions of GTA’s cinematic aspirations, Crackdown homes in on the essential delight of causing mayhem in a city space. Though polluted with pop-up videos detailing the banal fiction behind your criminal quarries, Crackdown is otherwise an almost pure expression of a game resplendent in the absence of narrative. You want scene-setting? Here is your car, agent. Now kill some racial stereotypes.
And then, a matter of seconds later, the tunnel disgorges you and your car into the air, ploughing down, through a band of gangsters and into the city. There is no restriction – no invisible walls, no bridges to be built or memory blocks to be synchronised. Enemies, henchmen and kingpins can be assassinated in any order from nearly any direction. While defeating lesser enemies reduces the defensive capabilities of the big boss, creating some sense of strategic progression, Crackdown is a game almost in defiance of linear structure.
It’s easy to wonder whether this is luck or judgement – was this Realtime Worlds prudently trimming off the flab, or did the game simply lack craft? Certainly, it is crude in many aspects – its melee combat is without nuance, its gunplay mindless, its driving model lacking in friction and finesse. The city, too: although its sprawling suburbs have a certain splendour when viewed from on high, it is often ugly in its details, many doorways opening into small cube-like rooms. Even the climbing, the linchpin of our addiction, is imprecise, particularly when compared to the manoeuvrings of Nathan Drake, Altaïr and Ezio.
But Crackdown’s climbing, though primitive, is in some ways more meaningful than Uncharted’s prescriptive routes or Altaïr’s unchallenged parkour skills: with the limited capabilities of Crackdown’s cumbersome agent, the game forces careful thought about what can be scaled and how best to approach it. This is matched not with predetermined puzzles but with thrilling improvisation on the part of the player, finding the near-imperceptible ledge that allows you to shimmy around a skyscraper and leap to another structure, or the sequence of jumps that will propel you through the air above Pacific City and straight down into the enemy’s den. Power up your driving stats, and you can use the upgraded Agency 4X4 to drive up the side of the toughest gang’s skyscraper fortress, straight to the kingpin.
Allowing players to create their own solutions in this way, however inelegant, is Crackdown’s gift – but again it begs the question whether it was the result of assiduous design or a lack of it. In a world given so exclusively to freeform, knockabout mayhem, it is no surprise that the Agility Orb rises to the top as the dipstick of progression. Yet even this – for many, the game’s primary driving motivation – was a late addition to the design, one of the very final ideas to be implemented. Then there are the Hidden Orbs, which take on a far more prosaic collectible form and are subsequently much less compulsive; although they deliver a stat-boost divided among all your skills, locating them never matches conquering a skyscraper, and never feeds back into your ability to find the others.
Yet in hunting that final Agility Orb, we inevitably uncovered the vast majority of their perversely secreted siblings. Not that the Agility Orb was anywhere particularly obscure. Indeed, the final few Agility Orbs were in obvious, easily reached low-lying areas – orbs not deemed worthy of attention in the early hours of the game. One was nestled in the rafters of the stadium on the north-western island. Another was brazenly sat atop a gas tower, somehow overlooked, in the Puregy fuel refinery. In the search for the final orb we scoured every location time and time again, a nightly vigil lasting a good portion of the year. By this time a patch had been released to amplify the noise the orbs made, making them easier to locate – its effect was lost on us. Maps, walkthroughs and video guides were available – but the game’s grip was so strong by this time that we had adopted an insane, self-flagellating dogma. This was our dragon, and we alone would defeat it.
Eventually, we felled the beast atop a building on the south-eastern point of the north-eastern island. The misnamed Hightower stands apart from the other high-rises there – actually comprised of two moderately tall towers bridged by chunky gantries to form a giant lopsided ‘H’. It looks out over a roadway, then across branching waterways towards the monstrous Insight Counter Services compound. The Bastard Orb, as it had become known, was sat in between the two towers, their rising forms partly obscuring it from the most obvious angles of approach, or so we tell ourselves. There was no elation – barely even excitement – just doleful acknowledgement of its presence and a sense of relief that it was all over.
We have met many fellow victims – people who answer the question of whether they liked Crackdown with a flash of pain and a furrowed brow: “Well…” But love and loathe it as we do, there is no denying its potent, pure mechanics – it remains a mystery that so few games have successfully emulated its undeniable draw. We couldn’t help but notice, as we revisited Pacific City this one last time, that we had only 24 Hidden Orbs left to find. And 276 is such an untidy number.