Crackdown Demo: Sandbox Epic or Buildering Sim?
On the 23rd day of January, Microsoft and Real Time Worlds gave us Crackdown co-op demo, and it was good.
The final game, due for release on February 20th, has been the focus of much scrutiny lately. It has been hailed as the next great sandbox adventure by some and decried as nothing more than a limp GTA rip-off. That Microsoft wisely (or foolishly) decided to pack in access keys to the upcoming Halo 3 beta in selected copies of Crackdown has only fueled the debate even more. Is this game the real deal or is a disaster so big not that even a Halo 3 beta key can save it?
Well, we still have another month before that question can be answered definitively. For now, we only have a very short, but very sweet demo to whet our appetites with and to serve as a lightpost into the game's potential success. My own impressions of Crackdown pre-demo took on a trajectory of initial apathy, to sudden intense curiosity, to child-like giddyness and culiminating in salivating anticipation. I was among the first Xbox Livers to grab the 1.24GB demo yesterday morning and was itching through my workday, eager to get home that evening to spend some quality time with the demo.
What follows of course, is a quick recap of my experience with the Crackdown trial game, based on roughly 90 minutes of gaming solo and with my Live parter-in-crime, Heero yuy sr. The bias against this game before the demo released has been very surprising. I hope to bring a pretty objective review to the table and illuminate what is so great about thsi game as well as highlight some potential trouble spots in the overall design.
So to get things kicked off with a bang, I shall say this: the Crackdown demo rocked my ass. David Jones, the game's creator and also a co-creator of the original GTA franchise, clearly wanted to take the sandbox genre to the next level of evolution. You take on the role of a nameless Agent who is tasked with the job of fighting organized crime in the futuristic (and generically named) Pacific City.
From the moment, I started moving my Agent around the agency headquarters, I knew that Jones and the team at Real Time Worlds had nailed one of my biggest gripes with Grand Theft Auto, which was the feel of controlling your avatar. GTA player-characater always felt sluggish and clumsy and it was almost a necessity to acquire a vehicle ASAP. The inverse is true with Crackdown. While the vehicular control is responsive, the experience seems more focused on you as the Agent and moving around on foot. This isn't too surprising, given that one of the great joys of the demo was levelling the many abilities of my Agent. This RPG-lite feature is similar to the one used in GTA: San Andreas, only done much better. The "skills for kills" game play is further enhanced by an amazingly addictive mini-game hunt for hidden orbs, which provide you a bundle of ability points without having to kill anyone. The trick is actually finding these orbs, all 500 of them, which are scattered about the immense city-world, usually high up on rooftops.
Which brings us to the crowning touch of player control in Crackdown: the jumping. The feel of jumping is near-perfect, from the animation of your cycling arms and legs, to the dramatic crouched landings, complete with rumble shock and visible impact marks on the pavement. The feel has been compared to the Spiderman and Hulk last-gen console games. When I had ramped up my Agility to Level 4 (a feat that will take MUCH longer in the full game), I truly did feel like some kind of Hulk-fied super cop, dodging hailstorms of gunfire by clambering nimbly up a wall or taking wild leaps across rooftops to get to a hidden skill orb or a heavily defended boss character. The hunt for those highly coveted orbs quickly became an obsession in itself. Even as my abilities enabled me to reach previously inaccessible areas of the map, I would always find a new building to conquer and it would pose a greater challenge than the last. Never in a sandbox game have I pondered at the base of a structure and wondered aloud, "So how the heck am I going to get up there?". This facet of the game's design is like a breath of fresh air and made me wonder if I was playing a GTA clone or some other-worldly free climbing and parkour simulation.
Besides the superb feeling of control, I feel there is so little space remaining to harp on the many other positives I experienced while playing the demo. The graphics are excellent, combining offbeat art direction, vibrant colours, gorgeous explosions and some impressive technical wizardry to produce one of the most unique and visually stunning games in recent memory. This game is no Gears of War, but it still looks amazing and one of a kind. You will be amazed when you reach a suitable vantage point an take in the draw distances. I did not notice any pop-ins at all and the vista you see out in the distance IS reachable, not just an artificial backdrop to mark the outer boundaries of the game world.
I'm also very encouraged by the open-ended design of Crackdown. This is looking to be the purest of the pure sandbox experiences. EVery, and I mean, every mission appears to be optional. While your Agent is routinely fed updates and objectives depending on your location in the world, you are free to pursue whatever goals you desire. This is a far cry from what we are do accustomed to in games like Grand Theft Auto. Sure, GTA offered you a lot of freedom to explore but the progression through the game felt like a linear string of mini-games and side quests. All of this served to mask the linear, unforgiving nature of the core storyline. If you wanted to progress through the main storyline of GTA, there were a set number of key missions you needed to complete, no ifs ands or buts. Not so in Crackdown. The entire world is open to you from the beginning and your progress through the world is only hampered by the power of your Agent.
Which brings me to some of the more negative features of the Crackdown demo. The truly open-ended design of Crackdown, while liberating some players, may put off many more. GTA has been so influential in setting the bar for these type of games that it may be hard for players to adapt. Truth be told, the range of activities in Crackdown seems to be more limited. You cannot buy property, foster a gang, take over gang territory, pimp hoes, sell drugs, fly planes or do any number of nefarious things that you did in the course of your average GTA game. The fun of Crackdown is exploration and to a point, creating your own fun. There is nothing there to handhold you through a storyline, mainly because a storyline does not exist. On the same side of the coin, the 2-player co-op experience may not be compelling as I might have hoped. Co-op seems to shine through when there is a common and focused goal to work towards (see Gears of War). The flow of play in Crackdown is definitely not focused, so it will be interesting to see how people adjust to all the "low pressure" urgency of the game.
That is a small gripe with Crackdown. For all it's style and polish, it lacks any real character or plot. Your Agent has no name or discernible personality. The character of your foes, gleaned through amusing video briefings, are also starkly generic and lifeless. And you can forget about cinematic cutscenes.
The lack of personality and storyline may ultimately affect the lasting appeal of Crackdown. Any new intellectual property needs a mythology to drive it into the future and capture the imagination of its fans. Based only on the demo, I would say Crackdown is guarranteed above-average success upon release. Whether or not it becomes a lasting blockbuster hit is still very much up in the air. In the end, the players most likely to get the most out of the demo and the full game are those same players most acutely aware of the short-comings of other sandbox titles like GTA and Saints Row
All I know for now is that I must get my ass down to the nearest EB Games to pre-order the Crack. The demo is also going to get some more serious play-testing for the rest of this week.
p.s. - Any game that features a Hybrid track among their selectable radio stations deserves a gold star in my book, no questions asked.