The original Crackdown was something of a breath of fresh air when it launched on the Xbox 360, several years ago. A free roaming game, that gave you free reign to pretty much do what you wanted, when you wanted, in a huge, detailed, and complex city, that hid as many secrets as it hid villains, you took on the role of a genetically modified cop, who's job it was to take out the lawbreakers in the way you'd imagine a genetically modified, Incredible Hulk sized man would do. As you leapt buildings, kicked ne'erdowells into the horizon, and drove around the town with a friend in co-op, you'd be doing almost nothing but laughing, because the game was so much fun. It was over the top, unlike anything else out there, and, most importantly, it was a complete blast to play.
So step up, Crackdown 2 - a game that's similar to the original game in almost every way. You're still a genetically modified policeman, you're still tasked with eliminating a group of ne'erdowells, and you can still leap buildings - heck, it's even set in exactly the same city. And with a whole new range of orbs for you to collect, and four-player co-op bolted on for good measure, our palms were sweaty with anticipation as we booted up the game.
But for some reason, despite the fact it's essentially more of the same, Crackdown 2 seems to have lost a bit of the shine that the original game had. And try as we might, we can't quite place why. The formula remains pretty much unchanged, and the fact you can now play it in four player co-operative over Xbox Live means that it should by all rights be one of the best game ever made. But the devil is in the details, and that's where Crackdown 2 falls down.
The game tries its best to get you into the action easily, with a great tutorial section, which takes you through the basics of what you need to do. After picking your character's face, and armour colour (from an incredibly varied four shades of grey!), you'll start the game as an initially fairly normally proportioned guy (sorry ladies - there's no option to play as a female law enforcer), who happens to have been cloned into the police force at exactly the wrong time. Pacific City, the town where the game's set, is in the middle of a huge civil war. With a virus spreading through the town, turning civilians into undead zombies known only as "Freaks" and a terrorist group known as Cell, giving both the Freaks, and the Peacekeepers (Crackdown's name for the police) a hard time, the city's beginning to resemble an evening in Manchester after the pubs have started chucking out.
Luckily, the Peacekeepers have a plan, known as Project Sunburst. A super weapon of sorts, Project Sunburst takes energy from the sun into absorbtion units, which is then transferred into "beacons" that are dropped into Freak nests, and detonated, to vaporise the undead evildoers. Unfortunately for you, Cell are doing their best to disable all of the absorbtion units, to prevent Project Sunburst from activating (apparently they'd rather welcome their new zombie overlords) - and so, this is where you come in.
If you follow what you're supposed to be doing in the game, it'll be up to you to reactivate Project Sunburst, at the same time as taking Tactical Locations from the Cell, and reclaiming the streets of Pacific City for the good guys. This basically boils down to beating a load of people up, while defending several points, which, even with combat as over the top of Crackdown 2, does get boring pretty quickly. But as soon as you step away from the story - or what you're meant to be doing - Crackdown 2 really comes into its own.
Seeing as it's a free form game, you're never restricted to only doing one thing. You're free to explore the city as and when you see fit, and there are loads of things you can do to keep yourself occupied. As you play through the game, you'll level up your character, with the specialities that you use the most growing the fastest. Use melee attacks, and you'll turn into a bulging-muscled super cop; take out crooks with weapons, and you'll become a hotshot. But if you want to level up your agility, you'll have to go hunting for Orbs - and this is one of the highlights of the game.
Hidden throughout the city, there are 500 agility orbs for you to hunt out and collect (usually located on the tops of buildings, and therefore requiring agility to get to them), 300 hidden orbs (which are, as you may have guessed, hidden), and a variety of other, new types of orb, that challenge you in different ways. And after hearing an orb's unique ringing sound as you pass a building, you'll be hard pushed to not impulsively start searching the area, as you try to find the illusive power-up. The only problem is, that the new types of orb are rubbish. Renegade orbs actively run away from you, forcing you to track them down either on foot, or by car, depending on their type, while Xbox Live orbs can only be collected when you're playing on Xbox Live, and your co-op partner's standing next to it too - which seems more than a little bit unfair to people who don't have Gold subscriptions. Or maybe that's the point?
But while there are still several laugh out loud moments to be had (driving our car accidentally into a pile of explosive barrels, and laughing as our car got flung hundreds of metres into the air, and a similar distance across the city, only for our agents to get out of the car, when it landed, completely unscathed, but slightly singed) you just don't find yourself playing Crackdown 2 with a massive grin on your face, like you did the first one. It all feels a lot more serious, and both the script, and the action is a lot more crude, and juvenile - and it really hurts the game. Your Agency overseer, who gives you instructions throughout the game is helpful to begin with, but when he keeps taking digs at you, or swears apparently just to seem cool, it quickly begins to grate.
And, unfortunately, the same is true of the combat. Everything's a lot gorier than it used to be, and it's just not necessary. When you hit someone in a car going at speed, they'll be disintegrated into a puff of red mist, with a splat noise - and as the pedestrians have seemingly been programmed to not move out of the way when you drive by, in your police car, with your siren on, you'll be getting this gore a lot more often. On the first game, the people would simply turn into ragdolls, and fly through the air, arms flailing, doing their best impression of a helicopter - which, as morbid as it sounds, was a lot funnier. Now, even doing the ground pound - a highlight of the first game, which saw your agent leap from a height, and crash into the ground, sending out a huge shockwave which sent nearby enemies flying, now just vaporises everyone it touches, while the survivors too often start f'ing and blinding. The violence is now much more like the rest of the game, and is a lot more over the top - only this time, it's not a good thing.
Even the levelling up isn't as fun as it used to be. Although you pick a face for your character at the beginning, as soon as you level any ability up (around ten minutes in, usually), you'll cover your face with a mask, becoming just another anonymous crime fighter. Your charcter's face always used to change as your character grew, and watching your person evolve was a cool touch in the original game - but now, you just become a faceless drone.
Of course, as we were writing this review, we realised there was every chance we've just got rose tinted spectacles on, as we sit with memories of the original Crackdown running through our brain, but having just played it now, we're in no doubt that the original is definitely the better game. It's more enjoyable, it takes itself less seriously, and it's a lot more fun because of it.
If you've got four players you absolutely need to play with, or you've already played the first game to death, then Crackdown 2 will be a worthy investment. For those who haven't played the first game, Crackdown 2 will likely still seem like the breath of fresh air the original was. It's not a bad game, by any means, but the thing that really grates with us is that despite being almost the same game, Crackdown 2 isn't the game it should have been, isn't the game it could have been, and isn't as good as the original.