IT’S ADDICTIVE: Crackdown rewards you just for playing.
The name Crackdown is twice as long as it needs to be — “Crack” would give a better idea of how addictive this game is. It combines state-of-the-art technological prowess and old-school run-and-gun platforming, offering the best of each. In the promotional materials, much is made of the invitation to the Halo 3 beta test, as if that were the real reason to get Crackdown. Nothing could be farther from the truth — this is one of the most purely enjoyable Xbox 360 games so far.
It’s easy to look at Crackdown and see just another Grand Theft Auto clone, particularly when you learn that the CEO of developer Realtime Worlds was among those responsible for creating GTA. But the similarities are superficial. Being able to commandeer cars and travel from one end of a city to another is no longer the defining characteristic of a video-game genre, any more than side-scrolling or a first-person perspective is. Crackdown is a superhero game. The emphasis is on powering up your character to absurd levels and dishing out extravagant punishment to the criminal hordes.
Your character can level up in five areas: agility, strength, explosives, driving, and firearms. The last four on that list are achieved mostly by killing people. (In the case of driving, doing stunts will net you upgrades more slowly than simply running over bad guys.) Agility is a little different. The cityscape is adorned with glowing green “agility orbs,” 500 in all. Collecting them will enable your character to run faster and jump higher, which in turn allows you to access still more agility orbs. You start off being able to jump high enough to dunk a basketball; by the end of the game you can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Of the many pleasures Crackdown offers, simply climbing the sides of skyscrapers and leaping from rooftop to rooftop is the most thrilling.
The other major component is wiping out the three crime families that have taken over the city. Each gang is run by a single kingpin and seven generals, and they are your primary targets. The bosses themselves are nothing special; they take a little bit more damage before dying than the grunts do, but they don’t have superpowers or armor with a glowing weak spot. The catch is that each is holed up in his own fortified compound: an oil rig, a nightclub, a skyscraper. You have to figure out how to infiltrate these heavily guarded areas, which often have multiple entrances and exits. Minimal strategy is involved; brute force wins the day.
Killing bosses and making the streets safe for decent people is all well and good, but what’s most fun about Crackdown is the way you’re rewarded just for playing the game. Some games use a combination of carrot and stick to coax you through; Crackdown is all carrots for the duration. All the power-ups are depicted visually: shoot a criminal and you’ll see blue orbs representing firearm upgrades stream from his body into yours. Kick him and you’ll get yellow strength orbs. The wispy green lights of the agility orbs lure you from blocks away. Crackdown is the video-game equivalent of the page turner. You keep telling yourself you’ll stop after one more upgrade, and then just one more . . . Next thing you know, it’s after midnight.