a review of Crackdown
a videogame developed by realtime worlds
and published by microsoft
for the microsoft xbox 360
text by tim rogers
You know that new “Rocky” film, “Rocky Balboa”? It’s being released in Japan as — I stuff you not — “Rocky: The Final”. Isn’t that ridiculous? Far from merely illustrating how weird Hollywood is about pushing movies in Japan, it sounds like the name of a videogame, probably not the last in its series, about a shy young man who miraculously attends a high school full of balloon-breasted three-year-olds. According to a friend in the subtitling business, the American film studio will give the Japanese subtitlist one supervised viewing of the script, followed by one supervised viewing of the film, followed by a final supervised viewing of the script, during which they feed Japanese sentences of appropriate length into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet containing the English script. The Hollywood man then packs the laptop into a briefcase and flies back to California, where the subtitles are applied. The concept of “movie studios” doesn’t really exist in Japan. You’ll find that films are pushed by the weirdest sponsors. More or less the same companies that, say, own baseball stadiums in America: cellular phone companies, insurance firms, beer companies — or, more often than not, the public transit authority. Hence, “Rocky: The Final”.
The videogame Crackdown is called “Riot Act” in Japan, which doesn’t sound nearly as terrible. Though I reckon that, if Microsoft were a little more open, creative, and willing to succeed in Japan, they could have done any of a number of things to make it more exciting. What any of those things are, I don’t really know, though for starters, they probably could have somehow gotten Johnny Depp’s face on the box, and renamed it “2100 Jump Street”.
Oh! Oh! Oh! Yesss!! Two paragraphs of build-up, and then a punchline that goes nowhere! You’ve gotta love it.
At any rate, Crackdown is a good game. Like Dead Rising before it, it is for the Xbox 360, and it is something of a “sandbox” game with a purpose. Dead Rising is something of a psychological magic trick, in that in convinces the player that the game has to be played right — the events of the story take place on a tight time line, and the player character is utterly swamped in undead. No amount of killing the undead can look unnecessary — especially in a game world where the bosses are all other ordinary people flipped out of their minds, trying to kill anything with two legs. Dead Rising has glorious morals and a tiger-tight (if ridiculous) plot. It does not, however, let you steal cars and/or cap hookers’ asses.
Crackdown is kind of a thoughtful step back from Dead Rising. Dead Rising had tried to be a sandbox game with definite borders, an enclosed setting, and plenty of conscience. Players complained about the game’s perfectionism-inducing attitude — it’s hellishly, brilliantly strict with save points. Crackdown is another conscientious take on the “sandbox” genre, maybe made by people who, like me, think it’s kind of silly that the average post-GTA developer would hear a psychiatrist speak the words “go anywhere and do anything” and free-associate “blow up everything and kill everyone”. It’s clear that games are blunt instruments made for bashing; at the very least, we play games to do things that we can’t do in real life, or else to kill time with something outside the context of ham sandwiches or mayonnaise. Why must our escape always plop us down in something that looks like the real world — only now, we’re allowed to kill and rape and plunder and maim? Violence is hilarious, no doubt — just ask George W. Bush — though really, even in this world where hip hop is the stuff, can’t we be a little more creative about destroying things? I beheld Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and immediately thought that it would be awesome if the next one was set in some kind of “Flash Gordon” future, full of reflective surfaces. Or maybe you could be a superhero, like Superman? The “sandbox” format (yes, format — we mustn’t call it a “genre”, or else it’ll be tied to cops’n’robbers forever) was frightfully versatile. It could be used for anything. Instead, we got an artist’s rendition of Los Angeles. It’s cool, though; I saw what they were doing. They were making a checklist of things developers can do in a large 3D environment. That’s good. After a while, though, as the clones started to roll out — True Crime and The Getaway and the god-awful Saints’ Row or what have you — I couldn’t help wondering: why doesn’t someone make a game where you play as a police officer, at least? Why do I have to always be some evil, bloodthirsty, butchering son of a bitch?
Well, Crackdown came along and granted many of my wishes. In this game, you’re a cop. Not just any cop — a cel-shaded kind of super-comic-booky cartoon cop — and one with superhuman strength. And the game is even set in a future distant enough to be science-fiction, and near enough to be recongnizable. So there you have it — before you’ve even played it Crackdown answers the call for a more conscientious Grand Theft Auto by allowing you to play as a police officer who is also kind of a superhero, in a setting that is almost wildly imaginative: a city overrun by criminals — meaning there are always people shooting at you, meaning that you always have the right of way to shoot someone else. No need to “take out” your “frustrations” on innocents when you can take them out on people who want you dead. How’s it feel, now?
Crackdown is a lovely, if flawed, first draft of a large-scale conscientious sandbox game. To wit: you can still mercilessly carjack civilians in order to get a new set of wheels. However: you are a police officer now, and you are legally allowed to comandeer vehicles. However: sometimes there might be a police car close by — maybe even your police car. Or maybe you won’t really need to commit violence against the people you’re trying to build a safer world for, because you don’t really have a pressing appointment with lawbreakers at this precise moment. However: the game is sure to keep its city packed with lawbreakers, and your agenda packed with appointments, so maybe your character could kinda sorta explain his reasons for jacking any given car at any given time. However: it would be nice if he didn’t drag the people out their windows and slam them to the pavement.
If you’ve never seen or heard of or played this game before now, you could possibly be imagining something of a Grand Theft Auto where you play as a cop instead of a robber. And that would be enough to sound pretty fun. Really, though, it’s better than that: you’re a cop who can jump tens of feet into the air, in a city with freaky-weird architecture and plenty of rooftops. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas you could build up certain stats to a point where you could jump over a semi truck, avoiding a head-on collision, while pedaling a BMX bike down the wrong lane of a highway, and that was some real bong-passing stuff, right there. That was some real “Dude, do that stuff again” stuff. Crackdown doesn’t need that stuff. All it needs is its crazy weird jumping mechanics that will have you running, flying, hanging, and flailing all over town while chasing the bad guys. You can’t stand on a rooftop for more than ten seconds without some evil freak on another rooftop taking a shot at you. And you look out there, under that purple sky, and you think, could I make that jump? Yeah, maybe? And you set off flying, and you pull the left trigger, and you lock on to the guy, and you click the right analog stick upward to aim at his head, and you hold the right trigger down to let loose a spray of machinegun fire. He’s dead about a split second before your feet hit the ground and an impact crater ensues. No one in the room needs to say “Dude, do that stuff again” — because there’s already a guy on the next rooftop, and he’s asking for it, too. If you’re doing this online, with a friend, it’s an experience like no other: your friend lifts a car and jumps from a rooftop, you shoot the car as he throws it, it explodes, you yiff at each other for three uninterrupted minutes over your Xbox Live headsets — it’s like kicking a garbage can in River City Ransom as your friend stands on top of it, kicking enemies, pulsing and throbbing within the internet: this is why kids don’t play with Lego anymore, unless we’re talking about Lego videogames, or unless the kids aren’t allowed to play videogames. Crackdown is the ultimate G.I. Joe Cobra command compound inside your television. It’s a hell of a toy.
Jumping and bouncing and shooting. Oddly colored sky. Really weighty vehicle physics. Industrial, angry, mediocre soundtrack that, if little else, communicates the feeling of two or three pounds of cocaine sprinting through your futuristic bloodstream as you hurtle toward the next guy the boss says needs to stop living right now. The game’s got atmosphere, and it loves it.
In this expanding universe of too many me-toos, Crackdown has its own personality, and its own fresh little mechanics. Among the applause-worthy elements include the booming voice of the tutorial, who tells you, the first time you die, that “Death is not the end” — advanced cloning technology makes it possible for your current memories and skill levels to be downloaded by a waiting clone. In decades of videogame history, very few people have ever raised a solitary index finger at a game development panel and asked, “So, uh, why does Super Mario have three lives? What . . . happens after he dies?” Those people — those who would be laughed out of even a comic convention — are now getting into videogames, thanks to the communication revolutions of Xbox Live or the user-friendliness of the Nintendo DS. Crackdown doesn’t answer their questions, or even make the situation seem less silly, though hey, it manages to give answers with a kind of Neal Stephenson-esque technophile glibbery, and it’s effortless, and it’s great.
Crackdown deserves to be recognized for its deeply embedded lust to make things better, to push the envelope. It’s even excellent, if slightly loose, gameplay-wise. It feels kind of like Populus viewed from the ground, at times, and that’s mostly a compliment. I love the idea of the auto-aiming system, as well — hold the L trigger to lock on to a nearby enemy, and then flick the right analog stick to lock on to a region of his body: arms, legs, chest, head. Some regions are harder to hit than others –unless you build up your skills. You can lock on to regions of vehicles as well, and even take out drivers, or hit the gas tank. It’s an intuitive system, when it’s working. Auto-aiming isn’t the shameful thing Halo fans dismissed it as when, say, Metroid Prime was new. In fact, it’s much more realistic even than sliding a mouse around, trying to get the right angle. A real gun is fired by a person with a brain, and reflexes. Snap: the gun is aimed.
Crackdown tries to work kind of like this, though it just about sets my nerves on fire, sometimes, when my character targets a dead body, or a fellow police officer: sure, shooting dead bodies has been a pastime of console gamers since Goldeneye on N64, and shooting allies has been hilarious ever since games like Fallout totally gave you the freedom to do anything, even kill villagers and get away with it. Though yeah, it’s frustrating to be forced to aim at things that can’t possibly aim at me, and it has nothing to do with my morals — it’s just not practical. It doesn’t help me kill my oppressors. You could give me some bullstuff about how street warfare is some serious stuff, dogg, sometimes you can’t tell who’s who, though yeah, that’d just be the sound of you trying to justify: seriously, we’re talking about super-human cops here; they no doubt have fast eyes and faster reflexes. I’m not hating on the game. I like it a lot. I’m just saying that your dude shouldn’t ever lock on to his own dudes, nor to a dead body, when there are hostiles present and discharing their hecking firearms. If the player has some sick wish to shoot his backup in the head and giggle to himself, he can use the right analog stick and aim manually. If anything else, that little extra bit of effort could, I don’t know, represent the psychological friction that occurs as a man weighs the consequences of murder.
Man. I’m pretty good at this bullstuffting thing. I should make a videogame or something. Maybe a sandbox game set on a frozen planet overrun with zombies.