It’s 7:45 on a Thursday evening, and David Rudnick ’09 has just completed a task of staggering difficulty. In retrieving all 500 agility orbs, he has achieved what precious few men, many of them German, have managed in the short but storied history of “Crackdown.” But, unlike most item collection challenges in video games, the programmers have seen fit to dispense with any actual reward for Rudnick upon his glorious success. For comparison, imagine if Hercules, upon completing his twelve tasks, had been rewarded by the gods with 40 Microsoft Play points (net value = 40 cents). His had been a harrowing adventure of many days, and as his character was bathed in the warm green glow of the final orb, David could finally afford himself a moment to reflect on his achievement: “I have never felt so empty.”
Eventually, everybody playing “Crackdown” will find themselves in this dilemma. The game will grip you and hold you tight while you slavishly level your character, hunt down every mob boss or try to keep a vehicle in the air for 15 seconds, but these fleeting achievements will never fill the hole in your heart. There are a lot of great things about “Crackdown,” but in the end it’s all setup and no delivery.
Nevertheless, these great things certainly deserve credit. “Crackdown” combines the sandbox-style gameplay of “Grand Theft Auto” with the superhero sensibility of “Superman Returns” (without the innumerable amounts of suck). Unlike countless uncreative “GTA” imitators, “Crackdown” really does breath life into an increasingly derivative genre. Most sandbox games put the player in a wide-open environment and let them decide their own path, but “Crackdown” puts the player in a wide open environment and lets them decide their own path with superpowers and a shitload of rockets.
“Crackdown” unabashedly pursues a seven-year-old’s conception of totally awesome, one that will undoubtedly entrance the little sociopath in all of us. As your character grows he will be able to lift semis, transform cars through pure force of will and blow the hell out upwards of 30 gang members with a single grenade. It’s unclear why increased “skill” with grenades would exponentially increase the size of their explosions, but nobody’s asking questions here. “Crackdown” does savage destruction like none other, shaking the screen, sending cars spiraling into the air and incinerating enemies into little blue orbs which will neatly and satisfyingly be sucked into your character.
Besides blowing stuff up, the other thing that “Crackdown” handles exceedingly well is jumping. Pacific City is built in three dimensions, by far the most enticing of which is the vertical. By the time your character reaches level four in agility, he can jump 30 feet in the air, scaling the tallest buildings and raining fiery death on your enemies. It’s endlessly satisfying to just jump rooftop to rooftop, traversing the whole of Pacific City like an indiscriminately violent Batman.
With jumping so fun and so functional, cars become next to useless and the same goes for firearms — the flaccid metal tubes have nothing on the game’s overpowering explosive weapons. What’s successful in “Crackdown” is successful to a fault — nothing else is really worth bothering with at all. Eventually you’ll find yourself just repeating the same jump-into-the-air-fire-rocket-down-at-enemies move until it becomes a wholly mechanical and pleasureless interaction of hand and joystick.
That one move will get you through pretty much all of “Crackdown,” because “Crackdown” is wicked easy. Even when surrounded by grenade-wielding enemies, you never feel that you’re actually threatened. All bosses can be easily dispatched with a couple of readily available rockets, and if you die trying to get to one you can respawn practically on top of him. As if to point at this flaw, the game offers a time trial mode, where you try to kill a certain mob boss as fast as you can. Precious few require more than two minutes, and most fall in under 30 seconds. Vicious nightclub owner Guerra took only four.
The game ends almost as soon as it starts; no sooner has your agent become the ultimate killing machine than there is nothing left for him to kill. Unlike the near infinite content of “GTA,” once your enemies are dead, only the orbs remain.
“Crackdown” gives you the freedom to climb every building and leap from every height, but all that freedom gives you is pain, 500 little green orbs of pain. It’s not that the game is never rewarding — the first two days of playing will certainly satisfy. It’s that, after that point, the player slams against an invisible wall and then continues vainly striving like a meth addict, desperately trying to recapture some, any of the satisfaction of those first fleeting days.
“Crackdown” is a fantastic rental, but isn’t complete enough to be a fantastic game. It’s a horrible conundrum — the exploring is so liberating and intuitive that the player feels compelled to keep playing, only to be rewarded with an infinite sea of banality. It feels like a sketch, a rough, glitchy idea of what an awesome game might look like. The ideas are great and the gameplay is satisfying, but there isn’t enough content backing them up to make it worthwhile. Still, the foundation is laid, and I can’t wait to see “Crackdown 2.”