Isn't it strange how things work out? Only 1 week after the launch of APB - the slightly disappointing online action game from Crackdown creators Realtime Worlds - we get a bona-fide Crackdown sequel. And guess what - it's slightly disappointing too! Developed by Ruffian Games, a studio set up by ex-Realtime World employees, Crackdown 2 is actually a better game than APB, but it's also less ambitious. Instead of taking Crackdown as a starting point and pushing the game's free-roaming super-heroics to a whole new level, it's content to take Crackdown and give you more of the same.
In fact, "more of the same" is putting it mildly. Crackdown 2 actually takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of the Pacific City setting of the original. Locations have been wrecked and damaged, but this is fundamentally the same location you've already explored in the previous game. Your superpowers work in much the same way, and the most basic game mechanics are identical. You run, leap and drive around the city, fighting against the hostile forces that are terrorising the local population. Through clambering up skyscrapers, shooting enemies, engaging them in hand-to-hand combat, blowing things up and racing or running foes over you collect specific colour orbs.
Collect enough, and the relevant ability is upgraded. In effect, you're rewarded for doing what you like doing best. If you're a shooter, you'll naturally earn more orbs for shooting, and you'll get improved marksmanship and access to a better range of weapons. Spend more time as a toe-to-toe slugger, and you'll develop incredible strength and be able to punch your foes across the plazas, or pick up cars and throw them around like toys in a sandbox. Agility, however, is the real cornerstone of Crackdown. The more you explore, the further up you climb, the more orbs you'll find and the easier and more thrilling you'll find it to get around. Why walk when you can hurl yourself from rooftop to rooftop at incredible speeds?
To make character development that bit faster, Crackdown also threw in challenges, like rooftop races or checkpoint races, where winning meant a healthy boost to your agility or driving skills. To these, Crackdown 2 adds renegade orbs; orbs which you have to chase on foot or in a vehicle in order to win a bigger ability boost. It says something that this is one of the game's most noticeable upgrades.
Now, let's not get too carried away with the criticism. Crackdown was a lot of fun, and Crackdown 2 is a lot of fun as well. The basic mix of platform-style exploration and freeform combat is thoroughly engaging, and the whole ability system means that you feel rewarded and more powerful the more the game progresses. You might have seen the city before, but there's still that great sense that, if you can see a distant point or rooftop, then there's going to be some way up to it, even if you'll need more agility first, and the improvisational nature of the combat - ripping up a lamp-post to make a giant baseball bat, or throwing explosive crates then shooting them before they land - never gets old. On a minute by minute, second by second basis, Crackdown 2 still works very well indeed.
And where Ruffian has made changes, these changes aren't always for the better. The post-apocalyptic setting means that many of the lurid colours of the original have been replaced by greys, browns and other sombre tones, and as the basic moving graphic-novel style of the game is unchanged, the results can look dull in many areas of the city. Low civilian populations don't exactly help, and what atmosphere there is comes mainly from the radio chatter from your Agency commander, who's goading comments, stinging put-downs and gung-ho encouragements never fail to make you grin.
Meanwhile, the varied gangs of the first game have been replaced by two factions; a terrorist organisation known as Cell, and a bunch of brutal zombie mutants known as the Freaks. Cell forces can be found either roaming the streets or fortified at specific points throughout the city, while the Freaks wander around en-masse after dark, attacking the local population and attempting to swamp you whenever given the chance. While new enemy types are added to both groups as the game goes on, this can make the game feel samey after a while.
Most seriously, Ruffian has ditched the old eliminate the gang by working your way up the hierarchy structure of the first game, in favour of a new structure, where you have to take over three control points then detonate a UV explosive in an underground lair nine times over, all to rid the city of the Freaks. There is some variety in terms of where the control points are placed and the constraints you face and weapons you can use in the climactic Freak battle, but Crackdown 2 suffers from the same problem as the original Assassin's Creed; it feels repetitive, and there's not enough exciting secondary mission content. After a while, the routine begins to feel like a bit of a chore, particularly as Ruffian's main device to add difficulty is simply to add more enemies, and give them bigger guns.
As a single player, this is a problem, and if you're planning to play Crackdown 2 on your own then I'd take a minute before you pull the purchase trigger. If you haven't played the original, it's very cheap these days and is arguably the stronger solo game. If you have played the original and you're content with something that will feel a bit like an extended mission pack, then you go ahead, but it has to be said that after Crysis, the brilliant infamous and the slightly less brilliant Prototype, it's a disappointment that Crackdown 2 isn't anything more than that.
If you're planning to play with friends, however, then Crackdown 2 is a much stronger proposition. With two, three or four agents working together, the repeated objectives fall much faster, and the massed battles are a lot less of a grind. What's more, the results of four super-powered fools on the streets at the same time are consistently hilarious.
Everyone wants to show off, so before long you're all picking up trucks and hurling them at the Freak armies, doing outrageous stunts in vehicles with a comrade clinging to the back, and throwing around high-explosives like there's no tomorrow - which there won't be in Pacific City if you insist on carrying on like that. Even played with strangers, dropping in and out of your game or another's, Crackdown 2 suddenly becomes a fantastic game. Played with someone you know, it's a riot.
It's a shame that Crackdown 2 does so little to progress from the brilliant original, but it's a solid game for solo players, and one of the finest co-op games in town. The revamped setting and structure aren't completely successful, but dig in and enjoy the anarchy and you'll still find a lot of game to love.