“Good Job, Agent!”: Hands-on with Crackdown 2

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When I sat down with members from the Ruffian development studio this week, I offered the opinion that Pacific City should be an idyllic urban center now. After all, gamers everywhere cleaned up every last bit of crime in the first Crackdown. That hit Xbox 360 exclusive put you in the boots of a genetically engineered Agency supercop, who you could evolve into a skyscraper-jumping powerhouse by hunting for orbs that augmented your abilities.  The lads from Ruffian said that, while players did create a crime-free paradise in the first game, no such thing lasts forever.

Crackdown 2 takes place ten years after the first game and finds Pacific City to be even more of a warzone than ever. The problems started when the Agency got complacent and new factions started to crop up to cause mayhem. You’ll be fighting two new groups in Crackdown 2, both with roots in the first game. The Freaks, monstrous mutants who were subjects of a few random missions in the last game, have proliferated to the point of becoming a major threat to the city. On the human side of things, a new self-righteous militia calling itself the Cell arises from the remnants of the gangs, along with humans who want to take the law in their own hands. The Cell’s been scavenging Agency equipment and weapons and presents a formidable opponent to the Agency’s crime-busting. Part of the Cell’s motivation is that they believe the Freaks can be cured, while the Agency’s solution to the mutants–called Project Sunburst–is to build giant solar bombs and eradicate them with extreme prejudice.

If it sounds like there’s a lot of story going on in Crackdown 2, don’t worry because it won’t necessarily feel like it. “In the first game, we had a story. We just didn’t tell it,” says executive producer Peter Connelly. James Cope, Ruffian’s producer on C2, adds that the team “believes in not channeling a player’s attention down a corridor.” Cope also offered that “we could never tell a story with the Agents; they’re mindless, faceless killing machines.” That action-over-story philosophy is part of what led to Ruffian creating the successful sub-genre of the open-world 3D platform shooter.

Adrenaline’s the reason you show up to a Crackdown game and the sequel ups the explosion quotient in spades. The first mission I saw had the Agent taking over a Cell stronghold on the docks. Once you clear out such locations, you can use them as your own bases. Pope said it’s their solution to the clunky implementation of supply points in the last game, which had you driving all back and forth all over the map to get new weapons and vehicles. Speaking of  vehicles, one major transportation addition will be helicopters, which will highlight the verticality that’s become Crackdown’s trademark. Helicopters will feature mounts where your co-op partners can hang from and shoot at enemies on the ground below. Cope said that all of the sequel’s vehicles will feature such co-op wrinkles.

New vehicles will make getting around easier, but the best way to explore Pacific City is still on foot. And that’s because of orbs. “Orbs are the crack in Crackdown,” says Cope. As anyone who spent hours tracking down the glowing globes knows, finding the game’s upgrade currency creates an obsession that border on unhealthy.  It gets even unhealthier in C2 with the introduction of renegade orbs, which don’t stay in one place. You’ll have to give chase to earn their upgrade points, but that chase alsso serves to guide you to new objectives. Of course, the “skills for kills” mechanic stays firmly in place, which means just about all the shooting and fighting you do in the game goes towards growing your character. “Crackdown’s never a game where you’re supposed to feel bad about killing tons of people,” Connelly remarked.

Sadly, network problems the morning of the demo meant that I couldn’t sample any of the multiplayer options. (Thanks for nothing, Bryant Park Hotel.) Cope and Connelly talked about how online play would factor into leveling up, saying that certain orbs would only be available if you were playing with another person online. Competitive online play will support 16 players and will also max out all players to level 5 abilities. I did get to play for a decent chunk of time in the single-player campaign. The most noticeable changes from C1 were apparent in how much more people were populating the world and how much tighter and responsive the driving felt. The former change stands out a lot; you can look down the street and see people milling about deep in the background. It makes the city feel more alive than ever. And, since the Freaks are primarily nocturnal, that aliveness changes as day becomes night in Crackdown 2. The missions after sunset will have you clearing the streets of Freak hordes. I also raided their underground lairs and planted a Sunburst beacons that burned the swarming Freaks like ants under a magnifying glass. Another way I got to set the poor saps on fire was with the UV shotgun, which blasts packets of solar energy in a wide radius. Sunburst-based weapons won’t be as effective against Cell enemies, though.

Cope said that they approached this game wanting to re-boot the Crackdown experience and everything I saw and played–including the level 5 Wingsuit and the awesome Flocket Launcher weapon–points to a bigger, crazier game that will be immensely satisfying.

Crackdown 2 comes out in July and we’ll have more coverage as it marches closer to release.