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When a series switches developers, you expect big changes. However, Crackdown 2 studio Ruffian Games stuck closely to the blueprint laid out by Realtime Worlds in the first game. Everything you liked about the first game returns in the second. There's not much beyond that, unfortunately.

Players once again inhabit the role of a superpowered soldier in the employ of the Agency. The Agency rules over Pacific City with an iron fist and brutally stamps out any malcontents. Two threats compete for their Agents' attention: a band of armed rebels known as Cell and a horde of bloodthirsty mutants called simply The Freaks.

Cell is simply a bunch of dudes with guns like the gangs from the first Crackdown. The Freaks serve as a good counterpart, as they prefer close-range attacks and rely on superior numbers to swarm you. They're a more varied opponent, too, with different breeds that can spit acid or tackle you. To make Cell more challenging, the developers simply resort to throwing more and more of them at you or giving them all miniguns and rocket launchers.

The Freaks are quickly spreading through the city so they're the higher priority for the Agency currently. Your main mission in the campaign is to eliminate them from Pacific City once and for all with Project Sunburst. The Freaks can't survive in ultraviolet light so what Project Sunburst does is hit their subterranean nests with UV blasts. To set up these attacks, you first retake absorption units that are in the hands of Cell. These are towers that gather up energies for the UV attacks or something. After you've retaken three of these absorption units, you can assault the local Freaks' lair. The Agency lowers a beacon into the nest and you must keep the Freaks from destroying it while it charges up and detonates.

This whole process is fun the first time you do it. However, the campaign consists of doing nine times in different parts of Pacific City. The enemies get tougher as you progress through the game but other than that, it's pretty much the same gameplay experience from beginning to end. Very little effort is made to disguise this repetition, too; there's very little narrative to speak of. You don't learn much more about the story than what I described earlier unless you hunt down audio logs hidden through the city. The campaign ends up feeling like an optional side quest that you might plow through for Achievements' sake.

The only thing that really changes through the campaign is you. Your Agent has five attributes - Agility, Strength, Firearms, Explosives, and Driving - that can be leveled up four times. You can upgrade these in the course of normal gameplay or through dedicated challenges. For example, Driving skill can be increased by running over enemies, chasing down purple orbs that zip around the streets, completing checkpoint races, or pulling off tricks. The inclusion of Freaks in Crackdown 2 makes "grinding" up these skills easier. Running over, pummeling, shooting, or blowing up the large packs of Freaks leads to easier upgrades.

I was a bit disappointed to see that Crackdown 2 was using the same attributes as the first game. What irks me is that only the Strength and Agility skills feel like superpowers and have noticeable progress. By improving Agility to maximum, for example, you can run as fast as a car and jump several stories in the air. Firearms, Explosives, and Driving skill upgrades might make you better at those tasks but it's less dramatic. What clouds that progress somewhat is the fact that these attribute upgrades unlock better equipment. My improved Firearms skill might be helping my aim or damage but I'm more likely to attribute the difference to the new assault rifle I'm wielding. Strength and Agility are making the Agent do things he was unable to do before (lift a car, reach the top of a skyscraper) whereas the other attributes are making him slightly better at things he can already do (throw bombs, shoot guns, drive).

The developers toy around with the idea of having your attribute upgrades give you new abilities. When your Strength skill hits level 5, you can strike the ground with your fist and knock over all enemies in your immediate vicinity. Upon maxing out your Agility, you can glide while falling. Sadly there are only a small handful of these powers so their effect is limited. The offering is paltry when compared to, say, the vast upgrade system in Prototype.

Another way that Crackdown 2 doesn't measure up to fellow open-world games is the platforming. Since Crackdown's release in 2007, the genre has seen games like inFamous and Assassin's Creed 2 that make climbing extremely smooth. Crackdown 2's platforming hasn’t been improved much from its predecessor, though, and now feels out of date. It’s hard to tell what you can and can’t hold onto when look at a building and trying to plot your route. Some windowsills can be grabbed while some can’t. There are also some ledges that you won’t be able to reach if your Agility isn’t high enough, and often you won’t encounter said ledges until you’re already halfway up the building. To add to the frustration, some buildings can only be scaled on one side – again, something you don’t find out until you’re halfway up. I can understand why the devs would want climbing to be hard in some situations – climbing the Agency Tower is once again an Achievement – but most of the time, players are just trying to traverse the city as quickly and painlessly as possible. Climbing just needlessly slows the game down.

The combat has not been altered much, either. You shoot enemies by automatically locking onto them with left trigger and then holding down right trigger until they’re dead. Hand-to-hand combat, meanwhile, is a matter of mashing the B button. Things get even simpler as the game progresses. You’ll gain access to heavy ordinance like rocket launchers and cluster grenades and you can rely on those to clear out the heavily armored packs of foes encountered in later stages. My Firearm skill lagged behind all others because I wasn’t using guns for the second half of the campaign – I was just carpet-bombing everything. I’d feel bad about it if enemies weren’t doing the same thing to me.

If you need help, you can open up your game to drop-in/drop-out co-op. Up to four Agents can work together in Pacific City, an upgrade over the two-player co-op in the original Crackdown 2. You can play through solo but the later stages of the game feel like they’re tuned for co-op so why be anti-social? The presence of other players also makes the rooftop and road races a bit less tedious. To bribe you into playing with a friend, Ruffian has scattered a bunch of ability orbs throughout the city that can only be picked up if you’ve got another player around. The game’s emphasis isn’t on the campaign but on the exploration and putzing around so having a friend present to laugh at your death or help you get a tricky Achievement (like driving a car into a helicopter) makes all the difference. Does four players mean more fun than two, though? Not so much. I’m surprised the game doesn’t have any 2v2 co-op activities to take advantage of the new four-player capacity.

One of the few things you could call brand new in this game is the competitive multiplayer. It seems like this side of the game was chopped down a bit to meet deadlines. There are only three modes to choose from: Rocket Tag, Deathmatch, and Team Deathmatch. Rocket Tag has one player running away from fifteen others armed with rocket launchers. It has its charm but unfortunately most players (unimaginative fucks that they are) just stick to Deathmatch.

Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are the standard frag-fests, only complicated by special power-ups like camouflage hidden through the map. The inclusion of attack helicopters seems ill-conceived, as the first player to grab one ends up dominating the whole match. The only real positive thing I can say about the multiplayer is that they tweak the aiming system a bit. While you still lock on with left trigger, it’s a loose “lock” and you still have to move your crosshair around a bit to get a direct hit on the target. There’s not much reason for me to believe that this competitive multiplayer offering is going to tear people away from co-op, though.

Crackdown 2 is very faithful to its predecessor and die-hard fans of that game will undoubtedly be pleased. However, what about the rest of us? The folks who thought Crackdown was a good game but one with plenty of room for improvement? The folks who have played numerous, better sandbox action games in the past three years and hoped Crackdown 2 would draw upon their strengths? Crackdown 2 is an improvement over the original but aspirations should’ve been higher.

Players: 1-4 (co-op), 1-16 (competitive)
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Developer: Ruffian Games
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
ESRB: Mature

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