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Crackdown
MSRP: $59.99
Number of Players: 1-2
Developer: Real Time Worlds
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Rating:
****
out of
*****

When Grand Theft Auto III hit the gaming scene in 2001, a new genre of sorts -- the "sandbox" game -- was born. Basically, the "sandbox" games give the gamer a world to play in as he or she pleases. Missions can be completed at the gamer's leisure -- if the player bothers to compete them at all. However, completing the missions is usually required to "beat" the game.

Since 2001, there have been numerous attempts to give the genre something new. Crackdown puts a new spin on it by making the player the hero rather than a criminal or anti-hero. David Jones, one of the original designers of GTA III, worked as Crackdown's creative director, so comparisons between the two games aren't just valid, they're completely warranted.

Crackdown puts the gamer into the role of a genetically enhanced supercop who is Pacific City's newest weapon in the war on crime. Over the last few years, gangs have taken over the three islands that make up Pacific City. Each island is controlled by a different gang. It is the player's job to take out each of the gangs' officers and kingpin one-by-one and return the city to relative normalcy.

You're able to gradually improve five individual aspects of your performance: agility, driving, explosives, strength, and firearms as you pursue the gangs through the streets (and across the rooftops) of the sprawling metropolis. As each of these aspects gets used, you become more adept at them. You're also able to increase them by finding two types of orbs that are scattered across the cityscape. Agility orbs do the obvious and increase your ability to run and jump. Hidden orbs, which are usually tucked away in hard-to-reach places, randomly boost all of your abilities, albeit very little at a time.

The best way to upgrade each of your abilities is to just use them. Driving skills increase, strangely enough, when you run over gang members. Firearms and explosives skills are improved by using guns and explosives, respectively, to kill the bad guys. Agility is improved by grabbing the aforementioned orbs and also by shooting and killing gang members from long distances. Strength increases as you pick up objects and use them to dispatch enemies.

As you increase in your abilities, vehicles supplied by the Pacific City authorities begin to change as well. Each of the three vehicles -- a sports car, SUV and a semi-truck cab -- begins to morph into steroid-enhanced versions of their former selves as your driving skill warrants. Driving isn't one of the highlights of the game -- but if you do drive, you should do it in one of these agency vehicles.

If you've played any of the GTA series (or Saint's Row on the Xbox 360), you'll have no trouble controlling the action in Crackdown, which controls like most other third-person action games.

The point of the game is to destroy the gangs from the bottom up but, aside from that, it's completely up to you as to how you go about it. Unlike GTA and its ilk, Crackdown doesn't shoehorn you into completing side quests or missions to complete the game. You don't even have to kill the bosses last if you don't want to. You're free to attack the game any way you choose. And that's exactly why I loved it.

Crackdown's strange kind of cel-shaded graphics bring a comic book-like atmosphere to the world of Pacific City. Since you're a supercop and can literally leap (some) buildings in a single bound, being corralled into missions would ruin the game's heroic appeal. I want to blow up as many bad guys as possible, not prevent one crime at a time. Crackdown does provide optional races of the on-foot and behind-the-wheel variety to break up the action a bit (and provide some opportunities to improve the player's agility and driving skills) but they're not required to finish the game.

The single-player game provides a fairly short and entertaining, if not entirely too easy, experience. Crackdown also allows two players to team up either at home, through system link, or through Xbox Live in a co-op capacity to defeat the crime lords and their minions. It also makes possible supercop vs. supercop match-ups as each player can decide to fight each other instead.

The game has received a lot of press because it -- at least in the initial batch following its release -- includes an invitation to beta test Halo 3's multiplayer game later in 2007. Some have gone so far to say that Crackdown is just a freebie included with the beta test invitation. This is really not giving credit where credit is due. Sure, it's light on plot and doesn't contain any memorable characters, but it is fun and action packed. That, plus the Halo 3 beta invitation, makes it worth the price of admission.

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