"A big part of this game is being a tit."
These words came straight from the lips of James Cope, Producer of Crackdown 2. The Ruffian employee looked like he'd had more than a few rough nights completing the title, which might explain his delightfully refreshing candor. After a breakneck 15-month development, Cope says that his proudest achievement with the second Crackdown is the very fact that it exists. And he should be proud: the first Crackdown was one of the few open world games that wasn't boring as piss and one of the few that really was open world. Despite this, Cope downplays 2, calling it an "okay game."
Thing is, an "okay game" is still better than most sandbox titles, which tend to wear out quickly, try to be too many things at once, and overall tend to feel unsatisfying.
This low success rate of the genre, and too many pretenders to the fad, has led to open world fading as a trend. This left Cope and his team at Ruffian with no small list of challenges: Crackdown isn't Crackdown if it's not open world, but when the IP debuted, open world was hot. Now games are steering away from the concept, for good reason.
Cope agrees the genre is a straightjacket. "You cannot tell a linear narrative in an open world game." He says. "It completely narrows creative freedom. I'd love to make a game like Uncharted, but our strength is open world."
"We're not frustrated filmmakers," he adds.
The games that haven't steered away from open world and actually manage to make money Infamous and Assassin's Creed 2, for instance -- borrow heavily from Crackdown, which meant the Crackdown team had to work to bring people back. Understanding that gamers have come to expect at least some story from a game, Crackdown provides an hour of tutorial play off the top that does that. This gives players the "story of what has happened" since we last left Pacific City, for emersion purposes. Then the game opens up and exploration replaces storytelling.
And other than the opening, and the increased role of the Freaks -- misshapen enemies that come out at night in the game's 24 minute day/night cycle -- Crackdown 2 mostly avoids gimmicks. Intentionally. Cope is as pure as purists get: exploration and really fun single-player gameplay are the draws here. He eschews strong character development the city itself is the character that matters. He doesn't believe in relying on multiplayer or co-op gameplay: co-op would force the player to spend too much time with AI characters, he explains, and he considers AI characters "annoying". "We're accidentally a brilliant co-op game,' he says, "because we're not co-op at all."
Furthermore, multiplayer, in Ruffian's world, can't be an entire game, like Left 4 Dead. The philosophy here is that multiplayer only makes a fun game more fun.
This isn't a great sales pitch, considering how well L4D sold, never mind Halo, Call of Duty, Gears of War, and other franchises with extensive multiplayer. Fortunately, the multiplayer in Crackdown is pretty good anyway. The concepts are simple, and the game modes are definitely geared to having fun, as opposed to winning or racking up kills achievements are another thing Cope doesn't believe are important.
The most promoted multiplayer mode Rocket Tag is a testament to this. I will fully admit to being a mediocre-at-best multiplayer gamer, but I found Rocket Tag fun almost immediately, instead of the rounds of frustration I endure in other games before I figure out what the hell is going on. It goes like this: one dude has an orb. Everyone has rocket launchers. Many many things and dudes explode, as players try to be the guy with the orb for as long as possible.
But if you're not, who cares? I had fun blasting giant areas around the orb, incinerating not just the player with the orb but everyone around him, just to, as I was instructed, "be a tit."
But multiplayer aside, there is a huge game world to explore. The graphics are on the flat and unimpressive side, but I got used to it by the end of the demo. The ingenuity of the game is that something as simple as getting to the top of a building to grab a pick-up is inexplicably fun. Since the game is so open, progress is pretty much common sense. The melee attacks work well, so I actually enjoyed running out of ammo. This is a good thing, because you do run out of ammo.
So from this preview, I'd say that Crackdown 2 has potential. It's a very mild challenge on default difficulty, so it's one of those games that's shameless escapism, as opposed to epic art. Fans of the first game will probably enjoy this thought-out sequel, as long as the lack of visual "wow" doesn't ruin the experience. Sandboxers don't seem to mind less-than-stellar graphics, however, if the gameplay is fun, as Grand Theft Auto proves over and over. However, without the huge sales booster of a Halo Beta boxed with the game, Crackdown 2 will have to hope its own calibrated merits will be enough to get gamers to part with their money a second time.