Joystiq hands-on: Crackdown (Xbox 360)

Future-cop shooter, Crackdown, prides itself on nonlinear, sandbox play. It's set in a sprawling city with many areas to explore, and I had fun wandering through a pre-release version at a recent meeting with developer, Real Time Worlds.

The game is violent and visceral; you play a Judge Dread Dredd-style super-cop with no moral ambiguity. Every criminal you kill is a victory, and any bystanders that die between you and the baddies were just doing their part for their city. This premise is sure to appeal to the adolescent boy in all of us (and actual adolescent boys). But for a game that gloats about its open, let-the-gamer-decide play-style, I thought that the violence was sometimes too mandatory and too realistic.

I had fun with Crackdown, and I want to play more. I enjoyed the sandbox elements -- blowing up parts of the city, jumping between rooftops, and driving cars -- but those activities didn't always help me progress. It seemed like I needed to keep killing thugs to advance through the game, and that repetition may violate the sandbox ideal.

To Crackdown's credit, the Xbox 360 game doesn't take time to dwell on its blunt-instrument kill-the-enemy-gangs premise -- it even approaches it with a crooked smile. And the game's frenzied pace doesn't pause for soul-searching or deep social commentary; gamers will pick it up for its action, not nuance.

Crackdown's style first grabbed my interest. My character bounded up the sides of buildings, scarred the pavement after leaping to the ground, and tossed cars at gangs of thugs. (We used cheat codes to juice the character; it would normally take 10-20 hours of play to fully earn these abilities.) In the world that was shaded somewhere between cell animation and an attempt at realism, these action sequences carried the game.

And about the violence -- what I saw fit the Crackdown world and wasn't individually gory by today's standards. The realistic animations sometimes bothered me, like when my body collapsed after being hit by a car. But the total sum of the blood and animations combined with how frequently they occurred seemed excessive to my subjective eyes.

Real Time Worlds is working to make Crackdown as nonlinear and open as possible; at any time in the game, you can try to fight any of the three main bosses or their six-each henchmen. However, if you charge the fortified office tower of a top boss, you'll likely encounter too many goons to succeed. Instead, killing the main henchmen affects those situations; for example, if the character in charge of recruiting is gone, the main boss won't have as many grunts blocking your path.

Because my time playing the game was limited, I wondered if this nonlinear approach was too broad; I wanted more motivation and back-story driving my rampage. The final game will have brief video interludes presenting the bosses, so that history may still be coming.

Crackdown's open approach fits with its other touted feature: two-player cooperative games. (And Microsoft is promoting this style of gameplay, hoping it will drive more people to Xbox Live.) At any time, a friend can enter or exit your game, and you can work together to defeat the criminal syndicates. Or you could just hang out and devise new ways to blow up traffic. The entire game world is accessible to both players, so you won't have to stay within close proximity.

I had fun playing co-op with one of the game developers, charging through the streets of the large city with guns blazing. (We also just wandered around, raced cars, and I drove a semi cab off a parking garage.) The two-player games stayed fluid, although I was playing over a temporary System Link setup; in the final version, multiplayer will only work over Xbox Live. (Split-screen isn't planned either.)

If you can tap your inner adolescent, Crackdown should be an immersive pulp-action game. When I suspended my own sense of reality -- it is a game after all -- I enjoyed the title; I look forward to playing it more when it's released next year.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.