Review: Crackdown 2

As the always astute Chris Hecker once pointed out, the thing video games do best are power fantasies. While we're literally trying to rescue our family or kill the evil guy, the metaphorical (and arguably more important) journey is in watching our character grow from weakling to demigod, whether that's through the collection of the most powerful weapons or the fastest cars. The balance then is in making the literal journey just present enough that the metaphorical one means something.

For all its strengths, Crackdown's major failing was in not nailing this balance. Punching, jumping and exploding your way to superherodom was amazing, but the story and missions were so threadbare that there was nothing really pulling you through, there was no momentum. Though narrative was never going to be its strong suit, it needed just a few more breadcrumbs to get you from point A to point B.

Disappointingly, Crackdown 2 does not fix the balance between literal and metaphorical journey. In fact, it seems much more content to pretend it doesn't exist.

Pacific City can't catch a break. With the gang wars of 10 years ago quelled, the city's now been overrun by mutated Freaks and a rebel group called The Cell that opposes your bosses at The Agency. (I know, the subtlety in the nomenclature is profound.) As the cybernetically enhanced "Agent" you'll attempt to reclaim the town from both with a fleet of cars, an armory of weapons and, most importantly, an ever-improving set of superpowers.

Just as in Crackdown, you'll improve those powers (Agility, Strength, Firearms, Explosives, Driving) by using them on the bad guys. Punch enough Freaks, you'll eventually be hurling cars at them. Mow down herds of Cell with an Agency SUV or chase down one of the speedy "renegade orbs" floating around the city, get access to better vehicles. And, of course, there's Agility, which will have you leaping between rooftops collecting precariously placed orbs until you can outrun cars and jump two stories without breaking a sweat.

Ruffian couldn't even be bothered to fix niggling problems with the last game.

You'll use those powers to (1) reclaim Cell bases (travel to the spot, kill 20 or so enemies) and (2) activating nine UV bombs that wipe out surrounding Freaks (jump down a hole, defend the bomb for three minutes or so). To activate each of the bombs, you'll have to (3) power-up two or three guarded generators (stand on them for 30 seconds). I number and detail these "missions" to emphasize the following point: That's all there is. That's the whole game. To put it another way: You'll be doing the exact same thing 10 minutes after you start as you will 10 hours later.

I know if you were being reductionist, you could boil many game concepts down to a paragraph, but I swear, I'm doing no boiling. It's the same thing. Again and again and again. You'll never fight an enemy that presents any thing close to a challenge, you'll never meet another character, you'll never hear another scrap of dialog (save for the omnipresent, disembodied voice of the Agency Director, who's annoyingly repetitive as often as he's mildly entertaining). Rather than improve the pretense for the power fantasy laid down by Realtime Worlds in Crackdown, new torchbearer Ruffian Games seems to have tried to eliminate it all together. There are some scattered audio logs that give a bit more backstory to the creatures and gangs you're fighting, but they rarely dovetail with the things you're actually doing in the world.

That world, by the way, is the same one you already explored in Crackdown, if a touch more run down. Tack that on to the loads of comically plain textures and frequent slowdown and you've got a graphical package that's doing nothing to alleviate the sense of déjà vu. Pacific City may have been, as the Agency Director claimed at the end of Crackdown, "only the beginning," but nobody thought to tell Ruffian.

This would be a lot more palatable if power advancement was more exciting, but it just isn't. It's been three-and-a-half years since Crackdown was released, I have a hard time believing that in all that time, no one has come up with an additional skill tree that could be climbed or a new, interesting way these powers could manifest. The closest Ruffian gets to evolution is the "Wingsuit" awarded at the highest Agility level and it's probably the most underwhelming glider ever manifest in a video game. "Gliding" is actually overstating the point a bit, "slightly less severe angle of falling" is closer to the truth.

The one truly new bit are the PVP modes (Rocket Tag, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch) and while they're inoffensive enough, they don't even come close to justifying the $60 price tag. Nothing on this disc does. Ruffian couldn't even be bothered to fix niggling problems with the last game: Vehicles still have fiddly controls, targeting specific enemies with melee attacks is still tough and it's still nigh impossible to know what ledges can and can't be climbed.

This is usually the part where I'd say "but if you loved the first game, this is more of the same, so you'll probably love this" but if you really loved the first game, you'd probably be expecting something worthwhile and fresh in exchange for your hard-earned cash and three-and-a-half-year wait. Unfortunately, you're not going to find it here.

This review is based on the 360 retail version of Crackdown 2 provided by Microsoft.