Crackdown 2 somehow seems to be able to be slightly forgotten compared to other exclusive titles, especially for a game which will be released in just a few more weeks, so Microsoft France decided to invite us to check it out a couple of weeks ago, with some of the developers from Ruffian available for questions.
Pacific City: It's been 10 years since the event of the first episode. As you can guess quite a few things have changed since then, like the place and role of the Agency, kind of forgotten now. Nowadays the city is under the influence of a terrorist organization named Cell, and chaos is back in the streets. The situation is made even more critical by the very aggressive mutants who roam the streets by night. Once again it's easy to see that the story is just a pretense for the upcoming murderous fights, and we shouldn't hope to ever get good directing or a narration of Alan Wake's quality.
Crackdown 2 is based on the same structure as its older brother: a city to explore looking for the precious orbs (green for agility, purple for driving, blue for fun) which will allow you to strengthen your character's abilities. Character evolution is still at the heart of the game, each statistics cut into multiple levels. You'll have to either collect the orbs, or simply use your weapons or drive vehicles to level up the hero and get him to become more and more powerful. Each level opens new possibilities, allowing the player to use new tactics for the various situations.
As for the new stuff, let's list them: the ability to pilot helicopters (requiring a 5 star driving level though), to skydive and to literally fly around for a little time, "renegade" orbs that have to be caught (either by driving or by foot) and that seem to replace the rooftops and car races of the first game, 4 player co-op (along with more classic multiplayer modes too), and of course new vehicles and weapons. Speaking about weapons, we got to see the magnetic grenades in action, reminding us a lot of Just Cause 2's grappling hook. It's possible to stick one of these grenades to a car, and another to a building, creating a electro-magnetic bolt that will hook the vehicle to the wall. It's also possible to stick a part of a streetlight to a car and to use it as a mace ball! Clearly Ruffian wanted to go all the way in creating the ultimate sandbox experience where the player's creativity will be rewarded.
However, in spite of these new ideas, it is hard not to get some sort of déjà-vu feeling when playing Crackdown 2. The main reason is that Ruffian Games decided to use the very same city. As big as it is, those who spent hours wandering in the streets of Pacific City in the first game will clearly find their way around very quickly. Sure, some new buildings have been built, some areas have also changed because they are now in ruins, but even so, it won't be long before Crackdown fans know the place like the back of their hand. The pleasure of discovery takes a bit of a hit here but thankfully, collecting orbs is just as fun and addictive as before.
The graphics and physics engines also look very similar to Crackdown's. The game keeps its cel-shaded personality, which is nice as it would have been very odd to lose such a visual identity, but we were under the impression that the city felt a bit empty during the daytime, especially compared with the likes of GTA 4, Protype or InFamous. At night though, when the freaks pop out, the streets get a lot busier, reminding the chaos of Prototype's Big Apple. The framerate is smooth overall, which should please those who lost their sight when playing GTA 4, but there were still a few hiccups and some pop-up issues with the build we had the chance to play. Animations look exactly the same as before and the main character's melee attacks are unfortunately still as stiff as ever. There is indeed a clear lack of impact in that area as it never really feels we are hitting hard. Even though melee combat is clearly not the main interest in the game, it would have been nice to see some improvement after three years. The jump animation and the climbing have not changed either, no really, technically, Crackdown 2 looks more like a copy/paste job than anything.
We also noticed a few problems with the auto-lock system, which made a few shootings a bit messy and the character would target monsters that were far behind in the crowd instead of aiming at the closest enemies. Hopefully, it will be fixed in time before the final version ships. Finally, we might be mistaken but, it seemed to us that explosions did not look as good as in the first game, which would be kind of a let down if it were not due to the build we tried.
It is hard to really get excited about Crackdown 2, despite obvious qualities. Paradoxical? Yes and no. This sequel should be at least just as fun as the first game, even more maybe if the multiplayer turns out to be good, but it still remains to be seen if it will have much to offer to those who played Crackdown and got the most of it three years ago. Will the new gadgets, the new vehicles and the new features be enough of an incentive to appeal to them? Maybe, but we will wait for the final version to make sure. When the first game was released, it was a pleasant surprise and it was something new. Since then though, games like Prototype and InFamous have raised the bar in terms of sensations and possibilities. It is probably a good thing to have borrowed a few ideas from other games like Just Cause 2, but players will need more to be convinced. It is now 2010 and they have gotten very picky on about just anything. I guess we will find out soon, as the game will be released in early July.