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Crackdown Revisited: The Game That Launched a Generation

One of the first great games of the last console generation may be one of the first great games of new gen, too. Why Crackdown was ahead of its time.

Retrospective by Jeremy Parish, .

When does one decade end and a new one begin? The most obvious and most technical answer, of course, is when the calendar flips and a new number appears in the tens place of the current year. But "decades" as an emotional concept — as units of culture rather than time — don't break down along such hard demarcations.

The human decade doesn't turn with the calendar, but rather with popular trends. For music aficionados, the '60s ended when the Beatles broke up in April 1970. The '80s began early, with the death of disco in July 1979, and ended late, with the September 1991 release of the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" single. For those who mark era by politics, though, maybe the '80s didn't begin until Ronald Reagan was elected, or end until the Gulf War kicked off. For sci-fi buffs, maybe 2001 ushered in the '70s and The Empire Strikes back sent it off. Maybe a fashion fanatic sees the '80s as beginning with the death of bellbottoms or corduroy and ending with hairspray's demise in the face of the hippy-throwback grunge look.

This ambiguity is true of console generations as well. Just because a few companies launch new pieces of hardware doesn't mean video games suddenly experience a transformative renewal overnight. Change happens more slowly, as a more gradual thing, which is why we'll be playing a whole lot of holdovers from last generation this fall. The new generation may have launched last November, but it doesn't truly begin until 2015.

Welcome to the last next gen.

The same felt especially true of the previous generation; even after Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 launched, most of the games they offered felt either clumsy and unfinished or else seemed to be hasty revisions of PlayStation 2-era titles. So what was the game that signaled the arrival of last generation? For some, it may have been Uncharted. For others, Dead Rising. Myself, though, I'd stake my claim on Real-Time Worlds' Crackdown.

A raucous free-form action game, Crackdown was equal parts shooter, platformer, and open-world adventure. And it felt like nothing anyone had ever played before. Open-world action games weren't unheard of in 2007; on one hand, you had Grand Theft Auto and its myriad clones (e.g. True Crime), while on the other Bethesda's Elder Scrolls games were still trying to strike a balance between immense role-playing freedom and accessibility for the average human being.

Crackdown offered a single, but essential, difference to those other adventures: Its scale. GTA-alikes and free-roaming RPGs presented things from a very human perspective, low to the ground and ultimately constrained by something akin to reality. Crackdown let players feel larger-than-life. Their on-screen avatar, the Agent, began the adventure with superhuman strength, aim, endurance, and skill... and as they collected experience, the Agent only grew stronger. By the end of the game, the Agent has essentially become a superhero, capable of literally leaping buildings in a single bound... and the ones that were too tall for a single bound could still be scaled.

Though like GTA, it was full of subtle, sophisticated humor.

The gravity-defying verticality of Crackdown turned the entire city, not just its streets, into a playground. It was a truly open world, one unbounded by streets and vehicles. You could drive cars, sure, but you could just as easily begin running and take a flying leap for the length of a city block. Cars were just there for style and fun, not for serious play.

Unless you wanted to be serious about cars, in which case Crackdown was totally open to that possibility. It was totally open, period. The player's goal simply amounted to taking down Pacific City's three gang bosses, and in theory you could speed run the game by advancing directly to their lairs and gunning them down. In practice, though, the gang leaders were far too powerful and the Agent initially far too weak to make that work. Instead, the ideal approach was to dismantle their organizations one lieutenant at a time.

Every gang boss commanded a network of underlings, each of whom possessed certain unique traits that enhanced the overall capabilities of the overall group. Take down the guy who ran the chop shop behind the sports arena and suddenly the El Muerto gang drove crappier, less armored cars. Assassinate the guy who headed up Shai Gen's physical training regimen and suddenly that gang's soldiers would have weaker constitutions. The more underlings you took out, the more easily you could take on the high-level crime lords.

Two Agents and their good friend, the Crushinator.

There was no prescribed order to the gang commanders in Crackdown, or even to the gangs. While the path of less resistance was to go after the Latino stereotypes followed by the Russian stereotypes followed by the Asian stereotypes — Crackdown was not exactly a bastion of sensitivity, unfortunately, and Real-Time Worlds refused to include female avatars for production resource reasons years before Ubisoft trotted out that line of reasoning — you didn't have to go that route.

In fact, you didn't even have to mess with the bosses at all, if you didn't want. Crackdown's story objectives became almost secondary for most people to the fact that the game presented an absolutely ludicrous playground to mess around in. The combination of the Agent's physical prowess and a "next-gen" physics system turned the entirety of Pacific City into a plaything. You could jump around from building to building, drive around by way of the well-planned and highly effective freeway system, swim from shore to shore, or mess around with unique elements of the sandbox. The crates at the docks that you could topple with grenades or toss with abandon, perhaps. Or how about the unique globe sculpture near one of the Shai Gen's bases that you could treat like a massive toy, like something from Fight Club, but which would never respawn once uprooted?

Really, though, Crackdown's biggest innovation came in the form of its multiplayer mechanics. There was no deathmatch in Crackdown, no player-versus-player or capture the flag or king of the hill. In keeping with the spirit of the adventure, there was simply open-ended online cooperative play. Two Agents could team up via Xbox Live to tear apart the host's city. They could work together to stop the crime lords, work separately to divide and conquer, or say "the hell with that" and just goof around together. While simplistic, the coop style was absolutely unprecedented among console games — a totally open world that two friends could experience together, on their own terms.

Even alone, Pacific City managed to offer manic fun, thanks in large part to its brilliant handling of the collectathon concept. Like its inspiration, Grand Theft Auto, Crackdown gave players a ludicrous number of random things to pick up throughout Pacific City. But it turned collecting into an addictive game in and of itself, not simply a grind or a distraction or an afterthought. Players gained legitimate benefits from gathering the green and blue orbs littering the environment — experience gains for their Agent's stats — and the orbs themselves taunted players. They glowed, causing them to be visible from a distance, and they hummed, meaning that you always knew when you were near an orb, even if you couldn't see it.

The orbs often sat on obvious high points atop buildings or other structures, inviting you to scale the city heights and make use of the Agent's dexterity... and quite often sitting well out of reach until you gained more jumping and climbing power. More than a pause screen "percentage complete" statistic, Crackdown's orbs fit organically into its play mechanics by giving you incentive to collect them, to pursue them, and to aspire to reach greater heights in the game.

OMG ORBS

The game's Grand Theft Auto connections weren't incidental; Crackdown's director was David Jones, the former DMA Design/Rockstar North designer responsible for Lemmings and, yes, GTA. It's no coincidence that the game he created after leaving Rockstar resembled GTA on such a fundamental level; yet at the same time, it felt wildly different as well, freeing itself of the crime movie pastiche that the Houser brothers defined GTA as. With its comic book visuals and mechanics, Crackdown was much less about retelling its creators' favorite movies and more about giving players the freedom to fight crime in a big city at their leisure. It's no accident that the game's main DLC add-on was called "Keys to the City" — at heart, Crackdown was about player empowerment and expression in a way that wouldn't be topped until Minecraft came along. And Saints Row IV.

By no means was Crackdown perfect, though. Even at the time, its mission structure came off as rather slight in comparison to other open-world games. Despite allowing players to control an Agent of any ethnicity, its handling of race with the gangs was troubling, to say the least. And in hindsight, its place as the bellwether for a generation shines through in its overall roughness. Its visual style makes the game appear to be a scaled-up Xbox title — though certainly the Xbox couldn't have handled the massive, seamless world of Pacific City, the simple structures and repetitive textures of the environments look decidedly dated. And the controls feel just plain weird; the past seven years have seen the codification of rules and layouts for controllers, and Crackdown came into being in a time before that standardization. X to swap weapons? LB to reload? Down on the D-pad to switch to sniper view!? What madness is this?

On the other hand, certain elements of Crackdown were well ahead of their time. Open-world cooperative play is something that the rest of the industry is only now getting around to exploring. Seven years after Crackdown's debut, its biggest innovation was the most common theme at E3 2014. And while its story was slight, Crackdown nevertheless seems a prescient look at its own future, casting players as participants in a straight-faced satire of a hellish Orwellian world ruled by militarized police. In light of all that's happened in the world since 2007 — the suppression of the Occupy movement, the rise of the surveillance state, the advent of drones, and more — Crackdown actually manages to be more timely today than it was at its debut.

That's why I'm so excited for the recently announced Crackdown reboot; I'd love to revisit this experience with the shine and polish applied by all the games that followed in Crackdown's footsteps. While I'm hoping for a new layout for Pacific City (given that the game's "sequel," Crackdown 2, amounted to nothing more than a zombie mod for the first game), I'll still play it and very likely love it no matter what form it takes. Now that the entire industry is finally getting around to ripping off what made Crackdown so great, it's only fitting that the game that kicked off the last console generation return to lead the way for the next gen.


Watch: Our Crackdown Revisited video companion piece.

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  • Avatar for Pokedalt #1 Pokedalt 4 years ago
    Well, I'm glad someone remembers how great Crackdown is! I can remember back when the previews of the first (and only!?) Crackdown was coming out, how awesome it looked. Having been a solid Nintendo gamer at the time, and being too young to play it anyway, it was always "that cool neon thing" in my mind. Of course, a few years later once I got a 360, I made sure to pick it up. After watching the Microsoft E3 conference, the new Crackdown is one of the few new games to make me seriously reconsider purchasing an Xbox One. Hopefully they'll keep it true to the previous games, and not shoehorn in too much unneeded stuff. Just keep letting me waste hours of my time jumping between buildings getting orbs, and I'll be happy.
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  • Avatar for Damman #2 Damman 4 years ago
    I played Crackdown for the first time last year when it landed on Xbox's Games with Gold deal. Never much for collectibles in games, I was surprised to find how rabidly I joined the hunt for agility orbs. Like a steroid junkie craving that extra edge, I would cast aside whatever mission or plan I had going at the time whenever catching sight of a trail of them. You start off with a rather generous jump to begin with, but it feels paltry when you try a leap across buildings and fall just short. They work so well as a collectible because the bonus gained from acquiring them actually boosts you to gain more. I swear, I can stop any time I want to.....

    I also vividly remember when I set out to scale the agency headquarters after beating the last mafioso. Of all the fierce gun fights and perilous leaps I'd made to that point, nothing made my palms sweat more than working my way up that mammoth building. It was designed so well to consistently break your rhythm too. Oh, you made two jumps on this side already? Sorry, that next ledge isn't there anymore. I loved that there was not a clear path to the top (in hindsight anyway), and I was constantly second guessing which approach I should take.

    A truly excellent game. I would have much preferred it to be the main inspiration of last gen over the corridor shooter and small arena battle formulas made popluar by the Call of Duty's and Uncharted's of the world.Edited June 2014 by Damman
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #3 Funny_Colour_Blue 4 years ago
    The companion video for this article turned out really well I think.

    Xplay said the same thing about Crackdown in their review they did seven years ago:

    X-PLAY reviews CRACKDOWN

    Looking forward to more of these articles Jeremy.Edited 4 times. Last edited June 2014 by Funny_Colour_Blue
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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #4 Captain-Gonru 4 years ago
    Last year, I said that it would take a new Crackdown to make me buy a XBox One. Glad someone was listening in to my XBLA Party Chat.
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  • Avatar for Keldorek #5 Keldorek 4 years ago
    I adored this game when it came out, and I never even got to play it cooperatively! It's shocking to me that so many of my gamer friends have still never played or even heard of this game.

    It holds up remarkably well, too. Great article.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #6 pdubb 4 years ago
    Crackdown got more than one of my non gamer friends to want to take a turn at grabbing orbs or jumping around and climbing buildings. They could care less about the shooting and mission structure, those things all got in the way. These friends and casual gamers (would also buy Wii sports and never use Wii again) viewed crackdown as an open ended Super Mario Bros where the whole point was to collect orbs and jump real high. And it was awesome.
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  • Avatar for docexe #7 docexe 4 years ago
    Ultimately, I’m someone who always choses the consoles from Nintendo and Sony over those from Microsoft, but I have to admit this was one of the few exclusives of the X360 that made that console tempting, at least at the time it launched.
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  • Avatar for danger.to.others #8 danger.to.others 4 years ago
    I'm not positive, but didn't Oblivion and the original Saints Row come out before Crackdown? Hell, even Kameo, at 360 launch, was a bigger and prettier game than the original Xbox or PS2 would have been able to handle.
    All great games and all next gen of it's time. And all better than Crackdown.

    I don't wear rose colored glasses looking in the past (and by coincidence had rebooted Crackdown up about a month ago, only to turn it back off within a half hour). It was only okay, at best.
    Plus, remember that most it's popularity stemmed from having the Halo demo attached and that Crackdown 2 bombed. This is not some high pedigree series.

    It wasn't a horrible game, not broken or anything. it was fun enough climbing tall buildings and collecting orbs. Co-op was it's real selling point. Problem was the game was a handful of ideas and not much else.
    The story barely existed. Let me correct that. The story didn't exist. Thin outlines to characters and then it was just "stop everyone."
    The AI was even worse than the average AI in an open world of it's time, the characters displayed no personalities and the world itself was as generic as could be.
    It's other saving grace, other than co-op, was it was fun to have superpowers. But the entire game was based around simply destroying for destroying's sake.
    No varied missions, nothing to emphasize working together. Sure, if you had a friend you could make up your own fun killing people and jumping around , but that's like any game.

    Again, not terrible. But certainly not a classic. It felt like half a game. And nearly everyone acknowledged it as such across the internet back when it was out. They saw it for what it was and it wasn't given rave user reviews with good reason.
    Which is why it's been so interesting, as it got old and rumors and hype started for a Crackdown 3 (No one liked Crackdown 2, yet 3 is some exciting prospect before seeing any gameplay or details?) that slowly more and more sudden love for Crackdown is professed.
    It's weird. I could be wrong, obviously pure guess on my part, but the way it's come back remembered more fondly than it was when it first came out seems more like an altered far off memory making it seem better than it was.
    Not to dismiss everyone's opinion who likes the game. To each their own and among those with an inaccurate memory, I'm sure there are plenty who do remember it right and truly like it. But I think they're an extreme minority, since it's very rare I see people like me who actually go back and play old games and have refreshed their memory of what they actually played.
    Most just remember something from when they were younger and go nostalgic.

    Crackdown was a soulless affair with little to do outside of leaping building to building.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #9 metalangel 4 years ago
    Fun things to do in Crackdown:
    -Get a police cruiser. Shoot out all the tires. Go do laps of the freeway.
    -Go down to the docks, and get a Russian jeep. Shoot out all the tires. Try to drive around the docks as fast as you can without dying. (hint: try going into reverse)
    -Get a big blue dump truck. Go around collecting explosive drums and loading them into the back, to get enough for the explosive chain reaction achievement.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #10 SatelliteOfLove 4 years ago
    Crackdown was from that short window before successful trends caused the industry to collapse in on itself like a singularity; thinking back on it is a window to a bittersweet time before that dark age when an even better generation than 6 was felt to be arriving.
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  • Avatar for Spooky-Toast #11 Spooky-Toast 4 years ago
    Those image captions. Yes.
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  • Avatar for Spooky-Toast #12 Spooky-Toast 4 years ago
    Deleted June 2014 by Spooky-Toast
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #13 Funny_Colour_Blue 4 years ago
    @danger.to.others "Crackdown was a soulless affair with little to do outside of leaping building to building."

    I agree with this, but to be fair this isn't necessarily a bad thing? Especially when very few games - especially now - offer a complete, uninterrupted online coop experience from start to finish. Which is something that GTA IV and many other games have still failed to deliver upon, ever since video games entered the 3rd dimension.

    Crackdown filled in a need that many players wanted, but many developers, suddenly weren't willing to cater towards with their "AAA" big budgets titles.

    This is definitely not nostalgia my friend. We're in, like, the what, eighth generation now? and something as simple as Super Mario Bros. still doesn't offer online coop?

    Players WANT to play together, especially when it's something that's really really fun! That's why the idea of another Crackdown is so appealing!Edited 5 times. Last edited June 2014 by Funny_Colour_Blue
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  • Avatar for IPA #14 IPA 4 years ago
    I could never get past its grimy, urban-cyber aesthetics. It looked like a vape cigarette made into a videogame.

    Excellent article though -- especially enjoyed your take on our elastic demarcations of decades. My "last gen" hasn't ended yet.
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  • Avatar for GrantHeaslip #15 GrantHeaslip 4 years ago
    Deleted last month by GrantHeaslip
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #16 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @IPA "It looked like a vape cigarette made into a video game." Genius.

    As to the other criticism that the shooting is bullet-spongey... I can't agree. You just need to use the targeting system properly. Once you figure out the trick to head shots, most enemies go down in a couple of shots. I haven't seen Crackdown's targeting system in many recent games, but that lock-on technique where the reticle slowly centers in on your target is a good way to keep locking on from making shooting too easy and was moderately popular back in the day (see also: Headhunter).
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