When Realtime Worlds first announced it was creating another sandbox game, we sighed with the predictability of it all. But we were wrong - Crackdown is anything but a clone. Instead, it's unique on several levels, from the crisp ultra-modern visual style, to the fact that you play as anything but an average crook; you're a turbo-charged cop straight out of The Matrix.
Pacific City is an open-world environment, divided up into three separate islands. Each one is overrun by a unique crime syndicate, each dealing in a different kind of vice and immorality. The Los Muertos, Shai-Gen Corporation, and the Volk have 21 kingpins between them, and this is where the free-form twist comes from. The ultimate goal is to eliminate the three big crime lords that lead the gangs. Although you could attempt to do this right from the start, you'll find it pretty much impossible with your limited abilities and the fact that the criminal infrastructures are still rock solid.
To improve your chances of making the hit, you must first destabilise the gangs by removing some of the kingpins. What's really cool is that you can work out a proper game plan according to your playing style. If you're going to attempt to run and gun through a crime lord's stronghold (success is always going to be low), you can improve your chances by first eliminating the syndicate's arms dealer. The enemies will no longer have access to high-powered weapons. Likewise, eliminating the gang's recruitment chief means that there will ultimately be fewer bodyguards to deal with.
No matter what your playing style is, there's a strategy to go with it. You might want to try and ram-raid the crime lord's fortress. If that's the case, then eliminate the kingpin who steals vehicles for the syndicate. This will give you a clearer route to the base. Improving your character's driving skill first will also make things a lot easier. Skills play an equally important role in taking down the three crime lords. The game adopts many of the RPG-style character upgrades of GTA: San Andreas, and then ramps them up to an incredible degree.
The five skill areas - agility, strength, driving, shooting and explosive - are upgraded as you collect special orbs or when performing specific actions in key areas. It's pleasingly fast to earn your first level of upgrades; there are four levels in total for each skill. This means you won't be running around for too long with everything getting on top of you. Within an hour of play, you'll be able jump higher than an average person, you'll have access to upgraded agency vehicles and your grenades will cause much greater damage. Of course, this is nothing to the amazingly over-the-top things you'll be able to achieve further into the game, but more on that later.
Arguably, the most obvious example of how welcoming and accessible Crackdown is, is when you jump across rooftops for the first time. Pacific City is fairly unique in the sandbox genre because the numerous skyscrapers emphasise vertical exploration. That means you'll probably spend as much time on the rooftops as you will on the ground. Often, it's almost like a puzzle trying to figure out how to clamber up one building and then jump across to another. Sometimes you'll succeed, sometimes you'll fail, sometimes you'll realise that your current level of agility needs a little more work. Succeed or fail; it's fun regardless.
If you've ever had those dreams where you're jumping great heights, or even flying, you'll have some idea of how exhilarating Crackdown can be. It's a massive buzz when you jump from the roof of one skyscraper and just catch the window ledge of another one, two city blocks away. It's even better when you land on it feet first, as the concrete underneath you fractures and shatters. Becoming stronger opens the game up even more. The more enemies you defeat with melee attacks, the harder you'll be able to attack and the heavier environmental objects you'll be able to lift. One of the funniest moments in the game was where we were playing co-op and I came across my friend literally kicking cars off the highway. We also punched one kingpin so hard he went flying off the top of a lighthouse and fell to his death. Being able to haul up gigantic oversized objects, like a lorry, and then throw them into the air is also stacks of fun. Almost every environmental object can be picked up and chucked at enemies - even down to their fallen comrades' dead bodies. And once you have an object in hand, you can lock on to specific targets with the Left trigger, just like when you're shooting them.