In a scene that I imagine played out similarly for many gamers last week, the first step of my Crackdown 2 adventure simply involved looking toward the sky. Or, more specifically, the skyline, hoping to glimpse Crackdown’s version of the virtual hug, a string of agility orbs, whose soft green glow punctuates pockets of high-rises.

Grab a few orbs, and your voice-from-above commander busts both balls and fourth walls as he reprimands you before throwing an achievement your way. Indeed, my first hour of Crackdown 2 brought back a rush of fuzzy feelings.

As a fan of that early Xbox 360 gem Crackdown, I immediately felt right at home in this sequel. But even as I relished starting the leveling-up process again one orb at a time, apprehension loomed as I waited for disappointment set in.


The reason for my doubts stemmed from recent prerelease coverage of the game. The first hint was on our very own Mobcast, in which a quartet of editors voiced their Crackdown 2 concerns after spending some time with a preview version of the game. Buzz from the demo, meanwhile, was mixed at best. Finally, as the games press got hold of reviewable copies of the game, myself included, people started to hint the game might even be — gasp — bad.

Here’s the thing: It’s a fun game. I would be surprised if anyone claims they didn’t enjoy at least a decent portion of their time with the game. I was talking with a friend about the game last week, and he’s absolutely loving it. And why not? Crackdown 2 offers a near-identical supersoldier template as the previous game. The problem, though, is that gamers, the free-roam genre, and that special moment in time when the first game was so right have passed on by.

Take a look at the timeline below. Crackdown hit a sweet spot when the first batch of “next-gen” open-world games were just coming into vogue, delivering a superhero-style experience that happened to capture that “it” feeling.

Open-world evolution timeline

What’s that “it” feeling? I’m talking about the way a single basic gameplay element grabs you with its simplicity, then holds on tight with a dependable level of satisfaction. Think cruising in the early Tony Hawk games and grinding a few rails, weaving through traffic in Burnout 3 in its near-miss glory, or web-slinging through Spider-Man 3’s city. Every gamer has their own suite of gameplay touchstones that clicks just right for them; it takes only seconds to lose hours.

And like I said, Crackdown reached that “it” status. Whether it was intentional or a happy accident, seeing an orb in your peripheral vision was enough to derail whatever mission you were on. You had to make with a bit of vertical dexterity to get your fix.

Sure, the surrounding game was iffy if you scrutinized it, but simply navigating the city while searching for orbs was addictive enough for it to reach instant-classic status among gamers. As recently as last month I was trying to find time to get back to the game to chase a few achievements — and nab a few more orbs — before newer, “I gotta play these now to stay relevant” games bullied my best intentions out of the way.

If Crackdown 2 nails this feeling again, how has it become such a divisive game? You need only to look as far as a few articles on this very site to see how critics are ripping into it, yet plenty of gamers are scoffing at any detraction, forming a vigilant defense force. (And be sure to read the continuing discussion in the comments of each to see more of the ever-evolving arguments.)

The problem, as I see it, goes back to that timeline (re-created in handy table form to the right, including Metacritc averages). Let’s take a closer look at some of the games that came out between the releases of the original Crackdown (March 2007) and Crackdown 2 (July 2010) — some 40 months — and see what we can learn:

  • The Saints Row and Just Cause series are interesting cases, since they came out before Crackdown, lobbing the first volleys in the PS3/XB360 open-world frontier. Saints Row delivered a competent Grand Theft Auto clone, and the sequel, which came out a little over two years later, refined a solid shooting system while shoveling tons of options and colorful side missions (to put it lightly) into a world where wrecking havoc became a joyous habit.
  • Though it wasn’t as warmly received, Just Cause had a more interesting premise, taking the action out of the urban backdrop and onto an island overrun with feuding factions. Worth noting is that with a similarly long gestation period (42 months) as the Crackdowns had between games, Just Cause 2 corrected a lot of the first game’s problems, diversified the missions, and nearly achieved that “it” feeling with its slick grappling hook/parachute combo.
  • With the Assassin’s Creed games, we have a hugely hyped first game that offers a wonderful world…filled with monotony. I remember some critics even calling Assassin’s Creed a glorified tech demo and a beautiful proof of concept. Ouch. I would certainly choose the original Crackdown over this one.
  • Assassin’s Creed 2, though, blew away gamers with its interesting characters and story, creative items, enjoyable metagame, and most important, diverse mission types. That leap — and nine points in Metacritic score — happened over a comparatively snappy 24 months.
  • Grand Theft Auto 4 was a seismic event in the open-world genre that was rightly praised. Tellingly, its downloadable content each even outscored most $60 retail games in the genre.

Collectively, all these titles and more show that the open-world genre has flourished on the current generation of consoles. Enter Crackdown 2, and we have the lowest-scoring game of the bunch since the original Crackdown…by a hefty margin. You may argue that review scores don’t necessarily tell the whole story — and I agree — but they do offer a snapshot of the critical consensus. With sequels in particular, they are useful tools for telling us if people were generally pleased or disappointed compared to the first game. (See again: Assassin’s Creed 2.)

This all points to one theme: We’ve moved forward. When it comes to narrative, GTA4, Assassin’s Creed 2, and especially Red Dead Redemption have people interested in more than just the sandbox the game takes place in.

That’s not quite story-light Crackdown 2’s specialty, you may point out. Fair enough. For superhero-style shenanigans, InFamous offers up far more varied powers, and even some rudimentary moral decisions.

Perhaps open-world shooters serve as a better fit? Though I haven’t played Red Faction: Guerrilla, many a friend have hailed it as one of their favorite games of last year. Plus, I can’t imagine it has the same target-lock-on problems that plague Crackdown 2’s shooty action.

So let’s go back to that missed moment and into the world of hypotheticals. Had Crackdown 2 come out in November of 2008, it would have fared far better — probably right in line with the enjoyable Saints Row 2. This would have allowed it some space after GTA4 and the ability to capitalize on the goodwill the first game garnered (which even now is one of the sequel’s saving graces). We saw a similar scenario with the seemingly quick turnaround from Left 4 Dead to its sequel, and that turned out OK.

As much as every game is a world into itself, for a lot of players these games exist alongside peers that litter gaming’s galaxy. And no matter how much fun Crackdown 2’s “it” hook is, in those 40 months between Crackdowns, teams at other developers labored to create worlds where they raised the bar higher, almost always adding something of substance.

And so here I am now, telling you why this game shouldn’t be good, yet I’m about to sound like a backpedaling fool: I still enjoy Crackdown 2. Each time I put a few hours into the game, I have a good time. Well, mostly. But I can't shake a few points from my mind as I play.

  1. The hook that drove me through the first game has already worn thin. I haven’t played Crackdown 2 for a few days now, and that itch to go back isn’t there, certainly not as it was with the first game. (Even after reviewing the original Crackdown, I eagerly replayed it when it hit store shelves.) Just two months ago, I couldn’t wait to wake up each morning to play Red Dead Redemption, and that was after staying up far too late the previous night exploring Rockstar’s Wild West. I miss that feeling.
  2. Even with the fun I’m having with the game, a much higher level of frustration offsets those moments of enjoyment. Crackdown 2 does many little things wrong and simply didn’t fix some first-game problems. In fact, I spend a lot of my orb hunts hoping I don’t stray into a stronghold zone, lest a stream of homing missiles end my agent’s mission prematurely.
  3. I’m glad I didn’t pay for it. I get the sinking feeling that had I spent $60 on Crackdown 2, I would be either regretting my purchase or trying to justify it.

I watched Toy Story 3 a few weeks ago and can’t help but see some similarities here. The toys we grew to love over the course of Pixar’s trilogy remain eager to play at Andy’s whim. But while their world of make believe always offers the same dependable fun escape, Andy’s need for that particular escape lessons. He’s presumably moving on to things like sports, girls, and school.

With Crackdown 2 we open up that toy chest one more time, and it offers a lot of the same charm it always had — with support for more participants to boot — but it still feels like a remnant that won’t have the same staying power. Nostalgia is a powerful force; heck, I regularly check out the Virtual Console library to see what memories I can stir up. It just can’t be the only force.

I certainly don’t blame anyone for loving this game. I do, however, understand why it feels out of place for me despite the fun I've had.