Move over, Rockstar. Out of the way, Volition. There's a new king of the sandbox game: Realtime Worlds.
The first effort of Realtime Worlds has smashed it's way onto the XBox 360 like so many cars I hurl at Los Muertos members. The creator of the beloved Grand Theft Auto franchise may have a new phenomenon on his hands here.
The world has gone to hell, and the world's police forces have combined to create The Agency, an outfit designed to finally end crime once and for all.
Pacific City is the headquarters of The Agency. Thanks to the stolen works of disgraced scientist, biologist, and future bullet magnet Dr. Baltazar Czernenko, The Agency have created their first "Agent," a cybernetically enhanced superhuman capable of anything beyond the peak of human potential. With passing the rigorous testing phase, the Agency is ready to release this savior onto the streets of Pacific City. This is where you come in.
Yeah, it isn't much of a story, which is a shame since the city designed here and the premise offered could have allowed for rich, detailed characters in a gritty cyberpunk world.
You step into the combat boots of this nameless "Agent." At the outset of the game, you can choose one of eight (twelve after the most recent download) different avatars for this agent, all of whom represent some country or subculture of the world. Rest assured, you'll find somebody who suits you. Another nice thing is that every time you load up your game, you can choose a different avatar, so there's no character regret if you change your mind.
After you've picked your Agent and set up your game, there's a quick loading screen (the only one you'll see during gameplay, the city is entirely streaming) and then you are off to rid the city of it's criminal element.
When you take a look at the graphics, you'll notice that things are a little cartoony. This is because the developers wanted to make it seem as though you were playing a comic book in which you are the unstoppable main character. They pull this off in spades. Even if you hate cel-shading, you'll enjoy this game's visual style.
The first thing you'll do in the game most likely is take of the Agency's vehicles for a spin, considering you start the game in a garage, and the first thing you'll notice about the driving is that while the vehicles look fairly cool, the handling takes some getting accustomed to. I've always found the driving in sandbox games to be the most difficult thing to grasp, and this game is no different. You'll definitely spend more of the beginning of the game accidentally running over pedestrians.
Apart from the driving, there are four other core skills for your Agent to develop. These are Agility, Driving, Explosives, Strength, and Firearms. All of these tools are extremely valuable and serve you well once you start the game, and as you progress through and level these skills up, the fun factor just skyrockets.
Agility dictates your running speed and how high/far you can jump. This definitely becomes one of the more crucial skills for you to develop, since many of the bosses require you to jump for your life if you want to survive. At the outset, your maximum running speed is comparable to any other freeroamer, and you can jump a good ten feet. Already you can play a mean game of basketball. As you level up, you can run faster and jump higher. Before long, you'll be able to outrun cars on the freeway and completely clear small buildings with one jump. You do this by collecting the 500 agility orbs scattered throughout the city, and by completing one of the many rooftop races throughout each district. The orb collecting and races are actually not chores as they may sound like. Collecting agility orbs becomes one of the more addictive elements of the game. I found myself several times completely ignoring the gangsters shooting at me so I could collect one hard-to-reach orb. The race courses are also very well designed and actually quite fun to do, as they show you different parts of the city you might not have seen if you had just jumped around on your own.
Driving is leveled up by performing stunts and running over criminals. As you level up your driving, the cars thankfully handle much better than they did when you start the game. The Agency vehicles are affected the most by this, as you'll see that the cars literally transform when you step into them. Before long, the Supercar morphs into the Batmobile and can fire machine guns, the SUV can bunny hop and drive up vertical surfaces, and the Truck Cab gets a nitro boost that allows it to plow through just about anything that isn't cemented in. This is when the driving becomes absolutely awesome. There are also races to complete, and the courses given are for the most part well-designed, comparable to any of the freeroaming Need for Speed games you might have played.
Your explosives skill is leveled up by, you guessed it, blowing **** up. The more criminals you take down with grenades, rocket launchers, and sticky mines, the more effective your entire explosive arsenal becomes. By the time you max this out, you will make big booms. My personal favorite explosive weapon is the grenade launcher you can take off of one of the Los Muertos bosses. Explosives also make for more of the fun you'll have during your downtime from shooting the bad guys. Try throwing a bunch of corpses and explosive barrels in a dump truck, and then throw a few grenades in.
Strength is one of the most important skills you can level up, since it increases your health and allows you to lift things up that are so heavy that Superman himself would adjust his workout regimen. You level this up by kicking people, throwing objects at people, and throwing people at other people. I had a lot of fun leveling this skill up, because eventually your kicks send the bad guys flying, and there's nothing quite as satisfying as kicking a guy off the roof of a skyscraper.
The last skill you can level up is your aptitude with firearms. At the outset of the game, you have two different approaches to aiming and firing your guns. Since the game uses a first-person control scheme ala Saints Row, you can also kill enemies the same way. Just free-form aim and fire. There's also a very handy and well-designed lock-on feature that allows you to target specific spots on a person's body. Shoot them in the legs, and it drops them to the ground. Shoot their arms, they drop the gun they're carrying. One well-placed shot to the head will kill nearly every enemy. It's a very well implemented feature and will no doubt become status quo of any freeform game released here on out.
Speaking of the firearms, there's no shortage of boomsticks for you to use in the game. When you start, you're given an Agency standard issue pistol and assault rifle, and your choice of sticky mines or frag grenades. These weapons are actually more useful than you would think. In fact, I fell in love with the Agency pistol so much, I made it my character's signature weapon. I even named it "Sharon." As you kill gang members, you'll also be given access to a variety of firearms, ranging from your standard shotguns and assault rifles to a Heavy Machine Gun (the Rambo gun), grenade launchers, and a homing missile delivery system. There are sniper rifles, but they seem out of place for this game. Many of the weapons have scopes too, but they're clunky and cluttered and unwieldy to use, and the lock-on feature is so well done that you don't need to use them unless you want to have a look at the city in a first-person view.
This brings me to the city. Let me get this out of the way right now:
Pacific City is the best designed city ever made in a freeroaming video game.
I am absolutely in love with this game's setting. The buildings and overall layout of the city are designed specifically for vertical pwnage and rooftop jumping without sacrificing any authenticity for a city. The city makes sense from the sidewalks as much from the rooftops. There are several spots that offer fantastic, sweeping panoramic views of the city, and when you find yourself looking at some of the different areas, you'll be amazed at how alive the city really is. There are very few interior environments, but you'll have so much fun jumping rooftops and scaling balconies that you soon won't care. The cityscape itself is a bright and beautiful area, filled with neon lights and futuristic buildings that will have you exploring for months.
The tallest building in the game, The Agency Tower, is positively epic. The building lies directly in the center of the game world and is visible from just about any point on the map. At night, three beams of red light streak out from the tops of the spires, and while this effect is completely stylistic, it's also completely awesome. It's definitely a fantastic piece of architecture. On an interesting note, I found out that if this building were to exist in real life, it's dimensions would rival that of the Empire State Building's three times over.
Too bad it's all over so soon.
The game itself is quite short when played properly, and you can blow through the game on the easiest setting in around eight hours. When it's done, you have the option of turning the crime back on so you can have people to shoot, or you can leave them out so you can tool around the city and create your own havoc. However, I spent eight hours in the first district alone, so the game is only as long as you want to make it. When the story mode is all over, there are many, many things you can do to make your own if you're creative enough. Pitch-perfect physics and sticky mines will make for boundless possibilities for large explosions and mass amounts of maniacal laughter. Replay value abound, here.
Another unfortunate thing is you can't have more than one save file; so if you want to start a new character, you have to delete your original save. Since this feature was included in Saints Row and even a much deeper game, Oblivion, the lack of this feature is nigh-inexcusable.
I reserved this spot to complain about something I've begged freeroamers for since Vice City: a replay feature. I've always wanted some way to record my ridiculous stunts in games (even more so in Crackdown, since you can string together some ridiculous fight scenes), and no game has ever been able to deliver. Thankfully, Realtime Worlds is working on this feature, and will be released as a downloadable feature some time in the future. Bless you, Realtime Worlds. Bless you.
Another wonderful feature that was fully fleshed out and sets it apart and above from other sandbox games is the inclusion of drop-in-drop-out cooperative play. You and a buddy can take to the streets either through system link, or over XBox Live and administer double the justice.
This feature has to be the best part of the game, and I would argue that the co-op in this game is better than that of Gears of War. Why? You can hit each other.
Some of the most fun you'll have in this game is the ways you'll abuse each other throughout the course of the game. Whether trying to run each other over, blowing up the gas tanks of the cars they're driving, throwing the car off a huge cliff while you're both in it and then bailing, leaving your partner to die, smacking each other with cinder blocks when they're not looking, Body Baseball, Tire bowling, piling things that explode and then detonating, there's way too much fun you can have with a friend, and is a perfect feature that will keep you playing for a long time.
To add to the replay value, Realtime Worlds already has several other downloadable content additions in development to be released sometime in the future. They are 100% committed to this game, and I have to say, I am totally behind them.
As the years go on, we will see two major freeroaming franchises: GTA and Crackdown. Which one will come out on top remains to be seen, but if Crackdown goes in the direction that I see in this game, crime will definitely not pay.
+Sprawling, beautiful, well-designed city
+Wonderful lock-on system
+Replay value out the wazoo
+You're a superhuman!
-Unnecessary weapon scopes
-You can only have one save file
-The story mode is short
Crackdown is the best freeroamer available on the next-gen. It's addictive, fun, and very worthy of your money. Even if you only get it for the Halo 3 beta invite, just pop it in once. You'll be pleasantly surprised with the sheer vast amount of fun this game is.