A Volvo station wagon whips around a corner before crashing into a lamppost. Beside it, a fierce gun battle wages between police officers and Mexican gang members on the roof of a gas station. And is that a construction worker with a rocket launcher?
Welcome to Crackdown, a non-stop crime-bashing, car-jacking frenzy in which the player takes the role of a super-powered "agent" trying to reclaim a city under siege.
Crackdown's lineage is in the Grand Theft Auto series, which broke new ground with its "sandbox"-style, open-ended play. Each GTA sequel added more details to the virtual cities where you unleash your criminal fantasies, jacking cars, beating up and robbing people at will. The complex storylines of later editions like Vice City and San Andreas made them more like interactive movies than games, complete with Hollywood voice talent.
Real Time Worlds, the Dundee, Scotland-based studio behind Crackdown, was founded by some of the original designers of GTA, who split after the second game to form their own company. While the later GTAs evolved into criminal soap operas, Real Time Worlds decided to improve on the sandbox instead.
As Phil Wilson, the game's producer explains, "The sandbox in other city-based games is really just a distraction from the actual narrative-driven game. For our game, the sandbox was what we were developing for the longest time, making sure we had a playground, a toy set and a lot of things to screw around with."
And what's in that set? Well, firearms, a vast range of explosives and the ability to knock over a bus with a single kick. You can explore a gigantic city of three distinct boroughs, either by whipping around in super-cars, stolen gang vehicles, or by hopping around on rooftops like you've stepped out of The Matrix.
"Crackdown is a vertical world," explains Wilson. "It is like a giant platform game in a sense. And you can operate on street level. But as you start upping your agility, you start grabbing those ledges and pulling yourself up, and you sort of discover this whole complex world above the streets - and that's something the other city based games aren't doing."
But here's where things get tricky. Pacific City, while lavishly constructed, lacks a distinct visual style. A really great game makes you feel like you've stepped into an imaginary city. After playing Crackdown, you still wonder where you are, although you suspect it's a place you might have seen on TV.
"Well, we established it had to be a North American city, but we didn't want it to be a specific one," said Wilson. "It's a dangerous path to go down. For this city we created every building with the character actions in mind. We drew inspiration from New York and Chicago and San Francisco, and for the Los Muertos district that we're in right now from certain parts of L.A. So it's just kind of a mish-mash of all of those really."
The character designs are similarly muddled. You can choose between eight different agents, although they all look essentially the same except for their heads. They are all "extreme" types: guys with tattoos or lots of facial hair or a Marilyn Manson-goth-type mohawked guy. The best for my money is the one on the box art and commercials, who looks a lot like Mr. T.
One of the better elements of the design, however, is the progression of your hero. As you get more experience, your agent actually bulks up, gets more scars, badder-ass haircuts, etc.
Why are so many different things crammed into the game? Just because the designers thought it'd be cool? The answer seems to be yes. For example, in the midst of all the constant gang battles, players can choose to improve their driving skill by road racing on the street. But even if you're a super-cop, it's impossible to race without slamming into pedestrians. Hardly medal-worthy, you know?
Despite all of these flaws I still can't stop playing it. Think of Crackdown like popcorn. It might not fill you up, but that won't stop you from eating the whole bag.