Special - truly special - games have one thing in common. Just existing in their world is a joy in itself. Five minutes alone with Tony Hawk and you'll find yourself daydreaming about ways to grind from one end of the shopping centre to the other. Too many late nights on Burnout 3 almost caused a major incident when we overtook a car on a bridge somewhere near Oxford. And not a day goes by when we don't imagine the Future Publishing offices in the style of Hitman, wondering how to choke out the schmucks on the nearby PlayStation magazine without our superiors noticing. Good times, all.
But the biggest surprise is that GTA doesn't do this for us. It's not that GTA III wasn't a brilliant game - it's right up there with the best - but in GTA, its mundane, everyday setting means the pleasure comes in your brain working the other way - ie, it's a case of your real-life desires invading the game, not that of gaming pleasures invading your real-life thoughts.
JUMP! FOR MY ORBS
But Crackdown is different. It's the first free-roamer that's really got inside our heads. We can't nip round town anymore without imagining the million ways that we could scale that Starbucks Café. It's reinvigorated our love for climbing trees. It's made us believe there ain't no mountain high enough, as long as we keep practicing our leaps. Crackdown, believe it or not, makes GTA's world (and, by proxy, our world) look stunted, boring and limited. Let's put it this way. In 1997, Real Time Worlds' Dave Jones invented GTA. In 2007, he re-invented it.
That's quite some claim, so we should probably quantify it. Crackdown isn't as good as Vice City or San Andreas - in fact, far from it. But it's probably the first GTA clone that isn't a GTA clone, if you get what we mean - all the wannabes we've played since we first leapt out of that burning police convoy in Liberty City all those years ago - from True Crime to Saints Row to Just Cause - this is the first one that doesn't feel like it's a 'me too' tribute to Rockstar's finest. It's got its own unique structure, its own unique progression tree and its own unique style. It's not a GTA clone at all, in fact - it's one of the first to treat the free-form urban city as a genre rather than something to be aped. What follows is something of such vision and ambition that it's no surprise that the final product is a bit of a patchwork of very good and slightly bad. Let's jump in and take a look.
A BIT MORE PACIFIC
When you first fling yourself into Crackdown's world, you'll be amazed how lo-fi it is. There's no glorious back-setting, no lengthy cut-scenes, your character doesn't even have a name. You begin life in the Agency HQ as an anonymous bio-engineered agent with only slightly above-average jumping and lifting abilities. With little fanfare, you're flung out into the blue and orange cel-shaded world of Pacific City with but one goal: bring peace to the city.
This you'll achieve by taking out key members of the three gangs currently ruling the roost. Pacific City is separated into three separate districts, each ruled by a separate faction (all of which are immigrant settlements - hmm, very hmm). So out you pop into the big wide world and - here's the thing - every single part of the city is open to you from the get-go. No plot contrivances involving renovated bridges nor restraining orders - you're good to go from the outset.
Moreover, all 21 targets - seven on each island - are open from the beginning and can also be tackled in any order you wish. There's a difficulty gradient that encourages you to tackle the bosses in a certain order - for example, the Los Muertos district, the first one you'll encounter when you leave the Agency HQ, is noticeably flatter than the other districts, allowing a novice agent to clamber around it with ease. The amusement park on the coast, in fact, is so flat and yet so full of goodies that it becomes a tutorial in all but name, and it's the first place you should hop off to. Cruise around the districts and sooner or later you'll encounter the home of one of the key gang members (accompanied by an amusingly hokey cinematic intro: in truth, it's slightly irritating that you have to find them yourselves, but in fairness it's not like travelling around the world is any kind of chore). Once at their door, your agency will feed you a success probability rating, which will initially range from as high as 90% for the dumb-ass Los Muertos drug baron who likes nothing better than relaxing on wide-open rooftops, and as low as 5.7% for the Shai-Gen leader cooped up in a tower block with more military presence than the Gaza Strip. 5.7%? We like those odds.