So, I was supposed to hate this game. After all, the only reason I bought it--and I assume this is true of most of the people who bought Crackdown when it first arrived in February--was to get into the Halo 3 multiplayer beta. You see, that was the hidden selling point of the game: Everyone who bought Crackdown could get an early peek at the next Halo. And while the saner out there might wonder why anyone would pay $60 for a game just to play a few levels of another game online, let's face up to reality: Halo 3 is a big deal.

But so, as it turns out, is Crackdown. Loosely modeled after the popular but abhorrent Grand Theft Auto (GTA) games, Crackdown offers the same style of loose, wide-open game play, along with heaping helpings of admittedly comic book-like violence. No, Crackdown isn't a game for the kids. But then it's not as silly and questionable as GTA either. In fact, Crackdown is a surprisingly good and even somewhat addictive game.

Plot

You play a rookie Agency peace keeper in a fictional place called Pacific City, which is being overrun by three violent gangs, Los Muertos, the Volk, and Shai-Gen. The Agency is a paramilitary police force whose agents are infused with genetically enhanced super powers, which provides the basic conceit of the game: When you "die," you're simply rejuvenated back at the Agency headquarters, and as you progress through the game, your powers increase, allowing you to scale to new heights, deliver more crushing blows, and better master various vehicles.

And that's about it: Pacific City is conveniently divided into three main areas, each populated with civilians, peace keepers, and a gang. You can progress through the game however you like, either logically--bumping off gang leaders and then entire gangs, from weakest to strongest--or piecemeal, in whatever order you'd like. And there are those ever-increasing powers to hone along the way, again in whatever order you'd like. It' all up to you. Even when you've successfully defeated all of the gangs and restored order to Pacific City, you can continue playing in order to rack up Achievements and max out your powers. And Crackdown is even nice enough to let you toggle gangs on and off after you've finished off all of the gangs, as many of the Achievements require you to inflict damage on the bad guys.

Gameplay

My initial foray into Crackdown was disappointing, as it was unclear exactly what it was I was supposed to do. You begin the game in the Agency garage, underneath the colossal Agency tower, with absolutely no experience, no skills, and a choice of three vehicles: The Agency super-car (which you'd assume would be the best choice, but rarely is), an SUV (which quickly becomes your ride of choice), and an almost completely useless truck cab. In a nice touch, the vehicles improve in capabilities as you do, so as you begin mastering your driving skills, the vehicles go faster, jump higher and longer, last longer under attack, and so on.

After picking a vehicle, you ride out through one of three tunnels to one of the three areas of Pacific City. And that's where my mind shut off: You drive out, witness a battle between gang members and peace keepers, and ... what? You can help. You can drive away. You see other gang members. You become aware of something called supply points. At first the whole thing is sort of disconcerting. If you wanted to, you could literally just drive around the entire city doing nothing.

Fans of GTA and other similar rip-off game titles may adjust to this sort of thing a lot better than I did. But after tooling around with Crackdown for a bit and giving up on it, I decided to return to it, and I'm glad I did. Crackdown is rich in game play, and the variety of tasks you can perform is entertaining and addicting.

Here's what you do: As noted before, you need to take down the three gangs, one at a time. The easiest way to do this is to start with the weakest of the three gangs, Los Muertos, and focus on their part of Pacific City. You do this by taking out gang members, thus increasing your Firearms skill. And along the way, you will recover supply points from the gangs, which give you places to store weapons stolen from gangs, recharge your health, and re-arm. Oh, did I mention the weapons? You have a choice of two traditional gun-type weapons and a grenade, and the gangs have other weapons: When you take one and bring it to a supply point, you can then use it anywhere else in the game.

As you progress, you'll begin taking down gang underlings and, eventually, gang leaders. When you defeat a gang leader, that gang is defeated, and the section of the city they were controlling becomes safe. Additionally, you'll be building skills, not just in strength, but also in driving and agility. Driving skills increase via various races and driving stunts, and also by running over gang members or stealing their cars. (As is the case with most games that feature driving sequences, like Call of Duty 2 [see my review] and Call of Duty 3 [see my review], I found these sections somewhat monotonous in Crackdown.) Agility skills increase as you scale buildings. complete roof-top races, and collect two kinds of orbs on roof-tops around the city. By the end of the game, you'll be scaling and jumping between buildings like Spider-Man. It's an awesome way to travel around, and one of the best experiences in the game. Combine some of this incredible height-defying jumping with a rocket launcher and roof-bound enemies, and you've got the makings of a perfect night of video game play. It's just a lot of fun.

Of course, this being a GTA-style world, you can optionally choose to run over pedestrians, though doing so will temporarily cause the weaker peace keepers to fire on you as well and your race to improve your skills will slow (also temporarily). Sometimes, of course, you just have to run over a pedestrian or two, as they get in the way, and of course there's always collateral damage during a firefight. It's all part of the fun.

Speaking of which, Crackdown's Achievements system is nicely designed. You get rewarded for increasing each of your skills, defeating each of the gangs and gang bosses, and so on. But the game gets really inventive with its various skill-related Achievements. In the Firearms category, for example, you get Achievements for blowing up 100 objects in 60 seconds, using explosives to keep a car in the air for seven seconds, killing five gang members in a single jump (while in the air), and the like. These inventive Achievements keep you playing the game long after you officially finished the plotline stuff, and figuring out how to make some of these things happen is all part of the fun. Some are just frustrating: I never did figure out how to perform six car stunts in 60 seconds, for example, though admittedly the driving stuff was my weak point. And I'm freaked out that I've collected 497 of the 500 Agility Orbs, preventing me from getting that elusive Achievement. The last few are really hard to find and some are just mischievously located.

My only serious beef with the gameplay is that, while Crackdown does offer a cooperative play mode, there's no split screen. So the only way to enjoy the game in this fashion is to connect with others online. That's nice, but I'm surprised they skipped out on what would have been a very welcome feature.

Graphics and sound

Crackdown is presented in the third person. The graphics and presentation are decidedly decidedly comic book like in nature, but absolutely excellent. As you scale the heights of the Agency Tower, the highest point in the game, and an unbelievable place from which to view the city and, yes, collect a couple of crucial Achievements, you'll be struck by its beauty. And that world you're looking out at, stretching for miles in every direction, is fully explorable. You can jump, walk, and drive through every square inch of it. None of it is painted backdrop.

Overall the presentation in Crackdown is lush and well-suited to the game. Explosions are sharp and impressive sounding, and even the unloved driving sequences deliver sonically. The whole package, in short, is solid.

Final thoughts

Aside from some concerns about the overt violence and language in the game, and some missing co-op functionality, Crackdown is a first-rate game and an excellent addition to any action-oriented Xbox 360 gamer's library. What first appears to be a GTA ripoff is in fact a rich and deep game title with all kinds of potential and long-lasting playability. It's fun on many levels, and you'll find yourself whiling away hour after hour as you attempt to complete the ever-elusive and devilish Achievements. No, it's not for kids. But Crackdown is good, old-fashioned fun, served up comic book style. Highly recommended.