In my column You Build Worlds, I talk up the importance of a well-made world by slagging a game that doesn’t have one: Crackdown 2. Why did I pick on Crackdown 2? Because it’s a shallow, silly, slim-budget knock-off of its predecessor. At the same time, it’s also a hoot—a fun, raucous game that I keep coming back to again and again, namely, every time I’m filled with rage and want to blow stuff up. I can’t stop mocking it, but I can’t stop playing it, either.
So with this game in mind, let’s consider: Is a believable world as important as creating fun and challenging gameplay?
Crackdown 2 takes place in Pacific City, a metropolis that’s going down in ruins and flames. Great cities are made by the people who live in them, and in the case of Crackdown 2, the news ain’t good. The city is home to three different forces: Cell, a terrorist group that may or may not have good intentions (the game doesn’t really care); the Freaks, who are actually zombies; and the Agency, with a private police force straight out of Robocob that promises to fix the city’s problems.
But there’s a fourth group in play here, and that’s the Civilians. Like any urban sandbox game, Crackdown 2 persuades you that you are in a living, breathing city by filling it with pedestrians. When a game does this right, you get the impression that these people have their own lives, their own ideas, and their own problems. In GTA IV, I often felt like the other people on the sidewalk were actually a little bit cooler and more important than my character.
Crackdown 2 does not get it right. Here, the Civilians serve no purpose. They don’t help you, they don’t add color, you can’t steal their cars, they don’t launch missions. They do exactly one thing: die.
This begs a question: why are they here? And I mean in the fiction, why do the Civilians stay? In most modern cities, times of crisis spark refugees. People have flooded out of urban areas for a lot less than a double-whammy terrorist/zombie invasion. Why hasn’t every single able-bodied person already left this city? And why do they get in your way when you’re flinging missiles at a giant crowd of Freaks, or taking over an oil rig way out in the bay? (I found a civilian in a terrorist nest, cut off two miles from shore. Totally baffling.)
Why are they so dumb? And let’s say they’re trapped here, and for whatever reason, can’t flee the city— why aren’t they all dead by now? inFamous gave us a clear explanation for why all the civilians in a terror-struck city are trapped inside. It also used those civilians, as a goal and an obstacle, an instigator of missions, and an opportunity for random acts of mercy or cruelty. You start to believe in these lives, and when you clear a gang out of their neighborhood, you know that you’ve saved those lives. Every single thing inFamous did right, Crackdown 2 didn’t bother to do at all.
The other sides don’t add up either. Do you need to have terrorists and zombies in the same game? Probably not, and although the game’s hidden narrative—a series of tapes scattered around the buildings—ties them together, it’s a bit of a band-aid. A virus created the Freaks, and Cell arose to push the Agency to create a vaccine. That’s fine, but it doesn’t make either of the groups convincing. The Freaks pour out by the hundreds, out of caves or even rise, ghost-like, from solid ground. It’s unfathomable where they could all have come from, and unsatisfying to wipe them out with a bunch of giant searchlights. (They’re caused by a virus—why not spray antidote?) As for the Terrorists, you can find them at a series of bases that have to be cleared out and retaken, but you never find their main HQ, and you never learn where they really come from—making them an amorphous problem that’s never resolved, and so never fully understood.
As the middle of a trilogy—a scene after the credits suggests there’ll be a third—Crackdown 2 lacks an ending, and so it lacks satisfaction. Do you really wipe out the Freaks? Probably not—there’s no reason they can’t come back. You definitely don’t wipe out Cell; like I said, you never even find their base or, in-game, meet their leader. And while the Agency is obviously the real bad guy, the Agency’s the one giving you the guns and the extra lives. So story be damned: the gameplay likes them, and so do we.
All of this is played out against a large but weirdly empty city. The cool fortified structures and other mission locations from the first game come back, look wrecked, and have nothing to offer you. Hopping through so much disused space can make you blue, for all the wrong reasons: you don’t feel like the city is dying, so much as that nobody bothered to bring it to life.
And by the way, the only reason to canvas this space is to reach a mission—or to hunt for collectibles. 500 agility orbs, 300 mystery orbs, 50-some hidden audio tapes … there’s no end of collectibles in this game, and they’re simply there because people (like me) have a compulsion to collect stuff.
Collectibles are the gratuitous nudity of world-building. If you need that many to keep the player’s attention, you’re doing something very wrong.
But let’s go back to the premise. There’s a problem here that runs deeper than a non-suspension of disbelief. Consider how the world feels: what’s it like to live in this city? What is our relationship to this world, as the player and protagonist? I’ll tell you how I feel when I play the game: like a jackass.
The hero is so out of place here, so much bigger than the people around him, that you instantly feel detached. Everyone you meet is in your way: you’re either dodging them or killing them, preferably with rockets. You are so far above it—so much more powerful, so immune to this random turmoil – that you barely belong: you’re a child, and here are your blocks, waiting to be tossed across the room.
This isn’t a failure of gameplay or story; it’s a failure of vision, a failure to craft a theme that holds the product together. It’s the difference between cheap thrills and a lasting experience. And it’s the difference between a world that engages you, and one that submits to you.