Xbox 360 Preview

Crackdown 2

Martin's got it cracked

In designing a sequel to a cult classic, a developer has to walk a fine tightrope between innovation and familiarity. Turning a twee, colourful-linens franchise into a bevy of blades and metal will probably upset some of the fans, for instance. Coincidentally, my role in sequel development is sitting on my bum and making snide remarks whenever the process goes wrong. I am an integral cog.

Still, I have learnt a thing or two in my time. Such as this nugget: staying contemporary helps, but sometimes bucking a popular trend doesn't pay off - just imagine if Master Chief popped up as an all-singing, all-dancing member of the USMC Glee club in Halo: Reach.

Ruffian Games will understand what this better than most, having chewed their fair share of pen nibs thinking about designing Crackdown 2. Thankfully, they came to the right decision: Crackdown's announcer is back. And he's still happy to put a squad of agency peacekeepers - "this is going to hurt them a lot more than it's going to hurt you" - on your tail as punishment for nonchalantly ploughing through a pack of civilians while trying to make your car do some totally sweet flips.

It's still Crackdown, and this is a good thing. The modus operandi is exactly the same, with you jumping from tower to tower, blowing up cars with a single shot to the fuel tank and almost inevitably causing some collateral damage as you stomp over your frail enemies. If Red Dead Redemption polishes the narrative-driven, atmospheric open world game then Crackdown 2 shows the strengths in the diametric opposite, wafting only the thinnest of plots in your direction and then throwing you loads of shiny toys to play with.

There are a few new things added to the mix, like gnarly mutants. Why? Because you accidentally let some of the Shai Gen crime syndicate's genetic monstrosities leak into the sewers near the end of the first game? Well, sure, but mostly because Ruffian figured running over big, dense packs of green-blooded mutant freaks would be buckets of squelchy fun, and great XP to boot.

Whilst we're talking about cars, do you remember how you'd spawn with an Agency supercar at the HQ and drive it down that big long tunnel before hitting the ramp, narrowly missing the stunt marker every single time, then crash long before you ever reached your destination? Now a helicopter just delivers you a car every time you spawn, regardless of where you are. Easy.

You'll actually need to make use of your wheels if you're going to make it through the night. When the sun goes down the freaks come out, and while Ruffian couldn't admit if they based this particular feature on the streets of Blackpool they certainly wouldn't deny it, either. Mutants spawn in their hundreds and the bigger, badder and more badass ones are more than happy to chase you to the rooftops in an effort to hasten your next respawn, meaning the best defence is retreating to a bloody massive Agency supercar prepared to get its bumper messy.

The freaks are clearly a bit of a problem, and their presence has had a negative effect on the value of real estate in Pacific City. They've also made late night raids on the supermarket for munchies impossible. The citizens are upset, understandably, and a fair good few of them are incensed enough to form a terrorist group called The Cell, who hate the Agency and like to dress in dapper goggles and also the chunky knits that were so fashionable last winter.

Your mission, then, which you were genetically grown in a tube to accept, is to give the dissenting naysayers of The Cell a jolly good kicking as well as eliminating the freaks by exploding bombs in the city's sewers and tunnels.

How you do that is up to you - I like to bomb around like a bull in a china shop, picking up any agility orbs I come across, and eventually cause enough destruction I accidentally blow up the right target. You might like to play it mission by mission, zipping straight to the objectives whenever they pop up on your screen, although if you play it like this you're a) really boring and b) probably not going to have much fun.

Pacific City was built to be a playground, and to get the most fun of Crackdown 2 you have to treat it like one. New additions that bring out the inner child include Renegade Orbs, which roam around the city of their own accord and run away from you as you try to collect them. Regardless of your objectives, the immediate desire when seeing one of these things pottering about is to drop everything and give chase, even if it means accidentally mowing down a pack of Peacekeepers as you perform an impromptu U-turn.

Another new orb can only be collected in co-op, which now supports up to 4 players, and should provide a good incentive for players to stop trying to blast each other off rooftops with rocket launchers for a few seconds and work together.

It really does all sound very much like Crackdown, doesn't it? One of the more remarkable balancing acts is how Ruffian have kept Pacific City in roughly the same shape and size as the original - there's still the three recognisable districts, with the Agency Tower sitting pretty in the middle of the city, tall enough to pierce the clouds. At the same time they've reworked and rejigged many of the areas, making certain bits taller, more detailed and sufficiently new enough to make you want to explore everything all over again.

Playing it feels like sliding your feet into a comfortable pair of slippers you forgot about. You pick your thin, svelte and defenceless agent and let him loose in the city, where he quickly accumulates experience and skills (skills for kills, Agent!) alongside thick, impenetrable layers of hulking armour and a swanky helmet. Okay, the helmet comes about fifteen minutes in - but it's still technically an unlockable.

The same visual feedback is still present in levelling up, but upgrading your skills now unlocks new abilities over time. Chief amongst these is the Wing Suit, awarded for maxing out your agility and giving you the option to glide around like a flying squirrel. Not a very imposing mental image, I'll admit, but if you fire off a few rockets you'll probably silence any members of The Cell who dare to giggle at you.

It's that kind of little touch which shows how Ruffian is trying to complement the original's strengths whilst also trying to overcome some of its weaknesses. One major flaw already fixed: they're keeping city saves and Agent saves separate, meaning you can have two (or three - I'm sure they won't mind) characters existing at once.

It all combines to show Ruffian's approach to sequel development - create more, create better. Crackdown 2's debt to the original is always evident, but it looks like there will be plenty of additional features to get your teeth stuck into come its release in July. Ruffian Games clearly understand the spirit behind Crackdown: ridiculous stunts, overblown explosions and super powers.

Crackdown 2 is released for 360 on July 9.

E3 Trailer