The freaks themselves also represent something of a step back from Crackdown – an annoying, seldom-all-that threatening crowd of Flood wannabes with nothing better to do save run up and scream at the derivativeness of it all till you poke them sympathetically in the kidneys with a lamp-post. Upgraded models are to be found a few hours long of the credit roll, but assuming you’ve shot or punched a few people in the interim you’ll be a veritable tank by this point, with four recharging health bars under your belt and a rocket launcher worthy of a battleship. The odd, shoulder-barging Hulk-a-like presents some challenge, but only when encountered at ground level, and this being Crackdown, ground level is generally the last place you’ll be.
Having said that, the platforming mechanics are rickety. Smooth, graceful leaps from rooftop to rooftop show off the engine best, with all the ‘fine detail’ at a decent remove. Climbing to the requisite height, though, is a throwback affair in all the worst senses of the word. Ruffian has taken a pick-an-mix approach to handholds – some snatching you out of a dive against the odds, others bafflingly averse to your clutching fingers – and the third-person camera has a seriously stiff neck. Thankfully, your Agency handler is pretty good at letting you know which objectives are beyond your present athletic capabilities: without his growls of advice, our playthrough would have quite literally hit a brick wall.
Shooting could use some work too. The presence of a heavy-duty lock-on makes sense given the number and 360 degree distribution of threats, but this specimen is a n00b in the arts of urban warfare, zeroing in on parked cars hundreds of metres away rather than shoving your reticle up the nose of the Gatling gunner in the foreground. Greater effectiveness in the fray later on is more a question of increased splash damage than practice-makes-perfect.
Predictably, the best bits are to be found in multiplayer. Drop-in co-op pushed Crackdown’s hour count comfortably into double figures, and the sequel lets you fool around in gangs of four. It feels a bit hollow at first, the only indication of others’ presence being arrows on the minimap, and even close up fellow Agents are sometimes lost in all the blast clouds, but sooner or later somebody will swat you playfully with a car door, and you’ll tousle their hair with a pick-up truck, and they’ll fire a harpoon through your leg, and you’ll park a tank on their foot, and a jolly good time will be had by all. Ruffian’s relaxed attitude to structure and taste for kinetic rewards make for a great party experience, and that also bodes well for the 16-player deathmatch, team deathmatch and rocket tag arena modes that wait in the wings.
It’s one of this summer’s greater paradoxes (OK, maybe just July’s) that this lack of consequence, this refusal to ‘get serious’ about the architecture of a campaign, should be both the thing I like most about Crackdown 2 and the thing that, considered in itself, stops it well short of greatness. For a game in which you can leap over skyscrapers, the Xbox 360′s latest window-filler sets the bar strangely low. It still feels like a budget project, a slice of throwaway fun jury-rigged to a more significant release, but this time there’s no Halo 3 to hide behind, and the downsides are too conspicuous to ignore.