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Cracking Heads and Taking Names

Game On


Published March 21, 2007 at 4:00 p.m.

You know what happens when you fight the law. The law wins.

In Western culture, we have a very positive image of our men and women in blue. Somehow the police always get a break when it comes to social unrest, and most people don't want to hold a few roadside clubbings against the people who vow to serve and protect.

Plus, someone's got to protect us from the criminals.

"Crackdown" comes to the Xbox 360 with this idea as a format-flipping take on open-ended urban adventures pioneered by the "Grand Theft Auto" series. The copying shows up on every corner of every block in this massive simulated city. Your character can jump in any car, use any weapon and explore the sprawling criminal environment at will. Pedestrians scramble out of the way and enemies prowl the sidewalk in endless supply. The difference: Where "GTA" put the player in the role of a felon rising to the top of a corrupt hierarchy of vice, "Crackdown" drops you into the boots of a supercop who's intent on taking back the streets.

Pacific City has fallen under the rule of three racially distinct gangs - a Latin American mafia, a Russian mob and a Chinese gang. These thugs' rule is so complete that civil society has retreated into a building called the Keep, and a neoscientist named Dr. Mengele has created a strain of genetically modified police officers who can leap across buildings like Spider-Man, heal themselves at will and battle crime with the efficiency of machines.

With the good-guy violence of "RoboCop" spliced with the bad-guy bloodshed of "Grand Theft Auto," we no longer have to fret about context.

But despite some routine warnings about "not killing too many civilians," Pacific City substitutes for the Wild West, and your super and police powers give you license to cause just about any amount of violence or property damage you see fit. Whether you're playing cop or criminal, this game style taps into a joyous feeling of abandon, banging around a crowded urban space like a kid on a playground. The concrete jungle transforms into a wondrous concrete jungle gym. The ability to jump two stories in the air and hurtle from building to building without worrying about injury or death opens the landscape vertically the way that car stealing in "GTA" opened the city horizontally. Released from moral context, social repercussions and, now, gravity, the city life of 'Crackdown" advances games as the theater of freedom.

Introducing multiplayer into the formula only underlines the basic truth about why people think cities are fun. Exploring a new place that's filled with activity and other people is what makes the urban urbane. If this comes in the package of a little Draconian law enforcement in a dystopian universe, that's just icing on the simple pleasure of pounding the pavement in a new place.

Who's It For: With an M rating and frenetic play style, the game fits between those too young to take in all the ultraviolence and those too old to keep up.

If You Like This, Try That: "Saints Row" was the first "Grand Theft Auto" homage on the Xbox 360, and it remains an entertaining crime spree. On the other hand, there's nothing like the original. Try out "GTA: San Andreas" on the PS2 while you wait for the next era in "GTA" amusement.

Best Part: Climbing buildings and leaping from rooftop to rooftop provides so much excitement that players might leave the busy streets behind. Sure, you can commandeer any vehicle on the streets. But why drive when you can fly?