The anticipated release of "Crackdown 2" was met with disappointment from fans and critics alike. Despite an improved co-op experience, the rest of the game felt more like an expansion pack than a full-fledged sequel. I spoke with James Cope, producer at Ruffian Games, shortly before the game's release, to get his take on some of the complaints being levied at the game.
On Returning To Pacific City
One of the issues people have mentioned regarding "Crackdown 2" is the fact that it's set in the same city as the first game and that, despite some visual updates here and there, it feels very much like a retread. Cope mentioned that the decision to return to Pacific City was based on many factors.
"We started work on 'Crackdown 2' at the very beginning of 2009," Cope explained. "Ruffian was formed in 2008 and we jumped straight into Crackdown 2 in 2009 and we worked pretty much flat out from that point on until about two weeks ago."
Any developer will tell you that making a triple-A title in 18 months is a serious challenge, and Cope admits that the tight schedule was one of the reasons for the returning city.
"The timescale aspect did factor into that decision. At the beginning of the project we thought, Ok, there's potentially some effort savings here and we can focus that time in places where we can expand upon the gameplay. The gameplay always won out in those decisions. Did it work? It's arguable."
Cope does take issue with the complaints about it being the "same city," saying that the team considers the new Pacific City a "complete evolution" over the old one. But he's also able to look at it from the perspective of someone throwing down another $60. "As a consumer, I think it's a fair criticism. With my consumer hat on I would look at it the same way. But for us we see [Pacific City] as a huge positive. It's something that's unique to 'Crackdown,' people know it, and new fans to the franchise won't have that baggage, so they're getting that great big new experience."
On Repetitive Missions
The main objective throughout "Crackdown 2" is focused on activating beacons scattered across the city which are able to wipe out the nearby freak populace. There are nine of these beacons and they're the closest thing "Crackdown 2" has to story missions. Unfortunately none of the beacons are terribly different from one another, so players going through the game will invariably get a distinct feeling of déjà vu.
In talking with Cope about these missions, he mentioned that the driving force behind the game was making sure there was total freedom in co-op, and that having more simplistic missions was a requirement of that. "For the campaign game, we had to devise an over-arching mission structure that worked when you go through it on your own, linearly, or go through it with four players doing four completely different things at one point in time, all working to finishing the game...That does impose some creative confines in which we have to work." Confines like not having cutscenes to break up the play or having long, branching missions which could be disrupted by a random player jumping in at an inopportune time.
"One of the things we are worried about is that there are elements of repetitiveness in the game, but that is through necessity of how the game is structured for being this completely open experience that can be approached from any angle with many players."
On The Lack Of Story
The first "Crackdown" basically ended with the realization that the Agency you were working for is actually a much more malevolent, Big Brother-like force. Throughout "Crackdown 2," this isn't really addressed, save for some brief mentions in audio logs and a few radio communications towards the end.
According to Cope, addressing the story simply wasn't a focus for Ruffian.
"Expanding the storyline too much beyond what was already set wasn't what people wanted. The couple of design challenges we faced with the 'Crackdown' franchise was that it's built around a completely free-form and open world. Go-anywhere, do-anything in any order. Trying to tell a story in that is very hard. You can't tell a linear narrative and you can't direct or expect people to be in certain places at certain times and make anything cohesive in that environment. It's one of those things that you just have to sweep under the carpet a little bit and focus on the gameplay experience."
"Crackdown 2" does, however, end with a cutscene which hints at the potential future of the franchise. Regarding this cutscene, Cope said it was designed just to get people's "creative juices flowing" regarding what might happen in the future, but that nothing is set in stone. Whether that's a project Ruffian is working on, though, is TBD. "We're looking at it. We'd like to do it, but there's nothing definite yet."
On The Lack Of Color, To Be Remedied In DLC
The bright color palate of the first "Crackdown" was replaced by darker, more apocalyptic browns and grays in "Crackdown 2." Even the character customization is decidedly subdued, as players only have four colors to pick from (blue, and three different shades of gray). Cope said this was intentional, and that Ruffian was using the dull palate as a way to show the state of Pacific City.
"We wanted to launch the game with a level of consistency. The colors you get by default are Agency-approved colors. Because you can't tell a narrative story, we've looked at external methods to add variety. With DLC it gives us a point in time to refresh people's understanding of the game. By the time the DLC comes out, people will know for certain that The Agency isn't good and then we can start fitting in to the propaganda we set up ahead of launch. The expansion of the armor colors becomes much more vibrant and radical from the Agency's approved perspective as we start looking at DLC."
Cope confirmed that there are currently there are two DLC packs planned for "Crackdown 2," tentatively titled The Toy Box and Deluge. The Toy Box is coming first and will include the return of Keys To The City, a debug mode which allows players to spawn in any object they want, gain even more powerful abilities and generally just mess around. He also mentioned that new gadgets and vehicles will be added in that pack.
The second pack, Deluge, will be more focused on changing the way people play "Crackdown 2."
"We're looking at new game modes to expand the play, rather than say, Here's some new map packs for the game you've already got, which I don't think it great value from a consumer's perspective. We're aiming at having a completely new way to play the game you've already got. I think people are much more appreciative of that."
Cope wouldn't get more specific than that, and he wasn't willing to divulge a time-frame of when we can expect the packs to be released.
In interviewing Cope, it sounded like the team at Ruffian were genuinely trying to make the best of an imperfect situation in the development of "Crackdown 2." The first game took Realtime Worlds five years to bring to market, versus the 18 months given to Ruffian. Here's hoping that Microsoft and other publishers can look at this example and realize the potential perils of damaging a franchise with a rushed development schedule.