Friday, February 23, 2007

Crackdown, tackdown, shackdown...

“OK, watch this.”

POW! With one swift kick the sedan goes sailing over the overpass railing, crashing down onto crowds and traffic below. The ensuing snarl of honking and screaming is explosively cleared up with a casual toss of a cleansing hand-grenade. Before the local future-cops – of whom I’m supposedly a hyperpowered colleague, the Thick Blue Line – can show up, I’m long gone, literally leaping tall buildings in a single bound courtesy of genetically enhanced mega-muscles. As I bound away, the innocent deaths I’d caused take their toll in an infinitesimal decrease in my superpower levels. That’s instant karma in the cosmos of Crackdown: mass murder nets a little weak-kneed moment.

Normally, the scot-free nature of game justice doesn’t bug me – even when games “punish” players for poor moral choices, that punishment is just as artificial as everything else – but Crackdown’s amorality gives me a twinge. Because once the considerable fun of jumping your futuristic supercop around town, causing mayhem and playing Lui Passaglia with minivans settles down and you get to the actual game part of the game… there’s nothing there. No narrative whatsoever. Your job is to eliminate the Futuropolis gang problem by going to gang hideouts and killing everybody there. Go-kill. Repeat. That’s it.

In a way, this is classic gaming, a throwback to the old days of the arcade when dudes with feathered hair and nylon ski vests yanked the stick and slapped the buttons to earn the honor of putting ASS or DIK or FUK up on the high-score list. Did Defender need a plot where the pilot of the ship got romantically involved with one of his rescued humans, or had nightmares over all the humans he failed to catch and watched plummet to the pixilated mountains, every helpless victim transmogrified into a bloodthirsty space mutant? When did we start demanding more from our videogames than INSERT COIN and an extra man at 100,000 points?

A long time ago, when videogames evolved from hand-eye reflex testers into alternate worlds. In Crackdown’s case, the bar was set by those other go-anywhere, drive-anything games of urban mayhem, the Grand Theft Auto series. Just as loaded with over-the-top violence, the GTA games not only offered more variety, but used the setup and payoff of every mission as opportunities to develop characters, storylines and motivations. More importantly, every corner of GTA, from the dialogue to the set-dressing, was loaded with wit and humor. Not always the deepest wit, but always consciousness. Crackdown has no dialogue other than the brutal yawping of thugs and the disembodied voice of your orders-giver, develops no characters beyond their assassination dossiers… and offers no path but to kill dudes, and no reason to kill them beyond authority’s say-so.

It’s not only that Crackdown “doesn’t offer enough to do,” as the few reviewers who’ve bucked the OMG AWEXXSOME!!!! critical consensus complain. It’s that the expectation of a narrative is so strong that one gets projected upon the game whether its there or not – and given what there is to work with, the projected storyline is fucking brutal. It’s the story of a nameless, mutated (and still mutating) superclone dispensing summary mass executions at the command of an all-powerful technocracy determined to secure its power over regional ethnic paramilitaries by labeling them “gangs” and thus acting under a veneer of law and order. It’s a bloody love letter to the worst kind of reactionary, racist, police-state authoritarianism.

Did I say “racist”? That’s the rancid pickle on this ugly shitburger of a game. When the GTA games deployed what could be considered racial stereotypes – Italian mobsters, etc. – there was the dignity of characterization, the defense of satire, or at very least the excuse of being funny. In Crackdown, the “gangs” – whose turfs, which comprise the entirety of Futuropolis, seem stable, clean and safe until you show up with guns blazing – are faceless race-cartoons: greasy, lascivious Latinos; devious, fanatical Orientals; brutal, fascist Slavs. Because their stereotypical ethnic traits are all we know of them beyond what we’re told by the Voice of Authority, those traits are taken by our motivation-hungry narrative as reasons why they deserve to die – at one point, for example, the gruff voice in your ear presents the sound of salsa music as evidence of a crime den.

It sucks that Crackdown is so witless, so devoid of redeeming content that it becomes morally disturbing to play it past a certain point, because it is mechanically fucking awesome – the high-jumping and car-chucking, and even the thug-shooting, are perfectly executed, and feel great in the hands. But without any kind of narrative, without any moral consciousness or even any gameplay beyond go-kill extermination missions, the artless, joyless Crackdown is simply that thing which anti-game crusaders want the world to fear: a murder simulator.

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