The single-player story begins with a recap of the events of the first game. Critics noted narrative as one of the weakest aspects of the original Crackdown, and the second game attempts to address that by offering a more fleshed out story. That's not to say players' progression will be restricted in any way; you can still run and gun your way to the "final stage," if you're feeling particularly brave.
Restricting player freedom would go against what fans found so endearing about the first Crackdown. It's clear that the franchise's new developer, Ruffian Games, doesn't want to stray too far from what made the first game a success. Once again, players will be tasked with cleaning up the streets of Pacific City; this time ridding the world of a terrorist organization known as "The Cell," bent on destroying The Agency and its new hero: you.
The missions I saw didn't offer much in terms of variety. You might need to activate beacons by climbing atop buildings, or maybe you just need to defend a position for a set amount of time. Other missions require you to clear a large percentage of enemies occupying a certain sector, as The Agency attempts to reclaim turf.
The missions objectives aren't very interesting (at least, they weren't in my demo), but the open-ended combat makes success nonetheless gratifying. Once again, you can take advantage of the city's verticality and your character's superhero ability to traverse rooftops. The weapons are still fun to use, with the bolt gun standing out in particular. As in Killzone 2 and Half-Life 2, there's almost no attack more satisfying than stapling an enemy to a wall. A new grapple weapon must also be highlighted. With this tool, you can connect two objects to each other, creating unique physics-based death traps. Grab a lamppost, for example, and connect it to a car. You can swing the car around like a deadly two-ton yo-yo. With this weapon, Crackdown 2 becomes Just Cause 2 -- with superpowers.
More so than say, a Grand Theft Auto game, Crackdown truly embraces the "sandbox" philosophy, encouraging exploration and experimentation. Knowing that some gamers will simply want to play with the game, Ruffian has added a day-and-night cycle to the game, which drastically changes the gameplay. While The Cell is most active during the day, at night, zombie-esque mutant hordes will rise from the ground, hunting everything in sight. Zombies may be the game design trend du jour, but it opens opportunities for players to really "play" with all their abilities. At night, you'll be able to see exactly how effective a weapon is, or simply go on a vehicular rampage, mowing down crowds in a recreation of Carmageddon.
Vehicles are probably the one aspect of the gameplay that has changed the most in the sequel, with the developers aware of how unrewarding the original vehicle progression felt. Instead of leveling up the player's ability to drive, Crackdown 2 rewards players with brand new modes of transportation. Taking a page from other open-world games, the ultimate ride is a helicopter, equipped with rocket launchers.
With the helicopter, it should be easier to explore the upper regions of Pacific City. And with the new glide ability, it should be easier to come back down. By leveling up your hero's agility, you'll eventually unlock this ability. It's not free-form flight, but you'll be able to glide from building to building, while having the freedom to blast away at enemies.
Unfortunately, one key feature of Crackdown 2 that couldn't be demonstrated during my demo (due to a shaky internet setup) was the 4-player co-op mode. It's clear that much of the game was designed around a multiplayer experience. For example, one mission requires you to activate four beacons to find the next checkpoint: you could split up and tackle all four beacons simultaneously, or work together to provide each other added firepower. Scenarios that are meant for multiplayer will be accompanied by an Xbox Live icon; and, while you can play these missions alone, it's the game's way of nudging you to invite some friends into your party.
Crackdown 2 may not feel as novel as its predecessor, but that doesn't make it any less fun -- or its explosions any less awesome. Sure, it's "more of the same," but Ruffian Games has implemented key improvements to the original's gameplay that should make for a more engaging sandbox experience. For some fans, that's all the assurance they'll need to book a return trip to Pacific City.