Games 2/28/07: Crackdown, Virtua Fighter 5

For: Xbox 360
From: Real Time Worlds/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (Blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs)

Yes, “Crackdown” is the latest in a growing line of video games that overtly takes cues from the open-world formula made popular by “Grand Theft Auto.” But “Crackdown” also is what happens when someone argues that “GTA” is, of all things, too restrictive.

For starters, “Crackdown” is mission-free and sports a plot — kill the bad guys! — straight out of 1988. Gang bosses operate throughout Pacific City, and your job is to weather a relentless sea of henchmen and bring them down. Each boss controls certain aspects of his or her respective gang’s enterprise, which in turn affects a region’s overall landscape. But the order in which you eliminate criminals is entirely up to you. (Sidebar: How refreshing is it to be the good guy in one of these games for a change?)

That goes triple for how you eliminate them. “Crackdown” offers the usual means — guns, explosives, vehicles, fists — but it also drops you into the shoes of a freak-of-nature supercop who can, over time, leap tall buildings, lift and throw both objects and people, and even kick an SUV like a soccer ball across five lanes of traffic. You develop these abilities naturally — beat up a gang member, for instance, and your strength improves — and the eventual result is a staggering departure from your original incarnation.

The excessive freedom will put off those who prefer a checklist of objectives to rattle off, but those who want their open world truly open will be in heaven. Objectives or not, “Crackdown” wastes none of your character’s gifts. Pacific City is enormous, ingeniously designed and dense with activity, and the game’s physics and controls are eons beyond anything this genre has ever produced. Problems do crop up, including a lousy auto-targeting system, a camera that falls apart in tight areas and a strange inability to land smaller jumps with any confidence. But these are niggling aggravations in the face of all the things the game does right.

The best part of all? You can share it all with someone you love. “Crackdown’s” multiplayer consists simply of two players running wild in the city instead of one. Team up against the bad guys or kick cars at each other? The choice, yet again, is yours.

Virtua Fighter 5
For: Playstation 3
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Teen (Violence)

Hey there, “Virtua Fighter 5!” The Playstation 3 has been waiting for you. It needs a new, exclusive game like a fly needs wings, and what better relief than arguably the best fighting game to surface since “Virtua Fighter 4?”

The attributes that make “VF5” such a praise magnet are the same that made “VF4” so special, only enhanced and expanded in almost every respect. The single-player quest mode has been reinvented as a neighborhood of virtual arcades featuring A.I. opponents of all skill levels and disciplines, and the climb to the top of the rankings — not to mention the quest to unlock the ridiculous number of costume alterations and special items — is a steep, daunting one. Just enjoy the eye candy on the way up: “VF5’s” fighters are among the best-modeled characters in any video game, and they move as beautifully and responsively as they look.

Most importantly, though, is the gameplay, which appeases button-mashers but showers gratification on those who can discover and master the sick list (roughly 70 deep) of moves in each fighter’s arsenal. Fights against low-ranked opponents in the quest mode require little more than reflexive mashing. But don’t dream of taking on the upper echelon until you spend some significant time in the virtual dojo, where you can fight indefinitely against customized A.I. and learn the particulars behind the game’s most effective attacks and counters.

This being 2007, all that mastery would seem to transcend into the multiplayer arena. But this is where “VF5” takes its single, painful stumble. Online play is out, as is any kind of leaderboard system. Additionally, you cannot copy your character data to a memory card, load it into a friend’s game, and stage a showdown against his or her character. Want to set up an eight-player tournament? Print out your own brackets — “VF5’s” lone multiplayer mode is a best-of-three match.

If these features matter to you, you’d best wait and see what’s in store for the forthcoming Xbox 360 version, which at the very least should support online play over Xbox Live. (So much for the PS3 catching a break.)