Games 7/6/10: Crackdown 2, Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4, Puzzle Quest 2

Crackdown 2
For: Xbox 360
From: Ruffian Games/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, strong language, violence)

Conventional wisdom would suggest that while “Crackdown’s” combination of open-world freedom and superhuman powers made it a deserving cult sensation in 2007, enough has happened since for more of the same to not be enough. “Infamous” and “Prototype” trotted out similar ideas with deeper storylines, “Assassin’s Creed” sped up rooftop bounding with its parkour controls, “Just Cause 2” blew the roof off the limits of verticality, and “Red Faction: Guerrilla” raised the environmental destruction bar considerably.

But in all that time, and with respect to all those games, none of them really went head-on with the little things that made “Crackdown” so uniquely awesome. “Crackdown 2” is more of the same with sprinkles on top, but it so perfectly nails everything the first game — and only that game — did right.

It’d better, too, because a lot of it might as well be the first game. “Crackdown’s” nearly non-existent storyline has been upgraded to threadbare here, but the objective — kill the evildoers — is identical. The last game’s ending carries over, and the mutants that began populating Pacific City in “Crackdown” are now overflowing the geographically-altered city during “Crackdown 2’s” nighttime hours. A single, monstrous gang patrols the streets during the day, and players once again take orders from a bloodthirsty and completely hilarious narrator at The Agency. (Yes, it’s called The Agency. Threadbare, see.)

Just as they did last time, players gradually increase their abilities — from jumping distance to ammo expertise to driving acumen — by utilizing those abilities in the game, and players who max out those abilities will outrun cars, jump (or, new to the sequel, glide via a wingsuit) clean over buildings, equip grenades capable of detonating block-wide chain reactions and gain access to some amazing modes of transportation.

In other words, everything practically is as it was three years ago. The enemy A.I. hasn’t evolved, with the gangs still fighting like meatheads and the freaks just plowing forward in extreme numbers. The upgrade system feels mostly the same. The optional pursuit of collectable orbs (500 perched atop structures, 300 hidden away, and a few that actually run away or only activate during co-op sessions) feels mostly the same. Even the highly imperfect targeting system from “Crackdown” returns with no significant improvements made.

But while the amazing level of disinterest Ruffian Games shows in evolving the “Crackdown” formula almost certainly should reflect poorly on “Crackdown 2,” a typical game session often delivers more than enough arguments in favor of not breaking what no other game since has outdone. “Crackdown 2’s” control schemes for running, jumping and driving feel magnificently responsive, and while the weapon targeting definitely could be better, the system in place offers enough upside to justify its presence. The game offers tremendous freedom almost from the start, and the sum total of all the firepower, horsepower, geography and Agency-given talent adds up to an experience that’s shallow but explosively, tremendously fun.

Like its predecessor, “Crackdown 2” allows players to carry on with or without other players in their world, and the customizable four-player dynamic co-op emphatically improves on “Crackdown’s” barebones two-player support. “Crackdown 2” also offers 16-player competitive multiplayer for maximum chaos, but while it’s fun in small does, the element of open-world teamwork and anything-goes ingenuity falls away when everyone’s sole focus is on killing everyone else.


Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4
Reviewed for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii
Also available for: Sony PSP, Nintendo DS and Windows PC
From: TT Games/Warner Bros. Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, crude humor)

Anyone who was charmed by 2005’s “Lego Star Wars” and gradually less impressed with the franchise’s takes on Indiana Jones and Batman will likely be downright annoyed to discover “Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4” continues the Lego games’ unfortunate tradition of not evolving in ways they really, really should.

But this wouldn’t really be a problem if “Potter” didn’t continue the series’ other tradition of continually turning out surprises within the constraints of its formula. It does — perhaps to a greater degree than any game since that “Star Wars” game — and so we’re faced yet again with taking the bad in order to take the good as well.

As the name implies, “Potter” covers the first four years of Harry’s seven-year saga, and you either don’t want the plot details spoiled for you or already know them like you know your own last name. As per series tradition, the game reenacts each year’s biggest moments using pantomiming Lego characters and recreating the scenes with a mix of authenticity and genuinely amusing creative license.

But “Potter” also covers a surprising number of lesser moments in each chapter, and the game allows players to take control of practically everyone — Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Dobby, even Scabbers the rat, among more than 150 others — in addition to Harry, Ron and Hermione. The amount of learnable spells is impressively high, and by using two cavernous hub levels (Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade and Hogwarts) instead of one, there’s a ton of fan service to discover off the stories’ main roads.

Per usual, passing a story level opens it up to free play, allowing players even more freedom in terms of the “Potter” characters they wish to control. Between all the possibilities that allows and the aforementioned main and optional content, “Potter” is a massive playground that offers 20-plus hours’ worth of stuff to do.

Unfortunately, those hours are also chock full of the same annoyances that have persisted since “Star Wars.” For a game that features fixed camera angles and lots of running and jumping, the jumping controls are still too squirrelly. Ditto for the targeting system, which occasionally makes casting certain spells with precision a case of trial and error if too many possible targets are clustered together.

The control imperfections are harder to understand because, for the most part and regardless of story scenario or characters used, “Potter” generally plays the same way. Some nice broom controls and the occasional vehicular objective are both welcome, but neither makes enough of an impact to give the game a strong sense of variety. Similarly, while “Potter” is loaded with cause-and-effect puzzles, most of them are too straightforward to count as puzzles so much as steps to take in order to make X happen and clear the path to get to Y.

Finally, while “Potter” supports two-player local co-op play, TT Games inexplicably continues to omit online co-op play. Sharing a couch with the other player is the best way to play, yes, but how hard can it be at this point to throw a bone to players who may not have the luxury of a willing second player nearby?


Puzzle Quest 2
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: Infinite Interactive/D3Publisher of America
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $15

After 2007’s “Puzzle Quest” surprised just about everybody by taking “Bejeweled” and using it as a means of battle in a story-driven role-playing game, a handful
of weird offshoots tried and mostly failed to take the idea to new avenues. So it’s no surprise to finally see “Puzzle Quest 2,” which brings the idea back to its roots and simply gets to tweaking from there. The net worth of those tweaks will certainly vary to players of different disciplines. The story is thin to the point of being boilerplate, and instead of capturing cities and managing armies, players rarely do more than move from fight to fight. But while “PQ2’s” outer shell feels dumbed down, the battles themselves are improved. Standard fights feel considerably more balanced than “PQ1’s” fights, which frequently approached untenably difficult levels, and the new item system aids an increase in gem types to let players win with skilled, creative play instead of waiting for the same old gems to appear. “PQ2” mixes in the occasional mini-game for variety’s sake, but the fight system evolves enough to carry the surprisingly lengthy single-player campaign. Naturally, players who want some human competition can find it via the game’s two-player local and online (360 only) multiplayer, which function exactly as one hopes and expects they would.