you may remember it as an over-the-top power fantasy,
a frenetic collect-a-thon,
or maybe just the game you had to buy to get the Halo 3 beta early.
But do you remember
The last second, complete inversion of all the game’s propaganda?
The story in the first Crackdown is simple: you’re a super cop, working for a global
paramilitary policing organization known as “The Agency.”
You’re tasked by “The Director"
with saving Pacific City from three powerful gangs.
This is war.
A war on crime.
Except that’s not what really happened.
At the very end of the game, in a case of tonal whiplash,
The Director chuckles like a super villain.
'chuckling like a villain about to reveal their master plan'
"It's taken years of meticulous planning and patience to reach this stage"
And suddenly, we learn...
The Agency was funding the super gangs
The Agency made the police ineffective on purpose...
"The people had to experience absolute anarchy"
"Before they would accept unconditional control."
"You are the portent of a new world order, agent."
Okay, so it turns out you were the bad guy all along.
Bioshock did this like ten times better,
when it poked gamers in the eye by pointing out
that they’ll mindlessly do whatever a video game tells them to do.
But then, Crackdown 2 came along.
If you skipped Crackdown 1, you wouldn’t go in knowing that the Agency is evil.
No one else in the game seems to know!
Ten years later, the super gangs are gone.
But Pacific City is still in rough shape thanks to a completely new threat: mutants.
And it’s all because of the former Agency scientist turned bioterrorist
Fired for conducting unauthorized experiments on homeless people,
she sabotages the Agent program in realiation
and unleashes a mutant virus on the populace.
As one of the last remaining Agents, you need to activate the Agency’s anti-mutant bombs
before the terrorists can destroy them!
Except.... that was a lie.
What actually happened is so wild, I need to break it down in steps:
The Agency invites a bunch of anti-Agency whistleblowers and Pacific City journalists
to a press conference.
And blows them up!
The Agency blames the attack on terrorists.
Catalina Thorne, actual good person,
volunteers at an event to bring medical care to homeless people...
when mutants, left over from one of Pacific City’s super gangs,
kill almost everyone.
The Agency blames this on wild animals.
As pressure grows to deal with the mutants,
Thorne leads protests calling for an antidote.
Instead, the Agency blames her for making the mutants in the first place, claiming that
she infected homeless people with the virus.
They just wall off the infected part of the city.
Also, they do create an antidote,
and they only use it on their own Agents.
But it’s flawed and takes away their superhuman abilities…
So what do they do?
They blame Thorne again and accuse her of sabotaging the program!
To fully turn the public against Thorne, the Agency sends undercover police to instigate
violence at her peaceful protests.
They install the anti-mutant sun burst weapon,
which is actually just an anti-personnel weapon
designed to instantly kill anyone who might oppose the agency...
and keep everyone else in line.
Thorne justifiably decides this must be prevented at all costs,
Her attack on the bombs are the final stroke in the Agency’s master plan,
and the perfect opportunity
to deploy its new agents against her and her organization.
AND THIS is just where Crackdown 2 starts!
Okay, first things first,
The wildest thing is that you can easily play and beat Crackdown 2 without ever learning
an ounce of this.
This “true story” of Crackdown 2 is completely contained within a series of hidden audio
"Undercover peacekeepers are infiltrating your gatherings to initiate violence."
Here’s what I think:
This isn’t just a good use of BioShock’s “just kidding, you’re the bad guy” trope.
It’s actually better than BioShock’s.
In Bioshock, it’s revealed that your character has been brainwashed
to obey orders by the game’s villain.
"Would you kindly lower that weapon for a minute"
You see, foolish player?
You followed the game objectives without question!
You're just a sheep!
After this revelation, you finally get a chance to make your own choices!
Well, actually it’s just one choice,
the same choice you’ve had throughout the game:
whether you’ll consume or save the Little Sisters.
"You think that's a child down there?"
Of course, consuming them seems evil before
this twist and is definitely evil after, so the twist doesn’t really change that.
And even before the twist, you’re probably already locked yourself into the good or bad ending.
And either way, you still have to kill the end boss.
free will man.
Crackdown 2 doesn’t bother with the illusion of choice
There is one way to play and beat the game: work for the bad guy, most likely
completely oblivious to the fact that they’re the bad guy..
There’s never a record scratch moment, where the game wags a finger at the audience and says
AND YOU’RE BAD FOR ENJOYING THIS
AND YOU’RE BAD FOR LISTENING TO A VIDEO GAMES INSTRUCTIONS.
In Crackdown 2, if you want to know what’s going on,
you have to ask that question.
Microsoft certainly doesn’t help:
it made a five-part series of YouTube videos telling only the Agency’s version of the story.
"This person poses the greatest threat Pacific City has ever faced:
So it’s on you to investigate what’s really going on.
To question authority.
No, you can’t do anything about it. And the game doesn’t pretend you have a choice.
Just like in BioShock, the ending is essentially prescriptive.
Whether or not you save the little sisters, you still kill Fontaine.
You blow up the mutants...
and the Agency takes controls of the city.
You have no choice.
It reminds me of one of my favorite films, Starship Troopers.
This subversive take on the Heinlein novel
presents itself as a propaganda film produced by the very military it’s depicting.
"I'm doing my part!"
"I'm doing my part!"
"I'm doing my part!"
"I'm doing my part too!"
That’s what the Crackdown series is doing:
advertising itself as a frenetic explosion-fest where you jump over buildings
and chuck cars at bad guys.
"or even bust out my very own tank!"
… But we know what’s really going on.
It’s so much mindless fun, it’s almost
as if it’s asking you not to think about why.
In terms of gameplay and storytelling methods, BioShock and Crackdown 2 are miles apart.
But when it comes to this specific trope, which story is more relevant?
A critique of objectivism married to a philosophical question about free will in video games?
Or how far a paramilitary police force will go to stifle dissent and control our society?
"I pity anyone who stands in our way!"