Whether it's slaying dragons in Zelda, zapping aliens in Halo, or inserting foot A into ass B in Virtua Fighter, the best games are the ones that offer some level of wish fulfillment. Grand Theft Auto added "Help yourself to a car" and "Drive it on the sidewalk" to the list, and its popularity spawned endless clones, some fair (Saints Row) and some not (all the rest).
Though Crackdown resembles GTA superficially (you're running around, raising hell in a city), it's actually more of a superhero game -- and thus it fulfills a totally different wish: the lust for superhuman abilities. The focal point of this wish fulfillment is your character's phenomenal gift for leaping and climbing, making the entire city -- from the street to the top of the highest skyscraper -- your playground.
Every review of Crackdown mentions these abilities, and with good reason: They're done flawlessly, perfectly capturing the dream of being able to skip across the skyline with a feeling of near-weightlessness. There's nothing like climbing to the top of a skyscraper, spotting another on the horizon, and, in a seemingly suicidal gesture, crossing the distance in a single impossible leap. There is a palpable sense of vertigo leading up to the moment -- and afterward, an emotional payoff that can only be described as joy. Raining grenades on bad guys below in mid-hurtle? Well, that's just gravy.
Crackdown is set in Pacific City, an urban dystopia overrun by armed gangs that roam the streets like an occupying army. You're outnumbered, but have the advantage of being an "agent": a genetically engineered enforcer who can run faster, punch harder, and jump higher than normal humans. These skills continue to develop as you play, to the point where you're able to outrun cars, kick dump trucks off bridges, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.
The game's driving and shooting are OK, but having the city as your own personal monkey bars is what makes a lasting impression. Crackdown encourages spectacular, over-the-top goofing off -- why just shoot a thug, when you can heave his car into the ocean while he's still in it?
It's too bad Crackdown doesn't capitalize on all these possibilities. The game begs for missions where you stalk a motorcade from the rooftops or leap onto helicopters mid-flight. But as it is, most are bland exercises where you annihilate droves of henchmen to confront a boss who isn't much of a match for you. That's the other problem: Once you've built your agent's skills a bit, enemies become more a nuisance than a genuine threat. Once in a while they'll overwhelm you (or you might get a little too ambitious with a leap and take a fatal 40-story tumble), but Crackdown tends to run on the easy side.
What saves it from being just another weekend rental are its online features -- specifically, the co-op mode. Taking on the city by yourself is fun; tackling it with a superpowered friend is fantastic. You can blast, kick, and crush gang members as a team, or just start an all-out brawl, chucking buses at each other while terrified pedestrians run for cover; scream "Kneel before Zod!" a few times, and you've recreated all the best parts of Superman II.
If you're looking for depth or lots of new ideas or heart-stopping sights and sounds . . . well, there's little of that here. But Crackdown still manages to be fun -- in a very elemental way.