Anhedonia is one of my favorite words. It’s a symptom of depression, generally speaking, but it’s such an elegant word for such a specific concept that I can’t help but love it. Anhedonia: the death of pleasure. It describes the feeling of no longer enjoying something you once enjoyed. This is how I feel about Crackdown 2.
I’ve been playing Crackdown 2 for the last week or so, and I guess I’ve accomplished something. It’s hard to say, really. I have killed some things, I have jumped around a lot, I have collected random, arbitrary objects, and I have not particularly enjoyed it. I can’t really understand this about myself.
The promise of a game like Crackdown 2 is that we can explore and develop in the space of a world that is, more or less, indifferent to us. It reminds me of my experience with the Grand Theft Auto series, clearly the pioneer of the running-around-and-killing genre. I don’t remember ever completing more than one or two story missions in any of the games I played. Almost immediately, my involvement with the games converted into stealing a motorcycle and running it into everything I could find. (I was not a very good driver.) The game didn’t care about these excursions; the little circled letters representing my missions stayed there waiting for me, no matter how many cars I crashed, civilians I killed, cops I was shot by, or cheat-generated tanks I flew across the sky. The beauty of these worlds is that they offer free exploration without consequences.
The original Crackdown expanded on this by offering characters that developed as you played. You developed your abilities by using them, becoming a better shot by shooting, a better driver by driving, and more athletic by jumping around like an idiot. So you were rewarded for this exploration with the ability to better explore.
At the same time, though, you didn’t have a character. You played as a cloned agent—so that each time you enter the world, you choose a new character with the same skills and abilities as your last one. The act of choosing a new face for every session just reinforced the world’s apathy toward you—you didn’t even have an identity, you didn’t have your own face, you just were dipping into this world for a while.
What I liked, maybe counterintuitively, was the sense of not making a difference. If you ignored the story missions, the world did not care about you. You explored the world freely, and the world moved on around you. If you did the story missions, of course, things changed—although in Crackdown, you could resurrect the bosses after you killed them, and in that way force the world to forget you were ever there. I loved the freedom of this, the lack of obligation, the lack of consequence.
This time around, though, I find myself enjoying less and less the things that used to keep me engaged (in the same way that I am enjoying writing this paragraph less and less with each subsequent attempt; boo to Blogpress and Wordpress for iPad for continually crashing while saving). I don’t know whether it’s because I’m less invested in the story (I am), because the game is too easy (it is), or because the game asks me to work harder for less reward (it does), but somehow, Crackdown 2 is just not as compelling as Crackdown was.
The story for Crackdown (warning: spoilers ahead) was barebones, at best. It mostly emerged from the snarky comments made by the game’s irritating announcer, and from the game’s opening and closing sequences. But it was enough: I was fighting gangs, and the gangs were making life difficult for residents of Pacific City. Awesome. I’m in. Let’s bust heads. The most interesting part of the story was the ending, which revealed that in fact all of these gangs had been planted to make the Agency look better. Not a particularly complicated turn, but hey, it was something.
In Crackdown 2, though, I am fighting two groups: mindless, light-sensitive zombies called Freaks and an ostensible terrorist organization called the Cell, who contend that the Agency started the zombie plague to begin with. Well, of course we did. Given what I know about the Agency, how can I doubt it? And given that, how can I derive any sense of satisfaction about fighting either group of enemies? It’s like playing 52-Card Pickup by yourself.
On top of that, the game feels easier this time around. Before, Agility orbs were uncommon, and perched atop the highest buildings. I remember seeing Agility orbs atop skyscrapers, and trying for hours to figure out how to get up to the top of the building, what was climbable nearby and what wasn’t, where there were places I could duck inside to gain a few floors. In Crackdown 2, they’re on top of shipping containers. You start out in an area where there are something like fifty orbs scattered around, each at the end of an easy jump or climb. The game seems saturated with the things, to the degree that I don’t really feel accomplished when I obtain them. It feels like grinding.
As a result of this, and making things worse, is the feeling that you have to find umpteen craptillion of these things to actually get a skill bonus. I am constantly chasing orbs, including the new fancypants “renegade orbs” that run around idiotically such that you have to chase them around the rooftops like a buffoon. But because these orbs are now so abundant, each one makes up a smaller percentage of a skill boost, and so each is less rewarding—both emotionally and in terms of game benefit. I am working harder to get nowhere.
All in all, what I feel most during Crackdown 2 is the sense that I should be enjoying this more than I am, that I used to enjoy this more than I do, but that somehow, the things that made the game worth playing have somehow turned up missing. That the pleasure of the game has died. I wish there were some more compelling conclusion to this experience, some forceful, insightful thing I could say, but the fact that I can’t mirrors the path of the game—the quick, irretrievable descent into apathy. There’s nothing more to the game that I can find.