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Crackdown’s cartoon police state feels more real in 2016

To The Bitter EndGames are often left unfinished. Sometimes they’re too difficult, too vast, or too repetitive to see all the way through to the closing credits. To The Bitter End is our look at those endings that are worth fighting for—or at least worth reading about.

Crackdown’s ending scene is less than 90 seconds long. The player’s character overlooks the metropolis of Pacific City from atop The Keep, the tallest building in the game and the headquarters of The Agency, the technologically advanced law-enforcement outfit to which you belong. After dismantling the last of the three gangs that ruled Pacific City, The Agency’s director thanks you for restoring order to the streets and a sense of security to the city’s citizens. He then pauses and chuckles to himself in an unguarded moment of megalomaniacal aplomb before revealing that you were, in fact, never the hero of this story.

Long before the events of the game, unbeknownst to the player, The Agency mustered the illicit activities of the city’s three major crime organizations while dismantling law enforcement from the inside to manufacture a controlled state of anarchy. Prostitution, human trafficking, wet work, money laundering, drug distribution, weapon smuggling—The Agency acted as the surreptitious benefactor behind these and more atrocities, its ultimate aim being to lay the foundation for a globally enforced police state born from the calamity it helped create. All of this reality-shattering information was packed into what roughly amounts to a 75-second voice-over and a montage of stock footage.


When Crackdown was released in 2007, its conclusion was regarded as an underwhelming twist ending to an otherwise satisfying game. Of the valid criticisms lodged against Crackdown, this was the most premature. It’s not a twist. The Agency’s objective is telegraphed throughout the game, even in its premise. What is ultimately asked of Crackdown’s players is to commit, in no uncertain terms, state-sponsored murder, removing the “filth” of the three gangs from the streets of Pacific City. That players were oblivious to the game’s foreshadowing of The Agency’s malicious intent is uncomfortably reminiscent of real-life instances in which excessive police brutality is met with silent futility and tacit submission. In the years since its release, Crackdown has veered eerily from the escapist confines of speculative fantasy to skirt all too closely to the increasingly militaristic law-enforcement procedures of our present day.

When you take stock of the game as a whole, Crackdown’s ending acts more as a somber denouement to an insidiously loud parable about law enforcement through “any and all means necessary.” You play as a modified super soldier known as an Agent, a sword of the angels turned loose by militant handlers with the intent of effecting the greatest amount of damage in the largest controlled radius with the least discretion. But you are more than a weapon. You are, as The Director describes, “the portent of a new world order,” the combined forces of systemic injustice, institutional prejudice, and gentrification made flesh and charged to make order through domestic assassination.

“You hear that music, Agent?,” The Director barks through your earpiece as you pass a nearby nightclub. “It’s obviously a cover for criminal intent. Get over there and shut that party down!” And while, yes, that nightclub turns out to be a cover for a Los Muertos drug operation, the warrantless and prejudicial inference that loud music is tangible enough “probable cause” to merit an execution order is disquieting. Probable cause exists between the space of suspicion and objectivity, endowed with the weight of authority only through the justifiable probability of criminal circumstances. These same discretionary principles apply to deadly force, as an officer of the law is within their right to preserve their own security if a threat on their life is deemed imminent and unavoidable.


These definitions have become more pliable of late. The number of civilian deaths from police-inflicted force in the United States was estimated to be just shy of 1,000 in 2015. With the near-instantaneous visibility of these killings on social media and the frequency of demonstrations decrying them, it’s no wonder a game like Crackdown—the premise of which hinges around a law-enforcement entity that treats civilians as a “barely tolerable nuisance” and eschews the principle of due process—would be cast in a more alarming light when juxtaposed with the harsh realities of 2016.


For all the inventive tactics afforded by The Agent’s arsenal of weapons and abilities, not one of them features a nonviolent means of detaining a criminal. The absence of this approach is all too common among games in which you play as the police. While games like Battlefield Hardline and Midway’s 2005 remake of NARC let players arrest criminals rather than kill every last one of them, methods to nonlethally detain are rare in Crackdown. And when they are included, they’re received either as, at best, an afterthought implemented for the sake of “realism” or, at worst, a contemptible hindrance to the game’s carefully crafted feedback loop of fun.


The Agency’s campaign becomes even more unnerving when considering the unspoken role ethnicity plays throughout Crackdown. You are charged with stomping out gangs who derive much of their identity from their varying cultural backgrounds. Los Muertos is explicitly meant to be a Central and South American gang, and its members speak Spanish exclusively. The Volk, whose name is Russian for “The Wolf,” is depicted as Eastern European immigrants, and Shai-Gen, while its leaders are ethnically diverse, is coded as an Asian organization. Although players are able to choose from several different creeds in determining the look of their agent, that chosen ethnicity is an arbitrary part of their identity when compared to their opponents’. What The Agency has done is rally the resources of these varying groups and cultivated their growth only to push them to the fringes in a bid to further its own ends. This has stark implications for how culture may have informed The Agency’s scheme to build up and subsequently wipe away all crime from Pacific City’s streets—and later the world.

What has resulted from this elaborate game of coercion and corruption is a systematic form of gentrification. The Agency absorbs the gangs’ financial apparatuses in the wake of their respective dissolutions and reshapes their home districts by way of its own ideology. This is a violent variation on the infuriating realities that displaced residents of such communities as Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, Chicago’s Lincoln Park, and San Francisco’s Mission District—places where neighborhoods were overtaken, their residents pushed out, and their areas renovated to act as upscale buffer zones to edge out people who don’t skew within the confines of a certain ideology or socioeconomic status. The Agency’s reshaping efforts are apparent when you’re casually driving through Pacific City after having squelched the gangs. Areas once known as La Mugre, The Den, and The Corridor are subsequently rebranded with anthemic names like Green Bay, Hope Springs, and Unity Heights, illustrating The Agency’s efforts to rebrand the city as a cheery, antiseptic haven of benevolent tyranny.


Crackdown asks players whether seemingly utopian ends can justify unconscionable means, whether peace attained through tyranny is a contradiction or an inevitability, and whether an unjust law qualifies as a law at all. The concept of justice exists to work in service of natural law, actualizing that ideal through human intervention. Given that The Agency unjustly orchestrated the conditions that necessitated its own existence and ability to mete out a brutal method of law enforcement, you can surmise that its form of “justice” is a thin pretense to justify its machinations for world domination.


The most telling aspect of Crackdown’s ending is that we’re never granted the opportunity to act on these chilling revelations. You just reappear in the heart of Pacific City with the truth of this benevolent tyranny spelled across every street sign and idyllic viewpoint. It’s little more than a fact of life. In the end, Crackdown forces us to remain a slave to the circumstances in which we are pitted. There is neither compliance nor resistance. The only thing to do is await further instructions.

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