Crackdown battles Halo 3 as freebies excite, raise eyebrows

by Saleem Khan, CBC News Online

When I spoke with the producer and lead designer of Crackdown, the save-the-city third-person perspective science-fiction shooter for the Xbox 360 video game console that launched today, I had little inkling of the buzz and anticipation that would accompany its arrival — or that the attention would not be on Crackdown, but on a Microsoft Game Studios title: Halo 3.

The possibility that Crackdown would arrive with a free pass to try a test, or beta, version of Halo 3 — the third instalment in the series of the save-the-universe first-person perspective science-fiction shooter whose first two chapters Microsoft says sold 14.7 million units — has been floating around the internet since video game blog Kotaku highlighted a forum post pointing to an ad in December 2006. That was followed by a missive on the Crackdown website, a Feb. 13 note on the Halo 3 website and a Feb. 16 blog post by Halo 3 developer Bungie Studios that outlined access to the beta with a purchase of Realtime Worlds' new game.

Bundling the beta has raised a brouhaha and skepticism among gamers and industry observers alike, prompting reactions like these that Reuters news service reported:

"(Crackdown) was not highly anticipated," said Garnett Lee, managing editor of video game network 1UP. "Millions might pick (Crackdown) up now."

Microsoft defended its strategy.

"I can understand why people might think that," said Craig Davidson, Microsoft's director of marketing. "But the bottom line is that Crackdown is a game that stands on its own."

Evans said more than 600,000 people downloaded a free demo of Crackdown over the Xbox Live online service in just a couple of weeks, demonstrating its worth as a game.

"That was really clever," Michael Pachter, managing director of research at Los Angeles, Calif.-based, Wedbush Morgan Securities told me in an interview. "Microsoft is experimenting with ways to exploit their competitive advantage. Competitive advantage No. 1 is Xbox Live and No. 2 is Halo.

"Crackdown looks like a great game but they're going to sell a lot more [with the Halo 3 beta included]."

I contacted Crackdown producer Phil Wilson to get his perspective but haven't heard back from him yet.

The other Crackdown freebie, which Xbox Live's Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb points to on his blog, is a downloadable four-pack of Agent skins available everywhere but Germany. (Okay, so maybe only one of the freebies mentioned in the title is exciting.)

The country is excluded because Crackdown has been slapped with a de facto ban after Germany's Unterhaltungssoftware Selbskontrolle (USK) ratings board refused to give it a classification.

So German gamers will not only be deprived of suiting up as a genetically engineered superhuman in Crackdown, they'll also have to wait to strap on their armour as a genetically engineered supersoldier in Halo 3. They may as well put that time to good use by reading a book or something.