Crackdown 3 — an open-world crimefighting game in which you can leap over small apartment buildings in a single bound — isn’t the most graphically gobsmacking game on the Xbox One, nor is it the most technically refined. Melee attacks are a little floaty; the physics, unpredictable; and the sound of its rampant destruction hits the eardrums like a dump truck crushing another dump truck. But the game is scrappy and charming and unlike anything else on the show floor of E3 2017. A half-hour demo of super agents fighting supervillians was as enjoyable (if not more so) than many hours spent with Microsoft’s fancier, big-budget exclusives.
In a hands-on portion of the demo, I bunny-hopped across a neon-lit future metropolis, collecting green orbs to upgrade my strength and agility, and grabbing overpowered weaponry. After a couple minutes of exploration, I bombarded foot soldiers with a volley of rockets, then vacuumed their corpses (and all nearby loose objects) with a projectile black hole. The story or goal wasn’t clear from the short session, but I wasn’t really looking for either as I skipped from one rooftop to the next, sending baddies ragdolling into the air and down to the pavement hundreds of feet below.
All of which is to say that, yes, Crackdown 3 is an awful lot like the original Crackdown, one of the more underrated games conceived in the early days of the Xbox 360. Crackdown — best known for being bundled with Halo 3 beta keys — was a return to AAA open-world games for Dave Jones, the founder of DMA Design, the studio responsible for the genre’s pioneers, Grand Theft Auto and Body Harvest.
Unlike other open-world games that dropped players into big, beautiful, and ultimately static cities, the original Crackdown treated the urban environment as a jungle gym for increasingly powerful super cops that could bound skyscrapers, outrun supercars, and shot-put buses. The game privileged interactive environments over beautiful and untouchable architecture. At the time, that felt revolutionary.
Crackdown 3 initially promised to go even further with this conceit, as something of a post-modernist, open-world game in which the player destroys the entire open world. Powered in part by Jones’ Cloudgine middleware and Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform, it would allow players to fell skyscrapers with a well-placed explosive. This still exists, but is contained to a multiplayer mode.
I played the single-player mode, which doesn’t require an internet connection or cloud support, but features cities that, while totally scalable, aren’t nearly as destructible. (The official line Microsoft is echoing: multiplayer is about destroying the city, single player is about saving it.) Credit to the designers, because the lack of massive destruction hasn’t prevented the campaign from evolving on the original concept in its own way, too.
According to its developers, Crackdown 3’s structure is like the original, having you battling through a gang’s org chart rather than taking on rigid quest lines. This time the series focuses on the Terra Nova gang, which has been knocking out cities across the globe. Your agent has arrived on their island, which just so happen to be built on an active volcano. No, I’m not really sure why.
Where Crackdown 3 diverges from the original is in the variety and interconnectivity between targets. The gang has complete control of everything on the landmass, from the monorail network to the shipping industry to the power plant. Each sub-gang has its own look, moves, and methods. The gang’s police force carries giant riot shields; the military drive tanks; another squad stomps into fights with weaponized heavy machinery.
The goal is to take out the kingpin, and while you can technically go directly to that task, the game’s structure strongly encourages you to first work through lieutenants, captains, and goon squads to weaken the gang’s reinforcement capabilities. For example, if you take out a captain, it prevents their group from providing support when you attack a lieutenant. And vice versa. All groups provide support to their direct connections, so attracting the ire of the kingpin from the get-go — having not thinned out their support system — is akin to going head-on with a small army.
The developers refer to this as a retaliation system. Causing mayhem in a district on the island attracts the attention of its leader, who will retaliate with armed forces. The twist is how that leader’s response can lead to further unexpected escalations.
Say you cause lots mayhem in the Security Zone part of town, then, to recover from combat, you dash over to the island’s Chemical Plant Zone. The head of the Security Zone might retaliate to your carnage by airdropping a hit squad into the Chemical Plant Zone. Then mayhem ensues, and the chemical plant itself gets blown to bits. Upset about the damage done to Chemical Zone, the Chemical Plant Boss may then send in their own retaliation troops. Suddenly, the screen is filled with enemies and explosions, which are causing more chaos, and thus attracting more attention and more retaliations from the Terra Nova leadership, meaning more enemies, more chaos, and more retaliations.
The developers say they want these unplanned, out-of-control moments to happen anywhere and any time — even if it becomes absurd and cartoonish. If you cause enough trouble in the city and try to escape by swimming away, you may see soldiers and mechs and airships plopping helplessly into the ocean. So be it.
What’s fascinating about Crackdown 3 is how it threads this idea into the familiar Crackdown mold without breaking what fans loved in the process. You can still target the mid-tier gang bosses where they live, and semi-quietly assassinate them, just like in the original Crackdown. Or you can cause chaos and the fight will come to you. Similarly, the art design looks, at first blush, like a return to the simple, neon comic aesthetic of the original. But as you look closer, you notice all the itty-bitty details: the quirk texture of the chemical gas plumes, the wacky costuming of the citizens, the mercifully nothing-like-Blade Runner future metropolis. And as the screen fills with enemies and vehicles and warships and explosions stretching into the distance of the city, you see the sheer scale this style affords the game.
I walked away from the Crackdown 3 demo thinking it’s less like the actual game Crackdown and more like the rose-tinted memories I have of playing that game.
I suspect the more time you spend with Crackdown 3, the more it reveals itself. At Microsoft’s E3 event, it showed a tiny trailer featuring Terry Crews. But Crackdown 3 needs more time to be appreciated. Hopefully it’ll have that chanced ahead of its release on November 7th.