You know when there’s a show you really like, but then it dips in quality and eventually gets canceled, and the creators say they want to make a new season someday or maybe a remake, but it’s stuck in production hell for several years, then Netflix or whoever sinks a bunch of money into it, and it eventually gets released and it’s not quite as good as you remember the original, but it’s still pretty entertaining and hey, you’re paying for Netflix anyway so you’re not going to complain about getting it for “free?”
That’s Crackdown 3. It is video game as Netflix Original.
The third entry in Microsoft’s destruction-heavy superhero cop series, Crackdown 3 does very little new and very little wrong. And that’s about as positive an outcome as I dared to hope for, following the disappointing Crackdown 2 and this third game’s well-documented difficulties in development; the game has had multiple delays and studios since its announcement nearly five years ago.
This is the only big Xbox-exclusive game announced for the first half of this year, and I wouldn’t say it has extremely broad appeal. But it’s the perfect fit for Microsoft’s excellent Xbox Game Pass subscription service — it’s a tight, well-designed, immediately accessible game that you can dip in and out of or binge over a weekend.
Crackdown 3 is an open-world action game that tasks you with saving a city overrun by the forces of a supervillainous corporation. There’s no primary story or quest line; everything is connected, and you can do most of it in any order. For example, taking down a big artillery unit will weaken the bad guy in control of the city’s security, making it more likely that you’ll prevail when you do come across them.
This holistic design is further enhanced by the game’s wonderful take on a leveling system, where basically everything you do generates orbs that enhance your ability. Blow up a mech with a rocket launcher? You’ll see your character absorb the yellow orbs that spill out, each making you infinitesimally more deadly with explosives. Punch someone off the top of a skyscraper? You’ll get a bunch of red orbs to help you get strong enough to pick up cars and throw them.
The power of the cloud
Much of the early Crackdown 3 hype surrounded its Wrecking Zone multiplayer mode, which offloads physics processing to Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform for battles where almost the entire environment can be realistically blown to pieces. Difficulties with this technology were reportedly the main factor behind the game’s lengthy delays, and it shows in the final product: Wrecking Zone ships as an entirely different client that Microsoft only made available to reviewers a couple of days ago, switching the servers on just twice for two-hour sessions before today’s embargo time. Furthermore, the mode won’t have Xbox Live party functionality available at launch.
That said, I did have fun with the few games I managed to play. Network performance wasn’t great, and it’s hard to know just how necessary the much-vaunted cloud tech is to the experience, but there were definitely some standout moments for me: blasting holes in walls to create shortcuts on the way to defending a base, slamming enemies all the way through a collapsing floor with ground-pound attacks, watching a giant statue fragment into hundreds of pieces, and so on. I’m not sure how Wrecking Zone will perform with a wider audience, however, and I’m even less sure it was worth the delays to what is otherwise a very conventional sequel.
The best orbs, however, are the green agility orbs dotted around the city. Of all the objects that it has been possible to collect in the long history of video games, perhaps none have been as satisfying as Crackdown’s agility orbs. Each orb you find improves your movement a tiny bit, letting you jump a little higher and further, which of course lets you reach more and more orbs. Collect a few hundred and you’ll be able to jump the length of a few 18-wheelers. There could be nothing in Crackdown 3 but agility orbs and it’d still be a blast to bounce around the city in search of them. After playing the game for any length of time, it’s impossible to leave the house without wondering how many more orbs you’d need to scale that building across the street.
All of this is true of the original Crackdown, too, and it’s clear that Crackdown 3 campaign studio Sumo Digital has made sure to retain its blueprint. That wasn’t a given, since Crackdown 2 was a misguided sequel for a few reasons. It reused the same city as its predecessor, which robbed the returning player of the joy of agility orb-aided discovery; it also inexplicably made zombies come out at night, which robbed everyone of anything approaching fun for half the game’s runtime. All the elements of the original were there, but the game felt like a slog.
Crackdown 3 does make a few minor tweaks, but they’re mostly additive. The best change is the collection of new moves, like air dashes and double jumps, that help to make movement more fluid. Getting around in Crackdown is still nothing like the autopilot parkour of an Assassin’s Creed — you have to get creative sometimes, and having a few more tools in the shed is good for experimentation. And although Sumo Digital has followed virtually every open-world game in adding scalable tower objectives, here they’ve been reimagined as Mario-style platforming challenges.
In 2007, Crackdown felt like one of many directions for open-world action games to take as the genre exploded into prominence. In 2019, Crackdown 3 feels like a minimalist reaction to the ponderous maximalism of what those games have become. It might not be visually impressive, and it won’t be for everyone, but its free-form approach and willingness to let you break it remains hugely refreshing. It makes Marvel’s Spider-Man look like Red Dead Redemption 2.
Crackdown 3’s checkered history means it arrives with some baggage. It’s hard to say it feels like a major event now that it’s here; it’s a sequel that might as well have appeared on the Xbox 360. Last night I went back to play the original game (which happens to be free on Xbox Live right now), and after a bit of adjusting to the slightly clunkier movement, it holds up very well. It even has a longer draw distance for agility orbs. Crackdown 3’s campaign cannot in any way be seen as a major advancement.
At this point, though, I’m just relieved and a little surprised that Microsoft and Sumo managed to ship another competent Crackdown game. Like most of what you’ll find on Netflix, it won’t blow your mind — but it’ll go out of its way to make you feel at home.
Crackdown 3 is out tomorrow on Xbox One and PC.