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‘Crackdown 3’: Less Than It Was Meant to Be, but Still Stupid Fun

“‘Crackdown 3’ is the ‘Sharknado’ of video games.”

That’s how creative director Joseph Staten describes the game that has been plagued by three delays over five years since its E3 2014 announcement. After playing three hours of multiplayer and campaign, “Crackdown 3” is fun, but it might not live up to the switch-your-brain-off enjoyment of the “Sharknado” six-movie series.

What is clear is that it is not the same game that Microsoft was promised back in 2015. Series creator Dave Jones and Reagent Games are off the project, with Sumo Digital handling the campaign and “Crackdown 2” developer Ruffian tackling multiplayer. In the trailer below, labeled as pre-alpha footage, “Crackdown 3’s” multiplayer is said to feature massive environmental destruction enhanced by Azure cloud compute. While the core vision remains intact, the multiplayer doesn’t look quite like this.

In 2017, Microsoft gave a better look at what the game was shaping up to be. Featuring the bombastic Terry Crews, the cel-shaded look of the original “Crackdown” games is more prominent, eschewing the more photorealistic look of the 2015 trailer. Four agents bounce through the city, causing massive explosions (but very little destruction). That has been dialed back, as the campaign is now limited to two players.

All of this is important table-setting to understand where “Crackdown 3” has been, what it was supposed to be, and where it is now. Like Ruffian Games’ “Crackdown 2,” it features both a story-driven campaign and competitive multiplayer. The player-versus-player offerings, designed by Ruffian (currently in the midst of a studio rebranding as Elbow Rocket) include two modes and three maps at launch.

During a recent preview event, Microsoft showed off the Agent Hunter mode, which is similar to “Call of Duty’s” Kill Confirmed. Not only must players kill opposing agents in the five-vs-five mode, but they need to collect the badges left behind to score a point. Unlike other Kill Confirmed-style modes, badges cannot be “rescued” by teammates, thereby denying a point to the other team. Instead, the badges are on a ten-second countdown before disappearing.

This is less satisfying, as it’s nearly impossible to defend a fallen badge, with enemy agents dropping from above or punching through walls. Standing in one place makes you a target, which becomes readily apparent. When an enemy’s locked onto you (“Crackdown 3” does not have aim-down-sights, opting to use the left trigger for a hard lock on a target), chances are you’re going to die unless you can break line of site. You can’t both dodge unerring bullets and protect a stationary object.

This ultimately leaves it feeling unfulfilling, especially amidst a sea of other competitive experiences that make meaningful use of destruction.

The destruction Microsoft promised early on is still present in the multiplayer mode, but it doesn’t feel terribly meaningful. The floor can be blown out from under you, but with no fall damage and no debris-based damage, it’s more of an inconvenience.

“We have explored different options with that over time,” Staten tells Variety. “What we found is that people enjoy smashing through buildings. They didn’t enjoy quite so much a random chunk of a building falling on them and killing them. Given how fast you move from space to space, it’s very hard to keep track of every physical chunk that’s being simulated in the world. When one flies out of nowhere and conks you in the head and kills you, it wasn’t a great experience. That is a design choice, not a technical limit.”

“Crackdown 3’s” multiplayer feels like it is driven by the technology, rather than the technology serving as solution to a design need. This ultimately leaves it feeling unfulfilling, especially amidst a sea of other competitive experiences that make meaningful use of destruction as a core gameplay element (see: “Fortnite” and “Battlefield V”).

Staten reaffirms this sentiment, suggesting that one reason for “Crackdown 3’s” delays was that the team was working to find a fun application for the destruction technology. “We were able to knock down the big technical challenges. It took us a while to do that because they were tough,” he says. “But once we understood what we could do with cloud compute, we had to figure out what people like to do. How do we use destruction and make it a set of interesting choices for players rather than just spectacle.”

Under the hood, “Crackdown 3’s” multiplayer is impressive. When it’s pointed out, it’s easy to understand the technical feat it accomplishes.

“The thing that it’s doing in multiplayer is offloading Havok physics simulator to Azure cloud compute,” Staten explains. “What we’re seeing right here is the equivalent of 12 Xbox Ones worth of physics compute handled by Azure. The cool thing about that is it doesn’t matter if you’ve got an Xbox One X or a day one Xbox One. Sure, if you’ve got an Xbox One X, you’ll be playing in 4K, but the physics simulation is exactly the same. The physics chunk you see is the same one I see. It doesn’t matter. There’s no reduction in the experience, just because you have a slightly older piece of hardware. The same destruction gameplay is exactly the same across all platforms.”

The issue is that the destruction doesn’t feel meaningful. If debris doesn’t cause damage (granted, a reasonable design decision), then it’s not clear why players will care about the feature or, worse, even notice it exists.

On top of everything else, the whole thing isn’t very pretty. The multiplayer arenas are intended to be simulations, like a holodeck. But that narrative underpinning doesn’t make up for the sparse environments and flat, sterile textures. The destruction looks nothing like what was promised in the 2015 pre-alpha footage. No buildings topple over, and the holes left by punching through a ceiling seem like clean cuts with scissors rather than concrete and metal ripped by the powerful fist of a super-agent.

Thankfully, the campaign (while not without its own faults) is a much more enjoyable experience.

Terry Crews is a gem, and makes “Crackdown 3’s” opening cinematic a joy. And then he gets blown up.

Don’t worry, though. Agents can be regenerated. In this case, the only damage is resetting all of Commander Jaxon’s skills back to level one. The tutorial sets up the city of New Providence, the corporate kingpin that has blacked out the rest of the world, and “Crackdown’s” core progression: taunt a sub-boss by destroying things they care about, draw the sub-boss out of hiding, kill the sub-boss.

The only problem is that the lather-rinse-repeat in “Crackdown 3” seems sparse. There are only nine bosses (including the kingpin) in the entire game. The original “Crackdown” featured 21 such lieutenants across three different gangs. The first such boss shows up at the end of the tutorial, giving players their first test in a fun back-and-forth with a teleporting foe.

In the open world, players are gently guided to take on Reza Khan, the lieutenant in charge of making the toxic substance used to blackout the world. His objectives are relatively tightly clustered pieces of large machinery dotted around his quarry. Once they are destroyed, Khan appears for a final showdown. Taking him out impacts the world in ways that are less subtle than they were in previous games.

There’s a lot of joy to be found in mowing through enemy troops and causing huge explosions.

“If you took out the [Crackdown 1] Los Muertos lieutenant who was in charge of weapons, weapons would be taken away from the units protecting the Los Muertos kingpin,” Staten explains. “Yes, it works that way in this game, too. If you want from moment one to go right after the kingpin in her tower, it will be guarded by the forces that are owned by all her captains: laser turrets, robots, dropships, giant mechs. Those are all controlled by different factions in the game. In addition, those factions control some of the infrastructure in the city: steam vents, elevators, things that help you climb more efficiently. As you take out those lieutenants and captains, you take away those defensive tools they provide to higher level bosses. You also end up turning on these platforms that help you climb more easily. Or you’ll turn off environmental hazards like clouds of toxic gas. Hopefully, in Crackdown 3, those impacts of eliminating bosses—the chess pieces on the board—will be much more visual, much more impactful, much clearer to players that they are making an effect on the world.”

There’s a lot of joy to be found in mowing through enemy troops and causing huge explosions. Death isn’t meaningful in “Crackdown 3,” which inspires a devil-may-care attitude. Charge in, blow things up, shake hands with death, regen, and start it all over. There’s something freeing about consequence-free demise, but it does lower the stakes, especially since bosses don’t reset their health upon respawn.

“Crackdown 3” isn’t about moderation. It’s designed to create enjoyment through excess. The meaningful decisions come from how players choose to tackle the different minibosses.

As you progress around the city, lieutenant objectives become more spread out. It was a relatively fast process to lure Khan out of hiding, but that may not be the case for his comrades.

“Khan is interesting because he’s one of the first bosses that we worked on,” Staten says. “His objectives are a little more contained. They are all contained within the quarry. He’s meant to be more of an introductory boss to warm you up to that loop of attacking things they care about, gaining more information on where they live, and then drawing them out works. But you’ll see the other sub-bosses in the game, their objectives are spread out farther and farther in the city, the further you go up the ladder. One of the more challenging sub-bosses is this woman named Liv Sorensen. To be able to draw her out, you have to take out enforcer precincts that are all around the city. Some of those are the more challenging non-captain level boss objectives that you need to take down in the game.”

The other elements that distinguish “Crackdown” from other open-world action games return in the latest entry. Agility orbs, littered throughout the world and collected via climbing on top of buildings, statues, and other structures pulse with the familiar tone and green glow. Races and stunt rings are scattered around New Providence, too.

In a follow-up conversation, a Microsoft representative told Variety that the lack of destruction in the campaign was a design choice rather than a technical limitation, pointing to the emphasis on verticality. If buildings get destroyed, the vertical play is diminished. Instead, the campaign features standard action fare like exploding cars and breakable objects.

“Crackdown 3” adds a DNA system that allows players to customize how they progress through the game. Choosing different agent DNA changes your appearance, but also boosts experience gains for two skills (one major, one minor). For instance, if your explosive skill is lagging a bit behind, you might switch to Agent Forgey (named for and designed to resemble “Middle-earth: Shadow of War” producer Michael Forgey who passed away in March 2016).

Microsoft told Variety that the locked DNA identified in the menu at the game’s start is not tied to loot boxes. Rather, it’s a collectible found in the game world.

After about an hour of play, “Crackdown 3” seems faithful to what made the first entry a success. It is, as Staten suggests, unabashedly a video game. However, the city doesn’t feel terribly alive or even that densely packed. It’s hard to let go of the promise of what “Crackdown 3” was supposed to be, but even absent those grand aspirations, it doesn’t wow technically or visually.

What Sumo Digital’s campaign does pull off is bombastic fun in the same sandboxy way that “Just Cause” continues to engage players’ glee in causing large explosions. The weapons are overpowered, creating fun through overkill, and jumping around the city feels great. “Crackdown 3” feels like a coat of polish on a formula that worked great on Xbox 360 rather than a tentpole game in what is likely the Xbox One’s final full year in the sun.

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