What’s old is old again
Crackdown is a franchise that’s built on a hollow structure. It’s unapologetically open-ended, encouraging the player to get distracted by whatever flashes across the screen. Crackdown doesn’t funnel anyone toward anything.
This approach prevents Crackdown itself from being anything more than a distraction. There’s little of substance, as this series willingly trades weighty and meaningful moments for the short-lived-but-constant euphoria of snagging another orb. It’s gaming junk food and that can be perfectly fine as long as no one expects a Michelin-starred meal.
Crackdown 3 (PC, Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: Sumo Digital, Elbow Rocket
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Released: February 15, 2019
MSRP: $59.99; included as part of Xbox Game Pass
Crackdown 3 tries the hardest. The original Crackdown (2007) had a novel formula that worked in the early days of the Xbox 360. It set the player loose on an untethered destruction spree, free to dismantle a spiderweb of criminal gangs in any particular order. Of note, it also liberally implemented all the most notorious open-world tropes before they became a designer’s punchline. Crackdown 2 did the same but with zombies; it wasn’t cute. Crackdown 3 does its best to push the series forward — and succeeds in some ways — but can’t shake the dated design that keeps it anchored down.
Same song, different title. Crackdown 3 is immediately familiar. Snap-lock onto enemies one by one, quickly taking them all down. Bound across the skyline toward each and every glowing orb. Repeat ad nauseam. Every action feeds into the long progression of becoming even more superhuman. “The stronger you get, the stronger you get,” the narrator muses. Profundity and mental acuity are not Crackdown 3‘s fortes.
Crackdown has shifted locales, from the well-tread Pacific City to the man-made New Providence — an island civilization that was created by Terra Nova, the Evil Corporation That Must Be Stopped. Terra Nova is doing the usual stuff: Polluting the city, locking up residents, forcing others into slummy refugee camps, corrupting the public transit, spreading propaganda, etc. Crackdown 3 falls into a steady loop of slowly dismantling cogs in the nefarious machine until the whole thing crumbles. Damage an operation enough and the leader will want to fight. Topple enough underlings to eventually take on the head honcho. It’s all very by the numbers.
There’s a wide gulf between personal and municipal betterment. Crackdown 3, like its predecessors, rewards most everything. It all contributes to advancing the five statistics (Agility, Firearms, Strength/Melee, Explosives, Driving). Enough of it will level the agent’s skills making them even more powerful. Becoming insanely superhuman — throwing a car far into the distance and then effortlessly hopping up the side of a skyscraper — is Crackdown‘s ultimate pursuit.
But the city doesn’t accurately reflect the agent’s achievements. The world is slow to change, only really shifting to a more peaceful existence after the credits have rolled. All the activities (and there are a lot of them) don’t have a noticeable effect on anything in the short-term. There’s a disconnect between aggressively eliminating the enemy’s assets and never feeling like they’re actually weakened.
However, becoming more proficient with skills, especially agility, is an utmost priority because locomotion is the best thing Crackdown 3 has going for it. There’s a ridiculous freedom to jumping, air dashing, jumping again, air dashing again, and jumping a third time. Eventually, rocket thrusters allow for ascending into the sky like a well-armored bird. It’s ludicrous.
This pairs well with orb hunting, long the most satisfying staple of Crackdown. There’s no shortage this time ’round. Crackdown 3 tops out at 750 Agility Orbs, 250 Hidden Orbs, and 15 DNA Orbs — those last few pushing the tally north of 1,000. They’re absolutely everywhere and sailing through the sky to collect another one causes the brain to fire off another short burst of happiness chemicals. It’s numbing and pleasurable in good ways.
Crackdown 3‘s greatest contribution is a better selection of weaponry, almost all of it exaggerated to accentuate and amplify the action sequences. Rocket launchers are standard fare. Pulse beams cut right through enemies. There’s a gun that rips a hole in the fabric of time and sucks everything into a black hole. Everything feels overpowered and the opposition is only a threat because of their sheer quantity. There’s a lot happening during every firefight.
This climaxes when taking on the overseer of each division. Crackdown 3‘s most sincere attempt at pushing the series forward comes from animated vignettes that highlight each leader and their place within Terra Nova. They all have distinct personalities and these play into their last stand. Every boss fight is unique, usually centering around the technology and machinery they specialize in. For instance, one takes up arms in a giant mech suit. Another takes flight in a dropship. They may not be especially creative, but it’s better than infiltrating a fort and quickly putting three bullets in the gang boss.
Crackdown 3 undeniably siphons a lot of mechanics and systems from the other Crackdown games, but none are as out of place as the vehicles. Driving is still flagrantly bad, and the time trial races are undoubtedly some of the most off-putting parts in the game. There are stunt rings which are mostly all completed by picking the car up, carrying it to the top of a mountain or building, setting it on the ground, and driving it through the ring. There’s an anemic attempt at innovation by adding two vehicle transformations. The Spider form can jump and climb up walls; the Minotaur is a tank with a mounted turret. Crackdown 3 never gives ample excuse to use either one very often.
The biggest misstep, however, comes from Crackdown 3‘s other half. The Wrecking Zone five-on-five competitive multiplayer is a chaotic mess, and it often feels like Crackdown in name only. The two modes are nothing more than takes on team deathmatch and control point/domination. There are only three maps and none of them are particularly distinct from the others.
Multiplayer is fast and unpredictable, yes, but never in ways that seem skillful or strategic. Rather, opportunity usually strikes when an opposing player is preoccupied with someone on your team. There’s some planning required in picking up enough orbs to build a temporary special ability (the overshield is a better choice than the increased jump height), but that’s the extent of it. The rest is just super frantic attempts at locking onto enemies as everyone flies up, down, and around corners. The vaunted cloud destruction doesn’t contribute much either, as the destructible environments aren’t extraordinary by any means. Wrecking Crew is a vapid and empty multiplayer mode that will soon be abandoned by the vast majority of people who try Crackdown 3.
Crackdown 3 is a good Crackdown game, which, unfortunately, doesn’t mean much anymore. Modern game design has surpassed the Crackdown model by leaps and bounds — as high and far as an agent can jump. The most remarkable thing about Crackdown 3 is how unambitious it is. It’s content to come off as dated, like a relic from a bygone era. That can be comforting in a way, but it’s immeasurably more disappointing. Crackdown 3, just like its kin, is only a distraction and nothing more.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]