The latest entry in the Crackdown franchise has had an interesting history; originally planned for launch in 2016 with different studios handling the development of its single and multiplayer portions, this latest installment has become infamous for its arduous development cycle and continuous delays. Now releasing nine years after the last game in the series, Crackdown 3 feels somewhat stuck between generations in both its design and presentation. Nonetheless, there’s something to be said for gameplay that’s just plain fun, and Crackdown 3 absolutely nails that.
The premise of Crackdown 3 is interesting, but flimsy. Players assume the role of a cybernetic supersoldier working for the secret crime-fighting organization known only as “The Agency.” Just as you’re about to embark on a new mission to investigate the causes of mysterious power outages around the world, your airship is suddenly shot out of the sky along with the rest of your unit. When you come to, you’re barely alive and completely stripped of your powers, yet still tasked by The Director (the leader of The Agency) to investigate a nearby city that’s been taken over by the evil corporation, TerraNova. After that opening cinematic, all story and context is given through lightly animated illustrations (with voice acting), constant dialogue from The Director and resistance leader Echo, and sound bites that can be found around the city. The severe lack of actual cutscenes might turn some off, but every comic book-like series of illustrations that come up when a boss is introduced and defeated is a treat, and does a decent job of giving each some much-needed personality.
At its core, Crackdown 3 is structured around taking down the different branches of TerraNova. Each branch runs operations all around the city of New Providence, managed by a head officer and a couple of lesser officers. Players must make their way around the city to take over transportation stations, chemical plants, vehicle compounds, and more in order to smoke out those officers, and eventually the president of TerraNova herself.
It’s All About Growth
When it comes to gameplay, Crackdown 3 is a surprisingly addicting superhero power fantasy that easily rivals similar titles like Saints Row 4. Its gameplay loop and natural progression system is where things really shine, but be warned that players start out relatively powerless, gradually regaining their abilities over the course of the game. This means that new players are plagued with limited movement options and health that drains so quickly that taking on an average handful of enemies can be genuinely dangerous. Add that to the fact that enforcement units constantly attack you at a frustratingly frequent rate no matter where you go, and Crackdown 3‘s opening hours can feel downright miserable.
However, this is a game about growing through doing. The more you fight with your fists, the stronger you get. The more you engage in shootouts, the better your gunplay skills become. This growth is visually accrued via orbs of various colors that appear depending on the skill being used. Take an enemy out with a punch? Red orbs will drop from their bodies. Shoot them? Blue orbs appear. Pull off some sweet maneuvers in your car? Purple orbs pop out. Get enough of one kind of orb, and that skill will level up automatically, bringing with it new abilities, weapons, and upgrades.
It’s a simple system, but one that succeeds in making everything you do feel meaningful. Instead of having players try to avoid enemy units or elect to not climb buildings, it encourages them to interact with and explore New Providence as much as possible. The best part? The growth in power and ability from the the start of the campaign to the final battle is equal parts noticeable and tremendous. Foes that used to need an entire clip to take down will crumple in a few shots, and a wide variety of locations previously out of reach around the city now open up as you accrue Agility orbs and enhance your aerial maneuverability.
The Joys of Exploration
Being able to deftly explore a sprawling city isn’t necessarily anything new in the age of Grand Theft Auto V, Saints Row 4, and most recently, Spider-Man. That said, though New Providence isn’t particularly inspired design-wise, Crackdown 3’s brilliant mobility mechanics give the city its own identity. Players are only equipped with a simple jump at first, but they eventually unlock a triple-jump, up to two air dashes, and a portable launch pad that sends you flying in whichever direction it’s facing. Furthermore, almost every building in the city is designed with all of these tricks in mind. Skyscrapers seem daunting at first glance, but as soon as you see horizontal ridges along the sides for climbing, it’s on.
Knowing you can scale literally any building with the right toolset is a feeling and challenge that never grows tiring. In fact, it essentially makes exploring the city of New Providence just as enjoyable as taking down each of its factions. Traversal is always rewarded with some cleverly-placed Agility orbs tucked away on a platform or at the very top of a structure, and hunting these down to unlock better perks for even more exploration is a natural cycle that never grows old.
There’s a lot to love about Crackdown 3: the gunplay feels great (especially the quick lock-on toggle), its gameplay loop is hard to tear yourself away from, and the world is littered with collectibles and challenges worthwhile enough to add a couple extra hours to the game’s brief 10-12 hour campaign. That said, there’s so much here that feels like it could have been drastically better — and has been done better elsewhere.
Remember how your unit got shot out of the sky in the opening cinematic? Players can find their DNA strands around the city to regenerate and play as a wide variety of different agents. These agents each have certain affinities towards Agility, Strength, Explosives, etc., but the issue is that each one feels exactly the same. Though one agent was supposed to get +10% experience towards Strength, she never played distinctly enough to warrant using her above a character that actually looks somewhat appealing. In the end, the different agents only serve as skins to switch between.
Then there’s the militia system. One of the ways you’re tasked with taking the city back from TerraNova is by forming a local militia of citizens. The more of the city you take over, the more often you’ll see your militia members hanging around and occasionally engaging in shootouts with the city’s factions. Sounds cool, right? Unfortunately, the local militia never amounts to much more than eye candy. One thing a series like Saints Row has always done well is making gang members actually feel useful. Recruiting one and bringing them along wherever you go has always been simple, and easily sold the concept of being a team. The militia members in Crackdown 3 might kill a few bad guys here and there, but they never feel like actual allies.
That list goes on, as only 2-3 bosses are even slightly memorable as villains, and they all feel underdeveloped. Making your way through boss areas is infinitely more exciting than facing the actual bosses themselves, who amount to little more than massive bullet sponges. Also, though the saving the city is the main goal of the campaign, players are never given any real reason to care about citizens outside of “It’s the right thing to do.” Finally, character models and environments fall short of the polish one might expect of a AAA first-party game in 2019; there are just a lot of loose ends here.
But despite all of these issues that keep Crackdown 3 from being the banner, must-play Xbox One title of the year, its fun factor is simply undeniable. If you can get past a dated presentation, an extremely light story, and several blatant design flaws, Crackdown 3‘s campaign is well-worth experiencing.
Click here for my Crackdown 3: Wrecking Zone (multiplayer) impressions!