Crackdown 3 and the Power of Context

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Crackdown 3 is destined to be in 2019’s end of year roundup conversations, albeit only in the context of “wait that was this year!?” Afters years of doubt and feared cancellation Microsoft’s haunted exclusive has finally flopped its way onto store shelves and…most people either hate it or don’t care at all. The critical reception in general has been intriguing to follow with a mix of day one reviewers not finding much meat to take a strong stance either way culminating with a numerical “meh” and gamers and fanboys screaming online about how the game is “outdated”, followed by normal people trying the game out afterwards and finding out that it’s not that bad.

It’s not that bad! It’s not bad at all really, after all what people mean when they discuss Crackdown 3 feeling “old” is that it’s very similar to the original Crackdown from 2007; a critically acclaimed game that’s still a blast to revisit today. But if everyone still loves Crackdown why is Crackdown 3 not only failing to set the world on fire but receiving some scorch marks itself? Well it’s a matter of a tiny shift in context and structure, and unpacking this will demonstrate how you can transform an excellent game into a mediocre one with a few short steps.

For the uninitiated; Crackdown is an action sandbox where you play as a regenerating super powered cop manufactured by an organisation called The Agency who can be replaced with a clone body every time they die. The goal of the game is to take down gang leaders by taking out their underlings to weaken their stranglehold on their area of the city softening them up for your final assault. The subtle genius comes from how you can approach this basic task in multiple different ways; you build a strategy to go after the big bosses based on how much you’ve weakened them (or haven’t, depending on what kind of challenge you want) and what abilities your agent has which are enhanced based on how much you screw around with them. Will you go full hog and kill everything in sight as hard as possible to max out your shooting and explosives skills to attack a major gang base head on? Or goof off jumping from building to building collecting the satisfying snack like agility orbs so you can jump 50 billion feet in the air to sneak around the back, blast through the window and go straight for the leader in a sea of bullets.

Crackdown struck a perfect balance of feeling goal-orientated and tightly designed while building an open space bursting with distractions that never felt like filler or chores because they were all steering you towards one specific objective. It’s a silly game full of thousands of shootouts, explosions and screaming tuned towards having the most amount of chaotic fun per second as possible, but it’s contextualized in a way where it all feels meaningful. Every action leads to another action, you keep playing Crackdown so that you can have more Crackdown, and Crackdown never tries to stop you because Crackdown loves being played.

Crackdown 2 launched in 2010, and that’s about all the analysis it deserves.

Crackdown 3 stumbles straight out of the gate (after the wonderful Terry Crews’ HOO RAH speech anyway) by going all in with a confusing narrative that skillfully threads the needle between being an interesting story and effective satire. Crackdown ended with a stinger revealing The Agency was responsible for supporting crime as part of a plot to impose a police state upon the city, turns out giving the cops superpowers and complete free reign to steal property and pulverize people on the street isn’t a good idea after all! A cop taking on thousands upon thousands of drug dealers, rapists and murderers is about as easy mode a contextualization as you can get for an action game where you kill everything in sight. Even if planting a sticker on the end of the game that says “you were the bad guy tho lol” is a bit of a cheat which dodges having to unpack the complexities of basing all of your player actions around police brutality, Crackdown gets away with it by utilizing gentle satire throughout the game via a perfectly voiced Agency representative narrating your destruction with an off putting level of pleasure and announcing intelligence updates with a comical level of self-importance. Also, the game never pretends to be more profound than it is.

Whereas Crackdown 3 goes for a somewhat techno-dystopia setup where a corporation has taken full control of an island state and is responsible for a terrorist attack that has wiped out all the energy in the world (or something). Now it’s up to the known to be evil Agency to invade the island while teaming up with the local civilian militia to take the whole system down. Boy there’s a lot to unpack there, we’ve got neoliberalism, imperialism, interventionism, terrorism, environmentalism, capitalism, fascism, this is far too many -isms for a game that accompanies the act of blowing up container tanks with the line “NOW THAT’S MY IDEA OF CHEMISTRY!” The social satire is all over the place and has no direction, some folks have been noting contemporary gags from the game such as “Theresa’s Food Banks” but that’s an example of how the satire in the game feels more of a vague swipe at whatever was in the newspaper that week rather than actually saying anything cohesive.

SPOILERS: At the end of the game The Agency is presented as unambiguously heroic and the leader of the citizen militia chooses to sign up with them. Figure that one out.

Some may be wondering why this is such a big deal, it’s not like anyone plays these games for the story. Crackdown was smart enough to know not to drown itself in elaborate backstory, “crime is everywhere whoops” was more than enough for a central hook and the only extra flavoring you needed was a brief backstory for the gang leaders to grasp an understanding of what you were achieving by putting a stop to their operation. In the first hour of Crackdown 3 you are bombarded by cutscenes, plot and tutorials, none of which are deal breakers in and of themselves but front loading your game like this causes a distraction in focus which raises unnecessary questions in the player’s mind about what is expected of us and whether we understand what we’re doing. An intoxicating progression loop like Crackdown’s needs space to sing, Crackdown 3 takes far too long to warm up.

Once Crackdown 3 gets rolling it initially seems like business as usual; you’re introduced to a bunch of underlings you need to clear out to soften up the biggest baddie, there’s a collection of orbs scattered all over the city, you start off with limited abilities but level up quickly with an urge to get stronger…but it’s all a little off. Those ability orbs that devoured hours upon hours of your time in the original game don’t feel as enticing to collect this time round. They seem to appear in small pockets of buildings rather than as a potpourri scattered across the entire city, often awkwardly placed under ledges and other annoying to reach spots. This new city is nowhere near as accommodating to platforming shenanigans as its predecessor, sporting huge chasms, tall bridges and various other spots where it’s easy to get stuck or fall into pools of toxic ooze. You know something’s gone wrong with a sandbox game when it features a relatively small map, superpowers, collectible power ups, air dashes and dozens of fast futuristic vehicles to drive and your hand is still regularly hovering over the fast travel option.

With less organic distractions you’re more prone to go straight for the objectives whether they be mainline quests or side activities. As is commonplace for modern open world design Crackdown 3’s map soon becomes littered with dozens of icons indicating Stuff To Do, which is overwhelming and stressful at first but only serves to make the game simple and formulaic once you’ve got a handle of it. All of the activities are accompanied by a tally showing how many of that particular event you’ve cleared and how many left you have to do which is the beginning of the game’s shift in soul. In the original Crackdown you were free to bash your head against whatever gang leaders you could find with any approach that was accessible to you whether you had any hope of defeating them or not. In Crackdown 3 you have to clear a list of chores first, so if you want to take out the guy in charge of the chemical plants you have to do a lap of the city blowing up all his chemical plants which will cause his location to pop up on the map where you’ll commute to for an over-designed boss battle.

It can’t be overstated what a disastrous change this is for Crackdown 3; it turns a game design structure about player choice and progression working towards a small number of large objectives to a structure where you have the player hopping between dozens upon dozens of micro-objectives. You’re no longer taking out the small fries because you want to or because it benefits you, you’re doing it because you have to. No longer do you feel like a highly capable agent set to chew through a monumental task of great significance with your skills, you’re now a pest control service doing your daily rounds until you get to go home.

Towards the end of the game you will have worked you way up to the second tier of the criminal hierarchy built up of three lieutenants, taking out any one of them will unlock the location of the final boss giving you to option to challenge them at any time and end the game. This might sound like it’s a return to the spirit of the original Crackdown as it’s up to you to decide whether or not you’re ready, but if you choose not to do this and clear the other two lieutenants first you’ll find that this has zero bearing on your survival chances on the final boss and was seemingly pointless.

What?

Turns out that clearing out underlings has no bearing on the strength of those above, even though that’s the entire point of having a hierarchy and structuring the game so you start from the bottom and work your way up. The only factor that seems to affect your “Survival Chance” that the game gives you against bosses is how much you’ve leveled up your own abilities. While it’s true this doesn’t contradict the theme of progression since everything you do in the game requires a lot of jumping, shooting and exploding which of course will level up all of these attributes organically, but there’s a lost layer of context and design once your completed tasks stop factoring into your path towards the ultimate goal. Now rather than developing specific skills to complement specific approaches in how you approach challenges, now the game is focused on making numbers go higher and becoming generically stronger overall. Once jumping and shooting become your main priorities, you start to realize how much jumping and shooting you’re doing.

Now that finding bosses often involves following a linear string of objective markers, boss battles themselves usually involve shooting a guy in a robot suit in a very specific way and certain tasks have to done in a certain order before you can make real progress towards your goals the game far more rigid and limited in possibilities than its predecessor. Without meaning or reason to any of this other than clearing a videogame stage to unlock the next one a game design that previously felt empowering now feels like a grind to clear a specific number of repetitive tasks and shoot an allocated amount of dudes.

When viewed in a vacuum there are various elements of Crackdown 3 that are superior to the original. The shooting and driving are a lot tighter, the air dash is radical and there’s a lot of fun you can have with some of the goofy physics and arsenal of weaponry. However, there are no such thing as inherently good game mechanics, and mechanical analysis is only effective when you’re reading the full sentences formed out of these verbs. Crackdown 3 may feature repetition of explosions and shootouts at a similar rate to the original, but it’s a much more tedious game overall because it fails to contextualize these actions in a manner that makes it feel like you’re not doing them for their own sake.

Crackdown 3 is by no means a terrible game. After the initial post-release disappointment dies down it wouldn’t be surprising if it ends up finding a decent audience. It’s already available on Xbox Game Pass, it’s fun enough on a micro level and brainless enough in structure to be a good podcast game* and many will find its somewhat throwback design a refreshing change of pace from other recent open world titles. It’s not going to be anyone’s favorite game though, and it’s not going to be remembered as fondly nor revisited as much as the original Crackdown because the game isn’t about anything and none of its elements add up to anything meaningful. It’s a time waster that doesn’t do anything well enough to absorb you into its themes, setting or design structure, but doesn’t do anything annoying enough to block you off from indulging in its fun enough action mechanics. You keep playing Crackdown 3 because you loved Crackdown, and Crackdown 3 doesn’t stop you because Crackdown 3 doesn’t really care.

Follow me on Twitter here, it’s the only context where you’re allowed to do that!

*Full Disclosure: after the headache inducing first hour of the game and the fact that in this entry you’re working with two organisations which means you have two people narrating over everything you do which is incredibly obnoxious I played the entirety of the rest of the game with the sound off and subtitles on. I recommend giving Crackdown 3 a try if you have an active Game Pass subscription but only on the grounds that you also do this and put on some background noise, hearing people getting confused over the plot of Yakuza 4 has way more intellectual merit that any sound effect, music or line of dialogue in this game.

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