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Wot I Think: Crackdown 3

Arse Crack

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Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. What a horrible story there must be to tell of the last six or so years of Crackdown 3‘s development, if the result of all that time is this wet tissue of a game. A bland, woefully dated, aimless and deeply derivative open city, which somehow can’t even be saved by the presence of Terry Crews.

Crackdown 3 is a game that desperately wants to exist in a universe where Saints Row IV never happened. Because in that world people wouldn’t just be thinking about how nice it would be to be playing Saints Row IV again instead of this. Unfortunately Crackdown 3 exists in this universe, where nearly six years later, it feels like the Lidl’s own version that your aunt bought you, not realising it wasn’t the real thing.

There’s a city called New Providence. There’s a baddy organisation called Terra Nova. There’s a goody organisation called The Agency. That’s the end of the story. Crackdown 3 is a game about a map, which is covered in icons, and the player who has to go to all those locations and repeat one of several near-identical mission types. For some reason a number of voices incessantly drivel meandering nothingness in your ears, talking and talking and talking, but never saying anything.

Your only meaningful sense of direction is a hierarchy of bosses to take down, those higher up the ten-person chain made easier to defeat (or so it says) by taking out those below. So there are six mission types for the six bosses at the bottom, then three for those above, and then the top boss saved for the end. You complete each boss’s series of utterly identical missions (killing the guards at train stations, blowing up the tanks at chemical works, um… blowing up something else, killing other people elsewhere), about 13 times for each, and then they appear on the map as a frivolous boss fight. (One boss fight involved standing still and firing a laser weapon at an enormous enemy while she stood there doing nothing about it.)

This was initially supposed to be the big technical bonanza, multiplayer with a fully destructible city, incredible effects, and none of that has made it into the game. But even if we don’t judge it against what it claimed it would be, but rather just what it is, it’s a grimly poor open city that clings to the hoary old tropes we all thought we were done with half a decade ago. And boy oh boy, does it look like it came out at least half a decade ago.

I just can’t think of a single element of the game that seems to have gone well. It passes time, I played it from start to finish and didn’t actively hate it, but I can’t think of a single area where it shines. Sure, there are a ton of over-powerful weapons, loads of different types, and a bunch of different skills that improve as you use them. And there are ability orbs, which when collected will level up your acrobatic skills. They’re all in place, and the movement (but for character’s opting to just slide off platform edges) is all fine. But there’s nothing satisfying to do with any of it.

This is just an astonishing anachronism, a game developed in a sealed bubble of time, where no progress of any type occurred since Crackdown 2 came out in 2010. But then made less fun by a fussy, muddled city, gruesome repetition, and perhaps most egregious of all, the very worst attempts at humour. “I love the smell of toxic fumes in the morning,” says one of the two voices that cannot sodding shut up throughout. And he says it SO MANY TIMES. OVER AND OVER. Each crappy line dragged out when the game thinks it’s apposite, awkwardly failing about half the time.

There are, you’ll be shocked to learn, towers to climb. These are platforming sections for which the third-person perspective is nowhere near designed, meaning you have to make all sorts of blind jumps over moving platforms until you get to the top and press a button. There are bases to clear of enemies, and panels to hack. There are escalating scales of reinforcements in response to your actions. There is absolutely anything you’d expect to find in an open city game from a decade ago, included seemingly out of obligation rather than any sense of design direction or purpose.

Combat is just about passable. For the most part, you’ll get through any encounter with just one weapon. The Plasma Beam is so madly over-powered that it provided solace from having to spend any longer in each encounter than necessary. You aim by locking on to an enemy, as free aiming is all but useless. Left trigger to lock, right to fire. Repeat until they’re all dead.

But infuriatingly, the lock thinks it’s knows FAR better than you about where you want to aim, such that it will ignore an enemy directly in your sights for, say, a barrel it prefers behind a wall far over to the left. As far as I can tell it’s biasing anything you previously locked onto over anything new, and it’s just the stupidest decision. It doesn’t work. It makes a bland experience far more tiresome.

And that’s the way of Crackdown 3 from start to finish: bland, and tiresome. Crackdown was created to be this power fantasy silliness, this game where you were ludicrously over-powered, causing wanton explosions for laughs. But this clearly troubled third entry has become a sad, glum affair, embarrassingly trying to be like Saints Row IV, but without any of the imagination. Which is to say, yes, it’s horribly like Agents of Mayhem. Weirdly like it.

For instance, the city doesn’t actually exist. It’s just blocks to jump on. You can’t interact with it, you can’t find fun hidden surprises, you don’t have a base, there aren’t any jolly little minigames or side-quests scattered about. Oh wait, no, that’s not true. There are market stalls that sell some drug, and you blow them up. Um, that’s it.

There are a ton of different characters to play as, switched between at any ammo station. It makes little to no difference, whether you’re Terry Crews or one of the twenty others who weren’t so blessed with a well-drawn face. Each has a 10% and 5% bonus in two skill types, and if you can notice you’re one twentieth better at using explosions than before, then this is the min-maxing opportunity you’ve been waiting for. Like everything else in the game, this feels like it was supposed to be a “thing”, and then wasn’t.

The bosses were supposed to be a thing. You were supposed to be able to draw out bosses through some complicated gang structure, but that’s not evident here, and honestly the only real difference between the different groups of enemies is the colour of the icon floating over their heads. The city was supposed to be a thing, destructible and intricate, and that was given up on. Even the cutscenes seem to have been cut. It opens and closes with a decent effort, a very realistic-looking Terry Crews in some lively action. But then for the rest of the game it’s barely-animated concept-arty cartoon, which looks cheap and desultory. Even making them in-engine would have been better than these. Again, what happened? This can’t have been their ambition.

Another thing it was supposed to be was a multiplayer extravaganza. A showpiece. Oh good gravy. You can read as much as you wish into the fact that they only made multiplayer even possible for critics to look at from 6pm the night before the reviews were due to come out. And with good reason, because wow, it’s poor. There were two modes on offer, Agent Hunter (6-8pm) and Territories (8-9pm). For the former, I spent vastly more time watching the matchmaking software time out or produce error messages than actually playing, despite there being literally nine people in the whole world trying to play.

On the two occasions it did succeed, I was rewarded with the most woefully lacklustre and banal game of red vs blue, jumping around a small bespoke city grid, shooting at each other and collecting death tokens. First team to 25 won. That was it. Absolutely nothing else to it, no surprises, no special weapons to find, no innovative teamwork to pursue, nothing. The best it gets is gathering five orange orbs to go into a sort of quad-damage mode. Yawn. And when one of these dull-fests unceremoniously came to an end, there was no option for a rematch, no second location to go to – we were all just dumped off the server. To play again meant sitting through the matchmaking failures for another fifteen minutes.

And for the latter mode? Well, I tried again at 8pm, and repeatedly for the first 15 minutes of the scheduled hour, and was greeted by a message informing me of the designated playing times. Which was, you know, after 8am. Yeah, I’ve given this bilge enough of my evening already.

As for the promised destructibility, it is there. Sort of. The arenas are pretty small sections, very vertically built, and yeah, bits of wall smash off around you as you shoot. But the buildings are all reinforced by invulnerable steel rivets and stay up, even if you shoot out every section of wall. Sometimes some bits of bridge collapse, but I never understood why, and it had precisely zero impact on the game. It feels like meaningless decoration. Red Faction did this with far more ambition in 2009. In the end it’s just some slightly annoying clutter on screen.

Not that you need to be able to see what you’re doing. Opponents are all highlighted for you by omnipresent floating triangles, character outlines even been shown through buildings, and you’ve got the same lock-on weapons as in the single-player, meaning you just lock on someone, hold down the fire button, and no matter how much they jump and run and dash, your weapon keeps firing right at them. Aiming? Not here!

It’s with genuine astonishment that I report the multiplayer is incomprehensibly dreadful. I’d honestly thought this would be the game’s saving grace, coming to it as I did after finishing the single-player campaign. But it feels tacked on, included perhaps only to prove that the destructible scenery did actually exist! A bit! See! It’s a disaster.

And of course, Microsoft has a special way with PC. A way I’d argue is captured by the Windows Store itself. That way is “disdain”. Just wild, flagrant disdain, a complete uninterest in how anyone actually wants to use their games (like, say, knowing where they’re installed!). And despite being the company which you’d imagine would be most immediately familiar with Windows, and indeed PCs, each newly published release seems to find some inexplicably terrible means to feel like it’s never seen a computer before in its life. For Crackdown 3, this is resolutions.

The default launch resolution for this 2019 game is… a windowed 1202×933. Just what? That’s roughly a 4:3 ratio, like we used to use in… 2006? I usually run games in a window on my 3440×1440 monitor at 2560×1440, so looked for the default setting for that. It only went up to 2400×1800, which it considered to be “200%”. Again, what? In fullscreen it offered me more sensible dimensions, but for boring work reasons I need to capture screenshots in 16:9, so switched back to windowed. Now suddenly I got go up to 6880×2880! WHAT?!

This stuff is so basic! Everyone else gets it right! Microsoft: nope. In the end I opened another game in the correct ratio, and then used it as a template to drag the window to the correct shape! And… the game reported back that this was 1994×1113. “M” to apply settings. And for a punchline: after it crashed to desktop, it loaded up back in 1202×933.

This is a sad affair. It’s playable, which is the faintest of damning praise. “I played it from start to finish, and it passed the time.” Pop that on the posters. But it’s mundane, humdrum, and irritating. It’s anachronistic, horribly left behind by the rest of gaming, and curled up shivering in the shadow of Saints Row IV that it so clearly wanted to be. Not even Terry Crews could make me like it, and gosh I love Terry Crews.

There’s obviously a long and sad story to be told here. The tales of how it swapped development studios, of how it was supposed to be an Xbone launch title, why it never became the promised technical masterwork that made cloud-based processing a part of gaming. It reeks of development hell, as demoralising to play as I imagine it was to make. Yes, clearing a map of its icons can be readily distracting, and it fulfils this role at least. But that’s no longer nearly enough. Although I’ll say one thing for it, that shouldn’t be underappreciated. It’s fast travel is fast – it loads anywhere on the map incredibly quickly. Which would be a nice thought to end on, if I didn’t add: it’s just it’s not that much fun when you get there.

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John Walker


One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I tried to leave, but they won't let me. If anyone reads this, please send help.

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