Crackdown 3’s mediocre campaign fills a big open world with paint-by-numbers gameplay that barely evolves after the opening hours.
Editor’s Note: Because Crackdown 3’s single and multiplayer modes are so different, and because the multiplayer was barely available ahead of time, we’re reviewing them separately. This review covers my thoughts on the single-player campaign; check back soon for my take on the Wrecking Zone PvP mode.
Like a B action movie, Crackdown 3 is solely concerned with trying to deliver a hamfisted, high-octane, kaleidoscopically techno explosion-fest. And just like all but the best B action movies, it’s not stylish or substantial enough to pull it off. Outside of a few decent bosses, most of the eight to 10-hour campaign is the same rehashed lock-on shooting gallery across a huge but relentlessly bland city map. There’s some fun toward the end, once you’re effectively a superhero and springing around the lifeless world like Ang Lee’s Hulk. But even in co-op, it’s extremely forgettable – which is a damning thing to say about a game that tries so hard to be over the top.
Crackdown 3’s story is never more complex than, to paraphrase, “Oh no! Evil megacorp Terra Nova has sucked out the world’s power and you must stop it!” It’s so thin that even a talented personality like Terry Crews can’t save it, especially when his infectiously energetic and hammy performance as Commander Jaxon is mostly confined to the opening cutscene and then some random bits of dialogue before he’s reduced to effectively just a skin for your character with his own bonuses, like all other agents.
Really, the conflict with Terra Nova is more of a loose premise than a full-fledged story, which is fitting considering the next 10 hours are a largely an aimless procession of chasing waypoints and icons that cover the world map like ornaments on a Christmas tree, nearly all of which involve very similar and numbingly simplistic shooting.
Left Trigger, Right Trigger
Keep in mind as I tell you about the rest of what Crackdown 3 does, which is almost entirely combat, that the combat isn’t good.
I’m not exaggerating when I say the majority of my experience through the entirety of the campaign was as follows: left trigger to lock on, right trigger to fire, left trigger to lock on, right trigger to fire, left trigger, right trigger, left trigger, right trigger. That’s the gist. There’s simply no need to rely on melee combat, because it’s just more efficient to run into an outpost and mindlessly cycle through enemies with automatic fire or one of the explosive ordinance launchers. Running up to an enemy to punch it to death is slower and less efficient in almost every situation. So keep in mind as I tell you about the rest of what Crackdown 3 does, which is almost entirely combat, that the combat isn’t good.
There is a loose structure to the Terra Nova corporation when it comes to how you dismantle it, at least. The purple-themed Logistics arm has taken over the monorail stations throughout the island, each of which can be reclaimed by shooting their robot guards before shooting the miniboss that spawns. The green Industry branch has refineries, toxic storage facilities, and chemical excavation sites that are all undone by shooting the guards, tanks, and machinery until it’s all destroyed. The red Security wing has set up detention camps, vehicle depots, defensive installations, etc. that are taken apart by – you guessed it – shooting the guards and destroying the vehicles, or hacking panels to free prisoners or shut down the installations.
This constant monotonous cycle of finding an outpost, shooting things, sometimes hacking a panel or removing/replacing a battery to shutdown a forcefield is as in-depth as the overarching gameplay ever gets in Crackdown 3. Though there are bespoke enemies for each branch with their own strengths and weaknesses, they largely conform to a number of archetypes, and never really need more consideration than just locking-on and shooting them until they die.
Only the final boss gets enough screen time to come off as threatening.
All these color-coded targets employ lieutenants who report to the bosses who report to the big bad leader of the corporation. And though you can tackle them in any order – you can even head straight for the bosses if you like – picking them apart weakens the hierarchy, making for an easier time bringing it down piece by piece. Even if you don’t know what to do or where to go, just running around destroying things long enough will eventually allow you to stumble toward a boss fight.
Those showdowns are the highlights of combat in Crackdown 3. While they too often boil down to a psychopath in a giant mech, there are some clever fights that require more than just shooting a single target for a minute before you win. There are personalities associated with each of these fiends, and it’s clear effort was put into attempting to the flesh them out, but the way that detail is delivered through brief animatic scenes and comm chatter does little to instill a sense of any real character. They’re all interchangeably menacing from afar, and only the final boss really gets enough screen time to come off as a really threatening person.
Skills for Kills for What?
Crackdown 3 is not a very difficult game, regardless of which of the four difficulty options you choose.
Like the original game, Crackdown 3 employs the “skills for kills” philosophy where your character will gain progress in a certain discipline for performing those actions. For example, when you shoot guns you get more firearms experience, making your guns more effective. When you punch enemies or pick up objects and chuck them, you get strength experience, making those punches hit harder and allowing you to pick up heavier objects. Driving, racing, vehicular kills, and doing stunts in cars grants you more vehicle experience. Blowing stuff up: more explosive experience and bigger booms. And the more experience you gain in these disciplines the cooler the skills you get for each tier you climb. It’s still a neat system all these years later, but it’s totally hamstrung by the basic, simplistic combat controls Crackdown 3 is based on that remove any need for manual aim or creativity.
As a result, Crackdown 3 is not a very difficult game, regardless of which of the four difficulty options you choose. The default difficulty I started on only ever offered a challenge during boss fights that didn’t rely entirely on shooting. And even after cranking it up to Legendary, where the enemies do significantly more damage, rushing headlong into a complex full of Terra Nova soldiers is still completely viable because of how generous Crackdown is with your health. You get a full health bar, and a full shield bar over the top of it, and it not only regenerates over time when you’re not taking damage, but also to reward you for every enemy you kill. As long as you’re jumping, dodge-rolling, and dashing around as you’re auto-locking and firing (left-trigger-right-trigger), you can outpace the damage with regeneration. It quickly sucks the fear out of being overwhelmed, and the handful of times I actually died came because I simply didn’t care to try to stay alive anymore.
It creates a race to the bottom of boredom where I eventually stopped seeing the rank-and-file forces of Terra Nova as anything other than experience and health pinatas, and only rarely did I need to stop and think about what I was doing. It’s the biggest detriment to the longterm fun of Crackdown 3, because it saps the threat, which saps the tension, which makes the whole game feel more like a checklist than a fight against an overwhelming force of amoral, corporate-backed shocktroopers.
There’s a repeating trend of Crackdown 3 defeating itself.
And this trend of Crackdown 3 defeating itself extends just as much to the driving, which doesn’t feel great to begin with but is distinguished by the fact that you’re handed the keys to an Agency vehicle that can transform between a speedster supercar, a jumping spider buggy, and an armored tank at will. But the whole concept of driving quickly becomes completely obsolete because as you find and collect the glowing green agility orbs you’re soon able to run faster, jump higher, double-and-triple jump, and satisfyingly air-dash across chasms and between skyscrapers. Getting around on foot is the obviously more efficient, and more fun, mode of transportation – and, when it’s not fast enough, the generous number of fast-travel points meant that I rarely if ever wanted to get behind the wheel after the first hour or two.
Gun(s) and Ammo
While Crackdown 3 has a varied and seemingly impressive array of weapons and gadgets to find, it very quickly became obvious that outside a half dozen that are clearly superior, most of them were flavor over functionality. The Cryo Shotgun sounds cool, and the Ragnarok sounds like a ridiculous weapon, right? But no.
Sure, there’s some satisfaction to be had in collecting them, and there’s a black hole-shooting megaweapon hiding out there that comically tilts the scales even more dramatically in your favor forever once you unlock it. But after I found the Pulse Beam during the tutorial, I rarely used anything else because its continuous ray of burning fire is so efficient against nearly everything. Regularly, I would find a new gun, quickly realize it was worse than what I was using, and swap back to what I had been using before I picked it up. By about the four-hour mark, I had the weapons I’d primarily use for the rest of the campaign: the pulse beam, the homing rocket launcher, and the mass driver – the same weapons I’d use to kill the final boss.
And because there are generous heaps of ammo lying around, and you can literally restore all your ammo by touching a supply point, there are no tough decisions to be made about conserving ammo or having to change weapons. You can just keep firing, killing, and replenishing your weapons to continue firing, killing, and replenishing.
A City Built for More
From a distance is the best way to view New Providence. Standing on a perch above it, its snaking highways and monorail tracks crisscrossing the sky and towering, Bladerunner-style holograms are eye-catching, but once you get close to buildings or walk the streets it’s just flat, devoid of life and detail, and disturbingly angular. There are cars driving around and people walking the sidewalks, but they’re little more than window dressing – props in a large diorama of a city.
By about the four-hour mark, I was using the weapons I’d primarily use for the rest of the campaign, the same weapons I’d use to kill the final boss.
The centerpieces of the island are mammoth skyscrapers where each branch of the corporation calls home. The staggering height of these can be fun to play with initially, but eventually more elevation doesn’t really hide the fact they’re made of the same low-resolution textured walls, walkways, and corridors stacked toward the heavens. The neon-spewing lights and signs that dot the world add a futuristic flair, but they only mask the largely hollow shell of a future city. Part of me wonders if the blandness of the environment was intentional, a byproduct of when the city was built to be demolished into tiny pieces. But Microsoft’s touted cloud-based destruction ended up being completely and disappointingly absent from the campaign. Whether it was ever intended to be included or not, the result is a metropolitan area that runs the gamut from looking cool in isolated pockets, to resembling a sterile “whitebox” development environment used to prototype a game rather than an actual finished product.
The simple serenity of collecting isn’t all that compelling or creative, but it’s progress, and we like progress.
Where I did find a consistent well of satisfaction in Crackdown 3 was in the progression and completion of simple tasks – because there are so, so many things to tick off. None of it is particularly hard: platform jumping puzzles to silence propaganda pylons, tapping into communications arrays, finding dead agents’ DNA, collecting agility orbs, completing foot races… the list goes on and on. Crossing off a category of activities is as obsessively satisfying as in any other collect-a-thon in any other open-world game, and if your brain is wired like mine there’s a simple serenity to just getting stuff done. None of it is all that compelling or creative, but it’s progress, and we like progress.
The exception to this is the 1,000 total Agility Orbs and Hidden Orbs scattered throughout New Providence. By the time I finished the campaign I had about a third of them already collected, and the fun of seamlessly gliding from one to the next, a la Sunset Overdrive, was replaced by having to survey the map for ones I’d missed, which felt antithetical to the practice of easy-breezy collecting.
Fortunately, your character’s skill progression is separate from your overall world progression, so if you wanted to fully deck out your character by finding 1,000 orbs, you could theoretically grab 200 agility orbs from one world state, start a new world slot with the same character and do it again, and again, and again until you were at max agility. Since I have already sunk another half-dozen hours in post credits exploring and collecting, I don’t plan on going back for more, but it’s possible.
The one collectible-type activity I didn’t enjoy were road races, because Crackdown 3’s driving never felt great to me even when tooling around in the speedster Agency vehicle. I did enjoy the vehicle stunt jumps more – which are floating purple rings in hard-to-reach places you’re intended to drive through. But once I figured out that you can get a sufficiently strong friend to join you in co-op and just pick up your car and toss you through those rings, I stopped trying to do them the right way. Whether it was intended to function like that or not, it was fun in the moment to discover that trick, but it killed the golden goose of trying to complete them with skill.