Reagent Games builds skyscrapers up to the cloud, then topples the lot
Shocking plot twists aside, the Crackdown series has always been defined by its focus on freedom. Each game sees you leaping about the city like a superhero, becoming ever stronger, faster and more likely to harm the innocent as you dismantle criminal networks by going on a series of decreasingly discriminate rampages. Crackdown 3 continues this tradition, but ups the ante by handing you the keys to two entirely different cities in which to run riot: one that offers a fresh twist on the narrative-driven sandbox and the kind of familiarly robust buildings that will happily take a volley of rockets and stay standing; and another especially laid out for online multiplayer that raises the roof (potentially all of them] with cloud-powered physics that render every piece of it entirely destructible.
The most important change manifests as a simple addition to the right of the screen: the Hate Meter. This chirpy-sounding piece of Ul furniture measures how much of a thorn in the side you are to the crime lords who run each district. Keep hectoring them by taking out their generals and sending bruised and broken foot soldiers spiralling into the air, and you’ll eventually enrage them enough to put in a personal appearance.
Like Twitter with a greater focus on physical violence, the Hate Meter offers three tiers of hatred for you to tap into. Sustained mischief will encourage the bar to rise, the aggression and number of henchmen sent in increasing with each threshold. You could, in theory, juggle the displeasure of several kingpins at once, but if you cool your efforts in a region the corresponding meter will also drop off slowly, along with the level of threat you face there.
When you do tip a boss over the edge, you’re in for a tough encounter. Crackdown J’s cast of antagonists are a hardy bunch, and not impartial to roguish tactics – we witness one guy show up encased in a gun-speckled exoskeleton. But the balance is easily redressed: rather than being confined to a particular base or area, these fights can take place anywhere in the region in question. This fundamentally changes the game’s dynamic, in that boss fights are now on your terms. Rather than making your way through a compound designed to enshroud your quarry, you’re able to trigger a scrap in an area that you’ve reconnoitred and determined offers you the strategic advantage. You might, for example, pick the docks as the location of your duel in order to take advantage of the precariously suspended shipping crates, crushing machines or flimsy towers that can be brought down with a well-placed explosive or two.
It’s a setup that introduces greater depth to a familiar mechanic, while also promising to remove the nagging sense of anticlimax that took hold after storming and defeating kingpins’ hideouts in the first two games. But crucially, it achieves these things without undermining any of the freedom of choice afforded to you by the series. Bosses and their minions will also kill civilians and trash the city in an effort to besmirch your [questionably) good name, and while Reagent Games isn’t yet ready to talk about exactly how this will work, your reputation will affect how you’re thought of in each area. Being unpopular will have repercussions, but we really hope that doesn’t mean we’ll be punished for the huge civilian death toll we’ll inevitably be directly responsible for.
Another significant upgrade is the new ‘digital fabric’ that adorns every surface. A fancy name for ‘futuristic floating holographic displays’ (which, now that we think about it, is actually a fancier name), these spectral hoardings enable Reagent to move the narrative along without ever bringing you to a halt. Kingpins can hack any of the hundreds of screens around the city and deliver their cackling threats directly, wherever you are, and whatever you’re doing. Digital fabric is also used on the Agency’s morphing vehicles to display important details such as armour integrity… and less important ones such as how fast you were going when you rolled it into that busy junction.
Okay then, we’ve put it off long enough: while the main campaign is enticing, the fully destructible city that acts as the backdrop to the game’s online competitive multiplayer segment is simply dazzling. Reagent Games hasn’t fleshed out exactly what multiplayer modes will be available when the game launches, how many players will be online at once, or indeed how any of it will work yet – but the effort the studio has put into whipping up a spectacular arena has paid off handsomely.
Still, the first time you see the tech in action, which draws on Microsoft’s Azure service to provide additional virtual Xbox Ones on demand, is actually a little underwhelming. We’ve all seen destructible environments before, and watching a wall take damage from bullets is nothing new. But then you look closer, and you realise that each bullet’s impact is simulated, and that the pockmarks and holes that result aren’t bump-mapped sprites but real, three-dimensional attrition. And all the resulting debris and shrapnel that’s gathering on the ground? That’s all simulated too, can be further demolished and is entirely persistent. By the time you’ve toppled your first skyscraper and watched it clatter into a neighbouring building, the potential of Crackdown J’s spectacular devastation is gleefully apparent.
For example, if another player is holed up in a building (impressively, every structure has an interior in this fully collapsible city) then rather than make your way to them via boring old doors and staircases, you can just blow a series of holes through each floor and ascend to their position. Or, for another approach, you could topple the tower by taking out its foundations. If someone is hiding up on a skywalk between two buildings, you could bring them back down to earth by shooting it to pieces. Or, of course, topple one of the towers supporting the bridge into the other. And if you spot a sniper on top of a building, you could try to shoot out the roof beneath him. Or… okay, you get the picture: we’re going to be spending a lot of time gleefully toppling buildings.
It won’t be as easy as it looks in the gameplay trailers that have been released so far, however. Reagent dialled up weapons’ potency for the sake of quickly demonstrating the potential of the design, but alongside the slightly less-potent guns and rocket launchers, there will also be specific tools to deal with the steel frames that hold towers aloft. And lighting up the gas mains that reside at each building’s base will certainly speed the process along. You’ll even be able to tunnel through the ground, but Reagent has yet to decide how deep.
Crackdown 3 is by its very nature, then, splintered. There are two games here under the same banner, each with a different twist on the series’ traditional gameplay and structuring. Avoiding another potential always-online controversy by offering an offline portion makes sense, but appears to have hobbled the game’s single-player component by denying it access to the cloud – it’s impossible not to be a little disappointed that you can’t use all this destruction as a tactic against the game’s Al enemies, too. But while that may come further down the line, even without it Crackdown 3 holds the potential to transform our expectations of what a console game can, and should, be capable of.