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Crackdown 3 - jumping toward an explosion on a street

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Once vaunted as a gaming revolution, Crackdown 3 is another open-world shooter

We go hands-on with a brassy game of city conquest

Sumo Digital/Microsoft Studios

After playing Crackdown 3 for a couple of hours, I come away feeling vaguely underwhelmed. It’s not that Microsoft’s open-world shooter is unenjoyable, or bad. It’s sorta fun. But it doesn’t feel like a creatively daring AAA exclusive. It feels like a compromise.

When this game was first shown in 2014, it was touted as a marvel of cloud gaming, a fully destructible world in which all things would be possible. Five years on, those promises are barely to be found in Crackdown 3. In the single-player campaign, environmental destructibility hardly exists. In the multiplayer component, it’s reduced to little more than blowing holes in barriers and walls.

Crackdown 3’s development history is a tale of delays, senior departures, and diminishing expectations. Now, closing in on its Feb. 15 release date on Windows PC and Xbox One, the game feels like a perfectly ordinary open-world shooter.

Crackdown 3 - Terry Crews character running along a highway
Terry Crews in Crackdown 3.
Sumo Digital/Microsoft Studios

Neon city

The city of New Providence is a neon conglomeration of near-future tropes such as mega-corporations and techno-gangsters, where electric cars zoom along looping highways. I am an “Agent,” tasked with taking down various criminal kingpins who are all connected with a conspiracy to control the world’s power grid.

My combat abilities include basic melee moves, incredible strength, a jetpack, and access to a variety of weapons. Throughout the game, my skills are upgraded by simply zipping through the streets, busting hideouts, and causing destruction. If I pick up a car and throw it at an enemy, my stats for picking stuff up rise. Same for shooting, driving, jumping, and so on. Each time I kill an enemy, little orbs float toward me, signifying my adhesive, ever-improving nature.

While I begin with a feeble jetpack that has all the power of a kitten’s sneeze, I am able to build it up to something more impressive, allowing me to scale large buildings or hurl myself at enemies.

The map is fully open, meaning I can go anywhere at any time and take on any enemy, including the ultimate boss. In reality, the game checks my stats and gives me a percentage probability of surviving each enemy location. This is a soft-gating technique that allows me to sample higher-level enemies, if I really want to.

During my time with Crackdown 3, the missions I choose tend toward attacking packs of enemies, accessing a terminal, and initiating some sort of computer hackery to release prisoners or whatnot. Sometimes I go in specifically to take down a bad guy, or destroy enemy resources. Missions are color-coded according to specific criminal organizations. I work my way up through a hierarchy of mob lieutenants and capos, until I take out the top bosses.

Crackdown 3 - leaping away from an explosion Sumo Digital/Microsoft Studios

Firearms loadout

Wherever I am in the city, I can jump into random cars, à la Grand Theft Auto, or I can summon my own ride.

I choose my own combat loadout of various firearms, but the battles themselves tend to yield plenty of alternatives. Enemies flag their own resistance to certain weapon types, with big letters that say “RESIST” appearing in front of them. This is my cue to trade, say, my electric rifle for a toxic sludge gun. I can also target enemies’ distinct body parts, allowing me to, say, kill a guard with a huge shield by shooting him in the foot.

Battle areas are littered with bits and bobs that I can pick up and throw at enemies, such as dumpsters, automobiles, and the bodies of other enemies. These yield significant damage. Clearly, the developers at Sumo Digital want me to engage with all this detritus, rather than merely running and gunning. It’s fun to take out a nest of enemies by chucking a floppy corpse at them.

This silliness pervades the game’s voice-over, which leans into irony. But in a world where something as genuinely outrageous as Saints Row exists, the humor feels tame at best.

Multiplayer mode takes me to a futuristic arena of towers and platforms, where I play cat-and-mouse with enemies, blowing holes in walls to shoot at them, or hiding behind columns. A neon-bead line of fire attaches to me whenever I’m targeted, and I enjoy the challenge of shaking off my pursuer, or even turning the tables. It’s a decent bit of fun.

Crackdown 3 looks like a diverting, entertaining piece of gaming, one that is likely to find favor among the series’ fans, who haven’t been served a sequel in nearly nine years. But it’s not the marvel it was originally supposed to be, nor the broadly appealing platform-exclusive blockbuster that Microsoft needs it to be. I suspect it will serve best as a decent attraction on the company’s good value Xbox Game Pass subscription service. Look out for Polygon’s full review in the days ahead.