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Crackdown fixed open-world games before anyone knew they were broken

How an Xbox original get it right the first time

Open-world video games struggle with a major problem: motivation. It’s difficult for developers to keep us playing for dozens of hours, especially as the context for our actions can become disjointed, forgotten, or simply lost in a sea of explosions. I’ve often forgotten that I’m supposed to be saving the world, as I embark upon a side mission to kill 50 similar things that will allow me to unlock a slightly better weapon.

This design issue didn’t exist in 2007 — because the genre as we currently know it didn’t either. Open-world conventions and series that we now take for granted, such as Assassin’s Creed, didn’t yet exist. Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for the PlayStation 2 in 2004. There were few established standards for controls, menus, mechanics, or even basic structures and narratives for open-world games at this point.

However, one game solved the problem of keeping players motivated in open-world games almost before the genre truly came into its own. And that game was …

Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction.

Oh, and Crackdown. And today we’re going to talk about Crackdown.

Crackdown fixed the open-world genre before it was broken

Crackdown still feels relevant today, after 11 years of iterative open world game design. It features three distinct islands filled with gangs waiting to be destroyed, rapid and intuitive progression systems, and fresh, comic book-inspired visuals that look even sharper when played in 4K on an Xbox One X. (Microsoft is currently giving Crackdown away for free, so you have every excuse to either give it another chance or experience it for the first time.)

But what makes Crackdown so refreshing and unique when played in 2019? Crackdown avoided the problem of motivating players by solving a critical question that stumped so many of its open-world peers before and since:


I ask myself “Why?” constantly while I’m playing a game. Why am I doing this side mission? How does this action contribute to my progress, or my basic understanding of the game’s world? Why do so many problems only have a single solution, when other approaches should logically work? Why do I suddenly feel lost after completing an objective? Why should I keep playing this game, when I have backlog that’s too long to list, and an endless amount of streaming content waiting to be watched?

The developers of Crackdown avoided this constant interrogation by not giving me time to ask why. They built the game on a structure of rapid empowerment, constant, calculated risk, and subtle breadcrumb trails of brain-tickling Agility Orbs.

I don’t have the mental capacity to ask questions as I play, because I am entirely engaged by the flow of this super-powered fantasy. I leap from objective to objective on a path of my own making, without ever needing to pause and look for direction.

Realtime Worlds/Microsoft

Crackdown ensures I don’t lose the thread of its story or its sense of urgency by giving me a single, overarching goal. “Clean up the city,” the menus tell me. I do this by fighting crime, while becoming more powerful in order to fight more crime. Everything I do serves that mission; there is almost no filler content in Crackdown.

The game’s setting, Pacific City, is divided into a series of islands surrounding the towering Agency headquarters, which stands alone on its own small, centrally-placed island fortress. Physical maps reflect metaphorical reality. The Agency, the government body that employs me to fight all this crime, is in the center of everything, and the adjoining islands are connected through underground spokes. These give me a tactical insertion point into every hostile region.

Differently themed gangs rules each of these islands, and those gangs are themselves ruled by a powerful boss and their lieutenants. The lieutenants make their own contribution to the power structure of each island, so that I can weaken the whole system by taking them out one-by-one.

Realtime Worlds/Microsoft

One lieutenant might handle recruitment for the gang, while another might train those recruits. One outfits the crews with illegal weaponry, and another provides the explosives. Killing a lieutenant reduces the gang’s abilities to meet those needs. The game also shows me my probability of successfully fighting a lieutenant whenever I enter an area with a living gang leader. This probability is based on my character’s current abilities and loadout, so I can judge, at a glance, how enthusiastic my police brutality law enforcement should be, and how hard I’ll find the challenges inside. If I don’t like the odds? Well, I can just find emergent ways to bend them in my favor. Or throw a truck at someone’s face. Usually the latter.

Thus lies the game’s structure. I clean up the city by cleaning up these islands by taking out the lieutenants, fighting the common street-level enemies by exploring the environment, and making the experience as difficult as I want it to be through my actions. I’m never in a situation where I can’t look around and see how to move at least one of those objectives forward from wherever I’m standing.

I can dismantle a gang from the ground-up, or I can go after the big boss as soon as I find them, using information in their Agency-delivered dossier to outmaneuver their defenses. My path might lie somewhere in the middle, but the choice is undoubtedly mine, giving me a framework with just enough direction that I don’t get lost in the small army of tangentially-related activities that are so common in modern open-world games. Crackdown offers multiple solutions to each problem, and a low chance of success on an island just means I may have to work harder, or get more creative. My actions determine the game’s difficulty level in a very direct way.

Realtime Worlds/Microsoft

And satisfying character progression is a huge part of Crackdown. I play as an immortal, preternaturally-skilled creature who regenerates after every death and grows stronger by feasting on the harvested skills of my enemies. This setup would make me an eldritch horror in any other game. In Crackdown? It just makes me a cop.

Upgrades directly relate to the way I choose to kill enemies. “Skills for kills,” the game’s cheerful narrative tells me, with a chuckle. I become better at doing things by doing those things. My explosive skill goes up when I blow up armored cars with a grenade, so the blast radius of future attacks becomes larger — and the power ramp just escalates from there.

I conquer the first outpost in an enemy region within 15 minutes of beginning the game, and I reach levels of power most games might lock behind days of grinding within a couple of hours. Crackdown continuously gives me rewards that are tied directly to my actions, which avoids the slow on-boarding curve of new abilities that slows down modern games.

This design also ensures that the enemies I’m fighting and the missions I complete have meaning. Nearly every battle changes the world in some way, and the order in which I tackle those battles gives me control over my environment. Mindfully building my character is only a part of my strategy, because I also have the option to deconstruct the capabilities of my enemies. I can make sure they don’t have access to the things against which I am weak. Or I can give them a sporting chance to fight back, to enjoy a more difficult experience.

I’m constantly making calculations as I play. I’m weighing up my plan to take down a lieutenant’s hideout, taking the game’s risk assessment into account, and defying all those careful calculations on the fly. I’m making meaningful decisions using information efficiently delivered through the game’s many systems. I’m constantly guided, but it’s happening so seamlessly that I don’t realize that it’s happening at all. And I can always decide to leave my current path. There are no mission markers signifying the entrance to cinematic “story missions” that gate my progress. There’s just Pacific City, and it needs to be cleaned.

I have a larger number of things in my mind at any given moment than I’m used to in modern open-world games, but that information feels empowering instead of overwhelming. It sets me free instead of constraining my path. Not many games have replicated that paradox since, even after so many years of design iteration.

It all comes down to action and reaction. Cause and effect. Crackdown’s focus on consistently attaching my actions to immediately meaningful results ensures I don’t approach objectives as binary markers to clear from a map. I approach them mindfully, and the world adapts as I do. Crackdown is an ecosystem, and I’m the apex predator.

Realtime Worlds/Microsoft

Crackdown isn’t a perfect game, of course. What I find intriguing about the game’s design is how many of its weaknesses are also reflections of the developer’s greatest ideas. This dissonance can best be seen in the series’ iconic Agility Orbs.

“Agility” is the only skill I can’t upgrade through murder. If I want to jump higher or run faster, I need to find Agility Orbs on the edges of rooftops, billboards, and other Recognizably High Things. Collecting them serves as both an aspirational goal and a breadcrumb trail. I can’t reach all the carefully placed Agility Orbs without learning how to navigate the game’s world with more skill.

The quest for these orbs teaches me what counts as a platform, and which surfaces can be grabbed. Failing to reach an Agility Orb helps me judge my current and future abilities . Reaching an Agility Orb gives me an arguably trivial but rewarding sub-goal to pursue on my way to a target, which keeps my brain engaged with the fundamental navigation of Pacific City. I may be on my way to an important battle, but I bet there’s an Agility Orb on the top of that building over there. If I find just a few more, I can jump higher, and find even more orbs.

But collecting enough Agility Orbs causes a few interesting things to happen in the game’s world:

  • The driving skill became useless, because I can run and leap faster than a speeding sedan;
  • The breadcrumb trail of orbs that kept me engaged between combing the city for lieutenant hideouts disappeared. The orbs are sometimes used as a way to point the player in a specific direction, but for obvious reasons, that can only work once;
  • Repeated trips and routes through each island became less enjoyable, and more about the destination than the journey;
  • Precise jumping and “simple” mantling challenges become far more frustrating when I can leap thirty feet into the air with a single button press;
  • The quick power ramp plateaued midway through the second island in my latest run through the game, making further character progression feel sluggish in comparison.

The information in an Agency dossier can also be more confusing than helpful. Lieutenant and boss hideouts can occasionally feel more like a war of attrition, or a quest to find the right combination of equipment to use in my attack, rather than an opportunity to exercise all of my abilities.

Throwing my regenerating supercop against a wall of bullets and explosives that can bounce me right off a wall I spent three minutes climbing can be frustrating, even if my progress is retained. Crackdown’s surprising focus on its diverse character selection (including the black agent that stars in the game’s marketing and a cool Māori dude) makes the sexist and racist stereotypes that do crop up disappointing. You can choose to play as a nice variety of interesting-looking guys, but there is no option to play as a woman.

These shortcomings aren’t damning, but they are enough to remind me that I’m playing a game that was released 12 years ago, and it left plenty of room for improvement.

Realtime Worlds/Microsoft

Crackdown stands out as a remarkable achievement, especially for its time. The developers focused on making the direct impact of even basic actions tangible and important. The game engaged me to the very last cutscene, juggling variables of combat, traversal, and overall strategy, because Crackdown erases the line between player guidance and agency.

Twelve years later after its release, after playing it again in the past week, my biggest question about the game is no longer “Why?”

Instead, it’s a much harder question to answer: “How?”

When he isn’t busy helping create the strange alternate internet of Hypnospace Outlaw, Xalavier Nelson Jr. is an IGF-nominated narrative designer, game developer, writer, PC Gamer columnist, IntroComp organizer, and MCV Rising Star. He is very tired as a result, and appreciates your understanding.

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