Crackdown 3 Review: Last (Generation) Action Hero

Wasted potential is the best way to sum up Crackdown 3, which simultaneously squanders its impressive destruction technology while also failing to build upon the series’ existing strengths. But despite all these flaws, there is the core of a great game here.

Crackdown 3 is the archetypal power fantasy: an open-world platforming sandbox in which you control an Agent, a super-powered crime fighter. The setting is New Providence, an island city controlled by the sinister TerraNova corporation, generic evil company du jour. It’s harnessing the power of a MacGuffin, here played by a green substance called Chimera, to conquer the world for vague, evil reasons. The setting is inconsequential, though. It’s merely a backdrop for mayhem.

The mayhem itself involves dismantling TerraNova by laying waste to its soldiers and bases across the island. Eventually you’ll draw out one of their leadership for a direct confrontation and a cheeky boss battle. The enemy combatants are variations on soldiers, drones, and vehicles. Although they might as well be newly-hatched ducklings for all the chance they stand against your godlike powers.

Crackdown 3 Review

Bring the Pain

Combat rarely poses a challenge, even on the higher difficulties. Instead, Crackdown 3 throws tons of small, squishy mortals your way and lets you pound them into mulch. You have your choice of murder methods at your disposal — from tame selections like SMGs and shotguns, to space age stuff like the Singularity Gun. But if you’d rather get up close and personal, you can always rely on the guns God gave you. That is, your genetically-engineered super-biceps. But despite the wide arsenal at your fingertips, every enemy dies the same way — via excessive force. There is something inherently cathartic about squashing hordes of chaff beneath your boots, but the endless combat gets repetitive over time.

When you’re not wailing on goons, Crackdown 3 is all about leveling up your skills. The Xbox exclusive forgoes the usual XP system, though. Instead your skills improve individually, as you use them. Shooting firearms increases your firearms skill, blowing stuff up boosts your explosives skill, etc.

The slight exception to this rule is “agility,” which improves by collecting good ol’ Crackdown Agility Orbs. These green glowing candies are scattered across the city in hard-to-reach areas. And, as always, they are easily Crackdown’s greatest feature. It’s the entire concept of challenge and reward boiled down to its basic level; you climb tall buildings and your reward is to become better at climbing tall buildings — with gradually higher jump heights as you collect more orbs.

Crackdown 3 Review

Orb, Orb, Orb!

The simplistic beauty of this relationship is the core of Crackdown 3 (as it was in the past two games). You become conditioned to seek out that beautiful orb pick-up sound, hurling yourself across rooftops in search of your next fix. I found myself perpetually unable to stop playing if another Agility Orb was in sight — even if it was several blocks and a dozen stories away.

New Providence lends itself wonderfully to your orb hunting escapades. By modern open-world standards, the city will feel bare and lifeless, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in height. New Providence isn’t a living, breathing city, but rather a platforming playground. Every building is scalable. Every rooftop is reachable. This verticality massively bumps up the effective size of the cityscape, encouraging you to make the most of your Agent’s impressive agility.

Alongside the classic gameplay loop of grabbing orbs and smoking bad guys, the Voice of the Agency makes his return to the series. This long-running narrator has frankly irresponsible amounts of gravitas in his voice. He remarks on your every combat encounter and escapade, peeling off campy lines like “someone check his pulse” and “that’s a 10 on the Richter scale” with boundless enthusiasm.

Crackdown 3 Review

Wasted Legacy

Despite all that praise — despite everything I do love about Crackdown 3 — I came away from this experience profoundly disappointed. This is not the game Microsoft first revealed to us back in its E3 2014 announce trailer. Four-player co-op is nowhere to be seen. The diverse (but admittedly heavily stereotyped) gangs have been replaced with milquetoast mega-corporation thugs. Worst of all, the mind-blowing destruction technology Microsoft showcased for years has been relegated to a sideshow multiplayer mode called Wrecking Zone.

Wrecking Zone is a glorified tech demo. It offers two uninspiring five-on-five game modes (both variations on Kill Confirmed and King of the Hill from Call of Duty). The much-touted destruction physics are indeed impressive. Buildings deform and collapse in realistic fashion. But it’s all so inconsequential to the action. A game mode which featured destruction as the objective, rather than window dressing for shooting each other, would have been an infinitely better showcase of the technology. As it stands, Wrecking Zone is just a bare-bones shooter with a gimmick.

Despite its five-plus-year development, Crackdown 3 still feels rushed. There are a measly nine boss targets to take down in the campaign — a far cry from the 21 gang leaders the original game boasted on Xbox 360. As a result, the Crackdown 3 campaign feels far more linear than the original. That game tasked you with dismantling an intricate web of allies in whichever order you pleased. This one feels like it’s over before it really starts.

Crackdown 3 Review

What’s New Is… Actually Old

The vehicles are yet another massive misstep. The original Crackdown featured a series of Agency super-cars that leveled up with you, bulking up and hulking out as your driving skill improved. These awesome vehicles have been scrapped and replaced with just one car that morphs into various forms. These new Agency car modes are some of the most uninspiring sci-fi vehicle designs I’ve ever seen. To top that off, the handling and physics are utterly atrocious. The Spider variant is the worst offender. It’s ostensibly an off-road vehicle that can climb vertical surfaces, but the floaty controls and wonky physics mean the only thing climbing was my blood pressure as I hit a pebble and careened off into space.

Beyond these annoyances, there are precious few additions to the classic Crackdown formula that the first game nailed 12 years ago. You hunt down bad guys, collect orbs, and compete in challenge races. All of that is great! But… all of that came in the original Crackdown. Worse still, what new ideas this sequel does bring are just generic sandbox tropes. It’s all stronghold clearances and radio towers airlifted in from Ubisoft headquarters. Credit where it’s due, though. The Propaganda towers do at least provide some interesting platforming challenges. Meanwhile, the reward for completing them is a massive hologram of Terry Crews. Perfect.

Crackdown 3 Review

Too Little “Boom”

Speaking of the big man, Crackdown 3’s final sin is its chronic under-use of Crews himself. He was an absolute star of the marketing campaign. But when controlling his character, Commander Jaxon, he rarely says anything at all. He occasionally perks up to shout “fuck you, gravity” or “boom shaka laka!” Outside of these infrequent voice lines, however, Jaxon and the other playable Agents are largely interchangeable, offering only minor bonuses to various skills.

Those are pretty much the differences between this game and the one that came out more than a decade ago. Crackdown 3 is an ultimately disappointing, but still somewhat enjoyable super-powered romp. It feels more like an HD remaster of the original than a brand-new, AAA title. Almost everything I loved in that game is still here, but that’s all there is: 12-year-old ideas with a bit of spit and polish. When put alongside other current-generation open-world titles, it’s painfully obvious that Microsoft is the one that needs to step up its boom.