After cooking for half a decade, Crackdown 3 is almost here. Trailers have shown that it will more closely resemble the first game than its divisive sequel, and the prevailing opinion seems to be that that's a good thing on face value. Commercials play up the comic-book cop connection with help from Terry Crews' over-the-top personality, which effortlessly conveys the explosive attitude fans are apparently asking for. Now that I've played Crackdown 3 for a few hours it's easy to identify similarities to the 2007 original, but rather than the campaign stealing the show, it's the competitive multiplayer component that will be my reason for paying attention to Crackdown 3 at launch.
When Microsoft hosted the demo at a recent event, the plan was to get a taste of multiplayer before stepping into the campaign. At the heart of competitive Crackdown is the cloud, or more specifically, Microsoft's Azure server infrastructure. With the power of roughly a dozen standard Xbox One systems dedicated in the cloud to each multiplayer match, large, highly vertical environments are yours to destroy. Every structure can be punctured or completely leveled into rubble. It's an impressive calamity to witness, but it's how the new rules of engagement influence your approach to combat and perception of distance and obstacles that really counts, and that only works because every player is experiencing the same physics simulations in real time.
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Everyone has the use of a generous lock-on ability that remains in effect even after an enemy leaves your line of sight, allowing you to strategize how you might use your destructive abilities to capitalize on your informed advantage. To balance the engagement, a visible blue tether connects target and shooter during lock on, turning red once the attacker opens fire. When you detect that you're in someone's sights, your reaction is either to mad dash for a boost pad or to explode through buildings to carve out a path to safety. But don't forget: With a predator tracking your every move, you might be better off facing them head on instead. Doing so leads to frantic bouts of blowing up buildings to disrupt movement or clear away a protective barrier so you can strike with lesser weapons while your heavy guns cool down.
Incorporating my destructive capabilities wasn't natural at first, but once the practice became habitual after a few matches it was like a lightbulb went off in my head: Destruction is at the heart of everything in multiplayer, and seeing how it elevates the core Crackdown experience made me realize how the cloud is capable of more than simply streaming games as we know them today.
No matter how fast, nor hard-hitting the action got in our matches, there was never a sign of the Azure servers buckling under pressure. Controls were responsive and there was nary a hiccup in frame rate or resolution to note. A real-world test this was not--we were in a Microsoft-controlled environment after all--but it was a promising sign of what's possible under ideal conditions. The only evidence that I was playing a game running in the cloud was the impressive destructibility on display, the likes of which I've never before seen in a multiplayer setting.
Despite only having access to a single map and match type, the 90-minute multiplayer session flew by. We were then given the keys to the campaign and, at Microsoft's suggestion, started off with a save file a few hours into the adventure. This was when my second revelation hit: Old Crackdown isn't as fun as I remember it, especially when compared to the exciting multiplayer component. I have seen only a sliver of the campaign, but what I saw was tepid and outdated. The world is rendered with some modern flourishes like bloom lighting and seemingly infinite draw distances, but it generally sticks very close to the original game's visuals. It's a stylistic choice for sure, though it's hard to say that it's an inspiring one.
The same goes for the reality of playing as a budding supercop: The powers you remember from the past, or those you can experience in multiplayer, will only be yours if you once again go through the process of searching a wide and tall city for orbs to build up experience/skill meters. Coupled with a generic objective system in the open world, which itself also feels like something pulled from 2007's open-world playbook, my time with the campaign was more underwhelming than I could have expected. To be fair, that gameplay formula is part and parcel of the Crackdown experience, the game a lot of us championed as the model Microsoft should follow for a sequel. In my case at least, it's clear I didn't realize what I was asking for.
One of my favorite questions to ask game developers is whether they, as creators, know better than fans what's best for their games. The most common answer I get is that they know best because the audience asks for everything without understanding the constraints of development. Crackdown 3 creative director Joseph Staten didn't hesitate to give fans the nod, because a launched game "becomes whatever people make of it." Considering the two halves of Crackdown 3, I then asked him whether his role as a creator is to innovate in tech or creative game design. "Microsoft is a big technology company," he replied, acknowledging the reality of his particular position. "Games are entertainment, but Microsoft has this capability that other companies don't."
In those two answers Staten pretty much summarized my understanding of Crackdown 3. Fans asked for something, and by all evidence, Microsoft is aiming to give them what they want: the experience of reliving the original Crackdown with a fresh coat of paint. It will be interesting to see how others revel or revile when confronted with the seemingly matter-of-fact approach to the campaign. I expect impassioned positions on both sides. Multiplayer, though, will be the real test of whether Crackdown 3 is a success, purely for how it validates Microsoft's almost-unique position in the industry.
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Whispers about the future of cloud gaming are heard with ever-increasing frequency. As big companies rear up to deliver what they hope is the next evolution in gaming tech, now is the time to look out for the fruits of years spent experimenting behind closed doors. Perhaps smartly, Microsoft hasn't made much of ado about Crackdown 3's cloud-based multiplayer mode. It's almost tough to understand why that is once you get a taste of it in action, because it's so immediately awesome. Perhaps the reason is that Microsoft has been listening. Maybe it's heard the outcries of skepticism of the cloud, and our collective adoration of the old ways. So they give us what we ask for, but like a Trojan horse, Crackdown 3's attractive exterior belies an unexpected surprise. Only in this instance, that surprise is one worth welcoming with open arms.
The biggest test for Crackdown 3's cloud-based gameplay will be how it all holds up under pressure. In the recent case of Anthem's demo weekend, we saw how one of the biggest game publishers, if not the biggest, can still struggle with the crippling network demands that come with an influx of new players. Microsoft's challenge is even harder, given that players are not just connecting to servers, but also relying on their computational power to drive the gameplay. Staten told me that the Azure service is robust enough to support every Xbox One sold to date playing Crackdown 3 online at the same time. It's impossible to test that lofty promise, but if true, that means everyone with a good-enough internet connection should get the same experience I had under Microsoft's supervision just the other day. And if that happens, Microsoft will find itself in the enviable position of having proved that the cloud isn't just a buzz word or a fad, but that it's a worthwhile opportunity for the future of gaming.