Quirky visuals, super-powered crime fighters, high octane action, a traversable city full of enemy grunts to fill full of lead; when you break it down into its constituent parts, the similarities between Crackdown 3 and Agents of Mayhem are strong and many, and with that in mind it's no surprise that Microsoft decided to put the brakes on their upcoming open-world shooter and give it some space following the recent release of Volition's similarly themed crime-fighting third-person action-adventure. Of course, there will have been additional reasons for the delay, but giving Crackdown 3 room to breathe seems reason enough, regardless of what else may or may not have pushed the game into 2018.
That's not to say that they're exactly the same, because they're not. Most notably Crackdown 3 is looking to the Cloud to power certain parts of its explosive experience (although the multiplayer-focused Wrecking Zone wasn't something we were able to see for ourselves at Gamescom), but there are other things that set them apart. You can, for example, pick up a lot of things in the world and fling them around, and that's something we did many, many times during our two playthroughs of the Gamescom demo that Microsoft hosted at its booth in Cologne. If a car door was blown off, we picked it up and hurled it at a bad guy, and when a civilian slumped to the floor after a misplaced grenade ended their innocent existence, we picked up the corpse and sent it hurtling into a crowd of advancing security guards (which, when you think about it, is a bit grim). We wasted no time in grabbing anything and everything that dropped around us, and used these makeshift projectiles to take out as many enemy grunts as we possibly could.
There's a lot of verticality in the world too, and collecting orbs lets your character improve various abilities, for example, letting us jump to new heights and explore the city above the streets. Buildings are also constructed with helpful ledges perfect for a jet-powered agent to grab hold of as they look to find a vantage point from which to survey the area. We struggled to find finesse as we climbed up to the tops of towers, but it's possible to use the hand holds to climb up pretty high, combine that with the jetpack and double jump, and then use that elevated position to gauge the challenges below. Jumping down from a lofty perch also allows you the pleasure of hitting the ground at high velocity, the resulting shockwave sending anyone caught in the area of effect flying in all directions.
One thing we did like was the fact that you can pick up the weapons your enemies drop, and we found ourselves regularly mixing things up, particularly when the heavies showed up; the shotgun seemed a much more efficient way of dispatching these more stubborn adversaries than the assault rifle, although a handy lock-on feature allowed us to concentrate rapid fire attacks before moving onto the next. During our demos we focused on taking out a couple of enemy strongholds and clearing them out as quickly as possible before heading off in search of even more adventure. Destruction is a keyword, and it's thanks to weapons like the Singularity Gun (which fires a black hole that in turn sucks in items nearby, often to explosive effect) that players will be able to really make their mark on the city.
It was a limited demo, but it was polished. The gunfire felt satisfying enough, and that was across a range of weapons. We grabbed a few grenades too, and they certainly had plenty of pop. There's variety thanks to the weapon pickups, and that will no doubt help keep things fresh. Beyond those weapons we've seen so far, who knows what other projectile-slinging treats Sumo Digital has in store for us, but given the promise of unrivalled destruction on which the game was built, we're assuming that there's going to be plenty of explosive options at our disposal beyond things like the Singularity Gun.
Our main concern wasn't mechanical, however, rather it came about because of the world itself. Until we see Cloud-powered destruction on an epic scale, we're going to contain our enthusiasm, because right now the play space doesn't seem to have a huge amount of personality. Similarly, we need to see more of the activities that are going to be dotted around the city, and much is going to rest on their ability to entertain us as we explore. And of course there's the narrative, something that can so often make or break an open-world adventure such as this, but if the journey isn't fun, the destination probably won't matter all that much either.
We switched characters for our second playthrough, but in Crackdown 3, most of the flavour seemed to come from the narrator, who provided quick-fire quips while we played, commenting on our more successful moments with glee. Will that get a bit tired after a while? We'll have to wait and see once we've played it a little more. Certainly, there wasn't enough time to really get into the meat of the narrative, but we're hoping that the quirky charm so inherent in the marketing of the game is found in the story and the characters that we met only briefly in Cologne.
So, despite playing Crackdown 3 a couple of times at Gamescom, we walked away with more questions than answers. Technically it's a solid achievement, and that estimation might increase from "solid" to "spectacular" when we see destruction on a grander scale. What we weren't able to gauge from this admittedly brief hands-on with the game, was whether the world was going to have the personality to keep us coming back for more. One of the masters of witty chaos just delivered a perfectly decent superhero shooter, but even a broad range of characters and some clever writing wasn't enough to guarantee a home run (as many hoped and expected after the Saints Row series), and one gets the feeling that this third Crackdown is going to have to do better than that at the very least, if it's going to convince fans.
The basic foundations are in place, and this city may still turn out to be a barrel of laughs, with fun waiting around every corner and on every rooftop, but as we've recently seen, fun and characterful writing isn't enough if the world around you doesn't keep you engaged. We saw a small slice of what Crackdown 3 has to offer, and there's certainly potential in its mix of super-powered traversal and chaotic destruction, but we need to see more than a ten-minute demo and a couple of juicy explosions before we get too carried away. Still, we're hopeful that the extra time spent in the oven will give the game every opportunity of rising to the coming challenge. Roll on Q1, 2018.