game review

Crackdown 3 Is What It’d Feel Like If Netflix Made a Video Game

Photo: Microsoft Game Studios

Here is what the world was like when the second installment of Sumo Digital’s Crackdown series was released in the summer of 2010: Barack Obama was in the midst of his first term, the first Despicable Me topped the box-office charts, and a scrappy little open-world game called Red Dead Redemption had been released a couple of months prior. Since that summer, Obama won a second term, and then we got a new president. There have been two more Despicable Me films (three if you count Minions). Rockstar managed to release Red Dead Redemption 2 last year, setting a new bar for obsessive attention to detail in open-world gaming.

Before that, back in 2007, the first installment in the Crackdown series sold a lot of copies, not because it was any good, but because buying a copy guaranteed access to the multiplayer beta for Halo 3. The beta offer was a Trojan horse, helping Microsoft launch a brand-new franchise off the back of an existing giant. Now it’s Crackdown’s turn to be the Trojan horse: You can pay $60 to own Crackdown 3 outright when it debuts this Friday, or you can access it through Xbox Game Pass, a $10-a-month subscription service not unlike Netflix. With the latter option in mind, Crackdown 3’s averageness, its B-grade forgetability, seems to herald a new experiment for video games by transposing streaming television’s idea of “good enough” entertainment into the gaming sphere. Where once a game like this might have been criticized — for its brevity, its thin premise, and the fact that it won’t hold most players’ interest for more than a couple of days — those qualities now seem like intentional strengths, and a bit insidious. I can warn you off of paying full price for Crackdown 3, but I can’t say it’s not worth ten bucks and some free time this weekend. Even its download size — roughly 20 gigabytes, far smaller than its big-budget contemporaries, and split into separate launchers for single- and multiplayer — seems designed to cater to a “screw it, I’ve got an hour to kill” attitude. Whether Microsoft hit that sweet spot by accident or intentionally, I cannot say.

A lot has changed since the last Crackdown; luckily Crackdown has not. Despite a protracted development cycle — the game was slated for release in 2016 before a series of delays — Crackdown 3 will feel familiar to anyone who has played the first two. I was pleasantly surprised to find the muscle memory still there, almost a decade later. For those unfamiliar, Crackdown is an open-world game where you play as a cop who can leap three stories and has no regard for public safety. You’re not more than a minute into the game before a group of agents chant the series’ central conceit, “Skills for kills!” Shooting enemies levels up your firearms skill, running them over boosts your driving abilities, and so on. Most importantly, leaping across rooftops to collect the series’ iconic MacGuffins, Agility Orbs, still has a compelling “just one more” feel to it.

The only discernible change to the formula is a light strategic element in which playing as different avatars helps different skills level up more quickly: If you know you’ll be doing a street race, for instance, playing as an avatar that earns driving XP 10 percent faster is mildly helpful. But in other ways, Crackdown 3 is regressive, excising features that appeared in the previous game, such as a wingsuit that allowed the player to glide through the city.

As in previous games, the narrative framework is paper-thin: You play as a member the Agency, tasked with taking down a criminal organization by working your way up the org chart until you eventually reach Elizabeth Niemand, a Silicon Valley–type mogul who runs all of Pacific City. Your experience is once again narrated by the Director, reprising his role as faceless gravitas from the first two games (although this time he’s actually given a name). Crackdown 3 is less of a story than it is an anthology of flavor text. Every character and location has a bit of backstory or context, and absolutely none of it matters. Terry Crews stars as one of the playable agents, but his role amounts to an opening cutscene and a handful of line readings and ambient grunts once you actually start playing. Credit where credit is due, I cannot think an actor who could more convincingly sell a line like, “Quack quack, motherfucker!”

In my head, I know that I should ding Crackdown 3 for how little its formula has changed. And yet, I found myself charmed by the game’s strict adherence to its core competencies. In the past decade, open-world games have only grown more complex. Each mission in the new Red Dead requires you to sit through five minutes of narrative plodding before you actually get to play the game, and the Far Cry series encourages players to scout enemy compounds and chart a meticulous plan of attack. Crackdown 3 throws the narrative out the window and encourages you to run into every situation, Leeroy Jenkins–style. Occasionally, the game collapses under its own weight, flooding the zone with so many enemies it makes it difficult to know where to concentrate your efforts, but those moments are few and far between. Attacking the numerous compounds that make up the pressure points of Crackdown’s criminal empire can feel monotonous at times, but that just means you should do something else for a little, like collecting Agility Orbs, or racing though rooftop time trials. At its best, Crackdown 3 is brainless nonsense, unstuck in time from a decade ago — and still very fun.

Crackdown 3 also comes with a multiplayer mode called Wrecking Zone, which is … nice? The gimmick is that your explosive weapons actually cause destruction to buildings, but the destruction is rendered server-side, so all of the players experience the same thing, thanks to Microsoft’s proprietary Azure™ cloud software or whatever. In reality, the destruction is limited to knocking out floors and walls, nothing topples over or has any sense of simulated physics. And there are only two game modes, a bland Team Deathmatch and a bland King of the Hill. It’s very boring.

All in all, Crackdown 3 is analogous to a bingeable streaming show — a piece of entertainment that’s good enough to plow through over the weekend, sustained by the goodwill of star power and nostalgia. It’s a fun-enough, rewarding-enough experience, provided you don’t pay too much money for the privilege and don’t invest too much time in it. You absolutely should not pay full price for the new Crackdown, but if you’re even mildly curious, it’s worth the price of a month of Game Pass just to check it out. Maybe hitting that sweet spot was the plan all along.