In asking a friend for their thoughts on Xbox Game Studio’s new open-world explosion factory Crackdown 3, I heard many of the same complaints I’ve been seeing online since the game became available: It’s too many things on top of one another. It all feels like one endless space, instead of distinct areas. Everything’s too densely packed to be textured. Everything’s a facade.
Which is weird, because if you asked me what I’m enjoying about playing the game, I’d probably say a lot of the same things, but with a slight uptick in my voice at the end of each sentence, so that you knew I meant it as a good thing.
The absurdist more-is-more mentality of the Crackdown series gets taken to its next logical evolution with this third installment of the franchise, again exclusively for the XBox One or Windows. There’s no need to have played either of its two predecessors, mind you; Crackdown 3 doesn’t really give a shit about narrative, and neither should you if you sit down to play it. The whole point of the game is the love of cartoonish action and mayhem, loosely tethered to a plot in the same way that The Raid has a story about cops and criminals brewing in the background in order to justify watching Iko Uwais unleash holy hell for 90 minutes. In brief: You’re a badass who’s been dispatched to the city of New Providence, which has been taken over by an oppressive authoritarian corporation. Your direct orders are to attack the security forces and institutions of the town, doing as much damage as possible, in order to loosen the ruling regime’s grip and eventually topple them. There are a few more details than that, but they truly do not matter.
And what others see as weaknesses, I’ve found to be a big part of what I’m loving about this madcap game. Yes, as far as open-world cities go, this one feels like it’s been teleported in from the late 2000s. With a few exceptions, you can’t go into any of the buildings—which are basically cheap props, with no purpose outside of giving you as much vertical room to explore as horizontal. But the facade-like nature of the structures is part and parcel of the juvenile appeal. The city’s skyscrapers are there to be treated like jungle gyms, your character leaping from window to window, and platform to platform, like Lara Croft on amphetamines. (Really, Lara Croft with massive superpowers might be more accurate, especially as you start to level up and can execute mid-jump blasts forward in space.) It’s all so layered and dense that you could probably treat Crackdown 3 like a platform game and get hours of entertainment without firing a single shot.
And that density is also part of what I like. New Providence is just a massive clusterfuck; neighborhoods and regions that are technically distinct when you’re looking at the map are, in practice, almost lying on top of each other, jutting up against each area’s borders in such a way that travel through the city rarely feels like you’re leaving one region and entering another. Instead, there’s often the vibe you would get as a kid, when you combined your various toys into a single tableau, where G.I. Joe’s lair abuts the Transformers hideout, while the Sarlacc pit threatened both from below in a haphazard assemblage of craziness. But where others see a frustrating sameness that makes it all feel like an interchangeable mishmash, I see a game that’s taking its kitchen-sink mentality and applying it to the very landscape of the geography. I repeatedly got lost en route to a mission—and it didn’t matter in the slightest, as I would quickly come upon some holding pen for members of the resistance waiting to be freed, or a propaganda tower needing to be shut down, or any one of the thousand other tasks to be performed in service of taking down the evil whosits running the place.
Admittedly, it’s not all a hoot. The labyrinthine cross-cutting of highways and beams and pipelines doesn’t always make for a clear way forward in the campaign. I don’t mind admitting I got absolutely stymied for the better part of an hour just trying to reach the hideout of the first major boss, Roxy, after destroying the monorail stations she controls. I wandered aimlessly around the massive complex surrounded on all sides by water, fruitlessly looking for a road or access bridge to get in, until, almost by chance, I stumbled upon the small path of rocks that led through the inlet to the base. That wasn’t fun. But in the process, I blasted through a small army’s worth of security forces and killer robots, in a maelstrom of plasma fire, rocket-propelled grenades, and even the simple pleasure of picking up the lifeless body of one fallen guard and hurling it wantonly at their still-living compatriot. It’s the go-nuts lunacy of Grand Theft Auto dialed up to 11, with a much sillier and less sadistic sense of possibilities.
Is it sometimes a grind? Sure, but less the exhausting, Destiny 2-style grind and more the zany, “how many different ways can we obliterate these goons” inventiveness of something like Ratchet & Clank, transported into the faux-serious “real world” of New Providence. And maybe that’s at the heart of what won me over here: Crackdown 3 knows what the so-called “weak spots” of its story and world are, but rather than try to make them better in the usual sense, it just throws a hundred more iterations of every element at you and says, “There! Go do something with that!” A smaller city than expected? Let’s pack it within an inch of its life! Every neighborhood just feels like a to-do checklist of items to get through? Here’s a drag race for no good reason, and certainly not something a freedom fighter would presumably stop their revolution to partake in!
Even the “Wrecking Zone” multiplayer mode doesn’t offer much in the way of an addictive addition to group firefights, so much as it just gives you the opportunity to demolish literally the entire city landscape, instead. (I much prefer playing the campaign, though I will confess some of that may be my personal challenges with multiplayer first-person shooters.) Crackdown 3 is a strange combination of old-school methodical world-building and a hyperactive mindset that can’t say no to one more of anything, where bigger is always better, and you shouldn’t stop at blowing up one alcohol stand when you could vaporize a thousand instead. But that messiness is also its charm; it’s the weird younger brother of more elegant open-world games, a rough and tumble (and yes, occasionally clunky and frustrating) morass of melee fighting and puzzle-box platforms too awkward to be cool. Best to just crack open the metaphorical Four Loko and dive right in.