Everything starts with a single bullet. A hole appears in the barricade as the projectile smashes through it, sending cracks outward from the point of impact. More bullets follow in quick succession and the wall crumbles further, rubble piling up on the floor below until enough has been blown away that it’s possible to see through the structure to the other side. Another volley of ammunition severs a now-dangling piece of masonry, which joins the heap of debris. All of those shards are persistent, we’re told, just as all the damage inflicted in Crackdown 3’ s online multiplayer sessions will be. A little later, we watch with barely contained awe as a neon-lit skyscraper yields to a sustained barrage and topples into the building next to it.
When the game’s explosive reveal trailer was shown at E3 2014, it might have been reasonable to conclude that Microsoft had somewhat overpromised. The cloud tech behind the game was already proven – it had been shown off during that year’s Build conference as an unnamed PC demo. But Microsoft had so successfully stifled any talk of its original always-online vision for Xbox One that the idea of extra computing power wafting in over the Internet seemed hard to reconcile with a console then struggling to match PS4’s framerates and resolution.
What Reagent Games – under the creative direction of Crackdown creator Dave Jones – showed at Gamescom, however, smashes incredulity. By tapping into the cloud, the studio can draw on additional power and memory within the generous bounds of Microsoft’s Azure service as needed, allowing for the spectacular destruction we witness.
“We’re throwing so much physics around that, as soon as you start, the game has to grab extra computing power outside of [your] Xbox,” Jones explains. “So effectively it goes to a cloud server and gets [a virtual Xbox One]. And once it fills up that, it flips over and grabs another cloud server and says, ‘I need more computing for what these players are doing.’ And that dynamic will go up and down in realtime. So, for example, to make a building fall, we’ve got to do a lot of damage. That building will eventually collapse, but I have no idea which direction it’s going to go in – it really depends on which direction the force is coming from. It’s fully physical, and smashes and crushes anything beneath it.”
The version of Crackdown 3 we play offloads all of its physics processing to the cloud, but keeps everything else local, freeing up more headroom to spend on draw distance and detail. At this stage, the focus is very much on the technology underpinning the game’s multiplayer modes, and while
Crackdown 3 certainly looks attractive enough in its pre-alpha form, Reagent is aiming to get as close to those glossy trailers as possible.
A more pressing problem is establishing how to carve out a selection of satisfying multiplayer modes from this destructible sandbox. It’s all very well having the ability to level a city, but it could quickly grow tiresome if every player had an unending supply of powerful rockets. As such, Reagent is feeling its way to the right balance of considered limitations and free rein. The guns we use have been hugely overpowered for the sake of demonstration, for example; the maximum number of players in any given session is yet to be decided; and while not included in our demo, you’ll also be able to take chunks out of the ground and tunnel beneath the city – Reagent just doesn’t know how far yet.
“It’s all about giving players freedom again,” Jones tells us. “So if a [crime lord or player] is at the very top of a building with heavy defences all the way down, as a
Crackdown player you can say, ‘Well, I can climb up there.’ But you could even climb up internally by just making your own doorways all the way up. And there’s a bunch of crazy players who might say, ‘You know what? We just want to take the whole tower down.’”
Given the controversy over Xbox One’s now-defunct always-online policy, Reagent and Microsoft are understandably keen to avoid a repeat of those criticisms, but the cost is an offline campaign that abandons the spectacular destruction of the game’s online portion. What you get instead is an entirely different, considerably more robust, metropolis. It’s telling that in our demo the cloud tech is saved until after we’ve seen the campaign mode – it’s hard not to be a little deflated by the absence of such glass-ceiling-shattering performance. When we press the topic, we’re told Reagent’s hope is that players will be so enamoured with the potential on show in the multiplayer game that they’ll come round to the idea of an always-online campaign mode, too, and at that point the studio can reassess its position.
What is there is hardly disappointing in isolation, though. The campaign, which supports up to fourplayer co-op, blends familiar elements – levelling up Agents, transforming vehicles and bounding agility – with new ideas. Chief among these is a fresh spin on taking out crime lords. Whereas in the first two games you can have a pop at any boss you like, no matter how inadvisable, right from the off, in Crackdown 3 you must draw them out of hiding. You do this by harassing their henchmen and operations to raise a Hate meter. Interrupt your baiting campaign and the meter will slowly drop, but remain a nuisance for long enough and you’ll trigger a retaliation – a boss fight that can take place anywhere in the city.
Reagent is clearly building two different games under the banner of Crackdown 3, and the fissure that divides those two halves might well have defined it were it not for the dazzling leap forward that its cloud tech offers. There’s a risk, then, that the final package could feel in some way fractured if certain consumers continue to resist the notion of console games that rely absolutely on Internet connections. But if the studio can deliver on its vision, Crackdown 3 also has the potential to redraw the boundaries of what’s achievable in games.
You’ll also be able to take chunks out of the ground and tunnel beneath the city
Dave Jones, creative director, Reagent
While buildings’ external facades crumble under fire, they’re hung on more robust steel frames. Reagent plans to add cutting weapons to help deal with this, but there are also gas mains to rupture if you need a helping hand