Crackdown – some would argue that the first game in this series was a seminal experience of the early Xbox 360 days. While I never had a 360 during its prime, I heard about the game from friends. It was described as the kind of experience that was over when it was over. They had their fun, put in their time, and moved on. When a sequel came out, those who played it in my circles complained about how similar it was. Something about it was still fun, but it never had the same hold on people that the first game had. It was quickly forgotten in favor of other, cooler titles. A third game has been in development hell for what seems like the entire life of the Xbox One.

Pacific City doesn’t look that bad from afar.

Until now, that was about all I knew of the Crackdown series. As Microsoft exclusives, they were relatively easy to ignore if you didn’t have a console to play them on, but the amount of people I’ve heard talk about these games with reverence made me curious. I always made vague plans to go back at some point and check these games out, but as the release of the third game slowly approached and I became more familiar with its long and troubled development history, I realized this was something I could no longer ignore. So I decided to start playing, hoping to learn in about a month what’s made this franchise stick around for the past twelve years.

Of course, playing Crackdown in 2019, it’s not exactly the same thing as playing back years ago. The older a lot of these early online console titles get, the more barren they start to feel – but that’s not the developer’s fault. It’s impossible to insure that every popular game will have an online community forever. I went in without knowing if the servers were still online, or if there were even people looking for co-op partners anymore. My main objective was to find out the story of Crackdown and see if it’s the kind of experience that can still find its footing all these years later, and what may need to be done to keep the new entry fresh and modern.

Crackdown 2‘s HUD is filled with a variety of info.

Coming out on the other side now, I have mixed feelings about the series, and where this third game could go. On a basic level, yes, Crackdown games are fun and have a satisfying loop of character enhancement and open world gameplay. However, I think the second game proves that you can’t just do that again – something more has to be injected into the game to make it an experience for 2019. Not just a new city or more characters, but a better open world that takes into account the ways the genre has evolved in the last decade.

There’s something else, too. Something else that could hold back a new Crackdown more than the other factors I’ve mentioned. It’s the story of these games, and more importantly their overall attitude that concerns me. People used to the rebelliousness of Grand Theft Auto or the fight-against-the odds punk attitude of action games like the new Wolfensteins have a bitter pill to swallow here, because in Crackdown, you’re not fighting authority – you are the authority. It becomes clearer as the series continues that these are games about stoking the player’s motivation, turning them into supercops, and letting them loose – all as some disembodied voice tells them what to do and who to kill.

Now, that could potentially not be a bad thing, I don’t want to discount the opportunity to play games from other perspectives. It’s also entirely possible, as the series seems to hint, that some of this is tongue-in-cheek, something the players are supposed to disagree with or object to…but still play through anyway. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t work, and if Crackdown 3 continues down the same trajectory, then I can imagine the blowback from audiences being huge. Basically, this is a game about being The Man; made by The Man, sold to The Man, and dedicated to glorifying everything The Man might do, all wrapped into a vaguely cartoon-ish shell. And it works.

Crackdown‘s original Halo-filled box art.

CRACKDOWN 1: INNOCENT, BUT NOT 

Released in February 2007, Crackdown was developed by Realtime Worlds, a Scottish studio founded by David Jones, father of DMA Design, the studio that developed Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, and later became known as Rockstar North. In development originally for the first Xbox, it’s easy to see how Crackdown descends from the early Grand Theft Autos of Jones’ tenure. The structure of the game revolves around the player, known as the Agent, working for the Agency – an authoritarian organization in the sprawling metropolis of Pacific City that works with regular police forces to keep the streets free of crime. Under watch from a faceless man known as The Director (voiced by Michael McConnohie), the Agent has to take out the various heads of Pacific City’s three largest gangs to restore order. The Volk, Los Muertos, and Shai-Gen organizations, all clearly organized crime stereotypes, are set up in various sections of the city, and it’s up to the Agent to eliminate each of the twenty-one major members in almost any order they want, when they want.

Once players get their task, everything else is wide open. Aside from taking out these kingpins, the game offers players the chance to level up their Agent by practicing skills and hunting Agility Orbs throughout Pacific City to improve their stats. Basically, if you shoot guns a lot, your firearms skill goes up. If you drive a lot, your driving goes up. If you collect a lot of orbs, the Agent can run faster and jump higher. By the end of the game, the Agent is superhuman, able to leap to the top of the tallest building, handle whatever car comes their way, and take out enemies with marksman-like accuracy. It’s an intriguing power fantasy that’s still fun at its core, but feels a bit basic now.

Collecting Agility Orbs is key to running faster and jumping higher.

The other big draw to Crackdown is its co-op mode. A friend could join in your game to help you conquer the story, tackle an assortment of two player activities, or simply co-exist with you in another part of the map. You can also join in other people’s games to do the same thing, at the cost of the game running slower and your progress not carrying over. Now, despite Crackdown’s age, I still found people online willing, practically begging, to play co-op so they could unlock the exclusive Achievements. Whether this was because they were playing in anticipation of the new game, or if it had something to do with Microsoft offering the game for free on Xbox One for a while last year, I’m not sure. But I met up with friendly people, able and willing to help me with any questions I had, even the most basic ones. These interactions wound up making this the nicest experience I’ve ever had playing online, which is surprising, and also very sad.

Whether you play alone or with a friend though, once you complete the story – that’s it. You’re done. Unless you want to run around collecting more Orbs, everything you saw during the campaign is pretty much what you get. There aren’t even credits – those are tucked into a menu option. It’s disappointing, but perhaps a result of the game’s time and place. Having everything flow so smoothly, only for it to come crashing to a halt made me feel like I was waking up from a wild night out – the fun ended, I sobered up, and I had to proceed with the rest of my day like nothing happened.

Well, not entirely. See, there’s one other thing I’ve been waiting to mention until now – Crackdown’s big twist ending. After you beat the campaign, the Director congratulates you on a job well done, and in the process reveals that the Agent was a pawn, used by the Agency to take totalitarian control of Pacific City, and you, the player, just helped them achieve their goal. From a story standpoint, this is an interesting revelation because in another game, this would be the second act turn that allows the player to start taking down other Agents and Peacekeepers on the basis of revenge. Yet, the game doesn’t do that – it just drops that twist, ends the game, and throws you back into the empty post-game like everything’s okay. You can try to take out Agency affiliates, but you just get yelled at for it; in the game’s eyes, nothing’s changed. You have to live with the fact that you unleashed a group of mutated humans, later called Freaks, onto the city and there’s nothing you can do about it, among other things.

Renderware in its full glory.

For such a bleak and unsettling ending, the game ended up selling well. That’s partially due to the Halo 3 Multiplayer Beta that was originally sold with the game in all likelihood, but it’s a story of Microsoft’s marketing success that Crackdown is as well known as it is today. Its five year development cycle could have been wasted had Microsoft not picked it up and dusted it off, turning Realtime Worlds into a name developer in the process. But they did pick it up – and it made Realtime the the subject of awards and high profile investments. It also made them hungry to leverage their new clout to make their next game, the MMO APB: All Points Bulletin.

But Microsoft wanted a Crackdown sequel, and though both got their wish, neither got it quite the way they wanted. Launching a week apart in the summer of 2010, APB was a disappointment that ran from June to August before Realtime Worlds closed their doors, and the game was given over to new publishers, and reborn as APB: ReloadedCrackdown 2, meanwhile, was developed by a new studio, Ruffian Games, that contained some former Realtime employees, but without the guidance of David Jones. Its release that July ended up netting much more mixed reviews than its predecessor. It also started off with much more rocky sales, and was quickly seen as a disappointment compared to the original. It’s easy to see why.

CRACKDOWN 2: DOUBLING DOWN 

Crackdown 2‘s box art.

Taking place ten years after the first Crackdown, Crackdown 2 once again rests its hat in Pacific City, albeit one that’s much more decayed and run-down. The vibrancy of the first game has been taken over by gloomy slums. The Freaks control much of the underground areas, while a terrorist faction known as Cell, run by Catalina Thorne, terrorizes the streets day and night. At least, that’s what the game tells the player, anyway. Starting up as a new Agent, people are reacquainted with the Agency and its Director, now known as the Voice (but still Michael McConnohie) as they take their first steps into the open world. But if the first game has told players anything, it’s that the Agency can’t be trusted, so who knows how much of what they’re saying is true?

This time the Voice takes on a more active role in gameplay. He criticizes every failure, compliments every success, and is the closest thing the player has to a companion – except, much more annoying. As if aware that the player may be distrustful, or perhaps in spite of it, this time the Voice really lays his narration on thick. He rants about the taking over Cell strongholds and eradicating Freaks in their enclaves like a shark in bloody water. He encourages the building of Beacons, giant devices that harness the sun to disintegrate Freaks and kill them once and for all – and there’s no option to disobey, as that’s the main through-line of the game’s story. Though Catalina hacks into the Agent’s headset at certain story moments to ask them to stop and think about what they’re doing, to basically consider that the Freaks are still people, the only real way to stop is to stop playing the game.

The best picture of the Voice we’re likely to get.

Morally, it can turn your stomach. Putting up with the incessant and gleeful Voice applauding your every murderous action makes everything feel even more real. It’s like playing as the Empire trying to take out the rebel scum. The Man trying to destroy the protesting proletariat. There is an alternate story out there – spread across audio logs throughout the city that paint the Agency as evil and gives more justification to Catalina’s actions. – but I became frustrated that the game has the self-awareness to include these logs, but doesn’t have the wherewithal to give players an outlet if they actually agree with what’s being said in them. Even if you hate the Agency, you still have to follow orders.

There is hope, in a sense. At the end of Crackdown 2, there’s a twist ending involving the Agent dying in a mess of helicopter blades, while their arm is taken by Catalina for some further, vague research. My hope would be that this sets up a whole redemption-arc where, in the third entry, players can finally take on the Agency and make them answer for their crimes against humanity, perhaps teaming up with Cell in the process. But, judging by the trailers that have been released so far, I’m not confident in that.

The Keys to the City cheats are always a highlight.

I can’t escape the feeling that on some level, we’re meant to find all of this cool. That we should be cheering when we finish the objectives because we did the thing and won the game. Even if it’s a disquieting moral choice, it’s hard to portray total victory over opponents as anything other than a feel-good moment. Taking the story of the game for what it is, you’re once again an ace Agent for a totalitarian state doing what they do best. You’re essentially a supervillain. It’s an intriguing dark choice, but it’s not clear if this is meant to be portrayed as a bad thing or not. 

As a note, unlike Crackdown, there was not a single other person I could find willing to play Crackdown 2‘s multiplayer modes. There’s standard Deathmatches and Rocket Tag, as well as Xbox Live-exclusive Orbs you can collect throughout the city when you have co-op turned on. Being unable to experience these parts of the game is unfortunate, as there’s a good chance they’ll never be seen again. But, this is about what I expected given the game’s critical reception. That Crackdown‘s servers still had activity is a testament to the love people had for that game; Crackdown 2‘s lack of activity is merely par for the course. And that’s to say nothing of the short-lived Crackdown 2: Project Sunburst mobile game that shut down back in 2011.

The title card for The Pacific City Archives.

FORGOTTEN ANIMATED SHORTS

When I was looking into the light DLC options offered for Crackdown 2, I came across a free series of videos referred to as The Pacific City Archives. I’ve never heard anyone talk about them before, but figured they might be worth watching. As it turns out, it’s essentially a fifteen minute video broken up into five sections (which are also available on Youtube), that dig deeper into the ten years between the first two games. These shorts more akin to the propaganda films you’d see associated with the Fallout series. In reality, they’re marketing materials for the game that serve to give players more lore, while doing it as cheaply as possible. However, like the set of Crackdown 2, it’s unclear whether players are supposed to take it as just propaganda, or if this lore is actually real.

Always rat on your parents if they’re sick, kids.

There is some level of sarcasm, which makes the idea that these shorts are parodying propaganda more palpable. One suggestion when dealing with a Freak is to “act bigger” so the Freak becomes confused. Another suggestion is for families to report on anyone in their home-life who acts suspicious to the authorities, lest they be killed in the night. In the right light, these little moments could be really funny, but they just add to the increasing bizarre feeling I had watching these films. If the games themselves weren’t so intent on acting right in-line with the attitudes on display here (“Skills for kills, Agent.” is one of the Voice’s most famous quotes), I’d be inclined to give these videos a pass and move on, but I can’t.

There’s an article that Toussaint Egan wrote for The AV Club back in 2016 with the headline, “Crackdown’s cartoon police state feels more real in 2016” that talks about the original Crackdown’s ending and its real life implications. It’s a chilling article that continues to read true almost three years later, with its references to state-sponsored murder and real life strife between uniformed personnel and civilians. However, when we include Crackdown 2 and The Pacific City Archives into the mix, we’re given a whole worldview that’s cynical and aggressive, yet brushes at familiarity with the state of world politics today, particularly in America. As people continue to talk about building a wall on our southern border in order to keep people from coming in illegally and (apparently) curb the drug trade, I can’t help but be reminded of similar justifications found in Crackdown.

Crackdown 3’s box art.

THE BEHEMOTH: CRACKDOWN 3

Crackdown 3 has been in development since 2014 at least, and has had several changes throughout the years. Originally planned to launch in 2016, the game was touted for its cloud-based technology, as well as its destructible environments in multiplayer matches. At the time, the game, then known as Crackdown, was being worked on by David Jones and his new company Cloudgine, along with Reagent Games, Jones’ consulting company. Other developers working on the game at the time included Sumo Digital (Team Sonic RacingLittleBigPlanet 3), and Ruffian Games, returning from their work on Crackdown 2.

Eventually, things changed. 4K graphics became a new point of discussion as Microsoft moved into the Xbox One S, and then the Xbox One XIn January 2018, David Jones and Cloudgine were absorbed into Epic Games, and Reagent all but disappeared. Sumo Digital is now the principal developer of the game, and though Cloudgine and Reagent are getting their credit on Microsoft’s website, it remains to be seen how every company involved at one point or another will be credited in the final release.

A bigger emphasis is placed on other Agents.

With the project being in development for so long, one has to wonder if Crackdown 3 might seem at all outdated when it launches. All the hype for this game has been based on different timestamps of the moment – whether it was cloud-based computing a few years ago, or 4K graphics around the launch of the Xbox One X. Separated from that hype for years now, there’s a chance that when the game finally comes out, people will no longer be able to see what’s so special and unique about it, because those aspects have since been found in other games. 

This isn’t just about the technology, though. There’s the story to consider, too. If Crackdown 3 builds on the first two games, it may end up with the same ends-justify-the-means approach that glorifies every kill and continues the same power fantasy as before. This may not have been a problem had the game simply released in 2016. But with the increasing far-right radicalization of world politics in the last couple of years, a story about The Man cracking skulls, killing Freaks, and reveling in a benevolent Voice’s praise might send the wrong kind of message. It would be prudent for the series to see what’s been going on in the world and find a way to respond, but this is difficult because the series has consistently been so bleak. If it deconstructed that worldview from the inside out, then it could be a surprisingly thoughtful shooter, but it runs the risk of not feeling like a Crackdown game.

From promos and trailers, like IGN’s look at the single player not too long ago, I’m skeptical that Crackdown 3 will be anything but a direct continuation of the series. It’s set in a new city, New Providence, and features more Agents than before, including Commander Jaxon, voiced by Terry Crews. The flow of gameplay has changed, with numbers popping off enemies, and semi-destructible single player environments bringing a new dynamic to the fold. However, the structure of the game is similar to the original Crackdown – taking out various kingpins and crime lords across the city for the sake of the Agency as your Agent levels up to their fullest potential. As much as this structure worked the first time, I’m not convinced it can work again. Though the circumstances are different, I can see a storyline where New Providence is basically the Agency’s new target, and what happened in Pacific City would end up happening in this new city all over again. After all, if it worked for them before, it could work another time.

Terry Crews plays a starring role in everything Crackdown 3-related.

We can’t really know until see the narrative in its full arc; I would love for there to be more to it, but at the end of the day, Crackdown‘s story exists to give players a reason to feel super-powerful. With a release date of February 15, a lot is riding on this game to do well. It’s Microsoft’s first big non-Forza exclusive in months, and all of those delays and outside companies could not have been cheap. While everything could turn out fine, I’m worried that this game will end up feeling like more Crackdown again and be too little, too late. The destructible environments look nice, and the star power of Terry Crews lends a certain gravitas, but my doubts are there. As it turns out, the ingredients for a good Crackdown game are hard to find, and it’s not simply a matter of going back to the well one more time to make everyone fall in love again.

Stay tuned to Tilting Windmill Studios for the eventual Crackdown 3 review.

Coming soon. Very soon.

As a reminder: if you’d like to contact me, you can always do so on Twitter, or by emailing me at dcichocki@tiltingwindmillstudios.com. Feel free to send any political hate mail if you’ve got it. That’s always fun to read.