For all its explosions, gunfire, and over-the-top style, Crackdown 3 is walking a tightrope. On one side, you have the expectations of modern gamers. Crackdown is a 12-year-old game, and games have evolved significantly since the original game’s release. On the other is a dangerous mire of nostalgia that threatens to lead developer and gamer alike down the wrong path. I had the chance to talk to Crackdown 3‘s design director, Gareth Wilson of Sumo Digital, and to spend about 10 minutes with the upcoming game’s single-player campaign, to see how well the team is navigating those obstacles.
Those two opposing sides put Sumo Digital and Crackdown 3 under a unique sort of pressure.
“You have to make the game like people remember it in their heads,” Wilson told me. “If you go back to these old IPs, you go back and fire up Crackdown, it’s a long time ago when that game was made, and people have these memories of ‘oh it was awesome, it looked so good, you could do these things.”
“But slightly rose-tinted spectacles, everyone has that nostalgia, right?”
Wilson said that his team is extremely sensitive to that. Before working on Crackdown 3, the team worked on a bunch of properties for Sega, like Sonic Racing.
“We’re kind of masters of taking on difficult IP,” he said. “We have loads of experience taking [franchises] people loved, but which haven’t been developed in a while, and have to come back.”
The balance is in keeping the core of the game while helping it move forward.
“A lot of the time on this game, more than most games I’ve worked on, has been about nailing the mechanics. How do we get traversal feeling like the original game, but feeling modern” Wilson said.
“If you go too far, it stops feeling like Crackdown and starts feeling like Assassin’s Creed, and you don’t want that, man because it’s Crackdown, right? It’s all about precision jumping. You have to ledge, move around the building, but we want it fluid. Younger kids, they’re used to playing Sunset Overdrive and things like that, they’re not used to the more staccato playstyle you had in the original game.”
Getting these mechanics just right, Wilson said, accounts for a lot of the reason Crackdown 3 has been delayed.
“I’ve been driving my team nuts,” he said.
From my time with Crackdown 3, it seems like that was time well spent. The original Crackdown was one of the first games where fun traversal – getting around the game world – mattered. It needs to be fun to navigate the game world, and you need to be able to level up and expand on that as you explore the game.
Part of what made Crackdown‘s traversal fun was that it was a very active experience. When Wilson and I were talking, we were sitting right under a huge screen playing images from Assassin’s Creed Origins. That series is another one where traversal simply has to be fun for the game to work, so it kept coming up as we chatted.
“This is not Assassin’s Creed,” he said. In that game, simply holding down a button and pressing forward will send you climbing up a building, and while that works for that game, that isn’t what Wilson and his team were going for.
In a nod to that need to stay modern but keep things active, the team has opted to bring the old standbys like double jumping and air dashing to give us more ways to move around. We’ll earn these as we play the game and level up, and they definitely add something. They feel like a natural extension of movement, but they don’t get in the way of the verticality we know and love.
The small area of the game world I checked out was packed with weapons, enemies, and agility orbs – the glowing green balls you can pick up to level up your agility. As much as they’re collectibles, they’re also rewards for exploring and exploiting the traversal mechanics.
The weapons in Crackdown 3 feel incredibly powerful. One weapon I picked up created a sort of gravity well. If I pointed it at an enemy soldier and fired, he was soon crushed between any nearby cars and other objects. A rocket launcher pointed at some cars at a stoplight set off a chain explosion that engulfed 20 or more cars in a single move. Leaping around the city and finding enemy outposts with these weapons in hand felt good right away, and they have me looking forward to exploring the whole city.
Aside from traversal and weapons in specific, another important part of making Crackdown work is giving the player a tangible sense of progression. Those agility orbs are one way of doing it, but another great way the first Crackdown did it was through visual indicators. As a member of the Agency, you had access to all these Agency vehicles. As you leveled up your driving skills, the vehicles would transform. As I talked to friends about Crackdown in the weeks running up to E3, multiple people brought this up as something great about the first game that was sorely lacking in the second, deeply-forgettable one.
“Those Agency vehicles are back, and they do transform,” Wilson said. “[Crackdown] is about fun and feeling awesome, leveling up, becoming overpowered.”
So what about all that destruction the team showed off before? It’s still there, but it’s in multiplayer only.
“It was always going to be in mulitplayer,” Wilson said. “It works great in multiplayer. You have this competitive game where you’re trying to take down a dude’s tower, and they’re trying to take down yours. At the end of a 20-minute session with level 5 agents, you level the area. That way of playing is awesome, but it doesn’t work in a 16-hour campaign. [In the campaign] it’s more prop-based, like in Just Cause.”
Gang installations and such are more destructive than the greater city in the single-player campaign, where the multiplayer offers all the cloud-powered destructibility we’ve been promised.
“I really didn’t want to make the game online only,” Wilson said. “If we put cloud computing into the campaign, you’d have to have an internet connection constantly. You’d never be able to take your Xbox with you on holiday to play Crackdown. I really didn’t want to put destruction into the campaign, but it’s all there in multiplayer. We’ve really nailed the technology later on.”
Skills for Kills, Agent
There’s one last thing the game needed to get right. The voice.
One of my favorite parts of Crackdown was the way the Agency Director would respond to my actions within the game. The team wrote a great, entertaining character who rode the line between being forgettable and talking too much, and the voice actor nailed the tone. Michael McConnohie is an old-school voice actor, and Wilson told me they had to pull him out of retirement. His fond memories of the series, Wilson said, compelled him to lend his voice to the Agency one more time.
And it’s awesome.