Crackdown 3 is one of the most notoriously delayed games of all time, but it’s finally out next week. Lee Henaghan caught up with the game’s top creative talent to find out if it’s going to be worth the wait.
With the possible exception of Hollywood, there is no industry more obsessed and fixated on release dates than the world of video games.
As soon as a new title is announced, usually years in advance, the countdown begins. Often releases are targeted as vaguely as “Summer 2019”, or even just “2019” to give developers and publishers as much wiggle room as possible to get their game out of the gate.
As the hype builds, however, so does the pressure from fans and retailers for a definitive street date, and that’s when the pressure really ramps up. Marketing campaigns, studio budgets and years’ worth of release schedules are built around big games hitting the shelves on time, and if there are any delays, it doesn’t take long for the online rumour mill to crank up looking for any signs of trouble.
Crackdown 3, originally announced in 2014, is probably the most delayed game of the current console generation, if not of all time. Its development has been beset by controversy, studio restructures and back-to-the-drawing-board moments. At some points, it seemed as if it might not come out at all. But five years later, the game is finally ready for release and we’re just days from finding out if it’s been worth the wait.
As the godfather of gaming Shigeru Miyamoto once said: “A delayed game is eventually good. A bad game is bad forever.” By stubbornly refusing to release a major exclusive that didn’t meet its expectations, Xbox has both disappointed impatient fans and raised expectations for a game that at this stage, needs to be pretty special to justify the pushbacks.
Creative director Joseph Staten was keen to emphasise that the rocky road to release was a result of lofty ambitions and a refusal to compromise on the team’s original vision. “We set big goals for ourselves,” he said.
“The project began with the basic pitch of ‘What if we harnessed the power of the cloud to create fully destructible environments – and what if we did that with Crackdown?’ Those are some pretty big ‘what ifs’ and the truth is, it just took longer than we thought,” Staten said.
By all accounts, Crackdown 3’s ambitious reliance on cloud-based computing is the main reason for its late arrival. It would normally take twelve Xbox Ones to process the physics calculations behind the environmental destruction in Wrecking Zone (the game’s multiplayer mode). Instead, all this number crunching and heavy lifting is done by Microsoft’s Azure server farms, which theoretically frees up more processing power at your end to focus on graphics.
As head of production Jorg Neumann puts it: “Cloud destruction is something that’s brand new. It’s never really been done before at this level, so it was difficult to set up. Any time you do something first in the industry, it’s hard.”
As well as the new technology, developers had to get to grips with an entirely new way of thinking when creating Crackdown 3’s open-world sandbox. “Any multiplayer game is primarily about predictable geometry. This piece of cover and that line of sight is always going to be there so you can predict the flow of combat,” said Staten.
“Once you’re able to blow up the entire world, all these tried and true design principals go out of the window so it wasn’t just the technical hill we had to climb. We had to completely rethink what it is to be a PvP combat experience – so many things had to be relearned.”
Although the cloud cover caused plenty of delays, one silver lining was the extended time it gave the team to polish other aspects of the game. Although the single-player campaign doesn’t feature the same level of destructible environments, its non-linear story and increased focus on verticality created an entirely different kind of Crackdown.
“As we knew we had to keep pushing on Wrecking Zone to wrangle the technology, it gave us extra time to polish the campaign, to invest more in the story and deepen the experience,” Staten said. “Delays are never fun for anybody but in this case the campaign benefited from it.”
In the nine years since Crackdown 2 was released, open-world action games have become bigger, more cinematic and more immersive than ever before. Despite this, Staten is happy that his team remained focused on making a game that was true to the Crackdown formula rather than following current trends.
“Job number one was to make a Crackdown game that Crackdown fans would love. We’ve introduced some new features and tools to make things more accessible and give [players] more guidance,” Staten said.
“Frankly though, a lot of modern open world games right now can be kind of exhausting with all the layers of map detail. The worlds become so big they actually end up keeping you on a more linear path to guide you through. We experimented but felt ‘that’s not really Crackdown’. We want the story to follow you wherever you go and support the choices the player makes.”
Crackdown has always been about chaos and over-the-top mayhem, and the third instalment doubles down on it, particularly when it comes to taking down the game’s rival gangs and factions.
“If you’re familiar with Grand Theft Auto’s star system where law enforcement gets angry with you, that’s also true in Crackdown,” Staten said. “Any faction can retaliate against you anywhere in the world. As you get stronger as an agent and level up your skills, the stronger the retaliations get. And it’s not just a cop car pulling up, it’s mechs falling out of the sky, mole machines burrowing up from underground, aerial bombardments peppering the ground.”
The non-linear nature of the game’s storyline means you can tackle the final boss straight out of the gate if you’re brave enough. Unlike previous Crackdown games, gangs will also encroach on each other’s turf if you rile them up enough.
“In the original game, if you went to a particular part of the island and took out a gang, the enemies were contained to that part of the island. This time round if you aggro up a gang and their bosses they don’t just get mad on their little plot of land – they will hunt you down,” Neumann said. “And this can happen at any time. You can be in the middle of a boss fight with one faction and suddenly have to deal with retaliation from another. It’s absolute chaos, but it’s a super fun sandbox.”
Neumann hopes Crackdown 3 will revolutionise the way developers think about making games and believes the future potential for cloud-powered gaming is almost limitless. “For all of us who have been in game development for 25 years there are very few times when there’s something truly new, so distributed computing is like a gift,” he said.
“You can all of a sudden offload a whole bunch of things – in this case physics calculations – to the cloud and no matter where you are in the world, you get incredible performance, whatever machine you’re on. So if you’re using the original Xbox One or Xbox One X the destruction is the same for everybody.”
“This opens up the door for all kinds of things. I can’t wait to see what people do with the cloud. You can run your AI up there, you can run simulations up there. The scope of what we can do with distributed CPUs is awesome and [Crackdown 3] is just an example. I really think it’s the beginning of something.”
Crackdown 3 is released on Xbox One and Windows PC on February 15.
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