When Joseph Staten worked at Bungie, they ran across a problem with the "Halo 3" beta. The team wanted to release it, but back in 2007, internet connection wasn't as universal as it is now. The solution was putting the data on a disc.
Microsoft came up with a solution by offering to place it on a game called "Crackdown," Staten said. The only issue was that Bungie was unsure if that was a good idea. They needed to play the project to see if it would jibe with their fans.
When Staten fired it up, he was impressed. "It was like 'Grand Theft Auto' but hugely vertical and the power-level curve was high," he said. "It was over-the-top comic-book inspired."
It's a memory that stuck with him, and when Staten became creative director of "Crackdown 3" and head of design for Microsoft Global Publishing, he wanted to bring that same feeling back to a franchise that's being rebooted.
After playing a few hours of the third entry, the project captures the feel of the original. Players take on the role of an agent (they can choose from several, including one that's based on actor Terry Crews) that descend on a city called New Providence. They'll have to battle a corporation called Terra Nova, which controls every aspect of the locale and exploits it for nefarious purposes.
As the agent, players will have to take down Terra Nova's leader, Elizabeth Niemand, and her lieutenants, who control logistics, security, industry and transportation around the city.
What's notable is that the defeat of each enemy hurts the defenses of Terra Nova's main tower that dominates the landscape. Technically, players don't have to beat Niemand's lieutenants. From the outset, they can head toward the tower and try to defeat the big bad on their own, but it will be harder because agents won't be powered up and the defenses will be stronger.
By speed-running the game, players will miss an important part of "Crackdown 3" -- the progression. The game does an excellent job of making players feel powerful as they work through the campaign. At the beginning, I could barely finish an agility race, but as I collected more agility orbs, my character moved faster and jumped higher. When I hit level 1, I could do an air dash, which helped tremendously.
By performing actions related to each stat, players can spawn orbs and boost the abilities. Picking up barrels and tossing them at enemies produces strength orbs. At first, players can pick up small objects, but as they gather more strength orbs, they'll will be able to pick up cars and boulders. Elsewhere, driving and competing in races improves the type of vehicles and abilities available to players. Using explosives produces explosion orbs that makes their rockets and grenades much more powerful.
The process is addictive and satisfying as players have a bigger impact on New Providence.
There's a noticeable progression as players tackle missions across the map. Difficult fights become easier as players toughen up and their weapons deal more damage. They'll find that they can chase down cars or leap atop small buildings. The gameplay triggers that Pavlovian reward response, but that power comes with a cost. As the agent turns superpowered, the game's difficulty declines and it becomes almost too easy. That was problem with the past iterations.
Fortunately, Staten said the team at Sumo Digital fixed that issue with the retaliation system. As players take down lieutenants and dismantle hardpoints and other outposts, they'll make Terra Nova angry, and in response, they'll face tougher enemies, such as mechs that fall out of the sky. The challenges become commensurate to an agent's powerful abilities.
Of course, players don't have to systematically defeat the bosses. Because the single-player campaign is nonlinear, they can take the bosses out in any order they want or stop midway through and go after Niemand. Of course, the battle will be tougher, but it is more doable than trying to speed-run it. With cooperative play, players bring the agent to a host world, but their own single-player campaign remains untouched. That creates interesting situations where a friend can bring in their powerful agent to help a player out if the game is too hard.
The other part of "Crackdown 3" is the competitive multiplayer. It's part of the reason for the game's delay. Staten said the team wanted to use Microsoft Azure's cloud-computing power to create destructible maps. It's a gameplay mechanic that's difficult to do because the changing environment has to be processed for everyone in the game. They also have to measure it against the physics of players jumping and shooting in the arena. It's a mechanic that would tax any console, but with cloud-computing, the developers are able to render that.
The matches are 4-on-4, and players are outfitted with two weapons: a firearm and an explosive. They also have an equipment like an overshield or vertical booster. The multiplayer itself is primitive but fun. Initially, players will move around walls or take cover behind them, not realizing they can shoot through the barriers. Once they figure out that the environment can be destroyed, it opens up the game. They can shoot holes in a walls to create openings.
Although the multiplayer is fun, I don't expect it to be the next big esport. It's more of an experiment to prove that cloud-computing can make multiplayer games better. Perhaps, this sort of experience could translate over to other first-party titles.
"Crackdown 3" is scheduled for release Feb. 15 on Xbox One and PC.