Crackdown 3 multiplayer hands-on preview: Cloud, combat, and concerns

We've finally been able to go hands-on with Crackdown 3's multiplayer, running on Xbox Live, several years from its initial announcement. First and foremost, I'm happy to report that the cloud destruction is as awe-inspiring as all those early trailers eluded to. Our demonstration was not in closed-network conditions, it was running live on the same Xbox network we all use, and the technical achievement on offer is undeniable.

Where Crackdown 3's multiplayer may fail lies in the gameplay systems layered on top of that destruction, which, for now, have a concerning lack of depth. Microsoft emphasized that the game is still four months away from launch, set for a February 2019 debut, so take this as an early feedback preview rather than a definitive look at what the finished product may look like.

Despite some concerns, I had a blast with Wrecking Zone. The cloud-based physics rendering is staggering, and has wide-reaching implications for the future of gaming.

Note: Unfortunately, it seems our capture card lost some color information during the exporting process, which is why some of the visuals in this piece may look a little strange. Rest assured that Crackdown 3 looks as vibrant as depicted in all of its trailers.

How Wrecking Zone works

Crackdown 3's multiplayer "Wrecking Zone" is split into different game modes, "Agent Hunter," which is similar to Kill Confirmed-style game modes on titles like Call of Duty. Territories, where teams battle for control of large cuboid regions that spawn randomly throughout the map, and Team Deathmatch, which is self explanatory. The battles take place across three huge maps, peppered with gigantic skyscrapers, high-powered jump pads, and clusters of explosives.

You'll be able to select your appearance from 21 Agent archetypes, which are also present in the campaign. In the full game, there will be "lots" of weapons to choose from, but for our demo, we had hands-on time with a pistol, a shotgun, a rifle, and a gatling gun, as well as an assortment of explosive weapons designed for maximum environmental destruction. You can also equip several utility bonuses, including an overshield and a holographic decoy.

Crackdown 3's multiplayer is not about precision aim or twitch shooting, owing to its lock-on gunplay mechanics. Instead, the emphasis is placed firmly on movement, environmental awareness, and map traversal. A red line denotes when an enemy agent is locking onto you, a grey line denotes when their line of sight has been broken. Health regenerates slowly over time, and you're encouraged to lay waste to buildings, towers, and other forms of cover to both avoid, and chase down your enemies.

Crackdown 3's Wrecking Zone is also tied into the game's story. The Agency uses the Zone to train its agents in "virtual" competitive city simulations, and while Microsoft isn't quite ready to talk progression just yet, we were told there are no plans for loot crates or microtransactions at this time.

The Good: Combat in the Cloud

The first thing to note is that we now know for sure, Microsoft has finally delivered on those cloud buzzwords from back in the day with Crackdown 3. Obviously, the ephemeral "cloud" powers dedicated servers for titles like Halo 5, and the A.I. mobs in Titanfall, but Crackdown 3 is the first time we've glimpsed cloud computation utilized to calculate physics in real time, rendered using the power of up to a dozen Xbox One X consoles over your internet connection.

The technical accolade Microsoft has achieved in Crackdown 3 cannot be overstated.

The good news is you don't need any super duper internet speed package in order for this to work, nor does it sport any data requirements beyond an average multiplayer title. Crackdown 3 works exactly the same way as any other multiplayer game you're used to.

The technical accolade Microsoft has achieved in Crackdown 3 cannot be overstated. To be able to render hundreds, maybe thousands of building chunks in real time, synchronized for every player in the game, is not only awesome, but makes for some truly epic gameplay mechanics.

As mentioned, Crackdown 3's gunplay is firmly a lock-on affair. With double jumping, aerial dashing, and flying punches, you can traverse the sizeable, vertical maps quite quickly. Manipulating the terrain is an important part of the challenge. Need to escape enemy lock-ons? Smash through a wall and hide on the other side of the building. See a player running across an overpass? Blast it out from under them, creating cascades of falling debris in the process.

The inherent dynamism in the environmental destruction creates a fast and frenetic gameplay formula that rewards those that stays on their toes, leaping, vaulting, and blasting their way across the cityscape.

The game rewards the aggressive. Once you have a lock on someone out in the open, it's kill or be killed. When players slip behind buildings, you'll switch to your explosive weaponry, which often travel too slow to hit rapidly-moving players but deal tremendous environmental damage to walls. In-keeping with classic Crackdown gameplay, Overcharge powerups spawn across the map, and will reward you with boosted gun damage, melee power, or explosive power when maxed out and triggered.

Experiencing physics-based destruction on this scale is a true joy to behold. That said, I have a bunch of concerns that, hopefully, will be addressed before the game's February 15, 2019 launch date.

The concerning: What about depth?

My biggest concern with Wrecking Zone is the lack of depth in the general combat experience. The cloud destruction is fun and incredible to experience, but the gameplay layered on top still feels like it needs a lot of work.

I tried every available weapon during my playtest, including a gatling gun, a magnum pistol, an assault rifle, and a shotgun. The fact the game removes the necessity to aim with its lock on system, impedes the feel of the weapons in some ways. It's the first time I can say that a "heavy" gatling gun felt almost indistinguishable from using an assault rifle as a result. The spin up time on the gatling gun was practically the only thing that differentiated them from a gameplay perspective, which felt a bit off to me.

I feel like I mastered the multiplayer after the third match, pretty much, which makes me question its longevity in this form. I settled into a flow of jumping around, triggering my overshield powerup while under attack, returning fire as fast as possible. The "Overcharge" system doesn't feel particularly exciting in practice, either. Save for some glowing effects on your character, right now, it's generally a little hard to feel the additional impact of your abilities. Would love to see more work in these areas.

Final thoughts: A promising glimpse at the future

While I am concerned about the overarching gameplay experience in Wrecking Zone, the implications for the cloud-based physics Microsoft is putting on display here is quite incredible. Envisage Gears of War Horde mode with hundreds of enemies rather than dozens, imagine a Halo Warzone mode with destructible environments. Unfortunately for Crackdown 3, therein lies the problem: I'm more excited about the possibilities for the future than what we played.

That said, Crackdown 3 is still four months from release as of writing, set for a February 15, 2019 debut. The towering environments Ruffian Games and Crackdown 3's other collaborators have built for the game are gorgeous, made all the more exciting when you tear them down, explosion by explosion. I just hope that they're not relegated to gimmick status by the multiplayer systems layered on top of it, which at least for now, are indeed infectiously fun, but potentially lacking in staying power.

It's true that we haven't seen many of the weapons or progression mechanics yet, though, which keeps me feeling optimistic. We'll have to see what comes next for Wrecking Zone.

Crackdown 3 is targeting a February 15, 2019 launch date on Xbox One and Windows 10. It'll be available day one as part of Xbox Game Pass, which is priced at $9.99 per month.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!