Crackdown 3 preview: Early impressions of Microsoft's next Xbox exclusive

Microsoft is kicking off 2019 with a new Xbox exclusive, reviving the Crackdown series after a nine-year absence. Despite its troubled development, the refreshed open-world shooter is just around the corner, and it should define the promise of cloud-backed destruction.

But will Crackdown 3 live up to the hype? Or does it further highlight Microsoft's struggling first-party lineup? We've wrapped up our early impressions after three hours playing it on Xbox One X.

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How Crackdown 3 tames the power of the cloud

Crackdown 3 has experienced a turbulent development, following repeated delays since its 2014 unveiling. Now headed to store shelves half a decade later, heavy work appears to have been underway, giving the game "the time it needs" to prosper. And now likely to hit its February 15 planned release, we spent time across Crackdown 3's single-player and multiplayer modes.

Crackdown 3's underlying use of Microsoft cloud technology shows formidable promise, backing an interconnected sandbox of city-leveling multiplayer destruction. And with stars like Terry Crews on its roster, the game presents a persona that never takes itself too seriously.

Cloud physics are still Crackdown 3's key differentiator, harnessed to create destructible environments unbound by local processing capabilities. Beyond a few grounded elements to maintain map flow, maps pack dozens of sky-high structures to climb and destroy. And while it was a closed environment for the press, the technology achieves this with a steady framerate, which hopefully transfers to the average home.

In its current state, the Wrecking Zone multiplayer lets players customize loadouts comprised of two weapons, paired with accompanying player abilities. One dedicated firearm deals high player damage, while your holstered launcher is best assigned for environmental destruction. This puts Crackdown 3's destructive component at the heart of the gameplay, encouraging players to approach combat differently than your average shooter. And this also births new challenges, where map destruction and overall verticality increase the value of high ground.

Microsoft's game-changing cloud tech thrives in Crackdown.

My main concern with Crackdown 3's current multiplayer is related to content, with Microsoft only pledging to two modes and a handful of maps at launch. Paired with the team "not committing" to Crackdown 3 post-launch plans, it's unclear how (or if) it plans to support those engaged in its multiplayer action.

Where Crackdown 3 rises and falls

Crackdown 3 also plans to deliver a traditional single-player campaign, more reminiscent of previous series entries. Playable both offline or cooperatively with one friend, the open world of New Providence hosts a more curated and narrative-driven experience. It encapsulates Crackdown's most iconic traits, from the neon-lined streets to glowing orbs scattered throughout the towering rooftops.

Crackdown 3 is struggling with its identity.

We spent around 90 minutes in Crackdown 3's campaign, infiltrating plants, garages, and prison cells locked down by urban gangs. With key targets securing a stranglehold on the city, completing missions topples their influence, with the promise of larger boss battles later down the line. Snappy combat with a varied arsenal of weapons and powers keep encounters fresh against a range of class-based enemy types. However, it failed to create dense, memorable environments during these early missions, faltering into a forgettable urban sprawl instead.

However, beyond its much-anticipated cloud destruction, Crackdown 3 is seemingly wrangling an identity crisis. The series has previously failed to garner a following like Microsoft's flagship franchises, and there is a risk of that extending into its newest revision. While the studio has continued building on its core cloud technology, it runs the risk of relying too heavily on this differentiator, potentially compromising the depth of the campaign and overall package contents.

Crackdown 3 is shaping to be a faithful follow-up to its predecessors, retaining much of the franchise's prior successes. Returning fans should find enjoyment, though it's not poised to solve Microsoft's ongoing first-party woes.

Crackdown 3 ultimately feels like an ideal addition to the Xbox Game Pass library. For subscribers to Microsoft's Netflix-style subscription service, its day-one inclusion should make it worth the try. There's some game-changing cloud technology on show – but Microsoft has yet to justify the full $60 price tag, at least based on what we've seen.

Crackdown 3 is scheduled to launch on February 15, 2019, on Xbox One and Windows 10. While available for $60, Xbox Game Pass subscribers can play for $10 per month.

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Matt Brown

Matt Brown was formerly a Windows Central's Senior Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.