Crackdown’s Sublimely Subtle Level Design

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Crackdown is not a series known for subtlety. The most recent entry in the series, Crackdown 3, has players leaping off of skyscrapers to shoot rockets into robots while yelling, and I quote, “quack quack motherfucker“. This is a series where a valid answer to the question “How do I deal with these enemies?” is “Have you considered throwing a semi-truck into them?” and yet, the series still has some genuine cleverness to the way it handles its level design.

To catch up anyone who hasn’t played the games, Crackdown is a series about the Agency, a sort of megacorporation police force whose genetically modified Agents solve organized crime by punching it very hard. Superhero games in all but name, Crackdown games are open-world sandboxes in which Agents can leap over skyscrapers, throw cars, and slaughter criminals with a small army’s worth of firepower. It’s some good dumb fun.

For my purposes, the system throughout the series that I’m going to focus on is the “Skills For Kills” mechanic. Simply put, the only way to improve the games’ five skills is to use them. if you want to increase your Firearms, you gotta shoot some guys. Increase your Strength by punching guys, your Driving by doing street races and some sick drifts, and your Explosives by blowing stuff up. The fifth skill, however, Agility, is slightly more interesting.

Agility is not improved just by jumping a lot. Instead, the worlds of Crackdown are littered with Agility Orbs: glowing and humming green balls precariously perched on top of tall things. The taller the thing, the more XP bundled up in the Agility Orb at its peak. The more of that XP you collect, the higher your Agility skill goes, and the higher your Agent can jump. Within this wrinkle is Crackdown‘s genius.

As I mentioned before, Crackdown is open world: each of the three games dumps you into the world after a brief tutorial and says “Go wherever! Have fun murderin’!” This presented an interesting challenge to the developers. They wanted to provide players a freedom to go wherever they want, but want to avoid the world feeling homogeneous, and the gameplay feeling samey. Open world games frequently suggest a player’s path through a world through the scaling of enemy difficulty, but that doesn’t really work for Crackdown: the player Agent becomes a walking WMD that even the game’s toughest enemies usually crumple to fairly early into the game. Here, I imagine, is where the level designers piped up and went “We have an idea”.

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Crackdown and its sequel take place in the fictional Pacific City, an ocean metropolis spread across three islands, and the path through these three islands is implied not via enemy difficulty, but through the height of their buildings. La Mugre features short apartment complexes and undeveloped spaces, The Den features taller industrial complexes and fancier apartments, and the Corridor is a Manhattan-esque cluster of luxury skyscrapers.

Agents freshly inducted into the world will be able to leap La Mugre’s one- and two-story buildings fairly easily, but if they venture into the Corridor they will find themselves climbing skyscrapers at a snail’s pace, having to carefully look for nearby handholds. As their Agility skill increases, and their jump height increases, the highest buildings of La Mugre become vaultable in a single leap, and soon even the Corridor’s towers become easy to climb, with a greater jump height and air control allowing the player to skip large swaths of the handholds on a building’s exterior.

I want to emphasize again that these buildings are not a hard limit. With a few exceptions, the buildings in the Corridor are scaleable even to rookie Agents. The process, however, is slow, and makes the Agent an easier target for any enemy sharpshooters who happen to see their Spiderman impression. However, if that new Agent can scale even a few of these Skyscrapers, the top-tier Agility Orbs waiting at the top represent massive experience point gains.

This level design creates one of the most intuitive progression systems an open-world game has ever implemented. The difficulty of the islands is instantly communicated to the player, even from the other side of the map. The game doesn’t need to implement bullet sponge enemies to scale difficulty, but instead makes the traversal of the environment, something much more intuitive to visually parse than whether Dude With Gun X is stronger than Dude With Gun Y. It also means that a player’s increase in skills have a very tangible effect on gameplay: instead of just “the numbers go up”, the players can see themselves fly over buildings they once had to scale, reminiscent of a superhero.

Crackdown 2, in my opinion, perfects this progression by offering a pair of wonderful, natural rewards at the end of this journey: the Wingsuit, and helicopters. The Wingsuit allows players to glide deftly through the air, moreso the higher the building they jump off of is, creating a natural progression. You’ve spent the whole game getting better at climbing buildings, and the Wingsuit gives you something new to do when you get to the top of one. The helicopters, available only on a helipad which requires a massive leap to get to, provides another natural end state: you’ve spent the game getting closer and closer to feeling like flying, so what if we let you actually fly.

So. Agility Orbs facilitate a set of soft skill barriers in the world, giving players an implied path of least resistance through the world while still letting them venture into dangerous territory for high rewards. They provide a means of progression that is far more tangible than just “your numbers go higher”, and feed directly into the game’s core ethos as a power fantasy.

There is one problem, though.

Crackdown fans probably can already guess what I’m going to say, but those of who you haven’t played the series might be reading all of this talk about running and jumping and gliding and say “wait, didn’t you say this series has cars?”

You’d be forgiven for forgetting, because I’ve played all three Crackdown games and frequently forget myself. Many games that emphasize unique or interesting traversal mechanics suffer this problem: the cars in Saints Row IV are notoriously useless, and Infamous and Prototype just throw them out entirely, not even letting you get into one. In Crackdown, however, Driving is a skill just like Agility, and it’s handled, well, worse.

For one thing, running and jumping and gliding through the city is just more fun than driving. This alone is a huge problem, but it gets worse. In an effect to mirror the “tangible skill growth” of Agility, Driving causes the handling of every car you get into to improve with every level of Driving you accomplish, but the implication of this is the death knell for Driving: when you’re low-level, at the earliest stages in the game, the cars handle like garbage.

This creates a sort of feedback loop in player progression. At the start of the game, cars are clumsy and kind of hard to control, while the player character themselves, while slower than their maximum potential, is still responsive and fun to control. This encourages the new player to focus on Agility, and after they’ve done so for a while and their Agility score eclipses their Driving, the player has less and less desire to go back and start again from square one with Driving. Combine this with the fact that many of the story and optional objectives in Crackdown games are located in and around skyscrapers (that is, inaccessible by cars), and none of the other skills can be used effectively in concert with Driving (you can’t really punch someone while driving), and Driving is frequently neglected entirely.

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Crackdown 2 partially mitigated this by filling the streets of the city with zombies to run over, but it still wasn’t, like, great.

There is one good nugget of design in Crackdown‘s cars, specifically the cars of the first Crackdown. While the Agent is free to hijack any car in the city, there was a suite of three special Agency cars that could be deployed. Not only did these cars handle better with higher Driving, they physically transformed, offering that tangible sense of progression as what was once just “a pretty good sportscar” morphs into “off-brand Batmobile” as you get into it.

I’ve been using the word “tangibility” a lot, and I think that’s the big takeaway from Crackdown. Progression is often the key hook that keeps players playing a game, and there’s been a lot of ways that progression has been done. I’d be foolish to say that “the numbers go up” isn’t an effective strategy (the golden age of clickers and loot games we’re currently in proves as much), but games like Crackdown show that designers can look beyond the balancing of equations to more immediate methods of making a player feel empowered as they grow within a game.

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