Crackdown 3's spectacular destruction brings home Xbox's message: the cloud is the future.
"As technology goes, Crackdown 3's is nuts. It's far beyond what's possible on any of the consoles, and even appears to outstrip what any one mega PC could manage."
It's been quite a while since something at a trade show has truly blindsided me. The last time was probably when I first played the game that'd eventually become EVE Valkyrie on the Oculus Rift - but Microsoft has managed it with a Crackdown 3 demo that, to be honest, left me a little slack-jawed - even if the game itself doesn't yet seem too immediately exciting.
I'm talking about Microsoft's impressive demonstration of what the Xbox One and Microsoft's much-touted cloud computing capabilities can do. Here, banks of servers miles away are used to assist Crackdown 3 as it calculates massive amounts of architectural destruction on the fly.
There's caveats to everything I'm about to write - in Crackdown, the destruction is only available in a specific multiplayer mode, and the game itself is in a recognizably early state, with textures missing in places and only one playable character model available - but as technical demonstations go, this was an impressive one, leaving me with eyebrows raised. It was my final appointment of a blistering day at Gamescom - but to say it woke me right back up would be something of an understatement.
So here's the deal - in this mode, Crackdown 3's city is 100% destructible, with every building you can see able to be reduced to rubble. The first demonstration of the technology was deceptively simple - Dave Jones, the game's director and one of the creators of the original Grand Theft Auto, simply shot a circle in a piece of wall. When the wall could no longer maintain the structure, the whole of the inside of the circle simply toppled out of the wall and to the floor.
This doesn't seem like much until one considers what's going on - the game has recognized that a piece has been separated from the rest of the wall and calculated its shape, size and mass on the fly - and then made it its own piece of geometry in the world. That circular piece of wall that moments earlier didn't exist can be stood on, or picked up and thrown - and this is the basis for everything that comes, no matter how large the scale gets. And, yes - if you wanted that circle to instead be a square, or any other crude shape, you could certainly shoot it out of that same wall. I fully anticipate many comedy destruction cocks to be shot into the walls of Crackdown 3's city come launch day.
From this point on, Jones and the other members of his team ramp up the level of destruction on display. The group are in a four-player co-op session and simply begin to level city blocks with rocket launchers that, Jones assures, are deliberately over-powered for the demo - a simple rocket launcher alone won't be enough to topple most buildings in the final game.
In order to make the technology work, the team behind Crackdown has modelled the inner structure of every building - meaning that if you scatter-shot machine gun fire at the walls, eventually you're going to expose thick steel beams and other features of the superstructure underneath. Damage to this is what can cause the really spectacular moments, and Jones and his team make a point to shoot for that imagery.
The moment I was really sold on the demo was one such event - Jones and co. were blasting the steel beams at the base of one side of a building with a lopsided, architectually stylish design. "One side is heavier than the other," Jones explains. The realistic inner structure of all buildings means to cause such a reaction deliberately requires some thought - which has meant building Crackdown 3's city has been a larger undertaking than previous. "If we can take out the support on the heavier side, the whole thing will come down to that side."
He was right, of course. It took a little longer than they'd anticipated to inflict the necessary damage, but then, with a creak, the building begins to shift to one side. Then it topples. Tall, the building falls to the heavier side rather than straight down. In the process it crushes smaller buildings below - which in turn also collapse entirely dynamically under its weight. Jones moves his Agent to stand atop some of the rubble, as if to prove a point.
"Banks of servers miles away are used to assist Crackdown 3 as it calculates massive amounts of architectural destruction on the fly. I fully anticipate many comedy destruction cocks to be shot into the walls of Crackdown 3's city come launch day."
As technology goes, it's nuts. It's far beyond what's possible on any of the consoles, and even appears to outstrip what any one mega PC could manage. We're in debug mode, and on one side of the screen among debug information, bars begin to fill as the team continue to wreck havoc on the immediate area. The team are having a little competition with themselves: the bars show the stress that the physics calculations are putting on the Xbox One, and then beyond that the cloud servers used for additional computing power. As soon as any destruction kicks off, the Xbox One bar almost immediately fills - and the more going on, the more cloud servers are drafted into the action.
The record, Jones explains, is 14 cloud servers helping to calculate the destruction, and this is the final appointment of the day. Pushing their luck, the team manage to get to 16 servers and cheer; Jones accuses them of sneakily powering up their weapons to break the record. His team are all denials, but they're all smiling - they're all happy. In further debug options, Jones demonstrates how different areas and structures are being calculated by different servers, each colour-coded when an option is flicked on.
What I see boggles the mind; it looks brilliant, even this early on, and it's destruction on a scale and of an intensity I've not seen before in a game. After they've shown off the tech, I'm given the opportunity to cause some damage myself, and it works. I'm able to achieve completely different destructive results to them in an instant. It just works.
There's a lot of questions that remain, however. How expensive is this for Microsoft to run? How good an internet connection will be needed? Jones says 2-4 mbps should be sufficient, but it's difficult to tell until we see the game in the wild. There's also the wider question of Crackdown 3 itself, which at this stage appears to barely be a game, with lots of work to be done. It seems that it'll be very similar to the original title structurally, but this demo wasn't about that - it was all about the technology.
I'm not so sure about the game, then - but the tech driving it is hugely impressive and is the first thing I've seen this console generation that isn't just a visual upgrade that feels as if it'd be completely impossible on previous hardware. The cloud could well be the future, and Crackdown 3 may well be the first step - but it is undoubtedly still early days.
Crackdown 3 is set to launch exclusively for the Xbox One in 2016.