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15 years later, Crackdown is still more magical than any of its try-hard follow-ups

Despite some iterations to the formula and some experiments with massive celebrity cameos, neither Crackdown sequel could harness the chaotic energy of that first game.

I have a theory that a lot of games try too hard. Crackdown is not one of those games. Crackdown knows that it's ridiculous. It has a story that wouldn't look out of place in a '80s action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. You're a biologically-enhanced agent and, eh, I don't know... There are some bad guys and crime lords and stuff. Just kill them all. Like an '80s action film, you haven't come here for a fascinating plot. You just want some fun. Crackdown is delightfully pure in its intention – and the first game's commitment to chaos should make you cast Crackdown 3 aside with disdain.

Somehow, while Crackdown 3 is on Xbox Game Pass, Crackdown is not. It's better than that. It's just inexplicably free on the Xbox Marketplace. I paid £40 for it back when it first came out and I was a student. I probably skipped a few meals to pay for it. I'd do it all over again too. Who needs food when there are orbs to collect, right?

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It felt like a breath of fresh air back then. It still kind of does. Honestly, I didn't really bother pursuing crime lords. It would have made a terrible Arnie movie but I just leapt around collecting orbs. 90 minutes of Arnie climbing up a massive tower before messing up at the last hurdle? It would have made the last Terminator film look like a modern classic.

Orbs were wonderfully addictive. Each time you grabbed one, your ability level instantly improved and – ohh, look – you could then go get that even harder to reach orb. Watching yourself get better and better within a few minutes meant that there was always one more orb within grasp, and suddenly it would be 3am and you hadn't even started that essay due tomorrow.

The pinnacle of success was the Agency Tower. Incredibly high, you needed at least three stars in agility. Four was the recommended minimum, really, otherwise you'd have to be pretty accurate with those jumps. I remember back in 2007 very nearly reaching the top. The nerves were getting to me and then the phone rang. My best friend called out of the blue and it made me startle slightly, which meant I went plummeting down to the ground and had to start all over again.

As soon as I finished the call, I was back to it. I made it that time. It was a bit tense. I jumped off the Tower once I got to the top because what else could you do? I'm sure there's a metaphor for something important in there. Still, I got an achievement for it and – in 2007 – achievements were fresh and exciting.

There are plenty of games that like to lure you in for 'just one more go' or 'just one more collectible'. That's sort of the nature of games. However, Crackdown did it in a way that I've struggled to find successfully replicated elsewhere. It managed to make them easily reachable yet while also offering a tiny bit of challenge. Also, the number were vast but you could see tangible improvements rather than chasing after them for the sake of it (I'm looking at you Assassin's Creed flags). There were no micro transactions to help you get ahead by suddenly boosting your abilities to some obscene level. It was all on you to just wander around and see what you could do. I could easily lose a Sunday afternoon to it.

Such liberation sounds like a hideously hefty dose of nostalgia, so I've double checked. I loaded up Crackdown and gave it a go. Then I played Crackdown 3 for a bit. Crackdown throws you in the deep end. A voiceover tells you some vague storyline but all you need to know is to head to a supply point and beat some people up to regain that position. Punching them throws up some ability mini-orbs that mean you punch harder and better later on. Or you can shoot hem or blow them. I tore myself away from it realising that while it looks a bit old (it's 15 years old later this month!), I could easily lose myself to it all over again.

Crackdown 3 is prettier. Weirdly not as pretty as you would expect from a three year old game but it tries so hard that you just feel sorry for it. Starting out, you have to go through a basic tutorial. I don't want to go through a basic tutorial. I'd already had to choose an agent to play with each of them offering different strengths. It's all a bit unnecessary. Missing the point of how freeing the original truly felt. It's, dare I say it, a bit dull at first. The original game just throws you straight in the deep end (if you want).

There's the second game too. I haven't forgotten about its existence. I've just entirely forgotten what little I played of it. I'm guessing it didn't have the 'wow' factor of the first one or the hype of the third one.

When Crackdown 3 was released, there were suggestions that its design was dated and there needed to be more innovation. I'm not convinced. On the surface, that would make sense, but in reality, the first Crackdown is still fun. Crackdown 3 never quite hit the mark. Crackdown knew what it was and didn't go off track with celebrity cameos, experimental multiplayer, and god knows what else.

Crackdown 3 did a good job of enticing us all into an Xbox Game Pass subscription, much like Crackdown came with a code for the Halo 3 multiplayer beta which was a bit exciting back in the day. But, you can't beat the wonder of the original. Less is more, right? While it still offers a frankly ludicrous number of orbs, it doesn't pad the rest of the game with glitz and glamor. Like how 16-bit games are still fun because they never looked amazing in the first place, and 32-bit games are clunky 3D messes, Crackdown benefits from being a moment caught in time. It's an utter delight, even 15 years later.

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