I don't remember why I bought the original Crackdown. I wasn't a big enough fan of Halo, so it can't have been the multiplayer beta that came bundled with it. I don't remember playing the demo, either - but for whatever reason, I took a punt on it and fell in love.
It's probably fair to say that Crackdown changed my life. If it hadn't been for that 2007 open-world blow-up-'em-up, I'd never have heard of Realtime Worlds, and I'd certainly never have moved to Scotland to work for them. I am where I am because of Crackdown – literally, I'd not be sitting on this sofa in this house in this city in this country.
The direct sequel never made much of an impression, though. I did play the demo for that one - and its return to the same city (more or less) and the addition of 360-straining crowds of zombies felt respectively like a disappointment, and a distraction from the aimless purity of the original game's experience.
My brother's description of Crackdown as "it's not a game, it's an excuse" has always perfectly captured the anarchic spirit of Realtime's 2007 superhero simulator. You start the game able to leap 20 feet vertically, and as you amass further weaponry, vehicles and skill points for using them, you only become more of a threat to the criminals (and bystanders) of Pacific City. By the end of the game, you're bounding over entire buildings with ease, carpet-bombing the streets with a flurry of homing rocket, and jumping a souped-up monster truck hundreds of yards off freeways.
This focus, or the lack of it, on giving you all the tools and skills you need to do anything and then letting you do it feels like both the forerunner of and a departure from the modern trend of open-world collect-'em-ups. But Crackdown didn't overcomplicate things with sidequests and collectibles (beyond the Agility and Hidden Orbs, neither of which cluttered your map). There were a handful of boss characters to take down with the barest semblance of a plot to tie them together, but no lengthy cutscenes and no lore.
The third installment, which I've been playing via a GamePass trial, is almost a total return to the classic Crackdown formula. The addition of an actual story (which seems to totally ignore the "twist" at the end of the first game) gets in the way more than it helps, but otherwise this is just more Crackdown.
For most franchises that might be a bad thing - yearly releases and stagnation across genres means few titles actually stand out much beyond their presentation, but by returning to its roots Crackdown 3 manages to make an impression. Stripping away most of the cruft, letting the player loose in a sandbox with a ludicrous array of toys and targets, allows you to set your own goals and never feel like the game would rather you were following its breadcrumbs. Want to spend hours collecting orbs? Go for it! Want to get into massive firefights and blow up everything the bad guys can throw at you? Go for it! Want to race? Go for it! Want to progress the campaign? Go for it!
There haven't been many games that give me this kind of reckless abandon - the last one might have been its own predecessor, but by that measure alone Crackdown 3 is a riotous success.