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This week Microsoft revealed new details for Crackdown 3 after more than a year of silence. The big story is its multiplayer where virtually every structure in the game world can be dismantled thanks to a meticulously designed physics engine. These destructible environments are such a large highlight of the game that Crackdown 3's entire presentation at Gamescom was focused on it.
What you might not know is that Crackdown 3 utilizes the cloud computing that Microsoft has spent so much time hyping over the years. This is the same cloud computing that was a major component of its original Xbox One reveal, and has since become a bit of a laughing stock among gamers as it hasn't materialized into anything of great substance.
Crackdown 3's use of cloud computing is significant for a few reasons. First, it's important to understand the physics involved in the destructible environments require an extensive amount of processing power. The truth is that the Xbox One's hardware alone is simply incapable of rendering the game world while performing the computations required to deliver the level of destruction showcased during yesterday's Crackdown 3 reveal.
As seen in the demonstration above, the destruction is remarkable. Explosive pressure sends glass flying, and as a massive structure shatters into pieces it behaves naturally. You can then interact with the smaller pieces which all have their own properties. Each area of the game world uses different servers for processing, performing a form of load balancing. It's worth noting that for the sake of the demo the machine gun was given penetration, which won't be available in the real game. In other words, no, you won't be able to destroy the city with bullets.
Instead of lowering the game's resolution, or ditching the destructible environments altogether, Microsoft has turned to performing the computations within its server farm. When players play online, intense physics computations are pushed out to the cloud where they are processed and then delivered to the game world. As a result, game performance isn't impacted. It's a transparent process that players don't even know is occurring.
It's important to drive home the point that physics calculations are one of the greatest challenges of developers. In PC gaming enabling technologies like Nvidia's PhysX and HairWorks has a noticeable impact on game performance, so these are usually reserved for upper-end builds. Being able to perform these tasks away from the local hardware is a modern solution to an ancient problem.
There's still a lot of mystery surrounding how it'll all work in action. Yesterday's demo was controlled, ensuring that any issues with cloud processing wasn't a concern. In the real world, the servers could experience hiccups resulting in delay of computation. How that affects the game experience is yet to be determined. What we do know is that Crackdown 3's best physics are exclusive to its multiplayer experience where Microsoft knows you have an internet connection available to communicate with the cloud computing servers. In contrast, the single-player experience will feature a much more limited form of physics in an effort to avoid heavy framerate drops.
Crackdown 3's destructible environments are promising, and paint a more positive picture as to what Microsoft's Xbox division means when it talks about cloud computing. However, this single game won't be enough to turn around the perspective of gamers. We'll have to wait and see how other games take advantage of the technology.