Among its many inspired bits of game design, one particularly bold choice in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was letting players decide for themselves when it was finally time to fight the final boss. Whether you want to take on Ganon once you're fully geared up, or you're brave enough to attempt a naked speedrun straight from the get-go, Breath of the Wild leaves it up to you. And though Crackdown 3 has a lot more assault rifles, cars, and Terry Crews one-liners than Breath of the Wild, these open-world games have a crucial bit of freedom in common: allowing you to march towards a battle with the end boss as a weak, under-equipped rookie within moments of entering its sandbox. And when I'm presented with that kind of foolhardy challenge, I can't help but try it for myself.
Welcome back, Agent
When Crackdown 3's campaign opens, you're stranded on an island just outside New Providence, a futuristic city that's mysteriously still standing - and full of glowing neon lights - despite rampant blackouts around the globe. I had hoped that, once I selected my Agent (obviously I went with Crews' Commander Jaxon, because how can you not), I would immediately make my way for the big boss' tower smack dab in the middle of the city. But going for a swim towards the downtown district revealed a gigantic force field around New Providence, so I had to hoof it. Gaining access to the main gates was simply a matter of taking down a propaganda-spouting goon in what's essentially a flashy tutorial area.
Once I'd dealt with the vicious doorman and his guards, I laid eyes on the towering fortress of Elizabeth Niemand, head of the insidious TerraNova corporation that holds New Providence and its people in an iron grip. Just as Ganon awaits atop the iconic Hyrule Castle, Niemand's stronghold is always staring you in the face no matter where your Agent is wreaking havoc in the city. "Just like in Breath of the Wild, we show you, 'There's the main bad guy, she lives over there. If you want to go for it, go for it,'" says Microsoft Studios' Joseph Staten. "There is no linear quest; the game design [and] the story's all just waiting in the background to see what you do, and then it presents itself as you poke certain things in the simulation."
A few deadly hurdles in the way
Staten's made a run to take down Niemand from the start himself, with the kind of results you'd reasonably expect from a Level 1 Agent. "I got my ass handed to me, in a good way," he chuckles. A more traditional path through Crackdown 3 involves taking down Niemand's three captains in charge of her defenses, who in turn have their own cronies that are all dead set on taking you down. "They each manufacture a set of defenses for the main boss. So this guy named Quist is in charge of Logistics, Robotics, Transport - and if you don't kill Quist [before] you go attack the main boss Elizabeth Niemand, all of Quist's robotic forces and all of his turrets will still be active in his tower," Staten explains. "And that's true for all the bosses. So yes, as I tried to scale Niemand's central boss tower, I was assaulted by insane amounts of robots and laser turrets."
I found out firsthand the folly of trying to take down said turrets during my own attempted ascension of Niemand's ludicrously tall tower. My starter weapons were but minor annoyances to the missile-launching defenders stationed around the tower's base, and it took little more than a rocket or two to blast me to smithereens; fortunately, you can always revive at one of the easily unlocked strongholds. Instead of the direct approach, I found that speeding past the checkpoint in a high-horsepower vehicle could give me just enough time to look for an opening that would let me scale the outer walls of Niemand's sanctuary. Once I could climb out of sight, I stood half a chance.
Merely figuring out if it's even possible to cautiously jump your way up is a fascinating, exciting endeavor full of platforming conundrums. The gaps and platform heights of the tower are clearly designed for Agents who've judiciously collected orbs to increase their Agility and in turn their maximum jump height - but even with Level 1 legs, it's still very possible to clamber your way higher and higher. Crackdown 3's Agents can't climb up sheer walls and cliff faces the way Link does, but if you jump towards a wall at the right angle, you can shimmy up a bit before launching into a double jump. With careful and clever use of this method, you can slowly but surely make your way up each structure, like a giant series of stepping stones to Niemand's domain. It also helps that she had ledge-hang-enabling notches built into most sides of her skyscraper, perfectly enabling a greenhorn Agent's attempt to free solo their way to the top.
Try, die, try again
What few enemies I encountered during my climb were way, way stronger than me, so it was always best to flee rather than fight. But sometimes, you've got to live up to Crackdown 3's power fantasy and just blast everything in sight. If you do manage to take down a lone enemy when their allies aren't looking, you can permanently add their weapon to your spawn-in loadout - so once I had lucked into a rocket launcher dropped by a dead baddie, I had the means to brute force my way through some swarms of enemies.
Mercifully, you'll find strongholds at crucial points on your ascent; it seems Niemand doesn't mind having Agents reviving themselves on her front porch. And when you respawn, your weapons replenish their ammo, even though nearby enemies retain their damage. Between my immortality and an infinite supply of rockets, even my Level 1 Agent had the means to take down late-game enemies. And with the scattering of checkpoints, you won't have to start the climb from scratch when you inevitably die to a missed jump or a bullet to the head.
Even after nimbly leaping past enemies or plowing through them rocket by respawned rocket, I eventually met an obstacle I thought would be the end of my journey: plumes of poisonous green gas, which could kill me almost instantly, spewing into the only path forward. But after I tried and failed to find a way around (those building notches were getting fewer and farther between), Staten kindly tagged in to show me my salvation. Though Staten definitely acknowledges it as "cheese," it's possible to simply tumble your way to safety thanks to the invincibility frames of the spammable dodge roll. With a series of quick somersaults, Jaxon was able to get through the gas unscathed - to my great amazement, having died probably 15 times in the span of 3 minutes trying to make my way past.
Alas, even with the discovery of a workaround for the toxic gas, the inescapable obstacle that is time put an end to my ascension, as my hands-on demo came to an end. But attempting to scale the final boss' building at the very start of the game was invigorating in a way I just hadn't felt from Crackdown 3's marketing, despite the fun, chaotic nature of its over-the-top destruction. I can't wait to see what dedicated speedrunners will do with that kind of freedom, and who knows - maybe I'll take another crack at Crackdown 3's tower at some point. "That's the design - people should feel free to go and go against whatever challenges they want to," says Staten. "The game will push back, and it will incent you to level up your character, but the game doesn't say 'No, you have to watch this cutscene' or 'No, you haven't unlocked that island yet.' It lets you go, from moment one, anywhere you want." You can see if you're up to the same task when Crackdown 3 hits Xbox One and PC on February 15.
In addition to Crackdown 3's campaign, there's also the ridiculous, awe-inspiring Wrecking Zone multiplayer mode.