It often feels like gaming (or at least the mainstream conception of gaming) has changed completely over the last two decades, which is illustrated by the fact that notable releases in 1996 included Crash Bandicoot, Kirby Super Star, Mega Man 8, Tomb Raider and Resident Evil. What is portrayed is an industry in flux, with the first three titles exemplifying the old ways of gamemaking (wholly fictional worlds playing by their own rules and revelling in sound and colour) and the latter two games emblematic of new possibilities enabled by new technology (games that mirror or offer their own versions of reality, or at least reality as mediated by cinema, telling more complex stories and seeking to be believable). In short, this divide can be summed up as between ‘games as play experiences’ and ‘games as narrative’, a tension that has defined the medium.
Fast forward to 2016, and it seems like narrative has decisively won the battle, pure play experiences have been shifted to mobile and indie games and Nintendo is increasingly marginalised for clinging to the notion that what gamers still want is candy-coloured fantasy worlds peopled by cartoon personalities. Perhaps most notably, Naughty Dog has gone from the adventures of a multi-coloured marsupial to the epic exploits of believable, relatable characters in the Uncharted series and The Last of Us. Even Call of Duty, a series that seems to revolve around ever more elaborate ways to shoot enemies in the face, saw fit to recruit Mark Boal and Kevin Spacey in a desperate attempt to give its gunplay narrative and cultural heft.
It is in this context that Just Cause 3 (JC3) comes as such a breath of fresh air as, while it may occasionally look and sound like its narrative cousins, its true emphasis is on fun, a priority that’s clear even before the install is finished. While this process completes, the game grants new players access to Boom Island, a scaled-down landscape that offers many of the game’s systems to simply play around with, shorn of narrative justification or developer prompts. While the main game installs, your first few minutes of JC3 will be spent simply spent rappelling onto cliffs, learning how and when to deploy your parachute and careering around in a dune buggy, in a directionless playground that could easily hold your attention long after the install is done. Not only is this an excellent idea that other developers should copy (players don’t like simply waiting for games to install), it’s an intoxicating taster of what’s to come and is a strong, confident statement of intent by Avalanche Studios that it has created systems robust enough and satisfying enough to sustain prolonged play and that it is these systems that are the driving force behind JC3.
However, even Avalanche is not immune from the overriding narrative emphasis fuelling modern game development and has sought to improve its storytelling and character development, areas that were heavily criticised in the first two games. There has been a concerted effort to make this latest entry about more than series protagonist Rico Rodriguez (who, in this instalment, appears to have undergone a bit of a makeover, with his designer stubble and leather jacket making him look like a Special Forces soldier who’s been styled for a GQ photoshoot) dropping in, blowing everything up and then leaving again.
To this end, the third entry in the Just Cause series is a homecoming for Rico, with our stubbled protagonist having been called back to his Mediterranean homeland of Medici to overthrow General di Ravello, a fantastically pompous megalomaniac who rules the archipelago with an iron fist and who, having discovered the almost magical properties of an element called Bavarium, has vague notions of wanting to rule the world. In short, this approach can be summed up as a movie tagline, “this time, it’s personal”, and for a while it works in a generic sort of way. For example, Rico’s best friend Mario is the sort of likable idiot sidekick who always populates these sorts of games, making bad jokes and getting into mortal danger from which he needs to be rescued. Through Mario, Rico is introduced to the rebel army, a motley crew who fail to make much of an impression; with the possible exception of Dimah, a scientific expert who is seriously lacking in social skills and provides many of the game’s more light-hearted moments. General di Ravello meanwhile, is exactly the sort of strutting, arrogant, power-crazed madman that you want in such a game; given that you spend large parts of it destroying almost everything connected with him, it would be a bit of anti-climax is he was a mild-mannered accountant who sort of accidentally became supreme leader.
The best that can be said about JC3’s story is that it does make a huge leap forward from the first two games, the cutscenes having been improved from so bad they were often unintentionally funny to occasionally amusing in their own right, and the story missions offer a little more variety than they did previously. However, they are still formulaic and offer little that the player won’t have already experienced in their open-world exploits, while failing to deliver the freedom of the open world. Just Cause 3’s story missions are not bad, just the weakest part of an excellent overall package and quickly forgotten. This is not helped by some strange decisions such as wresting control from the player in key moments, a standout sequence where Rico surfs and then destroys a nuclear warhead is a particularly notable example of this, the player’s moment of glory instantly rendered anticlimactic due to a complete lack of involvement, even a QTE would have given a semblance of personal agency. More than anything though, the game’s story mode feels like a tacked-on addition, put in because that’s what gamers expect from a game of this kind, but not where developer Avalanche’s strengths lie and not what anyone is playing a Just Cause game for.
Instead JC3 players will spend most of their time liberating Medici’s territories, with fishing villages, mountain towns and military bases all needing to be freed from Di Ravello’s tyrannical rule and handed back to the rebel army for which Rico is both the emblem and the catalyst. As gamers we have become well accustomed to this sort of game progression, to games where the acquisition of territory is all important, from the watchtowers and enemy areas of the Assassin’s Creed series to the gang shootouts of GTA, a classic rule of modern game development is often turning a sprawling map from red to blue. The reason this approach works so well in JC3 is that it makes sense, a rebel army would need to systematically target areas in order to gradually rid their country of a tyrannical controlling force. It should also be noted that the liberation of JC3’s towns, villages and military bases depends on targeted, rather than wanton destruction, with the restoration of democratic rule predicated upon Rico destroying both sources of both hard and soft power. The former comprises the infrastructure and military apparatus that fuel di Ravello’s rule (petrol tanks, power generators, satellite dishes etc.), while the latter includes radio transmitters pumping out utopian propaganda, billboards plastered with the General’s smiling visage and the enormous statues in every town and village.
In a particularly good example of this, attacking the police station is a vital part of the liberation of any town or village, but the goal is not simply to blow it up, but rather to take it over, with the killing of the troops stationed inside complemented by the requirement to free political prisoners and open the building’s gates. This latter action immediately allows a surge of rebel reinforcements to come in and even up the odds, a clever reminder that this is about more than a mindless shooting spree and that, in this entry to the series, Rico is more than a one-man army.
For a fitting sense of climax, it’s a good idea to leave the toppling of the building-sized di Ravello statue for last, the sudden absence of the stone overseer a fitting metaphor for the area’s transfer of power and an act that can’t help but bring back memories of the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad that for many (falsely) signalled the end of the Iraq War. Older players will also see the obvious influence of Benito Mussolini on the appearance of di Ravello, with his bushy moustache and rows of gleaming medals perfectly reflecting the mix of vanity and megalomania that characterises such personalities.
Each liberation is ultimately completed with the raising of the rebel flag, another symbolic act which is followed by a celebratory fireworks display and the newly liberated citizens practically dancing in the streets and effusively thanking Rico. While making little sense on a narrative level (do all occupied towns and villages have a secret stash of fireworks just in case they are liberated?), this pyrotechnic spectacle is another clever design decision, making the player feel good about the recent destruction and reinforcing the overarching narrative, that Rico is fighting to save the soul of a country that he loves. Undeniably this whole approach is rather reflective of an extreme right approach to foreign relations (blow up enough stuff and peace will come), but it’s also an approach taken by almost all AAA games and action blockbusters. Ultimately, JC3 is a game, and even the most committed pacifist would find it hard to argue that the true route to lasting peace (months and years of careful negotiation to find compromises acceptable to both parties) would ever be an enjoyable play experience. A more jarring issue is that once towns or villages are liberated, they simply stay liberated, even if surrounded by enemy territory, the occasional attack on a liberated stronghold would have injected a welcome note of realism, even it would have slightly undermined the undeniable thrill of JC3’s power fantasy.
Destruction is writ large throughout JC3, with one of the key additions to this entry in the series being fully physically modelled destructible objects that react realistically to impacts rather than each destruction playing out in exactly the same way. This is key to ensuring that JC3’s near-endless cycle of destruction stays fresh with each creative approach yielding a slightly different result. It also allows some objects to collapse under their own weight, with a well-placed grenade at the base of a guard tower generally causing the whole structure to come down like a house of cards. As the game goes on, the destructible objects get bigger and bigger, and these explosions turn into truly astonishing visual displays of violent pyrotechnics, with the removal of radar towers and vast cylindrical fuel tanks proving particular highlights. This new emphasis on realistic physical destruction works perfectly in tandem with the revamped tether system, Rico having gained the ability to connect objects with a tether and then increase its tension, smashing objects into each other with great force and vastly multiplying the potential for creative destruction. Obvious examples include throwing explosive barrels into enemies and hurling cars into towers, but it’s a system that encourages creativity, with more experimental play producing examples such as hapless enemies being attached to walls, hoisted aloft, and then unceremoniously dropped; or multiple tethers allowing statues to be pulled down by simply being attached multiple times to the same building and then pulled.
The tether system also underpins the grapple kick, one of Rico’s more ridiculous moves, with our stubbled revolutionary able to tether onto distant enemies and then fly in to kick them. Of course, anyone with even the most rudimentary grasp of physics will realise that this move is impossible; instead of locking the enemy in place, Rico’s sudden tether would send them flying, but it’s so enjoyable, you’re unlikely to care. This is also emblematic of the game’s whole approach, with realism abandoned when it gets in the way of fun. In another neat twist reflective of the series’ anarchic sense of humour, the maximum distance travelled by a grapple-kicked enemy is one of a plethora of metrics tracked by the game and compared against your friends list.
The fact that Rico can fire his grappling hook into helicopters is also worthy of special mention here, one of the game’s unique pleasures being locking on to an attacking copter, firing as you reel in to get rid of the gunner and then performing a mid-air hijack, tossing the hapless pilot out into the sky and using the mounted gun to rain destruction on the soldiers below and blow enemy choppers out of the sky. It’s the seamless fluidity of such sequences that is the game’s trademark, and the core reason why its destructive power fantasy works so well.
The other key addition in JC3 is a wingsuit which revolutionises the way the player travels across the series’ characteristic sprawling open worlds. The process works as follows: you find a point in the middle distance (a spinning target reticule shows you how far you can go) and fire Rico’s grappling hook, which will then embed in the targeted surface and pull the liberator of Medici toward it at speed. From here you have two takeoff options; either press X to backflip and open your parachute, thereby immediately gaining altitude and allowing a transition to wingsuit with triangle; or, in a more advanced move, press triangle as you reel in to do a mid-air barrel roll and immediately transition into wingsuit mode. This latter process doesn’t gain you the altitude of the two-stage parachute to wingsuit transition but looks really really cool when pulled off successfully, which is always an important factor. Once airborne, you’ll need to use the analog stick to keep your flight level and, like a special ops Spiderman, you’ll use your grappling hook to pull yourself along and keep flying at speed.
Overall this process works beautifully and is simply the best method of transportation yet seen in an open-world game. With a little practice, players will quickly be able to stay airborne for minutes at a time and yet it’s never a simple process, there’s far more involved than simply pressing the accelerator and dodging obstacles, with the constant need to look for grappling points and maintain altitude keeping the player engaged and ensuring that every wingsuit flight feels like an achievement. More than anything though, soaring over Medici in Rico’s wingsuit is one of the great moments in gaming, hearing the wind rush past your body and seeing verdant green fields, rocky mountains and shimmering azure seas is perhaps the ultimate power fantasy in a game that’s full of them. Moreover, it provides the perfect contrast to the havoc wrought on the ground, soaring through air is calm and peaceful, the serene Yin to JC3’s trademark destructive Yang.
However, for those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground (or at least in a vehicle), JC3 includes the usual variety of cars, boats, bikes, planes and helicopters. The game’s driving mechanics are a slight let down as, while slinging a sports car around the hairpin bends of Medici’s coastal roads is an undeniable thrill, the handling is sometimes slightly floaty and players may occasionally get the sense that the car they’re driving is hovering imperceptibly above the ground, rather than actually touching it. Far more useful is the more military end of JC3’s vehicle collection, with tanks, attack helicopters and fighter jets all available for those occasions when serious firepower is required. The game’s missiles are a particular highlight, shrieking to their target at speed and powerful enough to take out bridges. Smartly, given the emphasis on fun, Avalanche has included a vehicle drop option, a quick dive into the menu allows the player to order whichever vehicle, gun and explosive combination they desire, and the order arrives moments later in a shipping container dropped from the sky. Quite how a helicopter fits inside a shipping container is never really explained but, knowing Avalanche, the humour these moments provide is probably intentional. Sensible limits have also been implemented in this mechanic, it’s not available in combat, each vehicle has a cool down period and the number of drops you can make is restricted by your supply of beacons (which are generally picked up from liberated towns and bases). All of these measures help keep the power fantasy at least slightly grounded in reality, and prevent the player from simply spamming attack helicopters at will.
Alongside story missions and town liberations, JC3 offers a plethora of side missions and challenges, with rampages, wingsuit courses, air and road races, and Speed-like mobile bomb challenges all featuring. However, while in other games such additions often feel tacked-on, Avalanche integrates them into the core of the game experience, tying skill and weapon acquisition to side-mission performance, and having each challenge unlock related skills. Performance is rewarded by earning gears and the more gears earned on a particular challenge, the more skills/weapons are unlocked on that particular skill tree. For example, doing well on wingsuit courses will grant you faster reel-in speed or the ability to air brake and perform sharper turns, while taking the time to polish your race lap times will give you nitrous boosts and an instant car jump. In short, if you want the coolest stuff, you’ll need to do well on the challenges, a risky strategy for Avalanche to take given that such additional features are often handled by junior members of the development team while seasoned professionals take care of the main game. However, JC3’s challenges are a triumph, and are almost without exception enjoyable, accessible and offer just the right level of difficulty (most players will get two to three gears on a challenge fairly easily, but many will keep pushing for the five gears that represent ultimate mastery and will propel them that bit further towards the next unlock). The implementation of several skill trees has another important consequence, players can take on those challenges that suit their play style, meaning that each individual challenge is optional, what may be integral for one player may be irrelevant for another. Moreover, you’ll very rarely need a particular skill in order to progress, they generally just make the game more fun, with fun being at the core of the Just Cause experience.
As in many games of this ilk, JC3 is filled with collectibles, however once again these are smartly implemented and make sense in the game’s narrative. Vintage weapons are collected by unearthing parts buried in the ground, rebel shrines are visited and memorial candles lit, and Di Ravello’s audio diaries detail his rise to power. Each of these has a clear purpose, weapon parts are often in hard to reach locations that test your skill with a grappling hook, the shrines give a moment of contemplation amidst the chaos and remind the player that this is a war with casualties on both sides, and the diaries reveal more about di Ravello than a few bombastic cutscenes ever could.
Instead, the General is revealed as a Machiavellian manipulator, a man who ruthlessly exploited his colleagues’ weaknesses in order to gain power bit by bit until he was finally ready to seize control of the island. Unusually for the Just Cause series, these diary segments are well-written and well-acted, giving the game a narrative and emotional punch that is quite simply absent in the main campaign. They also flesh out Rico’s antagonist, giving him a believable character arc while still conveying his ego and desperate desire for more and more power. Ultimately, di Ravello is revealed as a shrewd and cunning political operator, whose climactic seizing of power convinced him of his near invincibility and turned him into the bombastic, impulsive egotist portrayed in the main game’s campaign.
It is that occasionally underwhelming campaign that is the only significant weak spot in what is otherwise an astonishing technical and artistic achievement, a beautiful, ultra-responsive and adrenaline-fuelled reinvention of the open-world genre. JC3 is a sandbox in the most literal sense, almost everything in the game is there for the player to have fun with, with creative approaches generally rewarded with new outcomes and unexpected consequences. More than anything though, the latest entry in this famously destructive series feels like the sort of game you simply don’t get in a console generation often tediously hung up on serious storytelling. A commitment to narrative has its place, but surely a diverse gaming landscape also needs the opposite approach. JC3 is above all a triumph of systems over story and a game that has the courage to take its mechanics seriously and poke fun at the rest, to be self-consciously ridiculous and to indulge in ever greater displays of pyrotechnics. More than anything, this third entry in the Just Cause series is enormous fun, and a treat for any gamer who just wants to play.