I wanted to see 2015 out with a bang. Just Cause 3 more than delivered.
JC 3 isn’t a perfect game. It isn’t anywhere near being a perfect game. It has a whole host of problems, from technical to mechanical to structural to the simple matter of pacing. I can understand why some reviews of it have been quite lukewarm, and I can also understand why a lot of this review is going to be bitching. It would be all too easy to lose sight of the fact that when Just Cause 3 is firing on all cylinders, when everything that is good in the game is working together to provide you with a veritable smorgasbord of destruction, there’s nothing released in the last decade that even comes close to the sheer, exhilarating expression of mayhem that Just Cause enables.
The Just Cause series takes place in a cartoon world of sunny resort islands that are trapped under the heel of each game’s dictator du jour. Just Cause 3’s particular island chain is a sprawling open world of three islands – two small, one large – collectively called Medici, and the dictator in question is Di Ravello, a painfully generic Generalissimo stereotype who has nevertheless dotted Medici with military bases, outposts and various propaganda outlets. It’s a good thing that series protagonist Rico Rodriguez is a ridiculously durable action hero who makes a business out of tearing down everything dictators build up, slaughtering their soldiers, demolishing their installations, and catching a not inconsiderable number of innocent bystanders in the crossfire. But Just Cause 3 doesn’t want you to think about that, and aside from the visuals its world is so paper-thin that you don’t really care about it anyway. You’re just focused on causing as many pretty explosions as possible, preferably all at the same time for maximum entertainment value.
Just Cause is very loosely modelled on GTA. It’s got the familiar array of cars, boats, planes and helicopters to get about in, and starting a fight will incrementally increase a Heat level that summons progressively a progressively stronger collection of enemy goons to your location, ranging from unarmoured soldiers in jeeps to armoured cars, helicopters, and even jet fighters and tanks. Aside from that common root, though, the two games are very different. GTA has its fair share of dicking around these days, but it doesn’t take anywhere near the same amount of pride in providing the player with elaborate methods of blowing shit up straight off the bat. Rico has the standard selection of weapons, but he also has a grappling hook he can use to reach high places (or just somewhere on the ground he wants to get to quickly, as the grapple effectively functions as his sprint), an infinite parachute that can be deployed at will, and – a new addition for JC 3 – a wingsuit that quickly becomes his primary method of getting around Medici.
This all gives him an insane level of mobility that lets him run rings around the forces trying to apprehend him, all the while planting charges from his infinite supply of C4. He can hijack any vehicle in the game by grappling onto it if you feel he needs a little more firepower, making the Heat system more like a Helicopter Delivery Service. He can even attach the other end of his grapple line to something solid and immovable (such as the ground) before reeling it in, which will effectively pull down anything it is attached to. Enemy soldiers will be shooting at him while he’s doing this, but this is more of an annoyance than anything else; unless there are five or more soldiers hitting him at the same time, or unless there’s a tank involved, he can pretty much just shrug it off and get on with his demolition work. Even if he gets into trouble his grapple and wingsuit make it a simple matter for him to get out of it for the few seconds required for his health to regenerate back to full. And on the rare occasions that he does die you won’t lose anything – he’ll simply respawn nearby ready to carry on with his demolition frenzy.
Rico is effectively a power fantasy. He sounds ludicrously overpowered, yes, but he’s precisely the sort of protagonist you want in a game like like Just Cause 3; a near-indestructible, hyper-mobile juggernaut who can go anywhere and blow up anything from about 10 minutes into the game. Everything about his abilities is well-judged and competently executed. Some abilities such as the wingsuit require some getting used to, but once you get the hang of it zipping around the islands becomes almost second nature – and a good thing too, because there’s something like 150 towns and military outposts scattered across Medici for him to “liberate” from Di Ravello’s forces. This forms the bulk of JC 3’s gameplay, and it’s a goal achieved by blowing up all of the red Chaos structures in each settlement. These range from statues and propaganda speakers in the towns to fuel tanks, satellite and radar systems and electrical stations in the military bases, but nearly all of them will explode in a highly satisfying fashion when introduced to your rocket launcher. The smaller settlements and outposts can be cleared in matter of seconds; however the large military bases require some time and planning to completely destroy, which invariably means getting into a fifteen minute running battle with Di Ravello’s forces while you race from Chaos object to Chaos object.
It’s during these large set-piece battles that Just Cause 3 really shines. Clearing the small outposts and the villages began to acquire a distinct janitorial whiff after a few hours, but I always had a silly grin on my face whenever I was inside a military base. The level of resistance is much higher than you’ll encounter elsewhere as Di Ravello throws everything he has at you, from helicopters to gunboats to multiple armoured cars and tanks, not to mention dozens and sometimes even hundreds of foot soldiers. There’s usually some rare Chaos objects present – gigantic communications dishes, large spherical fuel tanks, belching smoke stacks — that explode in a particularly elaborate fashion. There’s nothing quite like roaring through a base in a light tank servicing targets as quickly as you can identify them accompanied by the scream of tortured metal as the two radar towers you just punted shells into give way and collapse onto the enemy troops. You can get really complicated with it if you want thanks to the grapple lines and the C4, but it was enough for me just to fight things in a tank or a helicopter while everything exploded around me. It’s the most fun I’ve had in the GTA style of open world game since Mercenaries.
(Only since Mercenaries, though. JC 3 doesn’t have a core conceit anywhere near as compelling as Mercenaries’ Deck Of 52, and while its call-ins have improved somewhat since Just Cause 2 it’s still adamantly against letting you call in off-map ordnance.)
The military bases and the destruction in general are great. Rico is the perfect character for blowing them up. On their own they just about managed to justify Just Cause 3’s purchase price, which is a good thing for JC 3 as the game started to wobble alarmingly any time I wasn’t blowing stuff up. Whenever you liberate a region you unlock a number of non-combat challenges, and you’re supposed to – indeed, are practically forced to – alternate between doing these, blowing up outposts and engaging with the “plot” missions. The challenges fall into several basic types:
- Wingsuit challenges, where you launch from high up and have to fly through a series of rings as close to the centre as possible. These are by far the best challenges thanks to the wingsuit mechanics where you bleed off height in exchange for speed and vice versa, but bleeding off too much speed means you won’t reach the next ring, which makes it suitably tricky to nail a perfect run. I never had a problem with these, largely because they very much put me in mind of Pilotwings on the N64.
- Frenzy challenges, where you get set loose in a reconstructed military base with a specific weapon (or vehicle) and have to blow up as many Chaos objects as possible before the timer runs out. These varied in quality depending on the weapon; some were great (helicopter, tank, rocket launcher) and some were unutterable shit (mortar, sniper rifle).
- Tether challenges, which were by far the most oddball minigame in there. You tether a magnet behind a car and drive around scooping up chunks of valuable ore that you then drop off for points – the challenge is that if you drive too fast or if the huge blob of ore you’re towing behind your vehicle hits anything, all of the ore tends to fall off. These weren’t bad, they were just very easy to five-star by driving around very very slowly so that I didn’t drop any ore.
- Race challenges. These were terrible almost without exception simply because they’re so dull compared to the rest of the game. Car, boat, plane, helicopter – no matter what you’re driving, spending three minutes mindlessly going through a series of rings without the interesting wingsuit physics to soup things up is just an awful contrast to the freedom the rest of the game gives you. It doesn’t help that JC’s vehicle physics are…. a little quirky, shall we say, happily flipping your car into a somersault the moment you hit a tiny pebble while travelling at anything more than ten miles per hour.
So the challenges are a contrasting mix of the duff and the great. However, it wouldn’t matter if some or even all of them were duff if the game didn’t link your character progression to participation in these challenges. Just Cause 3 has the standard skill trees split out into categories – better grenades, better C4, better tethers, better wingsuit etc. – but in order to buy your skills you have to earn an appropriate number of “gears” (stars) in the challenges. A lot of the really interesting stuff – more and stronger tethers, rocket booster C4, double grapple — are therefore locked until your grind through the challenges. This is made even worse by the baffling decision to not make gears universal; each skill tree is associated with a certain type of challenge, and you can only spend gears earned in those challenges on that particular skill tree. Which means you can’t just do the wingsuit challenges to get those tether upgrades, you have to instead wait to both unlock and then grind through enough tether challenges to get the more interesting skills.
For a game that is otherwise about placing as much power in the hands of the player as possible, locking off a lot of the most interesting stuff behind the challenge grind is a really, really stupid idea. I ended up despising everything that wasn’t a wingsuit challenge when otherwise I would probably have seen it as fairly inoffensive. It’s not too bad to begin with when everything is still new and fresh, but by the time you get to the second and especially third islands you start to despair when you see challenge after challenge after challenge pop up on the map. Eventually I just ignored them altogether, for all that this meant I never got (for example) quadruple tethers capable of bringing down buildings and pulling tanks into the sky. It’s just better that way, even though it means jettisoning nearly half of the game. It’s just filler content.
What I couldn’t avoid, however, were the serious pacing problems on JC 3’s third island. The first two islands are small, tight environments where everything’s pretty densely packed together; you don’t spend long enough getting to your next target to resent it. Unfortunately the third island is bigger than the first two put together while having approximately the same amount of stuff. This means that no longer does it take forever to get to your next target, but you have a hard fucking time even finding your next target because everything is spread out so much and they’re not marked on the map at all until you “discover” them. I did multiple overflights of one province in a jet for fifteen minutes looking for the last settlement required to liberate with no success; I eventually resorted to looking it up on the internet.
This is no fun, and it’s all the worse for coming at the point where even the mayhem is starting to get more than a little bit repetitive. I applaud Just Cause 3 for handing me all the abilities I needed to have fun within the first fifteen minutes, but it also showed its full hand when it came to the settlement liberation and this was not anywhere near as well thought-out. Liberating your 100th outpost is an identical process to liberating the first one, and by that point it’s gotten more than a little bit old. It’s pretty telling that I started getting them done as quickly and as clinically as possible, often by saturating them with missiles fired from a helicopter hovering beyond the range of any defending SAM installations. When I had to go in on foot I ignored enemies completely in favour of trying to blow up all the Chaos objects inside of 30 seconds; the game itself enabled me a bit here since the enemy soldiers all disappear once you liberate a settlement. The military bases at least remained interesting till the end of the game, and there were some big mining settlements on the last island that were somewhat new, but ultimately I think I would have been better off beelining for the ending and saving myself the hassle. It’s not even like I was gaining anything out of it – all you get from province liberation are more challenges unlocked, and we’ve already established how I feel about those.
Finally we come to the not-inconsiderable technical challenges you’ll experience when trying to run Just Cause 3. Other people seem to have had a much rougher time with it than I had, but even I had a few problems to deal with. Initially I experienced stutter that all but made the game unplayable for the first few hours, even with the latest Nvidia drivers. After some googling I established that running the game directly via the executable in administrator mode made this stuttering go away, but it’s still awkward and disappointing considering a) this is how I have to run an AAA release in the year 2015 and b) the PC version of Just Cause 2 was solid as a rock. At least I have confidence that this and other performance issues will eventually be fixed (unlike certain other AAA releases this year that I could mention); more insidious is the matter of the online integration and the leaderboards woven into the very fabric of the game. Their mere presence is obnoxious enough – no, I don’t particularly need or want to know that BonerLord777 just beat my score for Most Enemies Killed In Precision Aim Mode — but the need to constantly communicate with the servers appears to have an impact on how the game runs. I certainly noticed that when I was playing in “offline” mode – which was often, since the Square Enix servers are about as reliable as you’d expect — it was much easier to drive around, as there was noticeably less input lag. Oh, and if you ever lose connection to the servers it’ll stop you in the middle of whatever you’re doing (which given this is JC 3 is usually an intense gun battle of some kind) so it can tell you you’ve lost connection and you’re trying to reconnect. It’s not cool for something so peripheral to the game to suddenly interrupt your play to shove itself in your face like this.
Ah well. I spent 20-odd hours playing Just Cause 3 through to the end, and despite the various unpleasant elements present I can’t honestly say that I wasn’t enjoying myself for the majority of it. It’s no true successor to Mercenaries - not even a spiritual one given some of the limitations placed on you — but since Pandemic went out of business I’ll take what I can get; Just Cause 3 at least provides an adequate playground of destruction with its own unique spin of the grapple/parachute/wingsuit combo, even if that’s ultimately not enough variety to sustain it throughout. Should you buy it? Well, if you’ve been on the fence this long then I don’t think it’s good enough to rush out and purchase right this minute. Like Just Cause 2, though, it’s pretty much the ideal £5/£10 purchase during a sale, as it’s a lightweight, disposable one-man army simulator that I can pretty much guarantee you’ll derive at least a few hours of fun from. There’s worse things I could call a game these days.