Developer: Avalanche Studios
Publisher: Square Enix
More Info: Avalanche Studios, Just Cause 3, Square Enix
Remember when Just Cause 3 was announced? Remember the build-up to launch, and all the hype, and all the trailers full of chaos, and explosions, and surfing on cars and planes, and tethering things to other things? Well, I can safely say that was what I was expecting. I certainly wasn’t expecting a deep, in-depth story about the horrors that civil war can bring to a region, even one under the thumb of a genuinely awful despot, full of moral greys and contemplations about whether the cure is worse than the disease.
Which is good, because there is absolutely none of that in Just Cause 3. It makes, I think, two attempts at this, and then forgets about that in favour of explosions.
Which is great, because… look, it’s Just Cause. It’s a game about blowing shit up in the most entertaining ways you can think of. It doesn’t need a story. It doesn’t even need a plot. Like with the arcade games of old, all it really needs is a setting – and that setting is a set of Mediterranean islands making up the Republic of Medici, homeland of the game’s protagonist
Dave Scorpion Rico Rodriguez, and currently under the rule of the cartoonishly evil General Di Ravello. Your job is to go in there and blow everything up, because that makes everything better.
There is a plot buried in there somewhere, and one or two stabs are had at establishing characters, but no serious attempts are ever made. The characters are more like caricatures, the cutscenes are mercifully brief, and the dialogue tends towards the campy hilarity of 80s action movies. Rico comes out with some wonderful/dreadful one-liners, like “No charge!” when blowing up a power generator, and there’s possibly the most fantastically unusual use of “Fuck you” ever, which I suspect every other review is going to spoil.
It’s all very whimsical (David Tennant voices an imprisoned actor forced into being the propaganda guy assuring the populace that everything is fine, for crying out loud) and makes absolutely no attempt to hide the fact that Just Cause 3 is a game about explosions. The intro doesn’t really bother explaining why you’re there; it just has Rico riding in on top of a plane, while a slow, melodic cover of The Prodigy’s Firestarter plays, and things explode.
I mean, Christ. My enduring memory of Just Cause 2‘s plot was stuff that I made up with my flatmates. We decided that the protagonist was actually called Dave Scorpion because we could never remember his name, and then that somehow morphed into “Dave Scorpion, MD”, because the idea of a Doctor of Medicine “saving” people by blowing up literally everything around him amused us. We renamed every character. We reworked all of the dialogue. We lost absolutely none of the game’s charm. If anything, it just made it funnier. Particularly when we tied a plane to a tree and tried to take off and blew up. Dave Scorpion, MD, at your service.
I could honestly just fill this review with pictures of explosions and call it a day, but then Paul won’t pay me, so I suppose I’m going to have to write words at you.
Before we get into the finicky business of how many explosions out of ten the game gets and why, it’s probably worth looking at the specifics of the PC version. As is typical Avalanche tradition, it holds up pretty damn well.
The good: there are loads of tweakables, and they include a lot of the traditional annoyances like Motion Blur to go along with your anti-aliasing and texture quality and so on. There’s also no online-only DRM; I briefly thought there was, but it loads fine in Steam Offline mode, so that’s good.
The mixed: performance and controls. Both of these deserve a bit of explanation.
The controls are basically fine. I didn’t have any particular issues playing through on mouse and keyboard once I got used to the way everything worked, with the exception that vehicles (planes and the wingsuit, in particular) are a bit finicky on the keyboard because they really demand analogue controls. You might get a bit confused by the number of keys you need when swooping around – right-click to grapple, Space to open/close parachute, Shift to accelerate your grapple, CTRL to disconnect your grapple, E to activate your wingsuit – but I suspect that’d happen on a gamepad anyway, and I got used to it pretty fast.
Still, there are the usual annoyances with multiple functions being force-bound to one button (a vehicle’s Boost Jump is a tap of the chosen key, while Nitrous is done by holding that key down; you can’t separate the two) and some functions changing based on vehicle (shift is handbrake in cars, but accelerate/go higher in aircraft) but again, nothing too dire, and I actually suspect the latter can be changed as each vehicle has its own keybinding screen. It might sneakily remap the keys on the other screen to fit, but all in all, the controls feel totally acceptable. And, obviously, aiming your grapples and tethers is going to be loads better on a mouse.
The performance is a bit weird, although I mean that in a good way. I started off with most of the game’s settings on medium-high, and it ran largely okay! Occasionally choppy, but playable… except that it crashed every 20 minutes. Lowering the settings to the bare minimum (and the game still looks bloody lovely on those; a few of the screenshots here were taken with minimum visuals) removed the crashes, and gradually raising the settings back up a little bit didn’t seem to cause any problems unless I’d been playing for hours.
I’m just not sure why it was crashing. Did the review code patch solve it? Was it the alt-tabbing? Was it FRAPS? Or was it just that – as with Grand Theft Auto V – I was exceeding my VRAM and making it explode, despite the high-ish framerate? No idea. It does really seem to dislike alt-tabbing and it doesn’t appear to support borderless windowed mode, but my money would be on the VRAM.
Regardless, I’d suggest taking the minimum specs pretty seriously, particularly in the graphics card department. On my i7-3820 with 16GB RAM and a 2GB GeForce GTX 670, it ran smooth as butter on lower settings, and looked marvellous. I suspect this is going to be one of those games that’s either going to “run well” or “not run at all”, basically. I consider that pretty good optimisation, but I suppose we’ll have to wait and see how things shake out when it’s in the hands of people with more varied machines.
Finally, I didn’t encounter much in the way of bugs. I think I clipped through geometry a couple of times and got stuck in a wall once, and at one point I died for seemingly no reason, but that’s not bad for 25 hours in an open world. Occasionally a Challenge Completion screen wouldn’t pop up, but the continue/retry hotkeys still worked, so I don’t mind. And sometimes the physics goes wonky, but that’s funny.
Now that we’ve got that bit out of the way and you’ve hopefully got some idea of how this’ll work on your computer
and maybe you won’t shout at me because you can’t rebind E to launch a space shuttle or something, let’s talk about the game.
Just Cause 3 is a game about explosions. It starts off simply, with pretty minor explosions, but rapidly escalates into giant convoluted explosions. By the end of the game you’re practically blowing up continents.
You’re basically set free across three regions, each of which comprises a major island and a couple of outlying little spits of land, or oil rigs, or whatever. Each of those regions are divided up into areas, and each of those areas contain settlements, outposts, and military bases. Your job is to go to all of these and “liberate” them.
For the most part, “liberating” them means blowing up all of the chaos objects found within. Outposts are small, lightly-guarded checkpoints, and tend to be the easiest to deal with; in terms of chaos objects you’ve probably got a few fuel tanks, maybe a power transformer, possibly a radar or something. Towns tend to have propaganda that needs to be removed – speakers, statues, billboards – as well as a police station that has to be seized by the rebels. Military bases are sprawling masses of tanks, aircraft, and soldiers, and require a concerted effort to take.
None of this is strictly essential. You do have to “liberate” a certain amount of stuff before accessing certain story missions, but you don’t need to completely free each region before you move onto the next. Usually, clearing out two or three of the little provinces each region is divided into is enough to get you access to the final missions for that area… although as the last mission in each region is usually a pitched battle across the entire region, in which you assist the rebels in all-out war against the government forces, making sure you’ve removed military bases and SAM sites and the like makes things a lot less tricky.
Realistically, though, liberating things (I’ll stop putting that in inverted commas now, although seriously, that’s a pretty loose usage of the phrase) is mostly there to give you new toys to play with and to unlock new challenges… which also give you new toys to play with. Taking military bases tends to earn you new vehicles or weapons that you can drop in at any time thanks to the rebel’s amazing air delivery service. Beating challenges – wingsuit courses, driving races, base demolitions, etc. – earns you equipment mods, many of which are utterly and spectacularly hilarious.
Some of them are pretty basic stuff that you’d think should be unlocked by default; Precision Aim, for instance, requires an unlock. Others are completely ridiculous, like adding nitrous and turbo jumps to your car/boat/plane/helicopter, or making your grenades home in on enemies, or delaying the detonation of your placed explosives but adding a thruster to them. All of these can be turned on or off at will.
The latter is literally game-changing, insofar as it opens up a whole realm of physics-based possibilities – and that’s where Just Cause 3 shines like a diamond in an explosion. See that car? Whack four bombs onto the bottom of it, and then set them off to make it hover for a bit before it blows up. That explosive barrel, there? Whack a bomb onto the side of it and then send it hurtling towards the enemy outpost.
Not that you need bomb thrusters for that, because you’ve also got your retractable tethers, and basically everything can be dealt with through cunning use of these. You can attach a soldier to the ceiling, retract the tether, and then watch him flail around for a bit – and maybe drop him back down, if the fall is likely to kill him. You can yank exploding barrels into chaos objects, or attach an enemy to a gas canister that’s blasting off into the sky. You can topple statues; you can rip down guard towers; you can tie pursuing enemy vehicles together and then have them careen into each other. Or – if you’re feeling particularly sadistic – you can attach someone to the top of a building, send them hurtling towards it, and then release the tether at just the right moment to send them sailing off into the distance. And I totally recommend doing that at least once. I cackled like mad the first time I got it right.
Then there’s your mobility. Being Dave Scorpion, MD, you have your retractable parachute and your grappling hook – but you now also have a wingsuit, which lets you glide gracefully across the landscape. Or, more likely, faceplant painfully into the ground, because it is really hard to control at first. The ground is my nemesis. As are walls. And cars. And moving objects. And stationary objects. And basically everything that isn’t air. It’s very, very twitchy, and very easy to lose altitude without meaning to, and mastering the wingsuit requires some actual skill.
Once you get good with all three of these mobility options (and possibly unlock a few upgrades for each), though, you can start moving swiftly and precisely around the terrain. You grapple up towards a high tower, then activate your parachute so that the momentum sends you up into the sky. You fire a few rockets towards the ground, then switch to the wingsuit to glide across to the other side of the base, where you quickly switch back to the parachute, grapple onto something, and accelerate yourself off at a 90 degree angle.
Basically, it’s like The Punisher got bitten by a radioactive spider, only with less Marvel lawsuits and more eyeroll-inducing Bond one-liners.
To sum up: moving around the map is great. Grappling onto enemy vehicles and hijacking them is great. Blowing stuff up is great. Pulling down objects is great. Playing with the physics and the tether system is great. Pretty much everything that you would expect to be great is, indeed, great. The game even scores you on this stuff; if you’re online and kick someone off a roof, you’ll be told how far they went before they hit the ground, and how that stacks up to everyone else on your friends list or on the global leaderboards. You can apparently even challenge your friends to beat your scores on this stuff, which is another thing that is great.
There are a few elements that are not so great. The most prominent of these is the gunplay; while the explosive weapons are fantastic (my personal favourite, other than the super weapons like the airstrike laser designator, being the Fire Leech – a split-missile launcher that blasts into the sky and homes in on your target – although I would’ve liked a few more hilarious and creative weapons like that) most of the bullet-based weapons are, er, a bit shit.
Shooting people and objects just isn’t particularly satisfying. Saints Row suffered much the same problem but eventually got around it by making all of the weapons completely ludicrous and over-the-top, but Just Cause 3 still gives you a few different types of pistol and a few different types of assault rifle and a couple of shotguns.
Which is fair enough – it’s just that basic, non-exploding combat isn’t actually a great deal of fun unless you’re using an automatic shotgun or something. But then, you’re not really meant to be standing your ground and fighting. You’re meant to be zipping around the battlefield like some sort of psychopathic acrobat, dancing away from bullets and kicking people off buildings and setting everything on fire. There are maybe a couple of balance issues with this, too, insofar as it’s possible to nuke the shit out of bases and outposts while sitting so far out of range that you don’t raise any alarms, but eh. That’s a fairly minor thing.
The second problem is in the story missions, because most of them are the universally reviled escort missions. Again: this isn’t as bad as it first sounds, as it usually means “someone else is driving along and you need to hop from vehicle to vehicle to hijack/shoot other stuff”, but it’s still a pain in the arse when you fail a mission because someone in a car got shot. There are still some grand spectacles and huge set-pieces within the story missions, but not nearly as many as you’d expect from a game that packs so much spectacle into every other aspect of it. It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, basically – though at least there’s plenty of that in the free-roaming stuff, which makes up the vast majority of the game’s length. And I suppose “doing more of the free-roaming stuff, only within strict limitations” would’ve been an even worse idea for story missions. At least this mixes it up.
The third problem is what I’m going to call the Metal Gear Solid V litmus test. Basically, Just Cause 3 is a game that gives you however much you put into it. It’s possible to complete almost the entire game just by shooting stuff with an assault rifle, and that’s going to get boring very quickly. If you opt for the path of least resistance – sit outside of range with a helicopter, or just grapple about shooting stuff – you’re probably going to get pretty bored within a couple of hours.
If, on the other hand, you take Just Cause 3 for what it is – a massive, physics-enabled playground of destruction, like some sort of over-the-top cross between Red Faction: Guerrilla and Insert-Open-World-Game-Here – it is pretty bloody superb, and it’s very hard to get bored. Every stronghold offers up new opportunities for creating havoc. Every upgrade increases your abilities and makes new things possible. Every soldier you have to kill and every object you have to destroy has a creative solution, probably involving either explosives, tethers, or both. It’s just that you don’t have to do this, and can instead rely on shooting stuff, which is really boring.
The Reviewer’s Dilemma has struck a bit, as I did have to resort to just shooting stuff on a few occasions to get the game done on time, and I’d have liked to have played Just Cause 3 in slightly shorter stints to keep things feeling fresh. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this exercise in chaotic extravagance, and I suspect that this is going to be the game of the year for people of a certain mindset. None of the problems are really going to be problems for people who approach this with the right mindset, after all. If that’s you, then get ready for some explosions.
Now please – please – give us a couple of years before Just Cause 4. Don’t do an Assassin’s Creed and turn this into an annual franchise with incremental differences, or we’ll start getting bored, and getting bored with spectacular explosions would be criminal.