Just Cause 3

December 1, 2015 | Action,Adventure,Games,Strategy

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Just Cause 3 does one thing really well, and a lot of other things poorly. The thing it does well can be extremely cool. Shame about all those other things, though.

The new open-world game from Avalanche Studios captures the thrill of flight in a way that very few games manage. I’ll whiz through a mountain pass and buzz oh-so-close to a clutch of pines, the sound of wind in my ears and a grin on my face. In those moments, it’s possible to forgive Just Cause 3 its many shortcomings. In those moments, it’s possible to forget I’m playing a deeply flawed game and revel in the things it does best. Leaping from the walls of a cliffside military base, detonating a remote explosive while catching the breeze under my wings, I’ll say to myself, “Okay, this is a game I can recommend.”

Then something or other would bring me crashing to the ground, and my estimation of Just Cause 3 would follow close behind. Argh, I would think. Arrrrrrgh. Can I really recommend something so strange and hobbled, so sloppy and frustrating and uneven?

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Just Cause 3 can be a very enjoyable game, as long as you’re willing to overlook some glaring, maddening problems. The narrative is so undercooked it’s raw, and the majority of the story missions are bad. Enemies are spammy and annoying, and enemy artificial intelligence feels dated and ridiculous. The game locks off too many basic upgrades behind repetitive side challenges, and too many of those upgrades are superfluous. It somehow manages to be irritatingly difficult and overly easy at the same time, and is frustrating as often as it is rewarding.

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When I’m a leaf on the wind, cooly skimming down the coast, I’m more than happy to set aside my gripes and live in the moment.

Just Cause 3 is an open-world explosion game a la Crackdown and Mercenaries, by which I mean it’s set in a large open map and tasks the player with blowing up as much shit as possible. Picking up some time after 2010’s Just Cause 2, it continues the story of special operative Rico Rodriguez, a likable despot-toppler who has returned to his home in a fictional Mediterranean archipelago called Medici. He plans to take down the dictator who’s taken control in his absence.

Medici’s enormous open map is divided into approximately seven hundred million different provinces (that’s a guesstimate), and each province contains a handful of towns and military bases. At the start of the game, those towns and bases are all under the control of the evil General Di Ravello. It’s your job to liberate them, which you accomplish by visiting each town or base and blowing stuff up until the game tells you you’ve conquered it. (Yes, this method of ‘liberation’ essentially has you bombing your own people in order to free them. This is, however, also a game where you can break a skydiving free-fall by firing a grappling hook straight down into the ground and reeling yourself in. It doesn’t pay to think about any of it too hard.)

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Each location you conquer turns from red to blue, and if you conquer all the locations in a given province, the province will turn blue. A collection of story missions guides you from the southernmost islands of Medici up to the large northern landmass, but as far as I can tell, you could actually just ignore all but the first few story missions and get right to the liberating. Having suffered through all 25 of those missions, I recommend that approach.

At the outset, Just Cause 3 seems set to tell a by-the-numbers tale of a guy who returns home to set things right. Something strange seems to have happened to this game

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The supporting cast is appealing at a glance. The purposefully diverse collection of stereotype-busters might be an overly obvious course-correction from the is-this-racist-or-just-poorly-written cast of Just Cause 2, but remains a welcome improvement. Unfortunately, even the most interesting-seeming cast members are underdeveloped and flit in and out of the narrative with minimal impact. The villain is bland, and the story keeps hinting at a grand revelation regarding his relationship with Rico, but it never pays off. The script takes odd tonal detours, too. It’s loaded with self-aware jokes about parachutes and rocket rodeos, but occasionally lapses into half-hearted melodrama. In the end, it just doesn’t work.

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Most of Rico’s story is told during cutscenes that buffer a collection of impressively lousy story missions. Just Cause 3’s story missions are bad on a level that simply doesn’t jibe with how much care has gone into most of the rest of the game. The disconnect is striking. Each mission tends to run five to ten minutes, broken up by loading screens and odd non-interactive sequences. When Rico ramps a car into a transport jet as it takes off, you don’t actually play the whole sequence, only the first part. The scene’s culmination plays out in a very short cutscene, separated from the in-game stuff by pair of brief loading screens. It’s a small—if jarring—thing in isolation, but happens often enough to ruin the game’s flow. Almost every mission is like that; it all feels hastily thrown together and stapled onto the rest of the game.

One mission has you go and hijack a tank, then drive it down a road to a checkpoint. Another has you walk into a base, pull some levers, then pull some more levers, then leave. There are escort missions that are thin and annoying even by video game escort-mission standards. Several times the game had me follow some glowing pipes up a mountain, then enter a base and blow up three identical generators. Mission accomplished! Good job following those pipes, soldier. Each time the “mission complete” window popped up, I would chuckle and wonder if I was missing something.

The bummer story missions are all the stranger when placed alongside the rest of the game. For all its flaws, Just Cause 3 was clearly made with a great deal of care and love. It’s often gorgeous and is beautiful in motion: the way the wind whips through Rico’s clothes as he sails through the air; the shimmering of a city’s lights when viewed from afar; the perfect orange moon, reflected in a twilight sea.

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Just Cause 3’s combat has been designed around the wingsuit and parachute. That makes sense, given that fast flight is the game’s defining attribute. When Rico lands in a new enemy encampment, you’ll have a brief period of time to start blowing things up before the guards notice you and attack. You can plant some C4 (happily, you have an unlimited supply) or maybe launch a rocket into a nearby power transformer. Once your assault is underway, swarms of enemies will begin shooting you, and they won’t stop shooting you until you conquer the base.

You can try to play Just Cause 3 as a straight-up third-person shooter, but I don’t recommend it. Aiming is imprecise even after you’ve unlocked precision targeting, and anytime I found myself standing on the ground and gunning down soldiers, I felt as though I was playing wrong. Soldiers never stop spawning, and will come at you from all sides, spraying you with bullets as you try to plant bombs and sabotage computer terminals. This makes a sort of sense—you’re supposed to keep moving at all times, and as long as you do, most bullets won’t really hurt you that much—but it can also feel spammy and aggravating.

When a base assault is going well, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. You’ll plant some bombs and grapple up into your wingsuit, pulling left and circling in the air while you detonate explosives below. But when something goes wrong—and this game is chaotic and sloppy enough that things frequently go wrong—it can be maddening. That’s in large part because Rico can easily be staggered or knocked to the ground, which takes away the player’s control and often forces you to sit through an extended ragdoll effect and recovery animation while enemies continue to peg Rico with bullets.

No one strategy works for very long. Your tank will explode within seconds, and your helicopters will almost immediately be shot down. This rewards improvisation but makes it difficult to plan and execute any sort of a deliberate strategy. I mostly wound up relying on the same approach for every base: Fly in, set bombs on things, keep moving, and eventually win.

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As I gradually took over the southern part of the map, I started to notice some odd difficulty tuning. Just Cause 3 can often feel challenging, but rarely in a fair way—if you die, it’s usually just because the brainless enemy hordes got lucky. In spite of that, it can also feel too easy. If you die in the midst of taking over an outpost, your progress on that outpost remains unchanged, and you can return to finish at your leisure. The alternative—having outposts reset upon death—would be far too punishing, but the current system makes the game too easy. With time and determination, you could hardnose your way through every outpost in the game without unlocking a single upgrade or weapon. Aside from a few tough late-game enemy vehicles, Just Cause 3 feels the same at the end as it did at the beginning.

The lack of a meaningful difficulty curve reveals Just Cause 3 to be an unexpectedly casual game. It’s best viewed as a large, sprawling playset where you can screw around, pull off wild stunts, and see if you can capture footage of something cool enough to share with your friends on YouTube. You can challenge people on your friends list to outdo their scores, as well—who can glide the longest, who can grapple the farthest, etc. There weren’t enough pre-release players to give me a sense of how that’ll work in the finished game, so my appreciation of this option is mostly theoretical.

While slogging through the final half-dozen story missions, I was tilting extremely negative on Just Cause 3. Argh, I repeated to myself for the hundredth time. Arrrrrrgh. I wasn’t having even an inch of fun. But once the story was over, I returned to the open world and set about liberating more outposts, unlocking more abilities, and casually experimenting with the game’s many guns, bombs, and vehicles. I stopped groaning. Several hours later, I’d come all the way back around. Cool, I thought to myself. Coooooool.

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