A people's liberation has rarely come to feel like such a hassle.
Just Cause 3Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Playstation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Release Date: 2015-11-30
Early in Just Cause 3 I had to protect a fleeing car from an army. Naturally the first thing that I did was hijack a helicopter, thinking that would let me lay waste to the military. I was immediately shot out of the sky by a tank. Naturally, the second thing that I did was hijack the tank, thinking that would let me lay waste to the military. It was too slow to keep up with the fleeing car, and I failed the mission. Then, the game crashed.
That’s Just Cause 3 in a nutshell, a game that would probably be fun if it would just get out of its own damn way. Unfortunately, it never does, so most of your time is spent fighting the rules, the objectives, the menus, and the technical difficulties.
You play as Rico Rodriguez, who has returned to his homeland of Medici to liberate it from a brutal dictator. The story is serviceable. The dictator is just a generic bad guy and the supporting cast that’s meant to be quirky are more annoying than anything else. However, it’s fine, since you probably aren’t playing Just Cause 3 for the story anyways. You’re playing it because you want to set the world on fire.
As befitting the story, liberating settlements and destroying military outposts are both big parts of the game. These are the easily core of the game, even more so than the story missions. To liberate a town you have to destroy several specific destructible objects that are (naturally) colored red, things like a statue, billboards, propaganda speakers, etc. Destroying an outpost is similar, but instead you’re blowing up fuel tanks, generators, and other things that’ll cripple the military.
The problem with both of these activities is that these destructible objects aren’t marked on the UI. There’s no minimap to guide the player, nor any markers pointing that player in the right direction. This isn’t so bad when the settlements are small, but most of them aren’t small. What begins as a bombastically explosive good time with you tossing grenades, rockets, and bullets at everything colored red soon turns into a scavenger hunt with you running in circles looking for that one last damn thing that you missed. These objects are highlighted on the map screen, but that means you’re forced to stop and open the map every few seconds when you want to clear out a settlement/outpost, and that quickly becomes a hassle. Eventually the whole process of liberation comes to feel like a hassle because there’s no creativity to the destruction. You’re just looking for the same red objects every time, checking things off the same checklist over and over again.
What’s worse is when the destructible objects are hidden in buildings that aren’t destructible. For example, if the map shows me there’s a generator in a garage and I rain fiery hell down upon it with a helicopter... nothing happens. The garage is invulnerable. What should be a moment of pure unencumbered chaos is really a highly structured and very limited scavenger hunt.
Even the most scripted action scenes, those moments when the game is in total control of everything, are undercut by its technical limitations. A late game mission had me driving a jeep up the loading ramp of a plane as it took off. I sped up the ramp so fast the jeep bounced off the roof of the plane and... the game cut to a loading screen. When it came back, the jeep was perfectly upright and Rico was just standing inside the cargo bay. All the drama and dynamism and action and excitement of that haphazard entrance was gone. And this is the game working exactly as intended.
There has been criticism of the game’s framerate on consoles and how that affects the action. I played on a Playstation 4 and while the framerate did slow occasionally during the most bombastic moments, it never negatively impacted the gameplay. At most it felt like a stylistic choice, a moment of forced slow-motion to better appreciate the huge spectacle before me. Sometimes it even made the game easier as it gave me time to aim through the smoke and fire at fast-moving enemies.
So Just Cause 3 isn’t all bad. The weapons are fun, the world is gorgeous, and the movement is bliss.
On foot, Rico may run at a slow joggers pace, but in the air, he’s like a bird. Early in the game you get a grappling hook, an infinite parachute backpack, and a wingsuit. Between these three things, the air becomes your most natural habitat. The hook is used to gain speed, the parachute launches you into the air, and the wingsuit allows you to glide faster than most cars. Rico can switch between each in an instant, granting him supernatural levels of maneuverability. Instead of doing a 180 turn in the wingsuit, it's faster to just disable the suit, turn around mid-fall, then reopen the suit. Heck, if you're falling and you grapple to the ground, you gain speed but land unhurt because you grappled to the ground instead of fell to the ground. It's impossible, nonsensical, and fun as hell.
This is Just Cause 3 at its best, when it lives up to its promise of creative insanity.
Unfortunately it can't last. Those fun gadgets can all be upgraded with abilities that make them more efficient, versatile, and, well, more fun. However, those abilities are locked behind dozens of uninteresting and unengaging challenges.
The challenges themselves are mostly simple and straightforward time trials: drive over there in time, fly through rings in time, destroy everything in time, and so on. The very nature of the time trail goes against the thesis of Just Cause 3. This is a game that is at its best when it lets you off the leash to improvise and make your own fun, but a time trial is explicitly about accomplishing a single goal as efficiently as possible. A time trial encourages repetition and perfection in execution, but Just Cause 3 is fun when everything goes wrong -- when I get caught in my own explosion and thrown off of a cliff.
Every time that the pacing and action start to improve, something happens to stop that excitement dead in its tracks. The list ranges from interface problems like the lack of a minimap for liberations, poor objectives like in that early mission, technical difficulties like the game crashing or loading at inopportune moments, or a progression structure that hides fun upgrades behind boring challenges. For a game that sells itself on the possibility of explosive entertainment, it always keeps you on a weirdly tight leash. Go blow up a military base, but actually only blow up these parts of a military base. Protect your friend from an army, but actually hold yourself back because your friend is fragile, and it’s easy to accidently kill him. Go skydive across the world, but actually play these training missions first before you get the big boy toys.
Just Cause 3 just can't get out of its own damn way. There’s a great game here that is trying to get out, but an excessive number of rules and restrictions prevent it from ever embracing that greatness. Playing Just Cause 3 is a fight to try and have fun.