I'm tweeting while I'm playing. We all do it. A friend replies: "I saw this game plastered on the side of a bus, and thought it must be a spoof action film." Part of me wishes it was a dumb movie and nothing more. That way I could see all that Just Cause 3 has to offer inside two hours. But this is another massive open-world adventure, a substantial time-sink, a virtual playground of possibilities. Two hours into it, and your completion percentage is going to be around the five percent mark.
What you'll have seen in those first two hours, and how you take to it, will determine your enjoyment for everything that follows, as you've essentially been through most of what this game has to offer. (Hell, you saw a lot of this in 2010's Just Cause 2.) You are Rico Rodriguez, adrenaline junkie and freedom fighter, "dictator removal specialist", who returns to his fictional Mediterranean homeland of Medici to rid the islands of a merciless general called Sebastiano Di Ravello. On reaching Medici airspace, Rico takes to the wings of his plane, rocket launcher primed, and sets about destroying the SAM batteries firing on his position. He inevitably falls, but stylishly parachutes straight into a ground-level gunfight. This is where we meet his mate, Mario, who promptly punches Rico in the dick, because that's what male friends do. Obviously.
Seconds later, Rico's on the roof of a jeep, machine gun in his hands, fending off occupying forces swarming around him. Next, he's in a tank, wasting everyone with the brutal effectiveness of pouring boiling water on an ant nest. Immediately after that, a brief helicopter ride and further bursts of extreme violence paint a blood-splashed path to catching up with a scientist ally, who has some new gear for you – a wing suit and an improved grappling hook device. Used in tandem, and with the parachute, these gadgets effectively allow Rico to "fly". The grappler is also great for tethering explosive barrels to armoured enemy vehicles, zipping one into the other and watching the sparks fly, hopefully setting off even bigger bangs in a chain reaction. New toys tested, it's time to free a local town from the general's forces, and the game "proper" begins.
Sounds exciting, doesn't it? And before you play it, Just Cause 3 promises to be a special sandbox of moreish mayhem, Rico able to destroy entire military bases single-handedly, to heroically chase all oppressors from his homeland, or simply murder them, whatever's easiest. But even in its opening moments, problems with this game emerge and leave a troublesome impression.
Road vehicle handling tends to go one of two ways: wholly unresponsive to the extent where it's quicker to crawl, or so wildly sensitive that you're quickly lurching from one direction to another like a drunk on the dodgems. Generally, the controls are questionable, with sections requiring perfect accuracy usually only beaten after a handful of attempts. The gunplay, for all the furious noise and vibrant colour, feels weightless. Rico is a complete personality vacuum, funny when swearing at missiles while riding them, but otherwise nothing more than an instrument for the player's own destructive desires. And the story is dead on arrival – between them, the nine writers listed in the game's opening credits have failed to deliver a compelling central plot. Something something a special mineral something stop the bad man doing bad things something restore this person to power something something ooh did you see that go up, though?
Because the explosions in this game are glorious – and it's not just when things are being wrecked that makers Avalanche Studios' art department really impresses. The many islands of Medici add up to a game world that's significantly larger than most, with the map here extending to 1,000 square kilometres. I recommend taking time out from bringing about the downfall of Di Ravello, getting in a helicopter (or, if you've gotta go fast, a rebel jet), and having a look around. Fly to the game's tallest peak – there's an achievement for that, naturally – and feel awestruck by the landscape that spills out before you. This isn't the deepest game of its ilk that you'll ever play, but it has to be one of the widest, and the towns and cities, some rural and others modernised, are evocative of places I've been to around the Mediterranean. The game's sense of place is excellently realised.
For every hour I've played Just Cause 3, I've experienced five or ten minutes of immense, electric, eyes-widening pleasure. I've smiled hard, like I've not at a game since those Assassin's Creed glitches. I've laughed unashamedly at the absurdity of what I was seeing. I wanted more, more, and yet while searching for another rush – the near-complete destruction of an enemy complex by crashing a jet into it; tethering a soldier to a gas canister, shooting a single bullet into the casing and watching the pair soar skywards; perfecting my wing suit travel across several kilometres at a time; greedily drinking in the game's most stunning vistas – I was left disappointed.
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On Xbox One the frame rate slowdown at times is, while not game breaking, incredibly distracting. I'm not usually one to complain about such technicalities, but this game's chugging becomes a serious impediment during busy battles. I've experienced a couple of complete freezes, the screen locking and the only solution being to reset my console. Liberating civilian settlements in order to progress with story missions can become a chore – the requirements vary from location to location, but it's always a case of ticking boxes on a checklist and causing as much carnage as possible until the rebels gain the upper hand. And this represents an uncomfortable conflict at the centre of the entire experience.
Rico is supposedly here to free his people, but the no-questions-asked killing of thousands of Di Ravello's troops feels like a terrific disconnect between the basic game(play) and the bigger (narrative) picture. Surely some of these people, most of them, are native to this country? Chances are that a lot of them are working for Di Ravello through fear of what might happen to them if they don't – we're shown early on that the price of failure amongst his employees is usually death. If Rico really cared for Medici, the game's body count wouldn't be half as high.
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That said, if you're playing just for the story, you're playing it wrong – and while I loathe aspects of it, I keep coming back to Just Cause 3. I'll play for an hour or two, shout some obscenities at the screen and turn it off, only to switch back on a short time later. Those five minutes of the most remarkable thrills, the stunts and the flames and the flying bodies, I know how to find them – but it's keeping hold of them that's the problem, as the game works hard to make a bombastic delight into a directionless mess. There are a lot of modifications to make to vehicles, new weapons to unlock as you play (delivered in gift-wrapped rebel drops), and a ton of mini-game-style challenges to keep track of – longest time with your wing suit open; highest point reached while climbing with a parachute; basic land, air and sea races; most consecutive headshots, and so forth. But at no point do all of these separate systems really come together to comprise a rewarding gameplay loop. If this were a two-hour action flick, it'd have a couple of mind-blowing scenes amid a cacophony of tired set pieces and plenty of scenery chewing.
Still, I turn on once more, to chase my fix. I come up short, and I tweet again.
Just Cause 3 is out now on Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (version tested). This review made possible by NVIDIA SHIELD - check out the NVIDIA SHIELD library here.
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