When I tried, twice, to get into 2010's Just Cause 2 on Xbox 360, I failed. Here was a vibrant sandbox game, described on the back of the box as having "relentless, adrenaline-fueled action." Unfortunately, I found it far too fiddly and fussy to commit to. It turns out, I was playing it wrong—or, rather, I was playing the game on the wrong system. Modding communities set about making the PC version a playground for excess, introducing a multiplayer mode able to handle thousands of simultaneous participants, and ultimately unveiling an epic suite of customizations turning the vanilla JC2 into something a whole lot more maniacal.
"Right at the beginning of the Just Cause 3 process, we knew that modding was something we had to talk about," Omar Shakir of developers Avalanche Studios tells me, as I break off from a playable preview event for JC3, held in a Hamburg basement club. Omar is the new game's content producer, and is keen to explain how the user-generated additions to Just Cause 2 have informed so much of what its successor is promising. "The upgrade screen in Just Cause 3 is even called 'Mods,' as a wink to the community who did so much to Just Cause 2. We know what they did, and we really liked it, so here's our version of mods. But there's plenty here that nobody could have done with a modded JC2."
Foremost amongst the new tools introduced, for JC2's returning protagonist Rico Rodriguez to get to grips with, is the wingsuit, permitting rapid transit across the luscious environments of the fictional Mediterranean island of Medici.
"We felt, with the previous game, that we were missing a platform for the player to get from A to B relatively quickly, without feeling overpowered obviously, which is something that could break the game. The wingsuit has really helped, as it's not a natural status—you'll come out of the air, eventually, which makes the player balance it with the parachute, and off we go."
'Just Cause 3' gameplay trailer from E3 2015
Yes, Rico's infinite parachutes (where does he keep them?) return for JC3, this time aiding both aerial movement and bringing a new perspective to gunplay situations. "I don't know if you observed this in the new game," Omar says (and I did), "but the parachute is a more stable combat platform now. It compensates for where the player is aiming. If you're aiming straight down, and let go of the right thumbstick, the game will keep your reticule in a certain spot even as your parachute moves. It does that naturally for you, so you feel much stronger from the air."
Mowing down enemy soldiers from the skies is OK, I guess, but the real fun to be had in Just Cause 3 comes from the game's destructible environments. So much of what you see in any settlement or military base can be obliterated using a variety of methods, through remote-detonated sticky grenades, lining up a precision shot at a fuel tank, or using Rico's enhanced grappling hook to attach two points together and contract the wire, snapping the necks of statues and joints of communication towers alike, as if they're more brittle than your granddad's ankles. You can use the same method to attach pedestrians to bus shelters, helicopters to petrol stations, bridges to buildings, whatever you like near enough—and almost every time, the squeezed trigger that begins to tighten the line becomes a source of the purest hilarity.
"Our designers don't focus on plotting any particular moment of chaos," Omar says. "Instead, they create a series of systems, which all work on their own. But, when they collide, this spectacle unravels. So we have these living, breathing systems, of destruction—and the player becomes the converging element. That's how you get that magic—you don't plan for it, you just make sure everything's working. As for the size of the explosions, oh my god, they can be hilarious. And during the making of the game we've been asking: 'Can that be a little bigger?' Yes, it can. Those are always funny conversations to have.
"We had a big philosophy early on: you are only destroying the things that are ugly in the game. It's those things that are the most destructible, whereas the things that are rich, and have value, and that belong to Medici, that's where we drew the line, as those things are indestructible. The player should be removing things that are militarized, that represent propaganda—these things that make the world feel ugly and oppressed. Things that are beautiful, ancient and traditional, that should stay, as that's what provides you with the beautiful view at sunset. That's what gives you the awe. And then you jump right in again and blow more shit up."
But, call me old fashioned, I like to have some interesting impetus behind all of the shit that's being blown up, and it's here that Just Cause 3 falls down like so much of its brickwork. Yes, it's spectacular fun to let it rip across Medici, using Rico's array of gadgets and guns to wreak havoc against the wicked dictator who rules the island and his army of identikit goons, but why? The island is Rico's homeland, so you may anticipate some emotional weight to the narrative guiding JC3's solo campaign. You may also be left disappointed.
"The point of the narrative here is just to provide you with characters and context," Omar tells me. "So, we don't tell you how to play each mission—we give you an objective, but how you achieve it, and what tools you use, that's where we step away. We don't get closer to the player—we get further away. There's no single way to destroy a helicopter when you're asked to."
And that's all he gives me regarding the story side. I appreciate that the second game in this series wasn't exactly deep on plot, or else I'd probably have stuck in there longer, but I need more than degradable environments and devastating explosions to play for more than, say, an hour at a time in the comfort of my own home, in my time. And how the locations to liberate or decimate are positioned gives me some cause for concern, too.
Omar says that hotspots for action are placed with the player's excitement in mind—"we're very much of the attitude of designing the game for the player's fun, which doesn't constrict them, and then we work back from that to best insert the locations"—but during my hour and a half of hands-on with the game, I felt there were significant lulls in the bombast, in the gleeful carnage and emergent possibilities. But what I played was far from the finished product, of course, and you can bet Avalanche will ensure these "negative spaces" are filled with something to shoot at, attach to, or turn into thousands of tiny pieces one way or another.
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Just Cause 3 will definitely deliver joy when it's released on the 1st of December, for PlayStation 4, Xbox One (which I played it on) and PC, as confirmed at E3—I laughed hard, embarrassingly aloud, several times while in its company, usually after ragdolling myself into a restart by mucking about with explosives. It is impossible to deny the pleasure one can have in just tearing shit apart and being launched into the air by the resulting blast. But exactly how much of its 400 square miles you'll feel compelled to explore without a solid story to relate to remains, for me, a big question mark over its ultimate success.
"We want to keep players in the game, and moving," Omar stresses, evidently pleased as punch with the game's improved traversal options (side note: vehicle design and handling comes from people who've worked on the Burnout series, which can only be a good thing). But where am I moving to, exactly? Dazzling destruction with no destination represents rollicking fun, certainly, but it's rudderless without framing within a comparably exhilarating story. Wouldn't it be nicer to have a meaningful reason for all the wanton devastation?
As it says up there, I played Just Cause 3 in Hamburg, alongside a whole bunch of journalists from across Europe, with costs covered by the game's publishers, Square Enix.
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