Just Cause 3: The Explosion

He was reeling from closing modest development house Rock Solid Studios with partner Linus Blomberg, and they needed a project that could score them a deal. Based off this kernel of an idea, the duo conceived a game that was all about over-the-top stunts and action. For their fateful meeting with publisher Eidos, Sundberg used a friend’s empty studio space and set up several computers
that weren't even plugged in. The four-page pitch document still had another company’s letterhead on the back. Despite the ragtag presentation, Eidos (now owned by Square Enix) saw something in the duo and signed Avalanche Studios to its first deal.

Just Cause released three years later and went on to sell over a million copies, which was impressive for a new franchise at the time. It might not have been the most polished title, but it wooed players with its wild parachute stunts, massive open world, and freeform gameplay.

Just Cause 2 exploded onto the scene in 2010 and raised the profile of the franchise, eventually selling six million copies. It amplified the action and refined the gameplay, adding the new ability to tether two objects together and encouraging players to devise creative and silly enemy takedowns. Modders and YouTube users took to the game with a passion, unlocking multiple simultaneous tethers and even adding online multiplayer. Avalanche and Square Enix were so impressed that they
released multiplayer as an official mod late last year, giving the game a second wind. Still, even the most ardent fans acknowledge the sequel’s many rough edges despite investing 80 to 100 hours into the inviting playground.

After four long years of waiting, Avalanche is finally ready to reveal its next chapter of open world insanity. A team of veteran developers has gathered at the Swedish developer’s new Manhattan studio, merging talent from top series like Ratchet & Clank, Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Burnout, Infamous, and more. This fresh perspective on the franchise, along with open communication with the branch in Stockholm, promises to push Just Cause to new heights while retaining what makes it special. More tools, tethers, guns, and vehicles join vastly improved mechanics, visuals, destruction, and A.I. for the series’ new-gen debut.

The dream of parachuting onto a car has long been granted to millions of players, but after playing Just Cause 3 for hours we can confirm that it’s never felt this good.

The story of Just Cause 3 begins with the expansion of Avalanche Studios from Stockholm to New York. Not long after the release of Just Cause 2 in 2010, Avalanche co-founder and chief creative officer Christofer Sundberg started talking about possibly building a new studio with longtime friend David Grijns at the helm.

“Christofer kept coming to New York very frequently and eventually I said,‘I don’t get it. Why do you keep coming to New York? There’s really no business to be conducted here. Nothing was really happening with Atari except bad things,’” Grijns says. “And he said ‘Well, do I really need a reason to come to New York?’” Grijns decided to give him one.

Once he left his executive position at Atari, he brought up the idea of building a studio in the city. “It’s something that I’ve been dreaming about doing for the better part of the last 20 years,” Grijns says. “Since I was born and raised here it was sort of a natural inclination that I had after being in this industry for a long time doing my time on the west coast, being very unhappy about it, and wondering why this city never had a legitimate presence in the games development business. One thing led to another and eventually Christofer said, ‘Show me what it’s going to cost.’”

By November 2011, Avalanche announced the new studio with Grijns as general manager. The initial 10,000 square foot studio has now doubled its space by bursting through the walls into the adjacent buildings instead of splitting the now 90-person team up into multiple floors. After around a year of hiring and conceptualizing, the team decided what its first project would be.

“I’ve been thinking of doing Just Cause 3 since even Just Cause 2 was done,” Sundberg says. “When you work on a game you have all these ideas that never end up in the game. In this day and age you can save it for DLC probably, but in this case I really wanted to do this in the third game. It was always in my head.”

The structure for Just Cause 3 should be familiar to fans of the series. After games set in Latin America and Southeast Asia, series hero Rico Rodriguez is headed to the fictional Mediterranean republic of Medici. He grew up here but was forced to flee at a young age due to a violent military coup. The head of this occupying force, General Di Ravello, remained in power all these years since. Rico returns at the behest of friends, only to see the near complete destruction of the rebel forces in the area. Di Ravello touts this victory as an example of his power and threatens the rest of the world in the process. Rico decides to employ his unique set of dictator crushing skills to rally the freedom fighters, take back territory, and liberate his homeland.

Just Cause 3 takes place in some vague time after the first two games. “We don't  delve too deeply into the last  game,” says  game director Roland Lesterlin. “If you’re really into the story from the last two games you will find lots of references, but we want to make sure you don’t need to have played Just Cause 1 or 2 to enjoy Just Cause 3.” He hints that a few familiar faces from the old games might appear along side plenty of new characters, but what about the powerful Agency that Rico works for?

“They are involved,” Lesterlin says. “The way the Agency has worked in the last two games is they tend to have their fingers on lots of sides of stuff. They’re not taking  any particular side in the battle. They’re taking the most influential side. There are some fun twists in there that will come out.” He notes that the Agency wasn't  too  pleased when Rico decided to nuke the oil fields off of Panau to halt the interest from aggressive world powers.

Even though the setup sounds grim, Sundberg assures the game still has Just Cause’s signature light tone. “It’s a fine balance between being just outright stupid and fun, and I think Just Cause is always balancing on that very fine line,” he says. “We never tip over to being too serious or being just stupid. We’re focusing more on Rico in this game than we’ve done before so players can get to know him a little bit more. With that said, it’s not a story driven game. The sandbox always comes first.”

Medici is around the same size as Just Cause 2’s massive 400 square mile map, and it’s built around the team’s central goal. “From the very beginning we set a vision for the game: We want to push the verticality in combat, in gameplay, in navigation, in world design; that is the center of the bull’s-eye for us,” Lesterlin says. “Just Cause shines when you get the player to be comfortable being in the air. We spent a lot of time talking about what is it that encourages a player to be vertical, to be creative.”

Medici is inspired by the southern coast of Italy, Sicily, Corsica, Malta, and Greece. The beautiful scenery and stunning seaside cliffs provide the ideal playground for Rico’s air friendly navigation.

We begin the playable demo in the town of Surpicco. The sunny coastal village is surrounded by colorful fields of lavender and sunflowers. It would be a quaint vacation spot if not for the occupying military forces. My mission is to liberate the town, but first I experiment with the new controls. However fondly you may remember the Just Cause 2 mechanics, if you go back to them today they haven't aged well. Just Cause 3 seeks to smooth everything out so that players can start pulling off wild stunts as soon as possible.

Aiming the grapple no longer has to be pixel perfect. The grapple cursor sticks to the closest building edge even if you're aiming your primary reticle at the sky slightly above. Now you can run toward a building, grapple, and keep holding the left stick to pop up on the roof in one smooth motion. I grapple and tap the A button on the Xbox One controller to launch the parachute and immediately sense the difference. It feels far more stable and easy to steer. You can move faster and remain aloft by grappling to the ground or other structures and slinging yourself forward.

After a little warm up, I initiate combat. I target an enemy policeman and tap the grapple button. In the past, you would always reel in except when targeting enemies. In that case you’d yank them to you. This created inconsistency in the controls, and if a guy moved at the last second you’d pull yourself right into the middle of a dangerous situation. Rico now reels himself and kicks the guy in the chest. You can always count on what’s going to happen and even shoot at enemies mid-reel before landing the kick.

Occupied towns are covered in Di Ravello’s propaganda. Billboards, loudspeakers, and video projectors join fuel tanks and SAM sites as Chaos objects you must destroy to claim the territory and progress in the game. I follow the sound of the speakers and plant C4 on it. These sticky explosives can’t be thrown anymore, but you now have an infinite supply of them and can plant up to five at once. No more emptying wimpy pistol rounds into fuel tanks when you run out.

As enemies pour in, I blast them with a submachine gun. The gunplay feels strong right out of the gate instead of the peashooters you started with before. Aiming is much tighter and bullets feel like they have more of an impact. This combined with the improved parachute mean that I was flying and shooting at enemies in no time.

When Rico takes damage, the outer edges of the screen turns red and the colors desaturate (except for the enemies). This ensures that the closer you are to death the more visible the threats become. Health regenerates completely over time, so there is no need to search out those irritating health packs. The evade roll was one way to escape danger in the past, but it’s not in the build I played. Not that I’m complaining. It was a pain to continuously mash the right bumper as a hail of bullets tracked your every move. “[The evade roll] wasn't quite what we were looking for, but it may come back,” says senior system designer Joe Ishikura. “But things like crouch, why was there a crouch in Just Cause 2? It wasn't that fun. It was a mechanic where you stood still. One thing we don’t want players to do in Just Cause is stand still.”

After raising a ruckus for a bit, reinforcements show up and the Heat level keeps rising. As in most games, you can get the hell out of there and lie low until things die down. But Avalanche has a more offensive option as well. “Rico’s not really a run away sort of guy, so we put in another system that lets you beat Heat,” Lesterlin says. A countdown icon appears onscreen showing one of the enemies calling reinforcements. If you take out that soldier, it will halt further aggression, allowing you to take out all remaining forces and end the Heat cycle.

A militia controlled police station sits atop a nearby hill. Special stripes on the wall surrounding it indicate that it's destructible. I toss a grenade and it creates a nice new doorway for me to enter. Red fuel tanks grab my attention and I blast them with my SMG. Instead of using a health bar for an inanimate object like last time, the tank shows damage as you shoot it. Bullet holes with small flames bursting out appear exactly where I shoot. When I’ve traced a few flaming dotted lines across the shell it explodes, sending flaming debris flying everywhere.

I shoot some guys hanging out by the main entrance and run over to a call station on the wall. I hit the button to open the gate for a group of rebels. These guys don’t kill everyone for you, but they will take some of the focus off you so you’re free to try out creative attacks like raining a bunch of rooftop red barrels onto the SWAT team below.

A helicopter swoops in to back up the base and I grapple up to it. You have the option of immediately entering the cockpit and booting the pilot without dealing with an outdated quicktime button press sequence. If you do nothing, Rico hangs from under the chopper and can choose to plant C4, fall away, and detonate it in mid-air. I couldn't pass up the chance to fly it around so I left it intact. I fired the machine guns at remaining enemies, fuel tanks, and propaganda. A handy checklist on the left edge of the screen keeps track of all the Chaos objects you’ve destroyed and what remains. It’s far more informative than the previous bland percentage counter. It appears I’m still missing one big item: a towering statue of Di Ravello.

I could have simply shot it up, but as fans know there’s something more satisfying about ripping these dictator statues down with a tether. I land and hook one end of the tether to his face and shoot the other at the ground. When I hit the left trigger, the line tightens up and tears the statue down. Advanced destruction technology and physics ensure it crumbles in different ways every time, though Avalanche purposely makes the head indestructible so players can hang it from helicopters and use it as a wrecking ball.

This new remote tether-retracting mechanic opens up all kinds of possibilities. Now you don't always have to tether heavy objects to trucks to move them around. You could attach a guy on the ground to the top of a building, retract the tether, and hit ‘A’ to cut the line at just the right time to slingshot him hundreds of feet away. It gets the mind spinning even more when you consider that you can now unlock multiple tethers to use at the same time. I played around with three at once, but there’s a chance the final game could have more. Upgrades boost tether strength and retract power to the point that you can eventually attach a bus to gates or explosive objects and quickly pull it into the structures like a massive makeshift battering ram.

Once the final Chaos item is destroyed rebels come to claim Surpicco as their own. These liberated towns now have several benefits to Rico. He can retreat to them to help dissipate heat, or he can bring any civilian vehicle to a chop shop and save it for the new rebel drop system. Instead of having to pay for the black market drops every time like in Just Cause 2, rebels will drop whatever vehicle you want from your collection at no cost (cooldown times apply so you can’t drop 100 cars in a row). Any garage upgrades you unlock can be applied to essentially any vehicle. It’s even possible to deck out a puttering old tractor with nitrous boosts. If you conquer the more imposing military bases, the rebels earn better military vehicles when you call them in.

They start with junky pickup trucks and eventually get armored jeeps, tanks, helicopters, and more.

I start up a street race to see how the challenges work and get a sense of vehicle handling. A sports car sits at the starting line for convenience, but players can call in any vehicle from their rebel drop if they’d like for the race. The timer starts as soon as you cross the first gate. The car demonstrates quick acceleration and tight handling as I weave through the green rolling hills. The smooth, arcadey driving comes as no surprise when you find out that Avalanche recruited two longtime veterans of Criterion’s Burnout series. 

“It’s not a hardcore sim by any stretch of the imagination, but everything behaves in a realistically believable way,” senior vehicle designer Hamish Young says. “We’re trying to make it so that everything feels right for what it is. You get a sense of weight. You get a sense of speed. But still make it like every vehicle has a purpose and can really be fun to play. Just because you're in an old flatbed truck doesn't mean you can't have fun playing it even if it’s not as fast as the racing car.”

Before each race you can see your friends’ times to beat and in the final game you can see their ghosts driving alongside you. Avalanche declined to elaborate, but a one-to-five gear rating appears to contribute to vehicle upgrades.

In a similar vein, Rico can also compete wingsuit challenges. In the spirit of Pilotwings, I jump out of a helicopter at a mountain peak through a series of rings. Smaller red circles within offer a score bonus for taking higher risks like buzzing pine trees or slipping through a narrow opening between some rocks. If you wipe out, it’s easy to restart with much faster loads than in previous games. If you decide you’d rather go do something else instead of perfecting the run you still get gear credits in proportion to how far you made it.

The wingsuit isn't only for special challenges. This speedy new way to get around can be used just as easily as the parachute at any point in the game with a tap of the Y button during a reel in. It works best when you’re travelling from a high elevation to a lower one, but you can still engage it on flat ground by first using the parachute to gain some lift off of buildings first. The trick to effective wingsuit piloting is to not crank too far back and risk stalling out or push too far down and wind up face down in the dirt. As with the parachute, you can slingshot grapple along the ground to gain even more speed.

Lesterlin wanted to introduce a wingsuit from the very  beginning  of  development, but it was tricky to get the right feel. “The first version of the wingsuit sounded really good on paper, but it really didn't fit what our game was about,” Ishikura says. “You hit a button and it was kind of like being a Transformer. You felt like you were playing a different game. All of a sudden you were in flying mode and you couldn’t do anything else.” He says it originally controlled more like a jetfighter than the glider feel it has now. “Now it feels like it’s much more a part of the process, almost one of those ‘I can’t believe Just Cause 2 didn't already have a wingsuit.’”

I put all of Rico’s new skills to the test at Vigilator Nord, a military base on the coast with a massive radar array. I scan the gate with my sniper rifle and see one of the enemies posted at a turret. I take him out, grapple to his location, and detach the minigun from its base. This infinite ammo special weapon is just as overpowered as before, now with the added ability to walk and shoot at the same time, albeit slowly. Once the outer checkpoint is clear, I drop the minigun and head toward the radar dishes.

A helicopter opens fire from above so I grapple up and take it over. I don’t get to enjoy the view for long as multiple SAM sites send tracking missiles my way. I bail out and parachute to the nearest offender. I could simply blow the SAM site up with C4, but with several helicopters still on the attack it’s a better play to use the new reprogramming feature. After holding a button and filling an on screen meter, the SAMs start targeting unfriendly fliers that are after you instead. With all the mayhem around the core of the base, I can’t pull it off and it eventually blows up. No problem.
I spot another hundreds of feet down on the docks below.

I jump over the railing and engage the wingsuit, gliding quickly over clear blue ocean and nail the landing on the docks. I take out the lone guard and reprogram the SAM site. As if on cue, a helicopter flies in and immediately takes a pounding. Soon it’s just a heap of flaming wreckage sinking into the sea.

I take a seat in a nearby flak cannon and target the radar spires surrounding the main dish. This attracts a little too much attention and I get overwhelmed. Fortunately, when you die trying to take over a military base now you respawn right outside of it instead of getting sent all the way back to a liberated base and having to hoof it back.

This time around I grapple up into a parachute and rain down bullets  and  grenades  on the enemies up near the main radar array. Once the coast is clear, I look up at the dish. It’s absolutely huge up close and is covered in a strange hex pattern. This indicates that the Chaos object in question cannot be destroyed with normal guns; explosives or heavy duty firepower is required. I look around and find a flak cannon  that should do the trick, but it’s hidden in an odd spot without a good angle on the dish. Fortunately, it’s not bolted down so I tether it to a spot on the ground and retract to drag it to a more ideal area. My mind runs wild thinking of all the places I could transport the cannon with it tethered to a helicopter, but first I must complete the job at hand.

I aim at the dish and start to knock chunks off the outer edge. After enough damage, the game awards Chaos for fully destroying it and I’m feeling quite satisfied. Then I notice that all of the debris is crumbling right toward me. I get out of the cannon and grapple to safety just in time. I look back and my precious cannon is completely buried under a huge pile of wreckage. It’s been a great day.

Just Cause 3 still has plenty of unknown factors. We haven’t seen any cutscenes  to  show the tone of the characters, and we never played an actual  story  mission. But some unknowns can be a good  thing. From what we’ve played, the mechanics provide an excellent foundation while leaving the rest open for players to come up with their own creative solutions and experiments in the world. Rigorous playtesting has provided only a small preview of what the public will do once it’s out in the wild.

“They come up with cool solutions to things and cool  ideas  about how to use stuff, and that’s the great thing about emergent gameplay,” Young says. “We don’t actually know what our players are necessarily going to do with all of this. That’s always a surprise to us.”

After our hands on gameplay demo, Avalanche took the controls and accessed a developer only free flying camera to provide a look at the greater scope of the world. We soared over a sparkling blue ocean, huge land masses containing cities, small islands, towering mountains (one had a skull on the side of it), a nuclear cooling tower, and more.

One base on a small island is defended heavily up top, but then we flew down the cliff to the water and found a secret cave you can enter by boat. Another area featured two islands connected by a tall white bridge. After a barrage of rockets from a helicopter, the structure crumbles into the water below. This seems like it would be the ideal way to take down an entire convoy or lose a group of pursuers.

Avalanche cites this versatile terrain system as the biggest improvement to their internal engine for new gen systems. The previous heightmap system only allowed a top layer of terrain to be represented. This is like playing around on the bumps and valleys of a giant blanket. The new volumetric terrain adds more realistic, 3D formations. “What that allows us to do is really enhance the verticality of the game,” says technical director Andrew Yount. “It gives us the ability to do caves, tunnels, over hangs, vertical cliffs, and layer different aspects of terrain so that you can have bases that descend down into the earth, or spires that we can put up and over interesting areas of the world.”

Just Cause 2’s huge world and stunt-based mechanics struck a chord with modders, YouTubers, and machinima creators. Now these creative users are inspiring the creators of their favorite game. Seeing players use multiple tethers in interesting and fun ways proved to Avalanche that it was worth the investment to officially include this feature in Just Cause 3.

“It’s kind of silly to not pay attention to all the amazing things that this community’s doing,” says senior system designer Joe Ishikura. “I don’t know as much nowadays, but some of the [early] missions we were looking at were inspired by some of those situations that people created because those situations were cooler than anything that we could have thought of. It was really eye opening.”

The most famous mod of all added multiplayer to the game. Avalanche and Square Enix released the mod officially late last year. “The mod is absolutely fantastic. We owe those guys a lot,” says Avalanche co-founder and chief creative officer Christofer Sundberg. “They’ve actually supported the game and helped it stay alive for so many years after the game was released. It’s so fun watching the game being played when you have hundreds of players.”

Despite the popularity of multiplayer, Just Cause 3 is single player only. “We’ll continue to support the multiplayer mod, but for us the single player experience is what we’re focusing on right now,” Sundberg says. “Maybe sometime down the line we’ll take Rico into the world of multiplayer, but right now it’s the sandbox experience.”

The New York studio is comprised of Just Cause fans from a diverse range of backgrounds. “I really wanted the game to be developed by a new team to get that fresh take on the IP,” explains Avalanche Studios co-founder and chief creative officer Christofer Sundberg. “Everyone in Stockholm that worked on Just Cause 2 is being very supportive and always shares the success of the Just Cause 3 team. We tend to circulate teams quite a lot. It was a necessary step for the franchise as well.” Here are some of the varied resumes.

Roland Lesterlin, Game Director
This is Lesterlin’s first directing job. He developed game-like simulations for the military and most recently worked on the publishing side at Atari for games like Champions Online and Star Trek Online with New York office general manager David Grijns.

Andrew Yount, Technical Director
Yount worked at Insomniac Games for eight years as a lead gameplay programmer on six Ratchet & Clank games and the Resistance trilogy.

Zach Schlappi, Art Director
Schlappi got his start as a lighting technician on the 2002 movie Ice Age. He since followed it up with work on the Medal of Honor series and Far Cry 2  and  3.

Francesco Antolini, Principal Designer
Antolini made a name for himself designing gameplay and missions for Assassin’s Creed III  and  Brotherhood.

Joe Ishikura, Senior System Designer
Ishikura comes from Sucker Punch, where he worked on Infamous 1 and 2.

Hamish Young, Senior Vehicle Designer
Young started as a programmer on the first Burnout game and worked his way up to technical director on Burnout Revenge. He moved to producing for Burnout Paradise and Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. His final project at the company was director for NFS: Most Wanted (2012). Criterion programming colleague Richard Parr also joined Avalanche.

Alex Crowhurst, Principal Animator
Crowhurst worked as an animator on Heavenly Sword and the TimeSplitters series.

Per Hugoson, Principal Programmer
Hugoson worked on both previous Just Cause games and provided DICE some programming help on Battlefield: Bad Company 2.

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