Just Cause 3: Let Fly

There’s a light snowfall outside. Proper snow, too. Not the Christmas card kind, but the quadruple layer necessitating kind. The people of Stockholm walk through the streets with their faces buried down in woollen scarves and the unsteady gait that icy tarmac inspires. From where we’re standing, on the upper floors of Avalanche’s open plan office building, we’re taking in the sights of the city that the Just Cause developer calls home.

We’ve just spent an afternoon blazing around the sun-bleached climes of Medici, the setting for this team’s vast new open-world actioner… and we realise that we couldn’t be farther from that invigorating locale right now. It’s a feeling that doesn’t go away, even as we step off the plane back home. To be fair, we could be in the real life Mediterranean and we’d feel the same lure. We want to go back to Medici.

That there? That’s videogame escapism at its finest. And it’s what the latest Just Cause is all about…
Our time spent in returning hero rico rodriguez’s boots was all about experiencing this location unfettered by objectives or the series’ traditionally rote, B-movie-esque one-liners. We got to explore and test out the most exciting new features, among them the wingsuit, which is a complete game changer when it comes to traversal, and the rejigged grappling hook, which makes its celebrated predecessor from Just Cause 2 look like a makeshift elastic band launcher.

These new elements mesh with the refreshingly different and startlingly vast expanse of Medici terrain to provide a familiar sense of unhinged fun. Fun. Now there’s a word which somehow got lost in the busywork of minimap-filling quest markers and seamless freerunning control schemes of recent open-world games. let’s dive face first into those new mechanics and explain just why they’re so adept at facilitating good times...

Put a wing on it
While he might lack the traditional powers, rico is most definitely a superhero. in fact, he’s the anti-Spider-Man. Ever pondered what the webbed wonder would do without all those skyscrapers to swing about on? Well he’d probably call in rico. For all the splats of civilisation dotted about the 400 square miles of game world, there’s an awful lot of room to manoeuvre when airborne. in old Just Causes rico would cover these vast distances by deploying a parachute and then pulling himself along by grappling the ground. While it was different, it was typically slow and got dull fast. Tap a button in JC3 and rico will magically suck his parachute back up and into his pack (he’s a superhero, remember?) and stretch his arms out to deploy the wingsuit.

Whipping out these under-arm flaps feels less like falling with style and more like straight up flying. You can glide from stupendous heights and gather momentum by swooping down and back up again. There’s a knack to it, as you delicately balance your need for speed and hunger for height against not smearing rico’s chiselled face into a terracotta villa at a kerjillion miles per hour. as such, this is no instant win solution to traversing the world, but an active risk/reward deployment which ends up being one of the most exhilarating methods of in-game movement we can remember experiencing.

Not that the old ’chute has been put out to pasture. When it comes time to dish out the damage or otherwise interact with the world, you can tap the same button once more to slow right down with the supernatural canvas. From this mobile mid-air perch you can lob grenades, shoot, reload and, of course, grapple your surroundings for time-honoured speed boosts or to just cause chaos (if avalanche had stooped so low as to forgo the number ‘3’ and gone with a colon plus subtitle arrangement, this game probably would have been called Just Cause: Chaos).

The Swedish team knows what it’s clocked onto with the wingsuit. in the final game we’ll see challenges dotted around Medici based on the most fun things to do in the world. One such series of tests involves gliding through rings, much like Dom’s Strangers and Freaks missions in GTa V, only with all the emphasis placed on experimentation, discovery, and comically catastrophic failures. The challenge we attempt has huge white star circles floating in the air to dive through with smaller, higher scoring red rings placed to tempt us into more perilous positions. We swoop down, through a mountain tunnel, daring to skim over the tops of cars as we pass. as we threaten to lose speed we grapple the ground for a potentially fatal burst of pace, just enough to see us through to the other side.

There’s a sense of craft to these optional missions, exemplified by what we find on the other side of the tunnel. The next ring lies over open water, and without a grappling spot in sight to let us build up the necessary speed it seems we’ll be forced to start over. We just about make it, slamming into the mast of a yacht face-first as we cross the finish line. in the post-challenge screen you’ll be able to see the stats of friends and download their ghosts to face off against or learn from. There’ll be challenges with branching paths, too, so these sharing functions won’t just be for show, they’ll be essential sources of knowledge when finding hidden paths or discovering time- shaving manoeuvres.
“You can pull exploding barrels into a gunfire Maelstrom to devastating effect”
The best challenges, we found, are the ones you set for yourself through experimentation in the open world. There’s no explicit scoring system for this, but the mechanics are so inspiring to use that you’ll find yourself dreaming up creative tasks just for the sake of doing something fun. There are mind-blowing expanses of mountain ranges and sea-fronting cliff faces just gagging to be wingsuited through. at one point, during a decidedly unchaotic, positively relaxing cruise through winding valleys, we spot a skull-shaped cave etched into the mountainside. We don’t have the momentum to get there, nor the time to grapple our way up, but we’re told that should we challenge ourselves we’ll be rewarded with a hand-crafted vista.

As alluring a pastime as gliding about is, however, one doesn’t come to Medici to chill. Now where’s that new grappling hook…

Tether land
Pretty much everything in the world is a physical object, waiting to be experimented with. Within minutes of play we’ve attached a hay bale to a man and then the man to a tractor and then driven down a road dragging both behind us. in the past you could only grapple one thing to one other thing. Now you can grapple up to three things to three other things. a few more minutes go by and we’ve crafted a kind of morbidly hilarious Christmas tree, with guards firing machine guns in place of fairy lights. Not long after, a military apC rocks up to see what all the fuss is about (we managed to gather some heat with our tree bothering) and we attach it to a nearby pile of oil drums.

Here’s where things get really messy. Give the trigger a squeeze and whatever you’ve roped together will retract, bundling towards one another. You can use this to pull exploding barrels into a gunfire maelstrom to devastating effect. Or a man into some helicopter blades.  Or, frankly, whatever you like. We spent far too much time in our demo, for example, attempting to construct a working trebuchet out of a satellite dish, some tethers, and a nearby guard. poor chap.

“We want every system to give creativity to the player,” says the game’s director roland lesterlin, “and sometimes people are creative in very weird ways. i watch playtests and i’m like ‘what is he doing?! Why would he do that for the last hour-and-a-half?’ But he’s giggling and messing around with the grapple. Well, that’s what a sandbox is for. it’s whatever you imagine and feel like doing. Of course there’s an underlying structure, but Just Cause is that quintessential sandbox and i find it’s one of the few games that really makes you smile a lot, you know? You see something absurd and you laugh, and you do that thing where you look over your shoulder to see if anybody else saw it.”

Our hands-on proves lesterlin right. These systems work together to provide more moment-to-moment laughs than any Watch Dogs webcam you might hack into, or a million and one sigh-worthy knob jokes in Sunset Overdrive or Saints row. Just Cause is funny because of what you do, not because of what the developer ordains you see or hear. at least that’s how it feels. Even the game’s lead designer Francesco antolini, a man who’s lived and breathed this stuff for years, barked a couple of surprised guffaws when he saw us manapault a C4-laden citizen into the rear end of a nearby statue.

Spawn shop
Avalanche doesn’t appear to feel beholden too much to what it’s done before in Just Cause when it comes to inspiring this player creativity. You can now spawn gear, weapons and vehicles almost instantly, while C4 has become an infinite commodity, deployable in five explosive nuggets at once. after grappling up a sheer cliff we found ourselves with a prime view of a huge military base constructed of spires and radar dishes on the horizon. On a whim we tap a couple of buttons and ping there’s a vintage sports car to whip around the winding mountain road towards it. Once we get there ping we spawn a laser-targeted multi-rocket launcher. Because videogames. Why fetter the player’s bid for chaos when letting them trigger it turns out to be so much fun?

“Definitely we have a lot still to learn,” says studio founder and original Just Cause director Christopher Sundberg, “but one big hurdle to get over is to give the player that freedom, to let them go in the world and sort of open all the doors. i mean, the nature of the sandbox player is they’re anarchists. You can’t tell someone to go right because they’ll go left!”

“I mean, the stunt videos that we have some YouTubers posting almost every week are absolutely fantastic. Just Cause 2 is five years old now and still we see more and more spectacular stunts coming out so it’s really fun to see how players mess around with the world. They are very creative in finding their own ways to be more and more spectacular.”

This looser propensity for escapist joy isn’t all down to the systems underlying Just Cause 3, though. Medici itself has a massive role to play.

Paradise bossed
There are sun-kissed, white-plastered villages framed by sea-bitten peninsulas, and invitingly large man-made structures, such as broken church ruins or construction yard cranes. azure  waters lap at sumptuous beaches, while out at sea the waves which bob and break in real-time for optimal boat-based trickery glisten gorgeously. There’s a day and night cycle, which sounds like a rote feature in modern open-world games, but somehow the starkly open mix of oranges and blue sky hues, which lesterlin emphasises were inspired by the team’s multiple research trips to the Med, look fantastic. This beauty feels crafted, despite the scale. Scale that, it turns out, is tuned to reflect rico’s crazy, fast-moving skillset.

“One thing that Just Cause is known for is scale, but there’s a reason for that,” explains lesterlin. “When you have a character that can move a hundred metres in a second you need scale for it to work.”

“There are lots of towns and outposts and military bases and they’re all quite packed together. it’s a dense world, there’s lots of stuff to do, but as you progress through the game and go and explore other regions you’ll find huge sweeping forests and open territory. There’s a reason behind it. When you’re in a jet, if it’s a small world it’s not quite as much fun as flying in a straight line for five minutes and dodging around mountain peaks.”
“We’re sat here tapping away at our keyboards with rain pattering away at the office windows, dreaMing of the opportunity to return to Medici”
Below ground, meanwhile, Medici has a cave system to delve into. and we’re not talking the close quarters spelunking of Tomb raider here. These caverns are enormous, of the kind you’d imagine 18th century smuggling ships taking refuge in off the coast. in our hands-on they seem hauntingly bare and empty, though we’re told there will be enemy bases and other such secrets tucked away underground come launch. There’s a reason why more developers haven’t tried to provide for such geographically varied locations.

“People wonder why [open-world games] use New York so much it’s a grid! it’s a perfect grid with right angles on every street! That is a lot easier. We also looked at tons of procedural systems and ways to help us author, but a lot of the work in the end is elbow grease.”

Red Med Redemption
A lot of that effort has clearly been applied to making the world readable for the player. at a glance it’s easy to define what in the world can be destroyed or what can be exploded. remember that military base we headed towards in the vintage sports car earlier? it was painted in volatile red and white paint, signifying its destructibility. Of course, how you go about demolishing it is up to you. We try helicoptering in a couple of times but get shot down pretty much instantly. after that we end up wingsuiting from a nearby peak, rockets swerving past us as we descend. a couple of creative tethers and a grapple here and there, and within moments we’re hanging from an enemy chopper as multiple radar dishes collapse in a screen-filling crescendo of orange explosions.

After we’ve finished, the edges of the screen pulsing red as a result of our dwindling health bar (a feature we hope is dialled back in the final game), we’re told that another option would have been to hack a nearby SaM site so that it would fight on our side. Good to know.

So this is the best videogame ever made, then? Well, we’ll rein it in a bit now. avalanche has kept its story hand close to its chest, beyond revealing the fact that rico’s going back to his hometown and overthrowing another dictator. if Just Cause 2 proved anything it was that these are worlds built for player stories, not ordained multi-strand narrative epics. But while we’re told that there’s a more consciously involved interaction between the writing and design teams this time out, we’re not anticipating being swept away any time soon.

“I don’t think players are expecting a huge story,” admits lesterlin. “i think players are expecting a huge, beautiful world and some amazing mechanics. They’re expecting the sandbox. if we manage to deliver a pretty fun story around that too i think that’s great.

“And one of the things i liked doing in this story is you get to go home, so rico has people that he’s known from before. and you know, when you’re with your friends, it doesn’t matter how big or famous you’ve become, they can bring you quickly down to size, because they knew you from before.”

Sundberg iterates on that sentiment. “The world has always been the strongest character in Just Cause and this time around we wanted to give rico more of a persona. He’s grown from the first game to the second but we know we can deliver a great, detailed, totally believable world; it’s time we gave the player that little bit of a background around who rico is, why he’s obsessed with overthrowing regimes.”

Vista act
The other factor that we’re remaining cautious about is the fact that, well, 400 square miles is an awful lot of space to fill. There’s talk of dynamically occurring events that trigger around the player to ensure there’s always something kicking off nearby, but we wonder how this will pan out. Will we see a recurring number of familiar events endlessly repeated? lesterlin implies that instead Just Cause 3 will lean more on its systems and less on constantly throwing stuff up for the player to interact with.

“It should just be fun to move around the world,” he says, “and when games give you that, the idea of having to stop constantly and look for stuff doesn’t necessarily become the most important thing.”

It’ll be a fine balance, and one we’ll have to wait and see if avalanche can strike. But regardless of these concerns we’re sat here tapping away at our keyboards, with rain pattering away at the office windows, dreaming of the opportunity to return to  Medici. Despite there being more open  worlds than ever out there to muck about  in, this is a location that carves its own identity. Or, more specifically, a location that you can carve yours into via your interactions with that world. if it were possible, we’d be grappled to the undercarriage of a return flight right now.

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