The double entendre inherent in Just Cause - that protagonist Rico Rodriguez performs his ridiculous acts of destruction for a just cause, and also just ‘cause - has leant increasingly towards the latter end of the spectrum with each successive game. Just Cause 2 was a sleeper hit for that reason, but it felt like you were acting against the game when you abandoned its terrible, racist story in favour of sandbox hijinks. Developer Avalanche has clearly paid attention to how players played that game, because Just Cause 3 doubles down on the flowing airborne traversal and explosive chaos that was always the drawcard of the series anyway. Everything that made Just Cause 2 a big ol’ ball of fun has been made even better; it’s just that none of that game’s flaws have been rectified.
We pick up handsome Latino action hero Rico as he returns to his home country of Not Italy (referred to in-game as Medici for some reason) after years of deposing tyrannical dictators abroad, only to discover it has been taken over by a tyrannical dictator. Said dictator, General di Ravello, operates in a suspiciously similar manner to “Baby” Panay, so it’s up to Rico to take him down in a similar manner as well. Dictators: they're all alike. Along the way, Rico runs into friends new and old as he takes back the mineral trade and frees the people of Not Italy from oppression.
That's the story; engage with it at your own peril.
The story itself is a stock-standard depose-the-despot narrative, cranked up to exceptional stupidity. But it’s the storytelling that’s truly egregious. The characters, outwardly diverse though they may be, add up to little more than a collection of grotesque accents and funny walks. Maybe they’re supposed to be winkingly broad, but it’s hard not to be irritated by them - especially returning ally Tom Sheldon, the ugliest Ugly American in the world. The dialogue is littered with insufferable and borderline offensive jokes (an “it’s-a me, Mario” crops up within minutes of the game’s launch, and NPCs refer to the villain as “that Ravioli guy”), and cutscenes are perfunctory and awkwardly edited.
Even the story missions - previously grand orchestrations of the series’ open-ended destruction - are little more than escort and fetch quests, filled with infinitely spawning enemies and loading screens. Some missions are barely a couple minutes long, while others are lengthy slogs with rigid, unfair fail states. Whether or not it’s actually the case, the whole main questline smacks of last-minute rewrites and a lack of confidence in direction.
Just Cause 3’s story is so bad that it feels intentionally designed to be avoided - a reasonable suggestion. Not Italy is an enormous, beautiful, Easter-Egg-laden playground for sandbox activities, and it’s far more fulfilling to explore and do side activities than it is to waste your time with the story. Far from the untamed jungle of Panau, Not Italy is populated by a great many people in its cities, villages, and farms. In the great Ubisoft Formula tradition, (now bleeding into non-Ubisoft games, including Avalanche’s other 2015 release, Mad Max), those people need to be liberated. At first, that’s a lot of fun, as you pull down statues and billboards and generally wreak havoc. But when you realise the sheer number of towns there are to liberate, it becomes a repetitive chore. Other activities - races, demolition runs, wingsuit courses - help to avoid monotony and unlock ever more ludicrous abilities, but even they get tiresome after a few goes-around.
Yet despite the cartoonish characters, the uninteresting storyline, and the repetitive gameplay, I’m still having a great time with this game. The things Just Cause 3 does right are just so goddamn good that I’d almost give it a recommend on their strength alone.
Rico’s grappling hook and parachute have long been staples of Just Cause. Together, they form a bizarre and implausible method of transportation, as players pull themselves along with the grapple while staying aloft with the parachute. In Just Cause 3, they’ve been upgraded, and given the utterly thrilling addition of a wingsuit that stretches the laws of physics in even more wonderful ways. If today’s games are being defined more and more by their movement, Just Cause 3 is defined by flight.
Rico’s wingsuit operates similarly to his parachute, except it’s built for speed. He receives it right at the start of the game, which is refreshing when so many games hold back their best features. It’s also necessary, as until you get the hang of the wingsuit, you’ll faceplant hilariously into cliffs, or even into flat land. Once you figure it out, swooping over the gorgeous landscapes of Not Italy is exhilarating. It’s the best flight in video games, dredging up half-remembered flying dreams from some part of the subconscious. The landscapes are full of caves and tunnels begging to be flown through, fields of sunflowers crying out to be dusted over. Distant checkpoints are no longer bummers, but opportunities. It’s the first time I’ve wanted to actually travel rather than fast-travel.
Even in combat, chaining the grapple, parachute, and wingsuit together makes for a versatile and efficient method of movement. But the grappling hook has a huge range of combat applications too. Fully upgraded, the grapple can fire up to six tethers to chain objects together, which can then be retracted, yanking them towards each other. Tethers can be attached to anything - vehicles, the environment, explosive objects, NPCs - which opens up a huge range of applications when you let your mind run wild. Using tethers, you can get through entire combat encounters without firing a single shot - which is a relief, as the shooting is imprecise, and the enemies as numerous and stupid as Donald Trump supporters.
Say you’re being chased by a truck and a helicopter: tether them to each other, then retract the tethers to smash them together - or simply tether them to the ground and watch them flip like The Dark Knight’s semi truck. Got a water tower to destroy? Fuck explosives - use tethers to pull its support struts inwards, collapsing it upon itself. Hell, tether enemies to your car as trophies. Or fly around in your military helicopter carrying a string of statue heads, brandishing them like anal beads of procedural destruction.
And what glorious destruction. Every destructible object - and there are many - is powered by a physics model leaning heavily towards explosiveness, with barely any canned animations in sight. Explosions are apt to cause more explosions, of course, and the mounting carnage can be glorious when it chains up. And although it’s all too easy to get caught up in the explosions you yourself have caused, it’s hilarious when it happens. The overall effect is akin to Red Faction: Guerilla’s destruction model, except better-tuned, and certain elements - the bridge collapses in particular - feel truly next-gen when they’re not running at a decreased frame rate.
Like an increasing proportion of AAA launches, Just Cause 3 is marred by performance issues and bugs. Frame rates - which I'm loath to mention about unless they affect gameplay - can dip into the teens in complex scenes, which makes the game play out in a stuttery sort of slow motion. I haven’t experienced the game's “missing ocean” bug, but I have encountered audio/video sync issues, and the online connection that serves up the game’s irritating and intrusive online leaderboards frequently drops out, pulling me out of the game until it could reconnect. Worst of all are Just Cause 3’s loading times, which are downright diabolical. We’re talking Bloodborne launch-day bad - and worse. On my PS4 review copy, I hit load times measurable in minutes - which is great when you’re writing a review in parallel, but bad when you’re trying to play the game. Bandai Namco’s patent on loading screen minigames expired this week; few games demonstrate the need for them as much as this one.
Just Cause 3 is reminiscent of the last couple Saints Rows in its willingness to embrace the sillier side of its physics-driven mayhem, but it lacks those games' wit and imagination. It’s not a game you’d want to binge-play, but rather a great game for blowing off steam in half-hour bursts. Avalanche has clearly listened to fans, but in making the sandbox stuff better (and it is great), it neglected the problems that helped push players towards those features in the first place. The result is a deeply flawed game fraught with terrible story missions and performance issues, but that does a couple things really, really well.
Together, Mad Max and Just Cause 3 demonstrate that Avalanche is great at making games feel great. If it could just make the stories and gameplay less dull and repetitive, it'd have an all-timer on its hands. Because god damn - at its best, this game really is that much fun.