Bullets and missiles whiz past my head as I speed through the night sky, surfing on a plane. The artillery of a whole nation seems to be focused on my annihilation, while I fire rocket after rocket at the ground below. The deafening roar of the engines and the air-sucking booms of coutless explosions are my soundtrack. If this was a film, it would be the movie’s climax, when the hero does the impossible. In Just Cause 3, Avalanche’s latest destruction-obsessed action romp, it’s the opening scene.
For Rico Rodriguez, the game’s handsome, bearded protagonist – a professional racer turned tyrant-toppler – it’s just another day at work. He blows up military bases for breakfast, and for lunch, he tears down bridges while the army of an evil dictator – moustachioed cartoon villain Di Ravello – drives across. He’s a one man army, a superhero in jeans, and he’s done this all before. But this time, the explosions are bigger, the toys are more varied, and everything has just become a little bit more ridiculous.
I don’t call Rico a superhero lightly. Avalanche’s third destruction sandbox is as much a superhero game as Rocksteady’s Arkham series, at least when it comes to the action. Our leading man can take down entire armies, fly across islands, and even survive the explosion of a grenade. Once, while minding my own business, gliding across a mountain range, I was hit by a missile. I got back up again and stole a helicopter, which I then dropped on top of a tank. I’d like to see Batman attempt that.
The absurd and the impossible are made normal in Just Cause 3.
Crazy set pieces and random moments of insane action are not new for Just Cause, of course. Indeed, as impressive as the action is, it’s also incredibly familiar. There are no surprises, no expectations being smashed – it is very much more of the same. But after the delights of Just Cause 2, should that really be cause for complaint? The thing is, we are inundated with open-world games every year now, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell them apart. And, as I noted in a feature earlier this year, they are becoming too bloated to be fun.
As I racked up more and more hours demolishing Just Cause 3’s gorgeous island paradise of Medici, it became pretty clear that it does tumble into many of the genre’s pitfalls – the repetition, the paper-thin narrative, the filler content – but time and time again it climbs right back out thanks to explosive action that outdoes every single one of its contemporaries and clever design.
If you’ve overlooked the series up until now, here’s the gist: Rico is a likable killing machine on a quest to rid the world of unpleasant dictators. He does this mostly by destroying infrastructure across multiple regions – blowing it up, tearing it down, and generally causing an awful mess – while also mowing down a never ending supply of utterly disposable soldiers.
The premise of Just Cause 3 doesn’t really mix things up. Maybe it’s more important this time because General Di Ravello is the ruler of Rico’s home, and there’s also some nonsense about a special mineral known as Bavarium that can only be found in this one archipelago, which the tyrant is mining to create lots of weapons or something. It’s forgettable stuff, mostly, but with cutscenes rarely lasting more than a minute, there’s very little time spent on what is one of the game’s weakest aspects.
It’s worth noting, however, that despite the throwaway plot, Just Cause 3 does have a small cast of entertaining characters. There’s Rico himself, a sexy badass who is neither tortured or tormented – a lovely novelty – and then his rebel cohorts, like best friend Mario, who wants to be a rebel superstar, but really is just a bit of a dork who loves his granny and dancing. They mostly keep things fun and light while Rico burns everything down.
Ultimately, Just Cause 3 is all about the action, and it’s unlikely that anyone is going to buy it for a tightly constructed narrative. Good news, then, because bloody hell does it pull out all the stops on that front.
Rico’s journey to liberate the various regions of Medici sees him running, parachuting, driving, sailing and flying into towns and bases filled with fuel tanks, radio towers, propaganda-spewing speakers, statues, water towers, satellite dishes and countless other structures – all painted white with red stripes – which he must destroy. And demolishing them is an utterly glorious affair.
Experimentation is the name of the game, here. When I looked at my first water tower, all I saw was a structure that needed to be torn down. Now I see a multiverse of infinite possibility. I can grab a gun and shoot out the struts, causing the top-heavy tower to tumble. I can use my grapple device to tether explosive barrels to it, rapidly reeling them in, causing a monumental explosion. I can place explosives on a car, and then drive it into the building, the collision filling the screen with fire and smoke. I can drop a helicopter on top of it, use a jet to drop bombs, blow it up with a rocket launcher… you get the idea.
The game likes to remind us that everything can be destroyed and every enemy slain without firing a single bullet, and it’s mostly true. I wonder if that’s why guns aren’t very satisfying, particularly when used to shoot the hordes of Di Ravello’s perpetually stupid soldiers. Rocket and grenade launchers are a hoot for the explosions they create, but everything else, from shotguns to dual-wielded pistols, really lack punch, not helped by the fact that many enemies are, like Rico, bullet sponges. Unloading a whole clip into a man and watching him shrug it off is a bit disheartening. Catapulting him into the sky or tethering him to an exploding tank, however, is a delight.
While Rico starts the game with everything he needs to blow up the entire archipelago, which is completely open from the get go, the best toys require a bit of work to unlock. Vehicles and guns can be stolen, but for them to be air-dropped by Rico’s rebel friends, they need to be brought to a garage first or, for the absolute top-tier stuff, unlocked by completing missions and liberating regions. The driving force behind freeing Medici is not the well-being of its citizens, but the promise of more things to fool around with, from airstrikes to Bavarium-shielded tanks that can withstand a huge beating.
There’s also an RPG-lite progression system tied to Just Cause 3’s ‘challenges’. Dotting Medici, usually unlocked when a base or a town has been freed from Di Ravello’s grasp, are these out-of-place diversions which task Rico with driving, flying and sailing through rings in time trials, blowing lots of stuff up in an area while a timer counts down, using a magnet to grab Bavarium boulders and, worst of all, shooting targets in a gun range.
The destruction-based challenges are actually fun, often teaching the limits and benefits of a newly unlocked weapon or vehicle. The rest of them sit somewhere between being slightly dull to miserably boring, and their inclusion is difficult to understand. What type of person would, after spending an hour single-handedly taking out an entire military complex, be happy to stand still and shoot slowly moving targets a gun range? And who the hell wants to race against the clock in some rubbish little hatchback, particularly when cars handle like they are just gliding across the road?
It’s easy to assume that if it wasn’t for the rewards, nobody would bother with any of them other than the destruction challenges, not even in an attempt to work their way up the leaderboards and beat their friends’ scores. The rewards almost make it worth muddling through, though. Performance is rated by gears, essentially stars, out of five. And each type of challenge has an associated group of unlockable abilities with a gear-price.
These rewards are a varied bunch, including nitrous boosts for boats, cars, planes and helicopters; more tethers, which is extremely important if you want to tear down larger structures or pretend to be Spider-Man; rocket-powered explosives, which turn cars into deadly projectiles; and greater control over the wingsuit.
The wingsuit! How could I get this far into the review without mentioning what is undoubtedly the best new toy in Just Cause 3? It is simply wonderful. Essentially, Rico can fly now. At the touch of a button, he can go from free falling or parachuting to gliding across the sky like a hirsute exotic bird in denim.
Confession: I enjoy watching videos those obnoxious people who strap GoPros to their heads and flit around in wingsuits. I could never do it myself, but I get shivers watching other people do it. I will probably never need to watch another one, though, because none of them use a grapple when they get close to the ground to pull themselves back up again. Rico does, because he’s bloody amazing. And this way, he doesn’t need to touch the ground at all.
I have chased military convoys, weaved through coastal coves, flown down an active volcano and floated up to the peak of a towering mountain, all in my wonderful wingsuit. It feels amazing, it looks amazing, and my hard drive is now stuffed with screenshots of my various wingsuit shenanigans. Like this one, gliding through the forest:
It’s even better in motion. The rush, the way the wind makes Rico’s jeans gently flap, that tense split second as the ground gets just a bit too close but you then pull yourself back up again – it is perhaps even more exhilarating than demolishing buildings.
The wingsuit is at its best, however, when it’s used in tandem with parachuting, bombing runs, stealing jets and all the rest of the insane things that you can do on your journey to… what was the point of all this again? Oh yes: defeat Di Ravello. Traversal and destruction are inextricably linked. When the army of an entire nation is constantly shooting at you, you’ve got to be in constant motion, whether you’re fleeing in a luxury yacht or grappling onto a guard tower, dropping explosives, shooting and kicking soldiers off ledges all the while.
It’s not just in the highly kinetic battles where Just Cause 3 boasts a compelling flow – the entire game is expertly balanced between liberating freedom and subtle guidance. Freeing a town opens up new activities, the new activities lead you to new areas, the new areas unlock new missions, so there’s always a sense of progression and you’re always deposited somewhere interesting. In so many open-world games, the abundance of icons on the map can make things feel aimless, and like you don’t know what to do next. Not Just Cause 3. There’s never too much to do, but the game’s penchant for inspiring experimentation means that there’s always something.
Ignoring missions and challenges and all the other things you’re meant to be doing is just as fun, of course. Medici is a stunning, ecologically diverse archipelago that inspires tourism. There’s a volcanic island far to the north west that demands to be visited, mountain ranges with views that have to be seen, and hidden coves that are perfect for risky wingsuit manoeuvres. It’s just a shame that the world doesn’t feel very alive.
Medici feels like a playground rather than a real place. It’s not like GTA’s Los Santos, where you can walk down the streets and imagine you’re in a city that actually exists. It’s hollow and artificial, a place where NPCs will happily run into walls and keep running, en masse. And the only thing the world really reacts to is explosions and violence, and only by either shooting or by fleeing. I must have killed hundreds of civilians, but the people of Medici don’t care; they don’t even notice.
And I don’t really care either. If there were more repercussions, then I might not cheerfully bomb entire islands. I might feel bad, which isn’t exactly the sensation I want from a very silly action game. Realism has little place in Medici. It’s the same reason I can take a rocket to the face and remain standing.
It’s impossible to deny that there are a number of things that Just Cause 3 doesn’t do very well, and a lot of the things it does brilliantly are very similar to its predecessor. But all of this is easy to forgive when your adventure in Medici plasters a grin across your face for the duration. And so much of what could do with serious improvement, like the shooting and driving, could never live up to the joy you feel when you’re soaring through the skies or planting explosives all over a powerstation and unleashing them all at once.
Why would I want to drive a car or shoot an assault rifle? I just dropped a tank out of a cargo plane and, while surfing on said tank, blew up a jet that was in pursuit with a rocket launcher.