Timely Thoughts – Just Cause 3
This is the first in a series of focused opinion pieces on games aiming to eschew the oft lamented and reviled (with good reason) review format that has plagued the interactive medium since its inception. Given the recent announcement of Just Cause 4 and the lukewarm reaction to it – this seems like as good a time as any to reopen the wound.
Pretense translation: I am too disorganized to create a more structured review format and I’d rather faff about with big words and rant about my stance on key elements 😛
As any questionably written piece on the internet, we begin with everyone’s favourite bit. Unnecessary and overdrawn exposition.
Our tale begins with Just Cause 2. More specifically the freely available demo (remember when those were industry practice?) that I downloaded on a whim for the PS3. The demo was very clever in its simplicity. It offered a basic mission structure, sure, but at it’s core it was a chunk of the world – a veritable playground. Here’s a part of the map- go crazy in it. Have fun. Blow everything up.
I vividly remember my first two passing thoughts upon booting it up for the first time.
- Man, this actually doesn’t look that great, especially the UI
- Wow, these controls are very floaty and the shooting is kind of unpleasant
Yep. Not exactly love at first sight. Yet that unassuming game with it’s unashamed lust for explosions and chaos won my heart. That demo is to this day my most replayed piece of content (rivaled only by classics such as HoMM III, AoE II or the original Deus Ex). I must’ve “beaten” it over 10 times before finally succumbing and buying the full title. An impressive feat for my (even more so than now) financially limited self.
The big open world. The freedom of movement. The speed, leniency and sheer amount of action. They were all serviceable individually but together they sang. A beautiful and energetic song of destruction and energy to rival Vivaldi. Despite the questionable plot, nonexistent mission variety and identical settlements peppered throughout the map I couldn’t stop. After several months of dedicated play it became the first (and to this day only) open world game that I have reached 100% completion in. It was the right product, at the right time, with the right balance of core ingredients.
With that said… what went so wrong with the next installment?
On paper it’s a textbook sequel – bigger and better in every way. A larger world, sharper graphics, enhanced physics, improved combat even a slight bump of the narrative budget. Yet for all its beautiful Mediterranean sights and outlandish arsenal Just Cause 3 can’t help but feel like a notable step down.
The expanded arsenal, boosted variety can’t help it from feeling like it has lost its soul. That elusive, intangible thing that so many developers desperately chase after. That perfect blend of intent, unified vision, mechanical execution and polish.
In the beginning, everything seems great. It stumbles through rudimentary control introduction but you grit your teeth and push onwards through this sadly accepted status quo in larger games. The wingsuit is a very logical and much appreciated addition to the already stellar traversal that the series was known for. The improved visuals make a pretty noticeable difference in the gameplay of a game so focused on spectacle. Each broken tower topples dramatically, lighting up the forest with fancy and questionably violent explosions. The improved gunplay makes mowing down soldiers almost fun, compared to the nuisance and chore that it devolved to in the original (though the shooting is still highly floaty and imprecise – a necessary evil, perhaps, given the breakneck speed at which the action takes place). the controls of Rico are also more natural and intuitive bolstered by much smoother animations/responsiveness, resulting in less cases of you awkwardly dangling from the odd bit geometry like some misguided nocturnal nature experiment gone wrong.
Sadly that initial joy and optimism quickly gets crippled by two key problems.
Big bad fault number 1: The progression.
When people think of Skyrim do you think they vividly remember the horridly overdraw and cripplingly lacking in player agency introduction? Or do they remember exploring a vast and endlessly intriguing world at their own pace? When they remember Breath of the Wild and The Witcher 3 do they remember being sucked into an organic and emergent world or an engrossing narrative or do they think of tutorial text prompts and walking slowly from step to step?
I think we all know the answer to that (deliberately) loaded question.
There is a reason why 2016’s DOOM begins by speeding through the tutorial. The very first thing you do in the game immediately after your character wakes up is take control and gun down a demon. For a game where the vast majority of your time and enjoyment will be spent slaughtering the endless hordes of hell it is fitting and welcomed. The developers know what you came for. You know what you came for. Even the game’s protagonist knows exactly what you are after. And the game gives it to you. And it feels oh so good.
In as stark a contrast as can be the bombastic and liberating Just Cause 3 begins… heavily scripted. Then you are let loose on this beautiful (if somewhat less immediately striking than the tropical setting of its predecessor) coastal area. And immediately you feel the opposite of the freedom and power touted so prominently on the game box & promotional materials. Boldly lettered promises of the Michael Bay-esque content are strewn across videos and posters and yet… here you are, with a measly chunk of your arsenal and most of your skills locked behind an inherently flawed progression system.
Even at first glance the inherent problem is apparent – a lot of your core functions are locked behind arbitrary gated progression systems. I understand the need to pad out and stretch content as well as the choice to push players towards the numerous side activities in order to unlock more content, however this is not the way to do it.
Additional content should enhance the core experience, not detract from it. Players should be encouraged and should want to actively seek out and take part in bonus activities – usually because of the promise of non-essential but nevertheless tantalizing extra rewards. Be that lore for the lore buffs, extra XP to help ease the difficulty curve, bonus weapons/vehicles/gear that fit in the “fun/experimental” archetype or just valuable story content a la Witcher!
In the case of a game like Just Cause 3 where these side activities basically amount to little more than randomly generated or loosely cobbled together filler content in the form of time trials and races (not really helped by the purposefully floaty driving, which is really fun during chaotic action but endlessly infuriating when you are trying to optimize a route) Ever tried to drive a sports car on butter? Or fly a plane with your feet? Explode from a gentle breeze? Fear not for Just Cause 3’s race events will fulfill these unrequited fantasies of yours.
To make matters worse, beyond locking away many of the absolute core parts of your skillset (the progression system should’ve only been there to add variety/offer different playstyles, it should never hamper a starting player in a way that makes them feel the “real” game doesn’t start till tens of hours in – it didn’t work for FF XIII and it sure as hell didn’t age gracefully) the system is also agonizingly slow.
So not only are fundamental pieces needed to enjoy playing the game fully stowed away in some obfuscated menu but you also need to grind receptive and derivative events endlessly. Well, at least the payoff is worth it. After all that grinding and content gating it is finally time to unleash hell and have fun the way only Just Cause can…
Big bad fault number 2: Core gameplay loop
Here it is. The main event. The meat. The heart and soul of this game. All the gorgeous scenery, all the stupid progression mechanics, all the loosely cobbled together narrative thread – all exist as setup for the core gameplay loop. The thing Just Cause was always known for. The reason that even to this day, years after it’s release, there are still gifs and videos constantly circulating of Just Cause 2 and all the outrageous and silly situations you can get yourself into.
If there’s one thing this series always excelled in, it was bombastic action. It is part of this games core essence even down to the unashamedly cheesy title. Yet… for all its improvements on paper Just Cause 3 somehow left everyone less entertained than it’s predecessor. It is easy to dismiss this as franchise fatigue but that would be an oversimplification and a pretty big leap, considering JC1 was a niche title so in reality this is only the second effective installment – and a highly anticipated one to boot. So what happened then? Where in the transition from concept to execution did the magic get lost?
The answer is multi-fold an complex and as such could deserve an entire paper. Instead, I will attempt to untangle the giant web of elements that caused all this woe best I can and lay them out briefly.
Like any playground it’s only as interesting as the stage. Super Mario Odyssey may been a whiteboxed clump of planes and cubes but it hardly would’ve garnered as positive a critical reception without it’s vibrant and excellently designed level layouts. Red Faction Guerilla had a destruction system so fun and impressive that it was “remarstered” in 2018 yet for all that fun the empty and repetitive red planet wore down most players early on into the experience.
Just Cause 3 suffers greatly from this. While the map is notably better looking, the lighting is less dynamic and more flat, creating this lifeless and overblown feeling of the entire world. The map lacks the diverse biomes of the previous title (because if any game warrants a desert, next to snow, next to a tropical island it’s one with this name). The villages and settlements have a little bit more variety but sadly that quickly fades. The only marked improvement are the military bases that this time escalate and clearly condone increasingly elaborate approach tactics – a very welcomed change. Even vehicles somehow manage to look less detailed and interesting at times.
So you’re stuck in this weirdly lit endless expanse of fields and samey villages. Gone are the lavish cities, the mile high club, the time bubble island or any of the other highlights. With these “key locations” missing the world of Just Cause 3 quickly becomes a homogenized mess in the palyer’s mind, nullifying all the effort put into creating it by the code team.
So, the world is severely lacking – then maybe the skills will be fun enough to make up for it? Yes and no. On one hand, fully locked and loaded this Rico 2.0 is so much more pleasant to control and you can wreak havoc like never before thanks to generously expanded (or eliminated for explosives!) ammo counts and the wingsuit. On the other, it takes so long to get there that most players will burn out way before that – due to the already discussed godawful progression system. With no engaging narrative to pull you along it is easy to ask yourself the question – even if I do unlock it all, what’s the point? That’s a terrifying question for any developer to hear and it is one that crippled the title.
To make matters worse, the game suffered by a myriad of technical problems. It had memory leaks on PC, horrible CPU optimization, awful performance on consoles – dropping into sub 15fps category – unacceptable for this style of game and was overall a real performance hog for no overtly apparent reason.
And then came the DRM & Leaderboard integration. Just Cause 2 had one of the most successful mods (still has a higher playerbase than JC 1+2+3 combined) – a multiplayer mayhem of untold scale that allowed players to duke it out in its world. As such, it has been one of the most requested features of the franchise. The answer from the developer came with always on DRM that prompted a stable connection to authentications servers that would slow down the launch of the game to a crawl and might even prevent it from being playable altogether. All of this for a half baked leaderboard integration that allowed you to compare menial stats to people on your friends list as you played. To call it underwhelming would an understatement.
So, in conclusion, Just Cause 3 was on paper the sequel that everyone wanted yet a bland world, frustrating progression system, lack of meaningful progress and underwhelming graphics coupled with abysmal performance resulted in a very lukewarm reception and a massive drop of faith in the brand. As we look onto Just Cause 4 we can only hope that Avalanche has learned their lesson and will deliver a playground unshackled by common video game constraints and systems and silly things like “logic” or “justification”.
PS: Multiplayer pls without fps tanking from your fancy storm simulations kthnxbye