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.
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. Here’s a part of the world – go crazy in it. Have fun. I vividly remember my first two passing thoughts upon booting it up for the first time.
- Man, this actually doesn’t look that great
- Wow, these controls are very floaty and the shooting is kind of unpleasant
Yep. Yet that unassuming game and it’s unashamedly bombastic lust for explosions and chaos won my heart. That demo is to this day my most replayed piece of content. I must’ve “beaten” it over 10 times before finally succumbing and buying the full title. An impressive feat for the (even more so than now) financially limited self.
[Just Cause 2 Screenshot]
The big open world. The freedom of movement. The speed, leniency and sheer amount of the 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.
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.
For all its expanded arsenal, boosted variety and quick pace the game can’t help but feel 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. 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. The improved gunplay makes mowing down soldier more fun than the nuisance and chore it was in the original (though the gunplay is still highly floaty and imprecise – a necessary evil, perhaps, given the breakneck speed at which the action takes place). Rico controls are also more natural and intuitive, resulting in less cases of you awkwardly dangling from odd geometry like some misguided nocturnal nature experiment gone wrong.
Sadly that initial joy quickly gets crippled by two key factors.
Big bad fault number 1: The progression.
[Insert Skyrim opening mission screenshot]
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.
[Insert DOOM screenshot]
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 kill 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.
[Rico looking disappointed/vexed at the camera]
In as stark a contrast as can be the bombastic 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 in the game box & promotional materials. Boldly lettered promises of the Michael Bay-esque content are touted 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.
[screenshot of progression system menu]
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. Player’s 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 this unrequited fantasy 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) it 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…
Or is it?
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 the release of it, there are still gifs and videos constantly circulating of Just Cause 2/3 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. 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 very much anticipated one to boot. So what happened then? Where in the transition from concept to execution did the magic get lost?
- Samey map
- No biomes
- No cities or variety
- only identical towns & fields
- Very harsh, direct lighting
- Grindy unlockables
- Horrible performance, especially on consoles
- Online DRM & Leaberdoarb integration ruin flow – long startup + laggy menus
- check out amount of cars/weapons in JC2 vs JC3
- Vehicles, colour grading and lighting better in JC2