Way back in 2010, Just Cause 2 was one of the first games I ever reviewed as a professional, as well as the game that truly taught me the value of a good tutorial. Many of the game’s problems stemmed directly from poor communication. It had a thrilling sense of destructive anarchy, but it became a frustrating slog whenever you tried to do the things the game actually expected you to do.
It’s therefore a little strange to check in with Just Cause 3 five years and hundreds of games later, as I did at a recent preview event in Toronto. The island has changed – instead of Panau, you’re now destabilizing a dictatorship on the fictional Mediterranean island of Medici – but the essentials are more or less the same. While there are some missions and hints at a campaign, your true objective is to fly around toppling any freestanding structure with even the faintest trace of red.
“We’ve paid a lot of attention to Twitch videos, YouTube, etc., of the way people play JC2, and we recognize that that’s what a lot of players really key in on,” said Adam Davidson, Senior Producer at Avalanche New York. “They want almost a skateboard game, where you can go around and do things the way you want and it’s about how you do it as opposed to what you’re doing.”
Just Cause 3 is designed to be just as friendly to Let’s Players and live streamers, especially now that both are more common than they were in 2010. The big addition is a wing suit that allows players to glide around Medici like a squirrel, making the transit system the closest you can get to literal flight without a jetpack or wings.
“We view this as a vertical game,” said Davidson. “Bases give the player a lot of things to pull themselves up with, or have vehicles around that allow them to get to great heights so they can utilize the parachute. They can utilize the wing suit.”
The same philosophy pervaded Just Cause 2, but that was also sort of the problem. The best way to play Just Cause 2 was not the most obvious way to play if you were familiar with more horizontal gaming conventions. I’d assumed that JC2 was a more traditional sandbox game like Grand Theft Auto, so I drove around the island in stolen cars that handled terribly and there were never any indications to let me know that I should be doing otherwise. I only realized my mistake when I accidentally discovered that the grappling hook and parachute allowed me to fly.
I only wish I’d known that a little sooner. Players can’t use the toys if they don’t know they’re available, and Just Cause 2 just wasn’t very good at telling you what you needed to know to enjoy the game.
According to Davidson, that was one of the primary issues that Avalanche wanted to address with the follow-up. The team wanted to keep all of the absurd stunts that made JC2 so much fun (and they certainly seem to have done so), but they also wanted to make sure that fewer players would make the same mistakes that I did.
“We’ve created a mission structure, and we try to tutorialize a lot of the core mechanics within that structure so it’s clear to the player that they can parachute or grapple,” he said. “Those early missions are central to unlocking these abilities, so we’ve ensured that those core mechanics are taught early in the process.”
Avalanche also worked to make driving less of a chore. In JC2, there was no reason to step into a car once you figured out how to get around with the parachute, but the poorly paced buzzkill of a campaign had a nasty habit of forcing you to sit behind the wheel. JC3 sets out to make those on-road segments a bit more palatable.
“We wanted to have cars that handled the way you would expect cars to handle. We wanted jets and helicopters to be fun, and we spent a ton of time on those core mechanics,” said Davidson. “We’ve also tried to increase the depth of vehicles so that they’re more useful. They serve more roles and can accomplish more things within the gameplay and the player is more inclined to utilize them to achieve their goals.”
Based on my own first impressions, the effort yielded mixed results. On the one hand, the vehicles still don’t control particularly well. Low curbs were far more of an impediment to my tank than people or guns or small buildings and getting unstuck was far more difficult than it should be. On the other hand, sending a rocket into a giant sphere filled with gasoline is pretty fucking awesome.
In that regard, JC3 has a much better sense of itself. The cars don’t have to handle perfectly as long as it’s fun to use them, and Just Cause 3 seeks to minimize the amount of time spent fighting against mechanics. The game includes a Rebel Drop system that allows players to deliver items pretty much anywhere, which makes it far easier to set up improbable stunts without worrying about how to get everything to hard to reach locations. Who cares if that sports car doesn’t have 4-wheel drive? It will have served its purpose the second it goes flying off that skyscraper.
“What’s going to be the most fun? What’s going to be the thing that the player is going to enjoy the most?” said Davidson, when asked about the studio’s approach. “This would be cool, if we could have C4 that fires a jet out the back so we could throw a truck through a fence full of explosives. Everything boils back to what’s the most fun, and then we can build off anything from there.”
It’s hard to argue with those priorities. Despite the improvements, Just Cause 3 may suffer from many of the same flaws as its predecessor. However, the explosive core remains intact, and Avalanche has taken clear and admirable steps to mitigate those flaws. That’s all anyone can reasonably expect from a developer, especially given the sheer scope of the project. Just Cause 3 has a gleeful enthusiasm for anarchic destruction. Masking the stuff that doesn’t work will only make it easier for players to see the kinetic possibilities.