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Just Cause 3 is self-aware romp of explosions and teenage power fantasy. The one-man-army Rico Rodriguez returns in the third entry of the series, and continues to excel at what he does best: blowing up everything in sight. This time around, Rico is returning to his childhood country of ‘Medici’ and teams up with a new squad of plucky heroes to try and overthrow the country’s dastardly dictator, General Sebastiano Di Ravello. It has high-energy gameplay, a lively cast of characters, and a fun-but-forgettable story. I really enjoyed my time with it, but the game is flawed in a number of ways, and I often left play sessions wanting more: not really to play more, but for there to be more to what I was playing.
Fans of the series will be greeted with familiar mechanics and gameplay. Rico is still armed to the teeth with weapons and explosives, and the zipline and parachute return giving Just Cause 3 the familiar mobility that has made the series unique in the open world genre. Adding to that dynamic is the inclusion of a wingsuit that allows for faster and more extensive personal flight. When used in tandem with the parachute and zipline, the wingsuit makes for some interesting and dynamic interactions, both inside and outside of combat. You can use it to travel long distances ‘as the crow flies’ in relatively rapid fashion without having to find or drop in a helicopter. Or, just as likely, you will use it to make a quick escape from a sticky situations that involve exploding fuel tanks, vehicles, or squads of enemy troops.
This installment of the Just Cause series boasts a massive in-game world that trumps the size of all other games in the genre, even its predecessor and the beloved Grand Theft Auto V. It doesn’t do this at the cost of its look or environments either. Despite its massive size, the different areas and islands still look and feel gorgeous, and there was a surprising attention to detail in lieu of how much literal area to cover the developers had. It doesn't have the graphical prowess of something like The Witcher 3, or the raw style of a game like Splatoon, but its aesthetic of Medici is consistent, lush, and beautiful. Just Cause 3 tries to bring the country to life with cities and bystanders, but it often felt a bit shallow, and I might even go as far as saying stereotypical. It tries to create a cultural middle-ground of the Mediterranean and Spanish influences, which characters portray by speaking in a mix of Italian, Spanish, and English. It’s successful in staying generic and nonspecific in its Mediterranean nature, but I can't help but feel a little uncomfortable when I hear a random civilian spout the phrase “My mama makes the primo spaghetti!” in a terribly fake Italian accent. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s racist, but the stereotypes seem a little ham-fisted and unnecessary. Although, this piece of the game while annoying, was not nearly my biggest problem with Just Cause 3.
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Far and away, the most frustrating part of Just Cause 3 is the character progression and gear mod system. In order to add some more progression to the open world model, a system of mods for weapons and vehicles was added to the game. In theory this is awesome, giving a structured progression in a game that is essentially a giant sandbox can help listless players have something to concentrate on, or help curve the challenge of the game by unlocking tools as you play. The problem with this concept is that in this game there is one way, and only one way, to unlock upgrades: through skill challenges. Skill challenges are not a new concept to open world games, and some of them are even done well, but the concept of tying 100% of your gear progression to it is maddening. Many of the more intense challenges are nigh impossible without the very upgrades you unlock by completing them, and some of the challenges don’t actually test the abilities related to the items they unlock. You want to be able to tether more objects together with your zipline tool? You’d better get good at driving trucks in the game. You want to get more tools to climb higher with your parachute? You’d better get good at flying through rings in the wingsuit. Even something as simple as aiming down the sights for better accuracy is locked until you complete a skill challenge. I ultimately ended up doing many of these challenges throughout my time with the game, but I'm not sure I would’ve engaged with the system if there wasn’t a promise of gear upgrades. It could be considered a positive, I was engaged with parts of the game I otherwise would not be, but Avalanche really should have found a middle ground that allowed more unlocks from story missions or territory control, or at least something more engaging than what they did.
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From a technical perspective, the game has its fair share of issues as well. All those pretty explosions that would make even Michael Bay blush, they come at a cost: performance. On consoles especially, the framerate absolutely tanks when there is a lot going on in an army base. Often your reward for spending your time carefully placing remote mines to simultaneously cause dozens of explosions is a framerate loss that makes the game nearly unplayable. Similarly, the load times in Just Cause 3 also border on atrocious, something that I thought we had moved away since the PS1 era, but they seem to be making a big comeback on modern console games. These long load times really felt like the biggest ‘punishment’ for death or failing a skill challenge, and this often worked hand in hand with the poor challenge design to make for a very frustrating experience. It’s tough to criticize the technical, even as someone who designs software professionally, but it's become an unfortunate side-effect of modern games with hard publisher deadlines and it really hurt the experience for me. If you have a beefy gaming PC, I would suggest trying to play it on there, the technical problems seem less drastic on that platform.
Overall, I had a lot of fun with my time in the world of Just Cause 3. Seeing how the systems interact, how the near-infinitely destructible environments and explosives mesh together is satisfying and at times quite entertaining. If you come to it looking for a deep and emotional storyline, or a technical masterpiece you will be sorely disappointed. But, if you are just looking to slingshot a cow covered in explosives into an army base, fire a rocket launcher at a train when hanging from the bottom of a moving helicopter, or wingsuit across a beautiful and verdant landscape, then Just Cause 3 is the game for you.
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: December 1, 2015
Reviewer’s Platform: PS4