Just Cause 3 [official site] is a spectator's dream. I'd been playing for at least two and a half hours when I decided to take a walk around the room to see what all of the other journalists were up to. Some were testing the physics by attaching cars to boats, planes to people and spluttering scooters to everything. Some had learned to navigate the game's new yet familiar setting - the fictional Mediterranean island of Medici - like ground-skimming superheroes, swift creatures of the air who used a combination of grapple lines, wingsuit and parachute to stay airborne. Some were exploding everything.
On one screen the Looney Tunes violence elsewhere had been transformed into something grim.
Two civilians were hanging side by side beneath a bridge, dangling limply from Rico's grapple hooks, channelling the military horror of Spec Ops: The Line rather than the plane-surfing joy of the marketing campaign. Some of the art direction is reminiscent of Yager's third-person anti-war shooter as well, particularly the use of graffiti and other tools of makeshift messaging and propaganda. As you liberate areas, by causing as much chaos as possible and targeting the machines and manifestations OF propaganda, the visuals shift. Buildings shed the scars of occupation and the flags and paint of tyranny are washed away.
Fear not, however. Just Cause 3 isn't taking itself particularly seriously. The plot and related missions see Rico returning to the island where he was born, so the chaos is personal, but you're free to hijack a stealth speedboat and head out to another nearby island (there are at least three) if you fancy a slight change of scenery. All of the islands are unlocked from the start – the world is one huge open space – but the third is home to a military complex, and will be particularly difficult to infiltrate without the proper equipment and skills .
But whatever emotional beats the plot might try to strike, Just Cause 3 is extremely silly. I was surprised that anyone had been able to create such a stark and brutal scene in a game that is more Buster Keaton than Elem Klimov. In the hours that I played, the general order of things went a little something like this:
a) find vehicle
b) hijack vehicle
c) drive vehicle toward mission marker
d) become distracted almost instantly
e) attach vehicle to another vehicle
f) spawn further vehicles
The final stage was unexpected and perhaps goes some way toward explaining the variety of shenanigans that everyone present managed to throw their avatar into. Even though release is still a few months away, Avalanche didn't present us with a tiny slice of the game and shepherd us through it. We were dropped on Medici and allowed to explore. More than that – we had full access to developer menus, so we could spawn vehicles and weapons, teleport to areas of interest, and turn on Jesus Mode (“It's not quite God Mode, but it's close”).
It was a wonderful way to experience the game for almost a full day, with few limits (island three was either unavailable or I am terrible at navigating) and few instructions. I didn't complete a single mission but I tried every available vehicle, from fighter jets and tanks to rusty old cars, and just about managed to master the wingsuit. Actually, master is too strong a word. I managed to become competent enough with the wingsuit that every attempt to use it didn't end with Rico flailing as he scraped his stomach across a hilltop and then flipping end over end into the sea.
A bump up in visual splendour aside (not as noticeable as I'd expected), Just Cause 3 doesn't initially seem to be significantly different to its predecessor. After a couple of hours, it's clear that Avalanche are aiming for bigger, more and louder rather than different. The 'more' isn't in a 'turned up to eleven' Spinal Tap sense – there is quite simply MORE stuff. Grapple lines are theoretically unlimited in number (there'll be an upper limit for performance reasons in the final release but modders will undoubtedly rip it out again immediately) and it's possible to create webbing between buildings and then set off conveniently placed C4 to watch individual sections of debris catapulted away from the explosion before being TWANGED back and forth on the cords.
The destruction is as good as any I've seen. Not everything falls to bits – you'll be looking out for telltale markings and colouring – but when a bridge's supports not only crack and break, but lean into and scrape against one another, bending and splintering...well. It's impressive to see and in keeping with the MORE philosophy, Avalanche provide you with unlimited C4 to destroy the world with.
Such detailed environmental destruction does come with drawbacks. When a military tower breaks apart so exquisitely, it's slightly jarring to see the pieces of masonry rain down onto a rickety old house without leaving so much as a dent. The general rule seems to be that large things can be taken apart, and will collapse in credible fashion, while smaller things are indestructible. Obviously, it's the bigger they are the harder and more credibly they can fall (apart), and a world in which everything could be destroyed might be problematic for all kinds of reasons, technical and otherwise.
Just Cause 3's world is convincing enough that it's bumping against the paradoxical limitations of fidelity. The more believable the world, the more I demand that every part of it is as believable as the rest. If it is a problem, it's a good one to have and there's plenty of evidence that the meat and drink of being Rico will be sufficiently entertaining.
It's hard to imagine not being entertained by Just Cause 3. On the military side there are enemy patrols to bother, huge firefights, with helicopters and tanks that escalate until everything in the area is destroyed. Enormous tankers explode and a metal sphere as large as an apartment block falls off a building and rolls free. I manage to fire a grapple hook into it from the plane I'm riding on, throw the pilot out of his cockpit, and try to drag the sphere around the island. A few seconds later, physics has an argument with me and the ball, which is understandably heavier than my plane, flicks Rico and his vehicle into the ground.
I could have jumped out when disaster seemed inevitable, using the wingsuit or parachute to soar to safety. The parachute controls have been recalibrated so that it's much easier to remain steady, riding currents while you aim your weapons at enemies on the ground. There's a whole other set of activities to indulge in without aiming at anyone though. On the extreme sports side (oh god, Just Cause 3 engine to be used in Point Break remake adaptation?) there's parachuting, wingsuiting, skydiving, whatever-the-fuck-it's-called-when-you-fire-a-grapple-at-a-plane-and-then-flap-along-in-the-air-behind-it-screaming, and all sorts of other fun diversions.
Taking to the water is particularly enjoyable. The wave physics are the best I can remember seeing. Not only does the sea look beautiful, it also slaps boats around as if it were the angry fist of Neptune, propelling them into the air. Like everything else in the game, the water is dramatic. Whatever you're doing, Just Cause 3 makes sure you bloody well know you're doing it.
There won't be any multiplayer in the release version but Avalanche told me that they'll be supporting modders. Expect every weapon to have its damage and area of effect increased within five minutes of the game's launch and coop to be added within a week or two. Hopefully. Avalanche's reasoning for not including multiplayer is that they want to ensure that everything in the game works for as many people as possible – they'd rather concentrate their resources (and players' resources) on as dense a singleplayer experience as possible.
What I realised as I played was that I enjoyed being the director of scenes just as much, if not more than, being an actor within them. It's satisfying to make things happen, through a combination of tools and weaponry, and then to watch the results from afar. Joining a ramshackle bus to a small car and then driving alongside as they putter along causing increasingly ridiculous road accidents is fun, even if I don't leap out of my car and take control of the bus so that I can drive it off the edge of a cliff.
Avalanche so often feels like the last moments of an action film, the point when whatever's left of the pyrotechnic budget gets thrown onto the screen along with any stunt performers still standing. It captures all of the key elements of those scenes (although it is perhaps lacking the character and wit of the best action sequences) and does so splendidly.
There are quiet moments as well though. Just as in GTA V, it's possible to spend an hour driving, hiking and exploring. You can take part in wingsuit races and other challenges (some involve cars loaded with bombs and are not quiet at all), and the game seems like it will provide plenty of activities while also ensuring players recognise that they're free to approach tasks in any order, or to create their own goals. I won't know until I play the whole game for a few days straight but I'm not convinced Rico's islands are as interesting as Rockstar's urban creations. They're gorgeous but they feel like a backdrop for the action rather than an integral part of it, and that's at least partly because the NPCs currently feel like props rather than people.
All in all, I found Just Cause 3 exciting and exhausting. It's a cartoon, a glorious slapstick world in which collapsing buildings somehow seem consequence-free, and Fast and Furious seems like the kind of thing that'd be written on the roadsigns. By the end of the day, I'd thrown myself out of so many vehicles that actually driving a car seemed boring. I put down my controller and reverted to looking on as other people put Rico through his paces. Somebody was making a grapple taut in an attempt to tear a bridge down through sheer force (didn't work) and somebody else was trying to cross the island without touching the ground or taking control of a vehicle (did work). After witnessing that impressive feat, I asked Avalanche if they would consider making a superhero game with the Just Cause 3 engine.
“We already have,” said senior technical designer Anders Bodbacka, smiling.
Maybe. But only when Jesus Mode is active.
Just Cause 3 is out December 1st.