Avalanche's Just Cause 3 is officially released Tuesday morning online and in something called "shops". "Officially", because it was apparently released early in a few naughty nations, prompting the developers to make a list of planned Day 0 fixes. Of course, that means the code we've been reviewing from for the last week also lacks that patch, making it tricky to know how many of the issues I encountered - in an otherwise stupendous game - will affect you. Bearing this in mind, here's wot I think.
You know what makes a good game? Helicopters with nitros. Also, flying a plane into a five storey fuel tank and leaping out just in time. Then there’s driving a Formula 1 car around some ancient ruins. And not forgetting standing upside down on the bottom of a helicopter half a mile in the air, shooting grenades at explosive barrels.
The Just Cause series has always been to the open worlds of Far Cry as Saints Row has been to GTA: its irreverent, sillier, and ultimately far more entertaining cousin. However, Just Causes 1 and 2 both made the same mistake of letting difficulty get in the way of fun, and there seemed no sensible reason to assume the third game in the series wouldn’t do the same. It doesn’t do the same! Oh my goodness, Just Cause 3 - despite its bugs - is wonderful.
Having previously liberated the islands of San Esperito and Panau, one-man army Rico Rodriguez is now returning to the land in which he was born – a sprawling network of islands called Medici. It is now under the oppression of fascist dictator General Di Ravello, who with the islands natural deposits of a rare element called Bavarium, intends on taking over the world. So, once more, Rico is tasked with ousting the political control of the ruler by recapturing dozens of bases and towns, as well as ploughing through a parallel main quest of scripted missions.
In most senses, Just Cause 3 sticks to the series’ formula, but it’s about how it approaches it this time that makes this the finest game in the run. It’s bigger, sillier, and most importantly, freer. So much so that despite the 30+ hours I've put into it, I've not yet finished the main story, explored much of the largest island, discovered all manner of vehicles, nor ensured I won't encounter any more severe crashes later on.
So much so that it was only after about 12 hours of thoroughly enjoying myself playing the game that I realised I’d forgotten to play the first mission after the enforced introductory offerings. Genuinely forgotten, rather than avoided. I was having such a thrilling time parachuting into little towns, downing all the military equipment and propaganda, and liberating it for the locals, before zipping off to a large military base and blowing up everything red-and-grey striped, that it clean left my mind that there was something else I should be doing. But the game didn’t object a jot. There were no nags, no reminders, no dragging me inexorably toward its scripted goal. In fact, had I not then started off the plotted missions because I rather had to in order to review the game, I would have been left free to explore the game’s astonishingly huge spread of islands rather than approach them in thematic order.
The catch of my first twelve hours was I hadn’t unlocked rebel supply drops, where weapons, vehicles and special equipment falls from the sky (so long as you have enough beacons in your inventory to summon them), nor fast travel (again rationed, this time by flares). But these appear very early on, freeing the more defiant player to go explore the largest third island long before the story wants to.
Once more your non-scripted time is split three ways. There’s liberating towns, involving blowing up statues, destroying billboards and speakers, and often clearing out fortified police stations. Then there’s blowing everything up in a military base against increasingly ferocious army response. And thirdly, and most importantly, there’s goofing around, finding a plane and seeing if you can fly it through a tunnel, then flying a helicopter 3km into the sky and freefalling to the ground.
Town liberation is oddly formulaic for too long this time. Far less sprawling than before, the towns of the first two islands are repetitive and rarely offer any real challenge. They feel more like a quick chore to get done, in order to turn the map more blue than red. It's not until the third, far-largest island that these flourish into wonderful cityscapes and elaborate arrays. (Although, you can head straight to the third island and its tougher challenges, should you choose.) However, this is more than made up for by military bases, which are enormous, more elaborate and interesting. Huge, and often vertical as well as horizontal, they can involve stretches of land, cavernous cave networks, vast towering structures with networks of corridors and platforms, and hidden destructibles only revealed after hitting the right buttons. And that’s all one base.
Clearing a town or base opens up challenges. These are minigames in which you can win gears, which then open up abilities related to the task. So do well enough at a race in a car, and you’ll unlock driving abilities, and succeed at a wingsuit course and you’ll better your aerial antics. There are very many of these, from the most obvious like taking a boat through checkpoints in a time limit, to gloriously explosive challenges in which you must blow up as much of a base as you can with a particular weapon, to genuinely strange tasks involving dragging a magic magnet behind a car to gather Bavarium ore and deposit it in a giant hole, while enemies try to blow you up. I’d far prefer the system had let you chose which unlocks to pick with earned gears, but it keeps things interesting, and offers fantastically silly extras like… nitros on a helicopter.
The enemy response is stupendous, which is the thing that makes me most happy about JC3. The second game scuppered itself about halfway in, when its response to your just approaching a base was to spam the sky with one-hit-kill helicopters, making the whole process extremely tiresome. This time, while things escalate wildly, there’s a feel of control over it. You can even see which guards are calling in for back-up and take them out before they succeed, letting you manage things slightly. And when things do get crazy, you’re equipped not only with enough weaponry to cope, but the grapple is so utterly wonderful that you can make do even if you run out of ammo.
It hasn’t changed dramatically, but it works far more effectively. Presumably taking inspiration from the mods that users quickly added to improve JC2, you’re far more free to have fun. Any two objects can be grappled together, and as you unlock “mods” (as the game calls them), you can get up to six separate tethers at any time. Press Shift and the tethers contract, meaning you can merrily drag soldiers up to cave roofs and pin them there, or fling tanks off cliffs by dragging them out of your path. It’s quick, and mostly easy (the downside being missing a target and tethering the ground to a wall, and wondering why nothing’s happening – sadly you can’t quite fold the world like a pop-up book).
There are infinite parachutes, of course Just Cause’s trademark daftness. This time out you get to meet the lady responsible for this miraculous design, Dimah, who I’m fairly sure is my favourite NPC in any game ever. She is also responsible for your better grappling, and right at the start gives you a completely brilliant wingsuit. This makes for excellent flying, and is a brilliant addition to your tech. Dimah is also hilariously funny and the voice acting performance exquisite.
Which neatly leads me to talk about the missions. As you’d probably expect, they’re not the strongest part of the game. Far too many rely on keeping NPCs alive, or protecting a vehicle, and in a scrappy madcap sandbox world, random events are far too often your undoing, rather than a lack of skill. How Avalanche haven’t received the NO MORE ESCORT MISSIONS memo escapes explanation. But, none is disastrous, and a few are great fun. And more importantly, each is accompanied by cutscenes. Wait, what? Yes, I mean it. This is a game where I find myself looking forward to the cutscenes.
Rico is joined by his childhood friend, Mario, who is about as hoary a trope as you can imagine. He is, of course, a slightly goofy, over-confident jester with a heart of gold, who proves vulnerable. Original he is not. And yet the performance sells it – I find myself liking Mario a lot. There’s one scene in which just the animation’s comic timing is so perfect that I guffawed at a look he gave. Sheldon appears, of course – Rico’s former boss from The Agency, who is once again morally dubious and overtly American, Hawaiian shirt and all. And there’s Dimah, a tech guru with no concept of empathy, and a performance that nails every line with incredible timing. Later come other over-obvious-yet-delightful characters Teo and Annika, and others still. Rico has lightened up a lot, and is likeable for the first time, and wow if it doesn’t all make for a fantastic ensemble cast, with superb writing, that makes for properly entertaining viewing.
So with fantastic combat, vehicles, flying and script, it’s a small shame things are a scrappy. While it’s not frequently buggy (I’ve become trapped in the scenery a couple of times, which is annoying, and had one major issue I'll get to), it feels like it needs a good tidying up. Most frustrating is the fiddliness of picking things up, or getting into vehicles. For some odd reason, this is made needlessly complicated, with Rico needed to be stood in the perfect position to be able to enter a helicopter, or dig up a relic, or press a button. It’s a royal pain in the arse, because as ever, Rico is always least controllable when walking around. As with JC2, he feels leaden when he’s not grappling himself along the ground, or flipping about in a parachute. Clumsily arranging him to stand in the right place is tiresome, and I can think of no reason why the threshold for letting E activate something shouldn’t be widened. (Almost never are two things close enough that it could cause you to do the wrong thing.) That’d be something lovely to see patched in, and would make the whole experience significantly smoother.
A rather strange omission this time out are the hidden chests of ammo and gubbins in the bases. JC2 had you chasing down these boxes via a proximity radar thing, and it added an extra element to reaching 100% in any area. It’s no great loss, but it does make bases and towns less involved. The proximity doodah is still in there, but now points you toward either taped messages recounting the General’s rise to power, or parts for classic vehicles built if you meticulously track down every buried site in the farthest flung corners.
My biggest issue however is the load times, especially when restarting failed challenges. They’re achingly slow, to the point where I’ve been playing puzzles on my phone during them. And when loading the game, you're forced to sit through an unskippable logo sequence in which Rico sits stock still and nothing happens for a good 20 seconds. Of course, the counter to this is that the entire kerbillion acres of the world are accessible without loads at all times, but it doesn’t stop it being a pain when you restart a race because you crashed a few seconds in.
And that big issue. I encountered a story mission a good way into the game that not only didn't work because Rico's plane refused to lock on to enemy targets, but would crash the entire game about two minutes in every time. After Square Enix failed to find a fix for that individual error over the weekend, the arrival of AMD's latest (dreadful) Crimson driver files seemed to get me past the problem (or it was a coincidence) but broke everything else in the game. The world was reduced to fractured triangles, and obviously unplayable. However, past the crash, I was able to fight the god-awful Crimson shite off my computer and eventually convince the slightly less god-awful Catalyst back on, and have continues. Your results may vary, but be warned that at launch, JC3 doesn't seem ready for AMD's latest drivers.
The game runs a lot of online features, measuring all manner of silly statistics (longest wingsuit flight, most enemies killed by a single clip, biggest fall) against other players and ranks you accordingly. You can also get ghosts of Steam friends' best runs on challenges to compete against. All nice, relatively unobtrusive, and not necessary for the game to run. However, if you have a flaky internet connection (mine drops when it starts raining, because I live in a cartoon), it interrupts the game to complain. Try to log back in when you cannot, or they cannot, and it sits there spinning away and can't be escaped. It seems if you're at risk of brief connection drops, you'll want to start in offline mode for your own sanity.
Then once it’s loaded, I stop caring immediately, because it’s all so bloody gorgeous. Seriously, it’s breathtaking. Down to the finest details, everything looks incredible. It’s bright, colourful, cheerful – not a moment of the game even borders on grimdark severity. Floating mines are a brilliant red, that makes them look enticing rather than dangerous, the blue skies and green hills a pleasure to wingsuit over. And the sea – oh my goodness, the sea. It’s the best I’ve ever seen in a game, undulating and varyingly rough, beautiful to look at, and invisible tiling.
Then as you’re wandering a liberated town, you hear music. Buskers! And a small crowd watching, some dancing. Or gosh, the detail when you reload the game, and the title screen is Rico leaning against a car where you last stopped playing – hit play and he just stands up and is ready to go. Or the scene where Rico is forced to kiss a cow. Or the line, “Fuck you, missile!”
The game is so ridiculously enormous that despite having played it for 30+ hours, I’ve still only switched half the map from red to blue. There are vast stretches I’ve not encountered, vehicles I’ve no idea about, surprises still in store. That’s not ideal when reviewing, of course, but then there’s also the issue of the limitations of a human lifespan.
This is an epic work, and a wonderfully irreverent antidote to Far Cry’s po-faced severity. It's so ludicrously detailed, packed with gags, surprises and kleptomania-inducing extras to find and collect. It's good humoured throughout, while still finding room to acknowledge that fascist dictators aren't hilarious clowns, and tells a story with some of the loveliest characters I've encountered in a game. Dimah 4ever. Oh, and David Tennant is brills as the held-hostage voice of the Merdici state radio! 834,000m of exploration in, I've scratched at what the game offers. Which means I've also potentially missed other severe issues too. I look forward to seeing what tomorrow's patch brings, and I desperately hope it includes making getting in vehicles/using items far less of a fiddly faff.
It's a triumph of a game despite some flaws, and certainly one of my peak gaming moments of 2015. Bright, cheerful, ridiculous, and most of all, absolutely determined to ensure you have fun.
Just Cause 3 is out today for Windows.