Just Cause 3 Review

December 9, 2015 by Suriel Vasquez

A fun, chaotic sandbox marred by busywork.

Like any good open-world game nowadays, the Just Cause series embraces the absurd. Just Cause 3 is at its best when it refuses to say no, allowing you to manipulate every tool it provides to pull off the exact stunt, the riveting clutch moment you were thinking of. But the game is still bound by many of the same paradigms it desperately wants to shed, and when it holds back, the whiplash is that much more pronounced.

The game spends no more than five minutes establishing its premise: series protagonist Rico Rodriguez is tasked with ousting yet another despot, General Sebastiano Di Ravello, this time within Rico’s homeland of Medici. Cutscenes skim over essential plot details, and characters come off as benevolently unaware, delighting in the same kind of destruction they want to free Medici from. Considering that’s exactly the kind of the thing you do in-game as the player, I suppose that’s one way to get around the whole “cognitive dissonance” thing.

Story sections are only worth seeing for Dimah, the Egyptian scientist responsible for creating most of Rico’s gadgets. She’s a shining light in a sea of archetypes, speaking in clipped sentence fragments and showing a general disregard for people skills. Her callousness reads as absent-minded rather than sinister, and she’s responsible for most of the laughs I had during cutscenes. The rest of the cast is shallow by contrast, but the writing makes sure every character has their moment. I’ll call that progress.

As with most open-world games, after a few early tutorial missions you’re free to do as you wish, and Just Cause 3 starts you off with everything you need to go around and blast apart enemy bases at your leisure. Some of the important starting abilities are the ability to tether yourself from any surface or object, deploy a parachute at a moment’s notice, and a wingsuit added a few missions in. These three abilities effectively let you fly around the game’s massive islands.

All of Just Cause 3 coalesces around this trio of abilities. They feel responsive, prioritizing speed and efficiency over realism, as you can also swap between your parachute and wingsuit constantly while airborne to give yourself infinite lift. To accommodate for both the velocity and flexibility of your movements, Medici’s islands and bases have an enormous verticality. The game’s mountainous regions don’t feel like obstacles, as they would elsewhere, but feel rather like inverted slopes you can use to tether yourself up and around them. Being able to fly around at will makes the game’s beautiful vistas, the kind every game of this type boasts, seem more relevant by giving you an interactive way to take them in as you travel among islands.

Similarly, the various bases you’re tasked with “liberating” (read: completely destroying) start off as modest towns and settlements, but quickly grow into expansive, multi-layered areas that make use of the islands’ various contours and rock formations. More than a few bases have areas both above and below the mountain they reside in, and being able to traverse between these disparate parts of a base this quickly felt like one of the few proper uses of the term “open world.”

The sense of freedom in movement also makes for more interesting combat scenarios. Rico Rodriguez is extraordinarily resilient even by open-world game standards, taking hundreds of bullets before the screen starts turning red. Should you ever feel the need to, you can evacuate from any situation with just a few quick button presses, rethink the situation, and approach from wherever else you’d like. This lets the game throw wave after wave of soldiers, armored mercs, tanks, helicopters, and anti-air batteries after you without overwhelming you. Flying into one part of a base, wiping an entire platoon of enemies, then flying to the opposite end of the base to wipe out another gives combat a rarely felt sense of scale.

While the actual act of shooting lacks a lot of the finesse of other third-person shooters and open-world games, combat is about more than shooting here. You can tether enemies, tanks, helicopters or anything to anything else around the map, including the aforementioned destructible objects. I once scoped a place out, killed half a dozen soldiers on my way down, threw a single grenade, hijacked an airborne helicopter, and flew away as that one grenade managed to set off a series of explosions that destroyed the entire location. The fireworks show loses its aesthetic appeal after the fortieth base or so, but not every base is designed this way. Other massive bases can took almost a half-hour to completely destroy, and the architectural variety and frantic movement helps keep combat dynamic.

Unfortunately, taking bases is by far the most enjoyable aspect of the game. Almost every other aspect of Just Cause 3 plays by more much more conventional rules, and the game’s overall structure hinders your potential rather than help give you direction. If you want to get more options to destroy bases (which the game calls “MODs”), such as stronger tethers or more ammunition for explosives, you’ll have to complete side missions that involve flying through rings, racing a rigged vehicle into a lighthouse, or causing as much chaos as you can in a short time period. None of these activities are new to the genre and feel like busywork. After I saw to obtaining the essential upgrades with the minimal amount of effort, I didn’t bother with them again.

Despite furnishing the player with some powerful abilities at the outset, the main campaign also sticks too close to contemporary game design standards by locking many options behind story missions. Certain vehicles make their debut in the campaign, and some bases have defense systems that can only be destroyed by completing campaign missions. These missions can let you see just how many options you have at your disposal by forcing you out of your comfort zone, but they mostly restrain you. A few of the game’s worst missions even have you fighting it out in narrow corridors or fighting bosses with massive amounts of health, which means you have to focus on shooting -- arguably the least fun part of the game.

I completed every mission for the sake of this review, but left to my own devices, I would have never bothered with many of them. Just Cause 3 may not force you into playing to its campaign but that these two distinct paths (completing the campaign missions and clearing settlements) are as closely tied as they are works against the game’s implicit invitation to do as you please. Almost every mission in the game feels like an attempt to mimic those of other open-world games, and none of these forced scenarios are ever as satisfying as what you can do without their constraints.

Just Cause 3 feels like it’s afraid to truly let itself go. That this game has any real plot or structure feels like a diversion from the game’s central conceit of giving you as many tools as possible to wreak havoc on Medici’s oppressors. But it wants to have it both ways. It wants you to go with it on this ridiculous ride in its cutscenes, to play along during its missions, and yet provide a completely open sandbox for taking objectives, all while gating access to certain vehicles and abilities.

Giving you something to do besides blow up bases isn’t a bad idea. However, there’s a difference between offering the player direction and objectives and hindering their fun through arbitrary unlocks. Just Cause 3’s incredible sense of movement and well-constructed world should satiate anyone looking to blow stuff up for hours, and making your own chaos offers a genuine thrill. But should you ever get bored of that, the rest of the game doesn’t show you much you haven’t seen before.

Reviewed on Xbox One. A note about technical issues: The game would frequently slow down to about twenty frames per second in the midst of intense fights, and hard-crashed the system about five times throughout the course of the time spent with the game for this review.

Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who couldn’t help feeling just a little nostalgic for his hometown of San Ignacio Cerro Gordo while playing Just Cause 3, even though Medici is more South America than Mexico. He’s written for ZAM, Paste, GamesBeat, and several others. You can follow him on Twitter.