Like its predecessors, Just Cause 3 is at its most satisfying when the action is at its most ridiculous and destructive. Dropping a helicopter into a silo of fuel tanks, tossing barrels into a statue and blowing it up, shooting a generator and then watching as a chain reaction destroys half of a police compound. It’s at these action packed moments when Rico is at his most psychotic that the game really comes alive.
The problem is that Just Cause 3 does its damnedest to seal off it’s brilliant, anarchic core behind a stingy and counter-intuitive unlock system. There’s certainly fun to be had, and liberating towns, cities, and eventually provinces has a certain charm familiar to taking back the map in Saints Row or Infamous. But the relentless military presence, inevitable sense of repetition, baffling rules, and needless restrictions mean that you have to fight hard to find the joyful sense of reckless abandon that the series was sold on.
Once again, you play Rico Rodriguez – former CIA operative, professional Che Guevara impersonator, and nightmare fuel for your average tyrannical despot. After bringing his own special brand of democracy to San Esperito and Maritime, Rico returns to his homeland, the fictional Mediterranean island of Medici, to overthrow the insane dictator Di Ravello, and dismantle his private military organisation the DRM (because DRM is bad) before the crazed despot can fulfill his megalomaniacal plans for world domination.
In order to do this Rodriguez uses a combination of zipping ’round the island like Super Joe’s Latin cousin and blowing up anything related to Di Ravello’s regime (as well as any member of the local populous that’s unfortunate enough to get in the way). If an object is red and white, barrel shaped or has someone wearing an ‘Evil Dictator’ Halloween costume plastered across it, it is Rico’s duty to tear it down with his tethers or lay waste to it with rockets, grenades, a car, or maybe a plane. You can even strap C4 to the local wildlife and create bovine suicide bombers if you’re feeling particularly malicious. Military bases are filled with satellites, electric substations, fuel tanks, and turbines, while towns and villages contain propaganda speakers, billboards, statues and surveillance systems. Your mission is simple: destroy all the things, raise the flag, watch the locals rejoice that you’ve leveled half a city block, and watch the DRM pack up and leave.
Then,you simply parachute into the next unsuspecting coastal village and do it all over again, and again. And again and again. The first couple of towns you liberate will no doubt leave you with a warm feeling of accomplishment as the flag of the resistance flaps in the breeze ande fireworks light up the sky. However like Mario, your princess – or in this case, maniacal despot – is always in another castle and after the first few towns, liberation begins to feel like completing a list of errands that make your life in Medici slightly easier. Like having to go to the shops to pick up some milk, aside from seeing the occasional lunatic smashing eggs on the floor to try and find the perfect dozen in aisle 3, it becomes a rather humdrum part of your in-game existence. You simply run through the motions, destroying the same specific artifacts over and over again until you’ve laid claim to all the towns in a province and another part of the map turns blue.
“Fine” you might say, “Sod the missions, I’m off to hijack a helicopter, create an explosive flying bulldozer and terrify some goats.”
“Sorry!” says the game. “You can’t play with your toys until you’ve earned them.”
“How?” you retort puzzled.
“Via the kind of random challenges that you would usually ignore” the game triumphantly chortles, happy that it’s artificially expanded its lifespan by fencing off the good stuff.
It’s a Machiavellian trick on behalf of the devs, and for the best part it works because if you want the best version of the tether – the wonderful and iconic zipline that allows Rico to toss cars through billboards and tear down statues with a couple of well placed lines – you’re going to have to earn it by completing the relevant challenge missions. Certain parts of your arsenal, like the new wing suit for example, are a complete bugger to use until they get a few upgrades, which you also have to earn.
Medici itself is a stunningly, varied space with a tremendous sense of scale. However, it ultimately feels more like sterile window dressing than a living, breathing place. Rico feels separate from the world rather than a part of it, and the game’s systems have no real sense of cohesion. This is evident when the destruction you’ve wrought in one area has no effect on another. Compared to say Metal Gear Solid 5, in which taking out a satellite dish will effect communications for an entire region, in Just Cause 3, a satellite dish does nothing; it’s a merely another vague shape in the middle distance that needs to be removed with a rocket to be ticked off your explosive to-do list.
On the plus side though, Rico now has an unlimited supply of C4. Though initially you can only place three charges at once, always having explosives on hand does reduce the grind of liberating a city or destroying a military base. However, getting the most out of any of Rico’s toys requires traversing an upgrade system that often takes more than it gives.
Upgrades, or ‘mods’ as they are known in-game, can be unlocked with Gears that are earned by completing challenges that appear once Rico has liberated a town. Each part of Rico’s equipment is tied to one of eight categories of mod, which in turn can only be unlocked by completing missions in the corresponding challenge type. For example, explosive mods can only be unlocked with Gears earned through completing Crash Bomb Challenges in which you have to drive a souped-up car bomb into a target as fast as you can before the time runs out.
The best mods can be enabled or disabled as needed to help in certain situations. For example, one marks any vehicle type that hasn’t previously been delivered to a garage, making it easier to expand your supply stop options when needed. Another transforms your C4 into a rocket booster, which is brilliant fun and great for when you want to mess about or destroy something with a little style.
Sadly, too many of the mods are simply quality-of-life upgrades that merely pad out the system. You’re forced to unlock the ability to use additional C4 or tethers and even the ability to do basic things like use your iron sights while firing. Moreover, some of these basic functions, which should not have been tied to upgrades in the first place, are high-level unlocks, requiring you to liberate multiple settlements and provinces as well as get a high score on multiple challenges, which are a mixed bag at best anyway. Though the combat and vehicular challenges are usually quite fun, the Wing Suit challenges are consistently irksome. Basically, if you can’t get to grips with a challenge type, prepare for either frustration or to miss out on a whole category of upgrades, some of which would help make future challenges more manageable and your life on Medici a hell of a lot easier.
Occasionally, the campaign will grind to a halt by demanding you liberate a set amount of provinces before you can continue, which just heightens the whole feeling of having to do your chores before you can play. It’s a shame really because the campaign itself is pretty enjoyable, even though it attempts to strike a similar tone to M.A.S.H by riding the fine line between comedy and pathos, it never quite finds the balance, swinging wildly from one to the other and feeling tonally inconsistent as a result. On the plus side, it provides a welcome sense of context and direction to Rico’s explosive escapades; something that’s often missing while you’re liberating towns and facing waves of angry militia while free roaming. Unfortunately, Avalanche missed the memo about escort missions being awful lessons in frustration and liberally peppers the game with them.
Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty of fun to be had in Just Cause 3, especially if you’re up for a short burst of over-the-top action. You can call in a military helicopter and rain down destruction, find a tank and punch holes through a base, or roll through a town blowing up speakers, billboards, and statues with wild abandon. With a little bit of initiative, an eye for improvisation, just the right amount of C4, and a couple of tethers in the right place, there’s plenty of options available to cause utter mayhem.
Unfortunately though, Di Ravello’s army is a little too well organised. Try anything remotely silly while they have you in their well-trained sights and you’re likely to end up a crumpled, bloody heap on the floor. The prevalence of anti-air guns and the sheer scale of the DRM’s response makes fights feel somewhat overwhelming, more often than not making the best solution a simple bullet to the brain of anyone that comes near you, which feels somewhat at odds with the ridiculous Acme Co. nature of the game.
Ultimately, Just Cause 3 feels like less than the sum of its parts as its individual elements never quite mesh into a cohesive whole. Despite the beauty of the setting and stunning smoke and particle effects seen in every explosive battle, Just Cause 3 locks its best tricks behind a stingy upgrade system and bogs players down with mindless repetition when it should be using its systems to enable players to create free form anarchy and their own inspired moments.