Feature Article

Just Cause 3, and the Limits of a Physicalized World

They got a small army. What have we got?

It was the most explosive choose-your-own adventure game I've ever played. At E3 2015, I joined my fellow CBS employees from Giant Bomb in chatting with representatives from Avalanche Studios about the upcoming Just Cause 3. Rather than play the game for us, producer Omar Shakir and crew led us through a series of videos in which we got to choose from several options on how protagonist Rico should destroy the object at hand. And unsurprisingly, the Mediterranean-esque island of Medici has a lot of things needing to be destroyed.

You can destroy them using the dual tether, Rico's most enduring tool, using moves Avalanche gives such names to as "Farmer's Revenge," "Stop Hitting Yourself," and "Cartapult." These moves come courtesy of the tether's many improvements: it no longer auto-retracts, and you have multiple tethers you can deploy at once. Fewer mechanical limits means fewer limits on how you blow stuff up, which is your primary goal (and primary joy) in Just Cause 3. Try tethering multiple objects to fuel pumps at a petrol station, then retract your tethers and watch the fireworks begin. The resulting explosions are so enormous, they create miniature mushroom clouds, and might make you fear for your safety the next time you pull over to fill up your gas tank.

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You can destroy them using vehicles, which Shakir says control a lot tighter and allow you to drift and e-brake around tight corners. As you drive through sunflower fields, all the vegetation bends or breaks, and you can level a forest should you set off a series of explosions in the right place. Vehicles aren't limited to sports cars and buggies, however. Why not hijack an oceanic destroyer and annihilate a tanker, a seaside installation, or even an entire bridge with its cannons? Watching that bridge collapse into rubble and splash into the inlet below is a primal treat.

You can destroy them by performing improbable stunts--say, by hijacking an aircraft, freely walking around on its surface as it soars through the air, parachuting away, and firing rocket-propelled grenades at a tower as the aircraft plunges into the base surrounding that tower. Then there's always just straightforward overkill with a tank: drive into the base, aim your cannons, and start the mayhem. Or maybe you'd prefer to drive a motorcycle up a ramp, activate your parachute, tether a soldier to an explosive canister, and then watch the canister lift off, taking the hapless soldier with it. There are limits to the destruction, as there must, or Rico would run out of objects to grapple to, but Just Cause 3 looks to join the Red Faction games as the most destructible action adventures to have yet been built.

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Getting from one destructible place to another is vital, and thus we have Rico's wingsuit, which, when combined with the grappling hook, allows you to slingshot yourself along the ground like a low-flying aircraft. I'm delighted by how fast you move in this manner: Shakir says that like the rest of Just Cause 3, the wingsuit is grounded in physical reality while still remaining fun to use. I think, however, that this is a "physical reality" that belongs between quote marks. Just what are the lines that Avalanche draws between "this crazy thing is reasonable" and "this other crazy thing is not?" At what point would Just Cause be officially jumping the shark?

"We have a very good shark hunter," says Shakir, referring to Christofer Sundberg, Avalache's chief creative officer. "When you bring a wing suit, a grappling hook, and a wingsuit into a game, and you want to physicalize them, if you start having lasers and dinosaurs, then what's the point of physicalizing them? There's a balancing act when you're going for the Tropic Thunder/Expendables vibe. You need a strong DNA and a strong backbone, and Christofer's the person who helps drive, 'that doesn't really fit, it's a little too much'."

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"It's quite simple," adds Sundberg. "We don't go sci-fi, we don't do aliens." Two rocket launchers at once? That's a fantasy he can get behind. "Explosions can always get bigger, you can always drive faster, that's where there's no limits." Besides, Avalanche always has a dinosaur game, called The Hunter: Primal. Just Cause has no need for them. What you do need are air drops, anytime and anywhere; you can even summon a giant jet, if you manage to unlock it, but again, this is a physicalized world (Avalanche loves the word "physicalized"), so that thing could go tumbling if you aren't careful. If you drop a vehicle in the wrong (or right!) place, something's gonna explode.

Story played a role in Just Cause 2--an annoying role, filled with broad accents and some frustrating missions, such as an escort mission that still stands out for me as one of the worst of its type in any game. The Avalanche team acknowledges that said mission was not their best moment--and also acknowledges that telling a story is tricky in an open-world game that gives the player so much freedom and power. Story allows Avalanche to funnel players through key set pieces and fully designed spaces. But, as Shakir says, a story also provides a punch line. "If you remove it completely, then it's just some guy running aimlessly around shooting in all directions. You need the backbone and you need context. And I think with Just Cause 3 in particular, digging a little deeper on who Rico is as a person, perhaps not via Rico specifically, since he's an action movie hero kind of person, but maybe with people from his past, can give you an idea about who he is. Blowing up things can be a little more interesting when you have that background."

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That's not to say that Just Cause 3 is going all serious; that kind of storytelling wouldn't be consistent with the silliness inherent to the gameplay. There is lots of camp and comic relief, though Avalanche is granting a certain kind of logic to Rico's behavior. In Just Cause 2, Rico was practically a bad guy himself, destroying Panau with no thought to how that might affect its residents. (He fought for their freedom, but freedom on an island wasted by explosions and annihilated villages doesn't sound very appealing.) Avalanche actually put some thought into this aspect of Just Cause 3. You're not hurting civilians by destroying their villages: You're hurting the island's dictator and his evil forces by destroying their bases and supply lines.

December 1st: It's an easy date to remember, so there's no reason to forget Just Cause 3's release date. When the holidays approach, you can spend them getting to know every nook and cranny of the island of Medici, a very nice place to blow stuff up.

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Kevin VanOrd

Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.

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