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Just Cause 3: an apolitical game about destroying a dictatorship

Guerrilla warfare by way of Tom and Jerry

Just Cause is arguably the prototypical destruction game series. It’s a sandbox in which "chaos" is an actual, quantifiable value, accrued by protagonist and professional revolutionary Rico Rodriguez. It’s a shooter where your target is not other human beings, but the entire national infrastructures of totalitarian regimes. The ideal mission ends with walls, oil tanks, and guard towers crashing down in a fiery chain reaction, while Rico floats away using his limitless reserve of parachutes. So Just Cause 3, a new installment coming out in December, is going to be judged mainly by one metric: how well it can keep the explosions coming.

I played a few hours of Just Cause 3 earlier this month, including a couple of main missions and a decent amount of wandering around the game’s setting, a Mediterranean island nation called Medici. Medici is apparently Rico’s home country, and as in previous games, he’s stopped by to depose a megalomaniac dictator, a man with a seemingly infinite defense budget and a penchant for massive stone effigies.

Sometimes, this means taking on big assignments like stopping an enemy convoy by blowing up a bridge, or side quests like impersonating a government official’s chauffeur (i.e. successfully driving a limousine without blowing it up or flying off a cliff, at least until the right moment.) Alongside these, there are challenges for testing specific skills and systematically destroying anything that props up the regime: propaganda billboards, towers of speakers blaring speeches, and the aforementioned statues.

It's hard to describe Just Cause without a knowing wink at its B-movie cliches

It’s hard to describe Just Cause 3 without a knowing wink at how absurdly cliche everything is, from the B-movie plot to the stock characters — including Rico’s affable friend Mario, who like all video game Marios is required to introduce himself with "It’s-a me!" The game’s story is primarily a catalyst for over-the-top action sequences, which are more ridiculous than ever thanks to Just Cause 3’s new features. Along with the bottomless supply of parachutes, Rico now has a "wingsuit" that lets him glide quickly through the air. Instead of a single grappling hook, he has multiple tethers, inspired by a fan mod in Just Cause 2. They lend themselves to more complex demolition efforts like, say, hooking an enemy vehicle to a shipping container, then connecting both to a building and watching them collapse into each other. There’s also an unlimited supply of sticky C4 charges, although you can only deploy a handful at a time.

Just Cause 3 expands upon the series’ tradition of destructible environments and exaggerated physics. Almost everything, except buildings and basic environmental elements, is supposed to be fair game for being tossed around or torn apart, with a good chance of taking some other object with it. With sufficient skill, it’s possible to do things like tether a random enemy or passerby to a gas canister, put a C4 charge on said canister, and set off the explosive, sending its human cargo into the sky like a bottle rocket. If a hostile helicopter appears, you might grapple up, throw out the pilot, and send it hurtling towards your enemies on the ground, parachuting out before it crashes into them.

There are plenty of other games about wreaking casual havoc, and if you scratch the surface, Just Cause works like pretty much every open-world game: you start with a giant map of enemy territory, then methodically complete missions and clear out objects to establish control. And like most games in the genre, it can be overwhelming. Without more time to get used to the gameplay, its plethora of options — like switching between the wingsuit and the parachute — can also feel awkward. Flying in the wingsuit is just close enough to Arkham Knight’s gliding that it threw me off; I kept grappling up buildings, trying to fly off the edge, and falling flat.

You don't so much play the game as choreograph it

But Just Cause’s defining characteristic is the singular amount of work you can put into your chaos. The Just Cause 3 preview invites players to not just cause collateral damage in a game world, but to meet goals in the most dramatic and pointlessly elaborate ways possible — true to the action movie vibe, you’re not playing the game so much as choreographing it.

Just Cause’s story isn’t just engineered to make you feel cool, it’s meant to take the sting out of Rico’s violence, rendering it as cartoonish as an episode of Tom and Jerry. The preview isn’t particularly gory, and you get the feeling that nobody ever dies in your constant firefights, they just flop down for a while and reappear a couple of towns over. When you steal a car, the driver will happily say it’s for the good of the revolution as you throw them out. Civilians don’t cower in fear as you demolish their urban spaces. If anything, they seem mildly inconvenienced, which makes sense considering that most architectural elements quickly regenerate. It’s not, as one Avalanche team member puts it, the place for "incisive social commentary."

Obviously, it’s impossible to completely take politics out of the equation. Every piece of fiction offers a point of view about what’s moral (in this case, a veteran fighter overthrowing dictators by any means necessary), how political change works (through really fun violence), and how the world is organized (into clear heroes and villains, complete with handy color-coded uniforms.) But Just Cause 3 is about as lightheartedly melodramatic as a game about guerrilla warfare can get. In Medici, the revolution is always just one more explosion away.

Just Cause will be released on December 1st for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.