Why Just Cause 3 is my game of the year

Just barely

Few games have the capacity to disappoint like Just Cause 3, my game of the year.

A tropical playset, its pieces read like the prop list from a 1990s action film: rocket launchers, remote mines, military-grade helicopters, the latter of which the hero sometimes hangs from, upside down, unloading two Uzis into enemies below. This is a safe space for testing absurd cause and effects. What would happen if I dropped a speedboat on the side of a snow-covered mountain slope, and tried to ride it back to sea level? Just Cause 3 will let you find out!

Miles and miles of villages and cities, forests and beaches are patrolled by canon fodder disguised as foot soldiers. And speckled throughout is a precariously built infrastructure. In the world of Just Cause 3, bridges, power plants, and water towers exist solely for the expression of mayhem. It’s awesome! It’s fun! It’s colorful and hysterically dumb! And if I don’t think too much, frankly, it evokes a fanatical fandom I haven’t had for a flashy, blockbuster video game since I was a child.

The game’s unapologetic wanton destruction of a tropical island nation is awkward, sure, and one does wonder why a game about the obliteration of public utilities fails to best Red Faction: Guerilla. Released six years ago on the previous generation of game consoles with a dramatically smaller budget and shorter time frame, Guerilla’s creators still found a way to say something about its hero, a not-so-subtle cipher for fringe terrorists. But the vibrant locales and cheeky script of Just Cause 3, in which locals practically beg you to destroy their homeland, undercut any moral complexity with the patois of a GI Joe rerun.

And yet, every other moment is tinged with dull frustration. This game should be so much better.

This game should be better

Just Cause 3’s roadmap to success seemed to be a straight line: be a more accessible version of Just Cause 2, a truly revolutionary game hamstrung by fussy controls, repetitive missions, and a shabby advertising budget. A five-year development cycle this time around, lengthy even by industry standards, implied a financial and creative commitment to elevate the franchise above its cult hit status — a funny label, since that game sold millions of copies, but a true one nonetheless when put alongside competitors in the genre.

You can see where the money went — after a lengthy series of load screens. Just Cause 3 is a beautiful video game. Its foliage is lush and dense, and a screenshot of where the forest meets the frothy ocean water could serve as a postcard. While swaths of land still appear to have been meticulously created once, then replicated elsewhere on the map with help from a cloning device, you’re never more than a short helicopter flight to something wholly new and striking. And all of this scenery reacts when, say, you knock a train off the mountain side, careening through trees, flower beds, and into the sea. In a technically astonishing achievement, the video game’s world reacts even from a distance. When you commandeer a battleship the size of a football field and fire artillery onto radio towers just barely visible in the distance, they break apart with realistic fashion — a leg giving out, the heavy top collapsing to the side, and scattering across the ground like a tube of toothpicks.

Just Cause 3 is unrivaled in scale

The game is, in a single moment, unintentionally hilarious, surprisingly violent, jaw-droppingly beautiful, and technically impressive. You imagine development meetings were just a flurry of adjectives written on a dry erase board labeled "our targets." And wow, did the team nail them. When it comes to scale, scope, and complexity in a virtual open world, Just Cause 3 is unrivaled. Except by Just Cause 2. While fresh compared to genre contemporaries, with their hyper-detailed and all-but-indestructible static worlds, Just Cause 3 is at times indistinguishable from its predecessor.

An so Just Cause 3, one of the most spectacular games of 2015, quite unlike its competition, somehow disappoints in its confounding sameness.

The franchise excels at locomotion, allowing the player to seamlessly parachute from a plane, wing glide down a cliffside, land atop a moving sports car, grapple onto a nearby helicopter, and unleash missiles onto an enemy base. But Just Cause 3 regularly limits and grounds the player by dropping missions inside tight, windy villages; gating the most compelling weapons and vehicles within enemy encampments protected by overpowered super weapons; and sending the player to to the pause menu to find out what the hell to do next. Countless side-quests require the destruction of dozens of enemy gas tanks and generators, constantly turning joyful chaos into a monotonous Easter egg hunt for some small, unknown target that is right by your marker on the map screen, but in the world could be hundreds of feet above on a piece of scaffolding, or far beneath you, in a hidden tunnel.

Avalanche Studios CEO Christofer Sundberg has been outspoken about the company’s prioritization of player freedom over a rigid narrative, describing Just Cause players as anarchists that will create their own stories. The franchise, as he paints it, is more toolbox than game. That's true, though it's closer to a toolbox in which every tool is locked within its own compartment. While the world is rife with vehicles, weapons, and upgrades with truly awesome capabilities that turn the world into a physics experiment, their locations are hidden, and even once found, they must be unlocked by completing the aforementioned side-quests, which are sewn together by regular visits to the game’s overworld map to find that last hidden object. Should you die, load times lend the experience a nasty aftertaste, like chasing cheap whiskey with a shot of rubbing alcohol.

Just Cause 3 is great despite itself

I wouldn’t recommend the game — and it certainly wouldn’t be my game of the year — if it weren’t for everything else: how leisurely flights from one end of the map to another last longer than most TV shows; the uncanny ability to recreate the Sega Genesis helicopter adventure Jungle Strike with a helicopter, unlimited ammo, and some careful maneuvering over enemy territory; choosing one direction on the map, and seeing how far you can go, bypassing fights for the sprawling, decadent scenery.

In 2015, just as in 2010, Just Cause offers the player more freedom than any other open-world game. Yes, much of that freedom involves weapons and explosives and a percussive violence against people and their livelihood, but it also offers a sanctuary from other video game worlds like Grand Theft Auto 5 and Metal Gear Solid V, that are alternately lathered in cynical humor or barren. Just Cause, as a franchise, continues to serve as my 30-minute weekly vacation, both from the real world and the rest of games.

But like a resort that hasn’t done much to improve over the years, beyond remodeling the facade, Just Cause would benefit from some competition. Its very foundation is cracked, and the franchise will suffer until its stewards get around to fixing it. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another five years.