We first visited Avalanche Studios in Stockholm more than ten years ago as they were developing the original Just Cause. It finally saw release in September, 2006 and now we return to get our first look at the new game and an early hands-on session.
"It was our first game, an original IP that I originally wrote," says co-founder Christofer Sundberg. "And it's been growing with the studio and it has sold millions of units across the world and we have a great group of fans that keeps on playing the game five years after the last one was released. So it means a lot to the studio and not only cause it was a game that sells well and it's fun and so on, but it sort of set the tone for how we approach game development and how we approach game design."
Over the years the Just Cause franchise has managed to carve out a unique niche of its own. It's no longer being compared to GTA as it's far more focused on physics, explosions, mayhem and ridiculous stunts. That's largely thanks to the tremendous second game and the success of the second game has clearly been instrumental in the direction Avalanche Studios have taken with Just Cause 3.
"We wanted to start right from the beginning on gameplay," says game director Roland Lesterlin. "We wanted to start with systems. If you build it with the right complexity, but the simplicity of the controls then the game itself will create all sorts of fun for the player. It becomes about learning how the system works. What's really fun is you then jump into the world almost straight away and everything is open to you. I mean Just Cause from the very beginning is a sandbox first and so we just want to add lots of tools and everything like that to the player, which then allows them to create all sorts of wild scenarios that you would never see in anything else."
Just Cause 3 is something of a homecoming for the international man of mystery that is Rico Rodriguez. Set on the fictional Mediterranean island of Medici, this is also where Rico is from. There's a dictator to remove from office, militias and military forces to take out, but it is also very clear that the story is secondary to the sandbox action. In fact, the developers only spent a sentence or two on story and setting as the game was presented to us. There was even more said of how the architecture told the story of a place of conflict for thousands of years, than what was said of Rico's mission.
It's all about fluidity and responsiveness. About setting the creativity of the player free if you will. The wonderful combination of parachute and grappling hook is now joined by a wing-suit. While the parachute now acts as more of a slow and stabile platform from which to shoot down from, the wing-suit will allow for some death-defying aerial stunts as you grapple to propel yourself along at silly speeds. Much work has gone into optimising animations and transitions with the idea being that the players should always be able to quickly switch between states and that the player should always be able to use his weapons.
As in Just Cause 2 you have a choice of one-handed weapons to dual wield and two-handed weapons - additionally you can now carry along a heavy weapon on your back as well (it's no longer a limited pick-up) and Rico now has limitless access to C4. More weapons, more vehicles, more chaos. And everything is available at the press of a button - airdrops are much quicker and you won't have to save up a ton of currency for a fancy car that you really only want to drive off a cliff anymore. Dual-tethering is now triple-tethering and the developers are toying with the idea of adding even more lines to enable even crazier stunts. In fact, the final number of tethers is still undecided as it's a question of what the engine will be able to handle once everything is optimised and what makes sense from a gameplay perspective.
But let's not confuse fluidity and responsiveness with something that lacks challenge. In fact, as we took on the game it was clear that we'd either gotten rusty or the challenge had been turned up a notch or two. The idea is to promote vertical play even more than before, and it takes a little getting used how you best make use of the slower more stabile platform the parachute provides you're grappling hook and the wing-suit. The ample supply of C4 and the ability to say fire your multi-rocket "Fire Leech RPG" from your parachute is also something we have to get used to. There's a tremendous amount of options and fire power at our finger tips and at first it naturally feels a bit overwhelming.
"We wanted players to be comfortable," says game director Lesterlin. "And when we started looking at the parachute we wanted to create a very stabile platform, a place where combat was possible. Which means you must be able to aim from it without it destroying what you're trying to look at. Now doing that alone meant we had to stabilise and slow it down a bit, which also took away some of its navigation abilities so that balance was constantly looked at. And then by adding the wing-suit we kind of add back in that sheer joy of moving through the world.
"We wanted a feeling of doing something simple like pressing a button to reel in or pressing another button to open the wing-suit to feel visceral and action packed," continues Lesterlin. "And what was in your mind of can I do something that makes me feel like a giant super hero, a big action star, could I pull it off? And the fact that it's pretty simple to pull it off, but the complexity comes by where your imagination will take you. Oh well, now that I'm up in the parachute can I dual tether two things on the ground while I'm up here and you realise you can do that. And then you go well I can retract at the same time and the layers keep going. And our hope is that after a while you start smiling at it and you know if you have a game that makes you smile every time you play it that seems like a pretty good thing."
One area of the combat that we really didn't get to sample was that the enemies are now more diverse than ever and this will force the player to approach combat with different tactics. Some enemy types will be very quick to remove tethers for instance while others may even have abilities that let them challenge Rico's vertical advantage. And naturally there will be helicopters, missile batteries (you can reprogram these to target enemy helicopters) and other installations.
Chaos is a major component and Chaos objects are now physicalised allowing for some rather insane chain reactions if you tether them together and start knocking them over. The interface for Chaos objectives has been redesigned completely to make it much more obvious what you need to do in order to liberate a certain area.
Despite the popularity of the multiplayer mod for Just Cause 2 Avalanche opted not to feature multiplayer in Just Cause 3. Instead there are lots of asynchronous challenges to compete with friends in. You can do wing-suit challenges (flying through loops), vehicle races, destruction challenges (where you set things up and trigger as much chaos and destruction within a certain time). Speaking of the vehicle races, the once set on water are going to be very interesting as this edition offers simulated waves and the developers admitted to being inspired by Wave Race 64 in this regard.
One of the strong points of the franchise has always been its technical foundation and Just Cause 3 is no exception. While we got our hands-on an early pre-alpha version it still looked amazing and the scale of the world is second to none. The developers still has to flesh out the entire world of Medici with props, missions, vehicles and objectives, but what we experienced showed a lot of promise.
Just Cause 3 is set for a holiday release on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.