When I first played Grand Theft Auto III nearly 15 years ago, the open world concept was a revelation. The mini map full of icons was an open invitation to nonlinear mayhem. The emergent gameplay from primitive AIs reacting with hostility, terror, or even suicide attempts to your antisocial behavior brought a whole new concept to an industry full of on-rails experiences.
A decade and a half later, Ubisoft has boiled the GTA formula down to a thick, viscous syrup that is just pours all over whatever open world its massive teams build. The concept is played out. It’s ripe for revision. Nintendo’s first real stab at the genre has brought the beloved Zelda IP and survivalist elements to the mix. I see it as a high grain refinement of the idea.
Just Cause 3 is something else entirely. The series has been steadily iterating on its cartoonish physics and pyroclastic style – much like how the Saints Row series steadily cranked up the derangement of its social commentary – and I think the third entry has achieved something close to perfection. Example:
In a single half hour play session, attacked a small military base at night and easily took control of it and its attack chopper. I used the attack chopper to rain rockets down on a larger military base. When the base finally shot me down, I bailed into the water, hotly pursued by enemy choppers. Swimming and hookshotting, I hurled myself into a cliff cave, trying to escape. There, I discovered an enemy patrol boat, which I hijacked. I motored into the cave, trying to escape the choppers, who followed me inside. I quickly discovered that the cave was actually a tunnel, and another, larger patrol boat blocked the exit. I plowed my stolen boat directly into the blockade, jumping and floating away on a parachute as one of the pursuing choppers exploded into the boat wreckage with a gasoline fireball that lit up the night. I hookshotted my way up a cliff, dodging missile fire from the remaining chopper. I stole a small car and fled to a nearby town controlled by my rebel faction. I then hid in the police station while my NPC allies wrecked my remaining pursuers.
None of this was scripted. None of this was part of a sanctioned story mission. However, it was some of the most thrilling gameplay I’ve experienced in an open world game in years. JC3 is full of stuff like this. The game is littered with locations full of bright, red targets just daring you to start a rampage and dodge the fallout. The game even helps you out by radioing in support choppers and other units.
There’s not a whole lot new here. Territory control, crazy mayhem, vast world with lots to do? All been done before. But JC3 tones down the limitations and difficulty level, encouraging you to Fuck Shit Up with impunity, and cranking up the consequences just enough to keep you moving. You can always easily escape for a breather if you like, so there’s never the frustration of almost completing an objective and then getting stuffed at the last second…
… unless you take on a story mission. God, what a downer. Why do developers all think they have to be Naughty Dog? Just Cause 3 doesn’t need some kind of hokey story-driven “action” plot. It makes its own stories with its crazy engine and its broad mandate of “See that? Fuck it up!” Too often, the missions state an objective and then pull a “surprise, now you have to do this ridiculous shit” twist. They have decent checkpoints, they aren’t too hard, and they don’t seem to gate your progress in any significant way. But they’re completely unnecessary.
The time spent on developing these sad attempts at drama could have been put toward inserting triggered drama into the town and military base capture missions. I would love to be locked into a firefight with a town patrol only to have Mario (JC3 Mario, not Nintendo Mario) wheel up in a sports car and take me on a wild goose chase past the destructible objects I’d so far missed. Seemingly serendipitous events would have far more emotional impact in this setting than a mandatory slog through lame cinematic mimicry.