Games make great teachers. Most expect to be played in a certain way and will subtly guide you toward their preferred style. Stealth games—your Metal Gear Solids and Assassin’s Creeds—demand patience, preparation, and foresight and will punish reckless players by siccing the guards on them. Puzzle games can dock you points for trying to brute force solutions instead of thinking laterally, and rushing tactlessly into battle in a strategy game invariably leads to disaster. By showing players that certain behaviors will lead to failure and others to success, games mold us in their desired image.
Avalanche Studios’ Just Cause 3 wants its players to be unstoppable agents of pure chaos, and it’s a damn fine tutor. In Rico Rodriguez’s latest adventure, subtlety is a liability and indiscriminate destruction is the only viable route to victory. Rico is so totally outnumbered and outgunned that taking on government goons with a machine gun instead of a rocket launcher is suicide, fighting on foot when commandeering a tank is an option is just foolish, and settling for a tank when there are helicopters to be stolen is a potential death sentence. Getting on Just Cause’s chaotic wavelength can take some getting used to, but once you’ve trained yourself to always reach for the top shelf, you’ll find a game that does cathartic violence—and only cathartic violence—extremely well.
Making token efforts to be a personal, character-driven story, Just Cause 3 sets its action in Medici, the fictional Mediterranean home country of its action-hero main character. If his homecoming has any emotional effect on Rico, he certainly doesn’t show it. The despotic Sebastiano Di Ravello, in a few of his villainous monologues, alludes to playing a formative role in Rico’s past, but this shared history is a facet of the game’s story left mostly unexplored. Just Cause 3 has more of a pretense than a plot—priority number one here was crafting a beautiful setting in which to wreak havoc, and judged against that ambition, it’s an unqualified success.
That havoc is the game’s raison d’être, and it focuses on it to the exclusion of almost everything else. There isn’t much to do in Just Cause 3 besides blow stuff up, so it’s a good thing the blowing stuff up never gets old. Progressing the threadbare plot requires Rico to liberate provinces by invading their military outposts and occupied towns, then demolishing everything he doesn’t like the look of. There isn’t a lot of variety to be had—shooting an RPG at a fuel tank isn’t meaningfully different from shooting an RPG at a propaganda billboard—but it makes up for its lack of variety with dizzying increases in scale. The earliest military bases task you with eliminating satellite dishes no bigger than bathtubs, but after a dozen hours, you’ll find yourself destroying antennae the size of apartment buildings.
That indiscriminate demolition is surely one of the reasons Just Cause has such an irreverent tone—it discourages questions. Rico’s flavor of guerrilla warfare hinges on the obliteration of electrical generators, construction equipment, communications technology, and all manner of valuable infrastructure, practically bombing Medici back to the stone age in his attempt to liberate it. But with a wry quip and a conspicuous absence of consequences, you’re given implicit permission to not worry about it too much. Plenty of the game’s more cartoonish elements are dismissed this way—Di Ravello in particular is more Skeletor than Gaddafi—but that same flippant attitude also handicaps its rare attempts to tap into genuine emotion. One character’s climactic sacrifice is immediately followed by a shoot-out inside an active volcano, creating a tonal whiplash so funny that the attempted drama dies on the vine.
If there is one thing Just Cause 3 does well besides large-scale violence, it’s flight. Rico comes equipped with a grappling hook, a reusable parachute, and a wingsuit for gliding long distances. Using these three in combination, it’s possible to keep Rico in flight more or less perpetually. Effectively using these tools is the only thing about Just Cause 3 that requires finesse and skill—it’s possible to use them to travel anywhere on the map quickly and gracefully, but doing so requires practice and hard-earned knowledge of exactly how and when to use each one. Each tool also has an important role to play in Rico’s rampages: the grappling hook can be used to tear down flimsy structures, and zipping around with the wingsuit and parachute is essential to surviving firefights. In Just Cause, even your movement options have to double as instruments of destruction.
Just Cause 3 starts as it means to go on: with its hero standing on the wing of a plane in mid-flight, tasking players with single-handedly destroying surface-to-air missile launchers without even telling them what the “fire” button is. It’s a sink-or-swim learning opportunity that forces you to press every button and see what happens, a disorienting and chaotic moment in a game that thrives on chaos. From there, not much more guidance is offered, but no more should be needed—it never gets much more complicated than “destroy the things that are trying to destroy you.” The only thing you should have left to learn is that your life depends on always taking the craziest option available—that you should never bring a knife or even a gun to the game’s gunfights, but should instead bring a fighter jet. Fortunately, Rico Rodriguez is a fast learner.