Just Cause 3. Now there’s a recent video game worthy of further discussion.
Odds are when you opened the game up for the first time your imagination was awash with fifty shades of craziness you were desperate to try out. Heady dreams of strapping deer to helicopters swam in a sea of possibilities alongside rafts powered by rocket-powered mines, all culminating in explosions hot enough to boil the coldest substance known to humanity – the tears of disappointment.
During Just Cause 3’s opening 120 seconds (not accounting for load times because damn that’s a lot of loading), all seems to be as expected what with Rico wing-walking while firing an infinite amount of rockets into distant SAM sites and assorted aircraft like Perses at a firework display. Trying not to giggle, guffaw, or gurn with glee at this glorious display of carnage is damn near impossible. Good right? I mean, this is why you bought Just Cause 3. It’s certainly a much safer way to satiate any pyromaniacal cravings you may have than actually blowing stuff in real life.
As quickly as this gift is bestowed upon you however, it’s unceremoniously ripped away. The lofty heights of power and glory warming your proverbial cockles not moments ago are replaced with the lazy descent into a grey cave mouth. Not a towering chasm drenched in flaming blood; just a non-descript geological formation that’s interesting as a paving slab. Cue the long climb up the slope to meet some fellow called Mario who tells you to drive across the island. Drive? Drive?! You just executed an Olympic-level triple flip swan dive while a plane trailed fire across the sky behind you and this jack-off, this unobservant swine, expects you to do the driving. What a fall from grace that is, one which permeates the early hours of Just Cause 3 to a point where it becomes difficult to enjoy.
You see, the third Just Cause didn’t look where it was going during the five years it took to hit store shelves and fell straight into the trap so many other open world games fall into. It gives you the vast tracts of land ripe for exploration only to take all of the fun toys and stick them at the top of the cupboard. The only way to get access to these is by building a stepladder to these upper echelons, the unlocks necessary to access them being strewn throughout a digital peninsula in challenges.
These challenges are uniformly drab. Some will have you racing across the islands and others plonk you into explosive situations where you basically blow a bunch of stuff up to get a specific score. That score then equates to a grade for which you are rewarded with what boils down to skill points. Sounds fair, right? Just Cause 3’s problem in this regard is that people want to play around in the game’s sandbox, bringing blasts and bullets to everything in sight. To really excel at this though, the player has to leap through granular hoop after granular hoop. It might not be as pronounced if these upgrades were linked to the game’s attractive elements. However, they aren’t. They’re sewn onto the patchwork blanket of mundane tasks. There’s an upside in that you only need to endure the ones related to the skill you intend to upgrade. Problem is, they still don’t let you submerge yourself in the shrapnel-covered scorching of the landscape of those now distant dreams you once had about Just Cause 3.
All because the game fell into the same bloody trap as every other open world game these days.
It’s a common trap and not one without merit in all fairness. Unlocks are at the core of pretty much any game for a reason. Designers stick them into everything from tap-fest mobile games to competitive multiplayer-focused ones to the extraordinarily huge worlds we commonly see today and have been doing so for years. They’re a simple yet effective way to keep players invested in an experience. Seriously now, how many times have you cracked open a heavily caffeinated beverage and continued to play a shooter for two extra hours in the hope of snagging a level up or “missed” a text to hit just one more dungeon for the chance at the coveted Jockstrap of Justice? The answer is probably too many.
By gating off more difficult locations or advanced abilities, designers hope that you’ll learn to better understand their creation as well as keep playing it with a grin on your face; after all, we all like to make progress. Or at the very least feel as though we are. It’s instinctive to want more. However, the world doesn’t just give you every coveted thing you’ve ever wanted. As a result, we’re all trained from infancy to work toward our goals and reap the resulting benefits of their hard work. Other than greed – which we all suffer from at one time or another – the power of learning itself is bloody strong. It is actually evolutionary. When you complete one of Just Cause 3’s frankly arduous challenges to unlock an upgrade or learn how to effectively wingsuit your way into the sun Icarus style, your brain dumps dopamine on itself as a chemical ticker-tape parade.
Dopamine basically trains your grey matter to go in certain directions. That’s part of why people often become addicted to substances or activities; their brain wants more dopamine so it’ll push the person forward on whatever path it knows to get hold of this highly influential chemical. Now, because games want you to play them more, they – morally or otherwise – exploit this natural response. It’s why in any Assassin’s Creed game there are innumerable things to go do, each one representing a completed goal and therefore a dose of happy drug for the brain. If you apply this same idea to many other games out there, and in particular certain open world and sandbox releases, the decisions made when crafting Just Cause 3 into the form it currently takes start to make sense, even if they’re not totally conducive to what many of us would describe as fun.
Look at Fallout 4 for instance. Progressing through the game naturally leads to every detail opening up around you. Rather than overwhelm you with S.P.E.C.I.A.L decisions, weapon options, and systems in a ten minute crash course before unleashing the worst prepared survivor on the world since I locked myself out in a snowstorm wearing only shorts and a broken watch, it slowly drip-feeds you the mechanics you’re about to spent the next 100 or so hours screwing around with to prepare you. Makes sense in that respect. Thing is, especially with Just Cause 3, that’s not particularly necessary.
Now look at Minecraft. People definitely adore the core survival gameplay and relish in their knowledge of its nuance, but they likely didn’t learn about it through a tiresome tutorial or being caterwauled by tool tips suggesting they turn around. No, they learn by exploring the world. They investigate to push the boundaries of the game in order to see how far they can push the game. Of course there is a progression system of sorts but if you want to mercilessly slaughter a pig for some pork, carry its still-warm flesh across the world and cook it on a stove, you don’t have to spend experience points to do so. You just can.
That’s still sort of structured and technically not a ‘true sandbox’ I know. What about Minecraft’s other side though? The bit that Just Cause 3 could have wholesale aped and been a completely unique experience in its field? Minecraft’s Creative Mode. For over 6 years now, creators from all walks of life have delighted in the endless joys of building in Minecraft, constrained by their imaginations alone. Whether it be a logo, a faithful recreation of Denmark, or a monolithic machination of male genitalia, you can built it in Minecraft — albeit the third choice might not be one to share with your friends. Take stock for a moment and consider how different the game – and indeed the industry as a whole – would be right now if Mojang had instead chosen to lock Minecraft’s creative tools in a box that could only be opened after defeating a particular boss or surviving for X number of days. In that dark alternate history Notch wouldn’t have become a multi-millionaire thanks to an acquisition by Microsoft that’s for sure.
Take this idea then and jam it into Just Cause 3. By the time you’ve slogged through the metaphorical Labours of Hercules, your toolbox is awash with opportunities reined in only by your creativity — the game’s technical limitations but that’s a conversation for another day. Absolutely nothing in Just Cause 3 compares to the core gameplay element of causing untold havoc in the region or the joyous art of experimentation. To get there though, you’ve got to grind through hours of tedious challenges that frankly feel a little too familiar to when people defended Final Fantasy XIII by saying,“It gets good after 20 hours.” In a world where time’s value is unfathomable, the notion of devoting an extended period of time to a game more interested in dragging your sorry self through uninspiring events than giving you what you paid for simply is not appealing to many.
There is pleasure to be found in Just Cause 3 that’s extremely hard to measure without blowing up a few cars in the process. It would have been nice if Avalanche had unlocked a greater arsenal of fun toys to be used earlier, or indeed had extra time to craft some truly unique content to keep you going while unlocking them. However, whether it be the choice of Avalanche or publisher Square Enix, that decision does hold this game back. There really are not many sandbox games out there that could claim to be as detailed and nuanced as Just Cause 3, let alone offer such immense creative scope to the player. Avalanche squandered a perfect opportunity to break free from the chains of traditional open world gaming by crafting what’s essentially a physics sandbox worthy of anyone’s time and cast off the restrictions handed down by a well-trodden fundamental aspect of game design to deliver pure, unadulterated fun directly to the user.
Judging by the company’s track record, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to learn that this was considered and then pushed to one side in an instant as something the modding community will do for free. Worked for Just Cause 2 after all.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to skid along the ground on my chin a few more times to unlock a slightly better wingsuit.