Playing through Just Cause 3 is a lot like watching an extended Michael Bay movie marathon while eating a trough of popcorn drenched liberally with “butter.” When it’s all over, you have a smile on your face and a churning fullness in your belly, but a vague sense of emptiness as well. You’re full, but you’re not. Plenty of stuff happened: explosions -- lots of them -- and gunfire and chases and all sorts of improbable stunts. But as much as you enjoyed it, a little quiet voice -- hard to discern as your hearing has been shattered from all the pyrotechnics -- might be asking “is that all there is?”
We could have a pretty interesting discussion about the relative importance of plot versus character in popular entertainment. Hint: it’s character, and here’s a great example. The plot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is entirely encapsulated in the title. But what or who do we remember from that iconic series? Buffy, Xander, Willow, Spike, Angel. In Buffy and in Firefly, Joss Whedon created an ensemble of memorable, quirky, and interesting characters. From episode to episode, the plots were often serviceable or even downright nonsensical. Think about every long-running book, television, or film series: it’s the characters that keep them going.
Just Cause 3 has the tissue-thiniest of plots: you play Rico Rodriguez, who has returned from his appearance in Just Cause 2, this time to help topple the dictator and all around bad guy Sebastiano di Ravello from his rule of the island nation of Medici. Medici has a wealth of the mysterious element Bavarium, and Rico’s job is to explode -- I mean, take control of -- everything near and dear to the General. It turns out to be pretty much the entire nation. There is a gleeful sort of amorality at work in the game, and it doesn’t matter much if Rico takes control of a town via stealth or carpet bombing. The rebels love him just the same.
If Just Cause 3 was a joke -- and it isn’t -- the story would be the set up, but the all-important punchline is all the cool stuff you get to do in service of Rico’s mission. There is, of course, a series of main story missions, which basically introduce new mechanics and gear and open up new areas as they move the plot forward. There are dozens and dozens of other things to do as well, like side missions, challenges and shorter, randomized events. Though completing challenges is the primary method of upgrading your grappling hook or wingsuit or other gear, they're optional so you only need to focus on the ones that fit your playstyle. In the world of Just Cause 3, death has no real sting, and Rico will respawn with supplies restocked and no progress lost.
Using Rico’s gear and abilities to move smoothly through the vast landscape are major pleasures of Just Cause 3, second only to causing mayhem. Using a series of grappling hooks, parachute, and wingsuit in combination, Rico can glide, fly, jump, ascend, fall and climb in every imaginable way, and that doesn’t figure in all the forms of transportation such as cars, motorcycles, trains, helicopters, boats and jets. Just Cause 3 is a really remarkable playground for the imagination, at least when it comes to creative ways of triggering explosions.
Calling back to our earlier discussion of plot and character, Just Cause 3 does have a cast of well-written and entertainingly voiced minor characters that teeter on the spearpoint of parody and sincerity, and it’s interactions with them that will see you through yet another “go here, blow that up” mission. For all its size and wealth of biomes and plethora of busywork, there will come a time in the game when it all starts to feel a little samey and even tedious. Like that trough of delicious, slime coated popcorn, you start to wonder if you’re going to reach the end.
The huge island of Medici -- and especially the explosions and special effects -- all look fantastic. On the consoles, load times are absurdly long, as in up to three or four minutes to re-load some missions. PC load times and all-around performance are much better, with smoother and more consistent frame rates and sharper visuals.
Just Cause 3 is fun, no doubt about it. As an open world game, it balances nicely the need for structure and freedom. You can treat it like a playground or you can focus on mainlining the story, the triteness of which is redeemed by its engaging characters. It asks the player to do a handful of things over and over, but at least offers a truly wide berth in accommodating solutions. Like an action movie marathon, the busy energy of it can become wearying, but in most ways, Just Cause 3 is, quite literally, a blast.