Power To The Peo­ple

In Just Cause 3, Avalanche lib­er­ates the open-world genre from its shack­les

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY BEN MAXWELL

We get em­broiled in Avalanche’s open-world revo­lu­tion as Just

Cause 3 shakes up the genre

Science can’t wait. We may tech­ni­cally be half­way through a mis­sion, but who cares? Our PETAbait­ing ex­per­i­ment is at­tempt­ing to an­swer an im­por­tant ques­tion for all mankind: what hap­pens when you try to take off in a he­li­copter with a cow teth­ered to the ro­tor blades? The first at­tempt fails when we leave too much slack in the line, and af­ter a couple of spec­tac­u­lar ro­ta­tions the bovine is flung some dis­tance from our ve­hi­cle. This time, we’ve gen­tly ten­sioned the rope so that the an­i­mal car­cass is dan­gling up­side down next to the cock­pit. The en­gine spins up, and the air­craft rises two or three feet off the ground, pre­car­i­ously rock­ing side to side in an in­creas­ingly vi­o­lent man­ner, be­fore tip­ping over en­tirely and ex­plod­ing. Screen mildly red­dened, Rico Ro­driguez stands up un­chas­tened from the tan­gle of metal and well-done steak, and brushes him­self down. OK. What’s next? “Not a lot of games that I’ve played make you laugh be­cause of what the player does,” says game di­rec­tor Roland Lester­lin, a mix of amuse­ment and vin­di­ca­tion on his face in the wake of our un­ortho­dox test­ing. “There are games that are come­dies, which make you laugh be­cause they’re very funny and have great scripts and all that, but games that just make you laugh out loud be­cause you’re mess­ing with them? They’re a rare breed.”

As are games that bend over back­wards to en­sure that you’re al­ways hav­ing a good time.

Just Cause 3’ s Mediter­ranean-in­spired set­ting of Medici is a con­vinc­ing space, sure, home to a story of work­ing-class re­sis­tance and a se­ries of set mis­sions to work through. Where other stu­dios would seek to man­date that you ab­sorb their script­ing work, Avalanche in­stead has laboured ex­tremely hard to en­sure that noth­ing ever gets be­tween you and Just Cause 3’ s overblown, cas­cad­ing physics and in­nate ab­sur­dity.

“Early on, as we were build­ing the team, I got to spend a lot of time read­ing ev­ery fo­rum that I could find on the In­ter­net – and there are a lot of those – and watch­ing thou­sands of YouTube videos about Just Cause 2,” Lester­lin says, “and just see­ing that peo­ple’s en­joy­ment of the game really had noth­ing to do with the core nar­ra­tive or any­thing else. Peo­ple were just like, ‘I can’t be­lieve I can tether two things to­gether!’ So my first in­stinct when we sat down with the leads and the team – some of whom worked on Just Cause 2 – was: let’s not break that.

“So we started with that core phi­los­o­phy, and then, as more peo­ple joined, we found that ev­ery­one loved that part of the game too, and would laugh about it. I knew that if I could some­how con­vince peo­ple to keep laugh­ing through­out the whole course of de­vel­op­ment, there would be some­thing a lit­tle mag­i­cal that’s more than just the ones and ze­roes that are be­hind the code. There’s kind of a soul in that idea, and if we could cap­ture that again, but also use the power of the mod­ern con­soles and all the fancy new tricks, we could maybe have some­thing really spe­cial on our hands.”

Though the process may have been a thought­ful, even del­i­cate one, the man­i­fes­ta­tion of all that time-con­sum­ing work is any­thing but. If play­ers like teth­er­ing things so much, goes the rea­son­ing, then why not al­low them to use up to six lines si­mul­ta­ne­ously and throw in the bonus of be­ing able to tune their tension in ser­vice of max­imis­ing the chaotic po­ten­tial?

The re­sult is an in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful and flex­i­ble tool. At its most ba­sic, the Grap­ple Line still works as a fast way to get around the world, and in tan­dem with your parachute is a method of launch­ing your­self into the air quickly. But you could also use it to con­struct a web of po­ten­tial de­struc­tion in an enemy base, then col­lapse the en­snared struc­tures like fiery domi­noes. You could em­ploy a couple of lines be­tween build­ings as a makeshift cat­a­pult, then launch un­for­tu­nate wildlife into the dis­tance. Or you could take ad­van­tage of the fact that ob­jects no longer have just a sin­gle at­tach­ment point and tether a man’s

"GAMES THAT JUST MAKE YOU LAUGH OUT LOUD BE­CAUSE YOU'RE MESS­ING WITH THEM? THEY'RE A RARE BREED"

hand to his head, then quickly tighten the line, at which point he may pon­der if he was bet­ter off un­der the rule of an­tag­o­nist dic­ta­tor Se­bas­tiano Di Ravello be­fore be­ing ‘lib­er­ated’.

This mal­leabil­ity is built into ev­ery as­pect of the game, with sys­tems that com­bine and cas­cade in re­sponse to play­ers’ prob­ing. “Games such as

Minecraft and even Por­tal came up with sys­tems that are very much about player cre­ativ­ity,” Lester­lin says. “And Just Cause is really fo­cused on you, the player, and what you want to do. So we’ve built all th­ese toys and sys­tems that can in­ter­act, and even we don’t know what they’re all go­ing to do to­gether. I’m so ex­cited for when the game comes out and I find a YouTube video of some­thing I had no idea was pos­si­ble.”

One sys­temic part­ner­ship that is im­me­di­ately ev­i­dent, though, is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the parachute and wing­suit. Used in com­bi­na­tion with the grap­pling hook, this trio of ap­pa­ra­tus means you’re able to stay in the air in­def­i­nitely. Trans­fer­ring be­tween the parachute and the wing­suit is no more com­plex than a but­ton press, and the lift you gain from de­ploy­ing the for­mer af­fords you the height to plum­met again. Af­ter some it­er­a­tion, Avalanche has fi­nessed your rate of de­scent, favour­ing a ra­tio of three feet for­ward to one foot down, which en­sures that even with­out jug­gling items, you never feel like you’re go­ing to run out of sky. And if you do find your­self drop­ping down to lower al­ti­tudes than is really com­fort­able, Avalanche is ready to help you out. “We don’t tell the play­ers this, but the ground ac­tu­ally creates a lit­tle bit of up­ward lift all the time,” Lester­lin re­veals. “The rea­son be­ing that it’s really cool to be really close to the ground, so we just give the player a lit­tle bit of help, be­cause it’s hi­lar­i­ous.”

Just Cause 3’ s dy­namic chaos has placed a sig­nif­i­cant load on Ha­vok’s tech. Here, de­vel­oper sup­port en­gi­neer Cor­mac O’Brien dis­cusses Avalanche’s limit-push­ing de­sign. Games tend to use physics in ser­vice of real­ism, but Just Cause 3 is more hy­per­real than ac­cu­rate. Yeah, definitely – we love that kind of thing. I was talk­ing to [lead VFX artist] Fred Hooper and he said [Avalanche] told him to ratchet up the ef­fects, so he did. And then they said, “No – more”. And so he ratch­eted things up again and it’s, “No, no. More!” And so he ba­si­cally made ex­plo­sions so big that they crashed the game. And they said, “Yeah, that’s what we want!” We helped them to make that work.

How big was that chal­lenge?

It’s push­ing all of our tech to the ab­so­lute limit – which is great, since that’s what helps us im­prove our stuff. They’re really push­ing all of the de­struc­tion with de­tailed set­ups and lev­els of de­struc­tion. The petrol sta­tions, for ex­am­ple: when they ex­plode, it’s in about five dif­fer­ent stages, and each one gets big­ger and big­ger, and all the physics pieces are just scat­tered. It’s such a great use of our tech. The teth­er­ing is sig­nif­i­cantly more gran­u­lar – is that one of the things push­ing at the lim­its? Yeah. With Just Cause 2 there was ba­si­cally just one [pos­si­ble] at­tach­ment point on each ob­ject. So if you put a tether on your he­li­copter, it would be a cer­tain point at the bot­tom of the chop­per; if it was a per­son, I think it was al­ways at their cen­tre. But with Just

Cause 3, as far as I can see from my own tests with deers and cows, it’s so gran­u­lar that you can just at­tach ar­bi­trary points to­gether.

Do you want to see more games go in for physics-based com­edy?

Yeah, to­tally. It’s ac­tu­ally one of the things I harp on about here at the of­fice. We have de­bates about our favourite games, and I really like the ones where you can muck about and do silly stuff that’s al­most game­break­ing. A lot of games will try to pre­vent you from do­ing ridicu­lous things be­cause it doesn’t serve the story or the game de­sign, but I ac­tu­ally like be­ing able to in­ter­act with a sim­u­lated sys­tem in un­ex­pected ways. Just be­ing able to mess with things – I definitely think it could be ex­plored more in big-bud­get games. Just the sheer fun of mess­ing about.

Aall this lib­erty is al­most dis­con­cert­ing at first. Where the in­dus­try stan­dard is still to cos­set the player with pro­nounced gat­ing, guid­ing nudges and not de­vi­at­ing from the com­fort­ing fa­mil­iar­ity of a decade’s worth of in­grained de­sign tra­di­tions,

Just Cause 3 stands back and dares the player to jump. Do­ing so takes a lit­tle courage, how­ever.

“I see a lot of peo­ple play the game on the hor­i­zon­tal plane dur­ing those first ten min­utes,” Lester­lin says. “We’re all used to play­ing games on that plane, but then our game says, ‘No, go ahead and get up in the air. Use the vol­ume.’ And that’s a scary mo­ment, be­cause you’re like, ‘Yeah, but I’m go­ing to die a lot. If I jump off a cliff I’m go­ing to die; if I fall from a mov­ing ve­hi­cle I’m go­ing to die.’

“And we say, ‘No. Go ahead and fall.’ And there’s some­thing fun, and as funny, about fail­ing as there is in suc­ceed­ing. Our dif­fi­culty ramp isn’t about sud­denly in­tro­duc­ing an enemy that will snipe you [dead] in one shot – even though the snipers are pretty vi­cious – but a self-im­posed one where you get bet­ter at pulling off what­ever in­sane plan is in your head. If it all goes wrong, it makes you laugh. But when it comes to­gether, you have that amaz­ing sense of ac­com­plish­ment, be­cause you’ve ro­tated the cam­era back­wards and are wing­suit­ing away as an en­tire bridge col­lapses be­hind you. The re­ward sys­tems are right there.”

The stu­dio’s con­fi­dence in play­ers’ cre­ativ­ity and its own sys­tems re­sult in an open world that truly lives up to that of­ten mis­lead­ing la­bel. If, as we do, you choose to head to the most northerly and mil­i­tarised re­gion of the daunt­ingly large world map early on, face over­whelm­ing odds and limp back in a stolen bomber jet, Avalanche doesn’t get in your way. And if you then use that bomber to wipe out a smaller base that might have taken 15 to 20 min­utes to con­quer with­out the ad­di­tional fire­power, then so be it. It’s a brave ap­proach that risks un­bal­anc­ing the game in the same way dan­gling cat­tle might un­set­tle a he­li­copter’s del­i­cate equi­lib­rium.

“We had a lot of de­bate about that, and we were al­ways ner­vous about the pro­gres­sion as­pect of the game,” Lester­lin ad­mits. “But as soon as you start pun­ish­ing the player for ex­per­i­ment­ing, there’s a prob­lem. If you’re cool enough to go to a north­ern base, grab a bomber and come back down to oblit­er­ate an ear­lier base in a sin­gle bomb­ing run, there’s a re­ward in the fact that you thought of do­ing it, and were able to blow the crap out of the base. It made you smile, and there’s 100 other bases – so, yeah, go ahead! And if you want to bomb ev­ery sin­gle base and that’s your way of com­plet­ing the game, more power to you.

“The more we held with the phi­los­o­phy of ‘Don’t get in the way of the player,’ the bet­ter the game was. And what we dis­cov­ered was that, while you found a dom­i­nant strat­egy in bomb­ing a base, af­ter you’ve bombed it, at what point did you start think­ing to your­self, ‘I want to fly closer to the ground’? And, ‘What if I stunt out on the wing?’ And then you blow up your bomber, and you’re like, ‘OK, what else should I do?’”

He’s right: soon af­ter our early bomb­ing coup, we lose our winged toy to the ocean in an episode of hubris that in­volves clip­ping the legs of an oil rig while try­ing to strafe an awk­wardly po­si­tioned fuel tank. That means storm­ing the enemy in­stal­la­tion on foot in­stead, us­ing the fa­cil­ity’s blocky struc­ture for cover as we as­cend its plat­forms be­fore com­man­deer­ing the gun­ship sent to halt to our ef­forts. Yes, Rico is for­mi­da­ble, but once you’ve at­tracted the at­ten­tion of Gen­eral Di Ravello’s forces, things es­ca­late fast.

“One of our big­gest de­sign chal­lenges was fig­ur­ing out how to let play­ers keep the level of chal­lenge where they want it to be,” says lead de­signer Francesco An­tolini. “How do we avoid things be­com­ing triv­ial when Rico is a one-man army, right? On the other hand, how do we make sure it’s never frus­trat­ing? Be­cause it would be easy to send out 10,000 en­e­mies and ar­ti­fi­cially cre­ate dif­fi­culty. Think­ing about that shaped the way we de­signed the com­bat and Heat sys­tem.”

Trou­ble in Just Cause 3, then, is opt-in. So long as you haven’t en­croached on re­stricted ter­ri­tory or opened fire, en­e­mies will warn you off if you stray too close to a base’s perime­ter. And guards pa­trolling oc­cu­pied towns and cities will leave you alone if you don’t dam­age any­thing (or any­one) while ex­plor­ing. “This isn’t a game where you’re just trav­el­ling around and you ran­domly get heat,” An­tolini con­tin­ues. “But you can cre­ate it at any time if you want. And un­like other open-world games, Heat in Just Cause 3 can also be used as a re­source, be­cause it can be the mech­a­nism which calls in badass enemy ve­hi­cles that you can choose not to de­stroy and take for your­self in­stead. That’s an in­ter­est­ing op­tion that you have each time that you get caught up in a bat­tle.”

But com­bat is just as easy to opt out of. Flee from the sphere of in­flu­ence of which­ever nest of hor­nets you’ve kicked and the world will fall quiet again, the mu­sic segue­ing into lilt­ing calm as you drift or wing­suit away from the mis­chief you’ve in­sti­gated. And here, too, the game re­veals its player-cen­tric de­sign and re­spect for your time. Any dam­age wrought on enemy bases or oc­cu­pied

set­tle­ments will re­main in­def­i­nitely, ready for you to take up the cause again next time you visit (base per­son­nel won’t even bother to re­pro­gram the sur­face-to-air mis­sile launch­ers you hacked to fight on your side), so a failed as­sault never feels like a waste of time. And if you die while at­tack­ing a base, the game neatly de­posits you just out­side the gar­ri­son, tempt­ing you to have an­other crack, your pock­ets gen­er­ously re­stocked with ammo.

“We con­sciously de­fied some [de­sign] con­ven­tions be­cause we don’t think they’re fun,” An­tolini says. “It’s not fun if a de­vel­oper forces me to redo five min­utes of stuff that I’ve al­ready done just be­cause a check­point isn’t there. Why isn’t it there? It’s the same with respawns on death – I think the ap­proach in Just Cause 2 was pretty bru­tal, since you just had ten spawn points on this enor­mous map. So we made sure they’re every­where for Just Cause 3.”

“You can al­most use it as a strat­egy,” Lester­lin adds. “Blow your­self up, get more ammo and come back at it! But be­cause it’s quite sim­ple in that way, we found that it en­cour­aged peo­ple to take more risks and to play the game in the way that we hope play­ers will: like a psy­chopath.

“THE MORE WE HELD THE PHI­LOS­O­PHY OF ‘DON’T GET IN THE WAY OF THE PLAYER,’ THE BET­TER THE GAME WAS”

Do what­ever the hell you want to do. Go crazy and don’t worry about it. If it all goes wrong and you die, you’ll be right there and you can just carry on.”

An­other op­tion al­ways avail­able to play­ers is to call in sup­ply drops. You can se­lect a ve­hi­cle and up to two weapons from a menu of un­locked and col­lected kit (ve­hi­cles can be de­posited at garages to add them to your fleet), and then toss a bea­con wher­ever you want your crate of good­ies to land. The box that tum­bles out of the sky pops open in an explosion of colour­ful con­fetti, as if to play­fully un­der­score the game’s gung-ho at­ti­tude. And if you choose to place the bea­con over enemy troops or ve­hi­cles, then they’ll be crushed, Metal Gear

Solid V style, by the box. It’s stressed that the me­chanic was in place prior to Metal Gear’s release and, as you’d ex­pect, Just Cause 3 di­als things up a few notches any­way, al­low­ing you to weaponise a naval de­stroyer by ap­pa­rat­ing it on your en­e­mies.

There is, how­ever, a rare lim­i­ta­tion ap­plied to sup­ply drops: a cooldown timer. “I think when some play­ers first see the count­down, they’ll be like, ‘Why’d they do that?’” Lester­lin says. “And that’s what we were try­ing to ac­com­plish. Ev­ery time we watched a tester, we saw them say, ‘OK, well I can’t get that; I’m go­ing to try out this other thing’. And they’d do some­thing to­tally dif­fer­ent that was fresh and new, and made them laugh. So we knew it was a good idea.”

But Avalanche can’t bear even this re­stric­tion in the longterm: play enough of the side mis­sion chal­lenges that be­come avail­able as each town or base is lib­er­ated, and you’ll be able to re­duce your cooldown to zero by un­lock­ing the cor­re­spond­ing Mod. The idea is that by the time you’ve made a sig­nif­i­cant dent on the game, you’ll have tried ev­ery­thing it has to of­fer at least once. Other chal­lenge-won Mods in­clude tweaks to the strength of your tether’s con­trac­tive force, the abil­ity to al­ter the char­ac­ter of ve­hi­cles by adding ni­trous boosts, and the power to jump, and the op­tion to bol­ster your un­lim­ited stock of limpet ex­plo­sives with booster mines that turn any­thing you at­tach them to into ad-hoc rock­ets.

Mods can be tog­gled on from the menu and di­rectly call back to the tin­ker­ers who toyed with

Just Cause 2’ s lim­i­ta­tions to great ef­fect. Their in­clu­sion ups the pan­de­mo­nium po­ten­tial fur­ther, and prom­ises to make an al­ready re­mark­ably ac­com­mo­dat­ing game even more cus­tomis­able – leap­ing a heavy mil­i­tary boat over mines by us­ing a boost jump is silly, unchecked fun.

It’s rare to be af­forded so much free­dom in a game with such high pro­duc­tion val­ues. By boil­ing down its ob­jec­tives to their sim­plest pos­si­ble form (de­stroy ob­jects and ve­hi­cles marked with red in or­der to turn the world map blue), build­ing its sys­tems to in­ter­act in as many dif­fer­ent ways as pos­si­ble, and throw­ing tra­di­tional no­tions of gat­ing and pro­gres­sion struc­ture in the bin, Avalanche gra­ciously steps aside. The stu­dio’s de­sign­ers re­main in the back­ground, an invisible fun-fix­ated in­flu­ence in a game that con­tin­u­ally re­shapes it­self around your ever-chang­ing plans.

Take the Di Ravello stat­ues that cast a shadow on ev­ery oc­cu­pied town’s cen­tre, for ex­am­ple. A grenade or sus­tained gun­fire will top­ple them, sure, but so too will a well-placed tether. You could lib­er­ate an enemy tank and take aim, or sim­ply jump a car into the mon­u­ment’s stone belly, bail­ing out at the last mo­ment. At one point, in an­other he­li­copter-cen­tric ex­per­i­ment, we de­cided to see if we could de­cap­i­tate one with the ro­tor blades, ex­pect­ing dis­as­ter – or at least to dis­cover some­thing Avalanche hadn’t thought of. No such luck. With some deft pi­lot­ing, the statue was lit­er­ally de­faced, and we pro­ceeded to cut down the other signs of oc­cu­pa­tion blight­ing the town us­ing the same un­nec­es­sar­ily risky method.

“I re­mem­ber us work­ing on that ex­act prob­lem,” Lester­lin says. “When a player is fly­ing a he­li­copter, we make the blades tougher, but the im­pact ac­tu­ally gen­er­ates physics back to the air­craft, so we have to dampen how much it hits the he­li­copter ver­sus the ob­ject that it’s up against. We had all th­ese de­bates about the ro­tor blades just to en­sure that they felt fun. How­ever, when an enemy hits some­thing with their ro­tor blades, they get screwed and blow up. It’s about shift­ing those bound­aries all of the time.”

With so many op­tions avail­able, we’ve yet to run out of amus­ing ways to lib­er­ate (and bully) the peo­ple of Medici af­ter a con­certed 18 hours of play. “Your ob­jec­tives are sim­ple,” An­tolini says, “but the ways in which you can achieve them are hugely var­ied. I really hope that when peo­ple talk about this game, ev­ery­body will have a dif­fer­ent story about the mis­sions and chal­lenges that they all did.”

But de­spite the game’s painstak­ingly un­ob­tru­sive de­sign, get­ting to the point where such im­pro­vi­sa­tion be­comes in­tu­itive, and where you can com­fort­ably string your move­ments to­gether into one un­bro­ken run of Hol­ly­wood spec­ta­cle, takes a lit­tle time and com­mit­ment. The hec­tic open­ing few min­utes cram in quick tasters of many pos­si­bil­i­ties, but be­ing shown some­thing is rather dif­fer­ent to em­brac­ing and fully un­der­stand­ing it. Lester­lin wants new play­ers to keep that in mind when they first step in Rico’s ex­plo­sive world.

“I am a lit­tle wor­ried,” he con­fesses. “At around the one-hour mark, I just want peo­ple to give it an­other 20 min­utes and really play around with it. Maybe go on­line and watch a video of what this game can do, and then go and try to do some­thing that no one has ever done be­fore. You’re go­ing to smile and laugh when you do, and that’s Just Cause.”

“DO WHAT­EVER THE HELL YOU WANT. IF IT ALL GOES WRONG AND YOU DIE, YOU’ LL BE RIGHT THERE AND YOU CAN CARRY ON”

Roland Lester­lin, game di­rec­tor, Avalanche NYC

TOP Bridge de­struc­tion can be em­ployed tac­ti­cally to de­stroy en­e­mies, or sim­ply to cut off routes. But most of the time you’ll do it just to watch them crum­ble spec­tac­u­larly.

RIGHT The game rev­els in set­ting up ex­plo­sions on a grand scale, oblit­er­at­ing the pre­vi­ous high-wa­ter mark for videogame py­rotech­nics

Game JustCause3 Pub­lisher Square Enix De­vel­oper Avalanche For­mat US Ori­gin PC, PS4, Xbox One

Release De­cem­ber 1

“Our tech is do­ing all the sim­u­la­tion of solid pieces that can col­lide with each other,” O’Brien ex­plains. “Avalanche has used that to layer on the sparks, flames and all the graph­i­cal el­e­ments you can see”

FROM TOP Ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Adam David­son; Francesco An­tolini, lead de­signer

One mis­sion type re­calls Burnout’s crash junc­tions, and sees you hurl at tar­gets in a ve­hi­cle rigged with ex­plo­sives be­fore bail­ing and watch­ing the car­nage

Rico’s tethe teth­er­ingring de­vice was cre­ated d by the rebel leader’s friend end and col­lab­o­ra­tor, r, Deemah, who helps you up­grade it as the game e pro­gresses

JustCause3 is ex­tremely gen­er­ous with the num­ber of physics ob­jects on­screen at once. You can also use the heads of Di Ravello stat­ues as ad-hoc wreck­ing balls

TOP Com­bat seems chaotic at first, but al­lows for a lot of im­pro­vi­sa­tion. Your parachute and grap­ple give you a sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage when it comes to out­flank­ing foes. ABOVE Enemy base de­signs are highly var­ied, rang­ing from flat com­pounds to in­stal­la­tions like this one, with its el­e­vated plat­forms. Th­ese tow­er­ing con­struc­tions call for cre­ative aerial as­saults

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