Power To The People
In Just Cause 3, Avalanche liberates the open-world genre from its shackles
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