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    Just Cause 3: Won’t let go

    I'm looking at a piece of concept art pinned to a window in Avalanche’s Swedish studio. It shows a beautiful Mediterranean beach glowing in the afternoon sun. Then I look past it, out of the window, and see that it’s snowing heavily outside. It seems strange that a series famous for its tropical picture-postcard settings is made in Stockholm and New York: two cities known for their brutal winters. But then that’s what Just Cause is all about: escapism.

    “ Just Cause gives you that feeling of being twelve years old,” says Roland Lesterlin, game director. “You almost have the mind of an adult. You understand the world. But everyone’s taller than you. The moon is bigger. The stars are big. You get into a car and it’s big. It’s this sense of wonder and learning new things. New smells, new tastes. And games have a unique ability to give us that emotion.”

    Just Cause 3, he says, is built with this feeling in mind. A world of possibilities that rewards inquisitive players, and coaxes you to prod and experiment with its systems. But at the same time, it’s not as wild as, say, Saints Row . This is intentional according to Lesterlin: “Compared to other open-world games, we push more towards the sandbox. But as outrageous as it is, we’re still grounded in reality in a lot of ways. Take the wingsuit. It feels real because it’s fast, and when you hit the ground it’s a little aggressive. But you can fly for long distances without losing momentum. I think when you get  too  absurd it damages your sense of escapism.”

    The wingsuit joins the parachute and grappling hook as a means of getting around the massive map, and it’s a thrill to use. At any time during a grapple or parachute drop you can switch to it, and its physics are so ridiculously floaty that it almost feels like flying. Being able to transition between these three modes of transport makes traversing the new setting of Medici a joy.
    It’s the perfect playground for the new wingsuit
    The map is the same size as in the previous game, but I can tell instantly that it’s a more interesting environment in terms of layout and geometry. The area I start in features a town resting on the top of a cliff, a dramatic, rocky coastline with caves carved into it, and a huge enemy base like an oil refinery built into the side of a mountain. It feels much more sheer and vertical than the Panau of Just Cause 2: the perfect playground for the new wingsuit.

    I spend a good chunk of my time with the game just floating around, soaring through rocky arches and under bridges. If you start to slow down, just grapple onto a nearby piece of scenery and give yourself a quick boost. Because that’s science.

    The Just Cause games have always had stories, but they’re remembered more for their sandbox worlds. I ask Lesterlin if story is still important to them: “The sandbox came first,” he admits happily. “The narrative is fun too, of course. We had fun making it, and it’s silly and campy and we don’t take ourselves seriously. I hope people have fun with the story and meeting the new characters, but we really wanted to create that joyful sandbox first.”

    The freedom of the sandbox, and size of the world, enables missions to be open ended, and there won’t be any set way to finish them. “Our missions aren’t scripted in a way that you can do anything in them that you can’t also do in the open world. But we will provide opportunities to do fun things, because we know where the player is going, and we can set cool things up.”

    Even so, Lesterlin wants players to try things out and experiment, and says that watching QA testers has proven to him just how many ways there are to complete objectives. “They’ve finished them in very different ways.”

    Just Cause 2 is a curio in that it’s still selling well to this day on PC. It regularly appears in the Steam charts, four years after it was first released. This is thanks to the modding community, and especially the famous mod that added multiplayer to the game.

    “I started making games by modding,” says Lesterlin. “ I remember being eight and editing the text files of a game so there were swear words in it. Then I started trying to do things that were more advanced. It started out as cheating for me, seeing if I could find a way to break the game systems. Then I got into machinima. I actually saw a  Just Cause 2 video where someone had used the game engine to make a film. It was set in the mountains at night, and it was like a thriller or a horror movie. I see that kind of inventiveness and I love it.”

    Lesterlin considers it an honour that players want to spend their personal time messing with his games. “The guys who made the multiplayer mode spent two years on it, just because they loved it,” he tells me. “If we’re lucky enough to get that same kind of support with Just Cause 3, that would be great. We’re trying everything to make sure it’s possible.”

    He also sees streaming and YouTube playing as potentially being a big part of the word-of-mouth success of Just Cause 3. “You’ve got Steam’s new streaming feature, and  Just Cause 3  is just perfect for that. Everyone wants to watch an amazing Just Cause player. You see some of the things they do and you can’t believe it.”

    “I can’t wait to watch that first person who uses the wingsuit to go from the top of the mountain, all the way down to the ocean while staying just a metre off the ground. You know that people are going to come up with these amazing routes, soaring through caves and out the other side. It’s like how people were flying planes upside down in  Just Cause 2, two inches from the water, under every bridge, in one go.”

    My favourite new feature is being able to tether multiple objects. Better yet, you can now control the tension of the tethers. Chased by a helicopter, I stuck a tether on it, and attached the other end to the ground. A squeeze of the tension button and it ploughed violently into the earth. I also had way too much fun attaching groups of NPCs to cars and pulling doughnuts, watching their bodies flail wildly through the air. The potential for physics-based mischief is even greater than it was in the last game.

    The Avalanche team is huge, and spread over two cities, but they’re still very much an indie studio. I ask what their development process is, and how they come up with their ideas. “We have a very flat hierarchy,” Lesterlin says. “Everyone on the team, from QA and design to sound, art and tech... every single one of them knows games. We average quite a lot of years in the studio. We’re talking seven to ten years of making games, and some of the biggest games ever made. They know what makes a game great.”
    I stumble on a weapon that fires eight rockets at once
    As I’m playing, I stumble across a weapon that can lock onto multiple targets, then fire eight rockets at once. The havoc it causes is exhilarating, and a new ‘cascading destruction’ system means that blowing one thing up will likely cause a chain reaction that will blow another dozen things up. The explosions in Just Cause 2 were impressive, but these are on a whole other level. I spent some time planting C4 on the big oil rig base I mentioned earlier, then sat back and watched the whole thing fall to pieces. It’s not quite  Red Faction  levels of destructibility, but it’s close.

    I mention the rocket gun to Lesterlin. “That was dreamed up by a coder. He came to us and said ‘Hey, I have this idea.’ And we instantly said ‘Yes! That has to go in the game!’ This is a highly collaborative project. It takes a lot of work to polish a game this size. Our people need to maintain their passion, and one of the ways you do that is by listening to their ideas.”

    One of the biggest changes to the Just Cause  formula in this new game is that you can now call in supply, weapon and vehicle drops at any time, without having to spend any money. Anyone who spent a virtual fortune on a plane in Just Cause 2, only to immediately slam it into the side of a mountain, will rejoice at this news. But to ensure the game doesn’t become too easy, Avalanche has also upped the difficulty and the reactivity of the AI.

    “If you took an armoured, missile-launching chopper into a base and spammed it with missiles without taking damage, it would take away the joy,” says Lesterlin. “So our AI guys have been working hard to balance that by introducing things like anti-air guns and heavy enemies. If you get into some tough military vehicle, we’ll send in RPG troops to counteract it. That way you constantly have to shift your priorities and tactics.

    “This makes attacking bases more fun. Maybe you’ll wingsuit into a base and use your guns, then grapple up to an enemy helicopter and suddenly you’re in an air battle. The more varied the game is, the more fun it is.”

    Looking at the snow falling outside, I wonder if the Avalanche team have ever thought about trying a setting that wasn’t quite so sunny and idyllic for  Just Cause 3 . “We had a lot of ideas about where to set the game, but one of the things that makes  Just Cause  feel like  Just Cause is that it’s set on an archipelago. You can fly away from the map and it’s all ocean, for miles. That gives us a natural boundary for the world.”

    Sparkling, azure water has always been a big part of the magic too. “We love water. Water is beautiful, and we’re working on some really nice rendering where you can see underneath it. When you see that crystal clear ocean, you just want to hang out there. It’s the middle of winter, I’m in Sweden, and it’s cold outside, so it’s nice to be in a vacation spot!” Water physics will make boats more fun to use, and Avalanche is working closely with Nvidia to make it look super pretty at the same time.

    “We picked the Mediterranean, and when we were looking for inspiration in other games we realised there just weren’t that many set there. It’s difficult to build, which may explain this. There are towns on cliffs and curvy roads. There’s a reason why a lot of open worlds are grids. Everything’s at right angles. Now we’re dealing with curves and cliffs, but the art team have been doing some amazing things to get the vibe right.”

    “The new setting also has a sense of history previous games didn’t. Some of the earliest recorded history has been found in the Mediterranean.” This is something I’ve noticed while flying around the map. As well as modern towns, I spot ancient Roman-style ruins jutting out of the landscape. There’s also a huge snow-capped mountain in the distance. The developers acknowledge there aren’t any of these in the Mediterranean, but decided to take artistic licence in the interests of fun. You can, of course, climb to the top.

    “The first region you start in is going to be pretty dense,” Lesterlin says. “There’s lots of towns, outposts, military bases, challenges, side activities and random events. If a rebel spawns near the military, they’re going to fight each other. This gives you a sense of the conflict going on in this region. But there’s a lot of open space, particularly towards the north of the map. When you reach that part of the game, you’re going to be using jets. We want density where we need it, but we also need a big world too.”

    The PC was incremental in the success and continued popularity of Just Cause 2, and Avalanche knows it. “For PC gamers with really big rigs, the game is going to look pretty spectacular. But it’ll still look OK on a mid-range machine too. We love PC games. I play a lot of them. So we won’t ignore the fact that there’s such a big modding community out there. We want to give back to them as much as we can.”

    Just Cause 3 is shaping up to be pretty special. Everything feels slicker and more polished than in the last game even at the early stage I played it at. Combining that varied, vertiginous world with the new wingsuit and destruction physics could make this the most thrilling open-world sandbox on PC. And if the modders get their hands on it, it should have longer shelf life than most, as well.

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