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Just Cause 3 review: Free falling

Just Cause 3 is an over-the-top sandbox chaos simulator that might be a little rough around the edges but is ultimately a satisfying open-world action game.

Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
Jeff Bakalar
5 min read

By now the "Go anywhere, do anything" adage in gaming has lost the oomph it once possessed. These days we expect that in an open-world videogame. It's a claim that's no longer impressive.

The Good

Just Cause 3 packs in a dizzying amount of exploding anarchy set across a beautiful and lush tropical island. The game's parachute and wingsuit combination makes for a thrilling way to get around the island.

The Bad

The upgrading weapons and gear system is great on paper but occasionally flawed in execution. Some of the mission objectives can become tedious and feel like busywork. The game appears to suffer from some performance issues on consoles.

The Bottom Line

Just Cause 3 provides a satisfying over-the-top action experience that is guaranteed to thrill, even if it falls short in a few sub-categories.

Yes, those things are true in Just Cause 3, but the game doesn't lead with that empty promise. Instead, what it does offer is a sandbox chaos simulator where your path to destruction can take various routes -- land, sea or air. Nearly anything can be driven, flown, killed and, most of the time, exploded.

So why are you blowing things up in Just Cause 3? Because an awful dictator has taken rule of your homeland -- the island of Medici -- and you're not about to let your neighborhood go to hell as long as there's something you can do about it.

You are Rico Rodriguez, an experienced soldier acrobat who laughs in the face of danger and has no problem mowing down hordes of enemies. Rico is also nearly invisible -- it takes a shocking amount of firepower to take him down.

Narratively speaking, Just Cause 3 mostly underwhelms save for a few chuckles here and there. A couple of the game's characters have some likable tendencies; I was partial to Dima, a scientist who helps Rico with the technology he uses to take down the occupying militia. Her emotionless, stoic delivery is oddly charming and makes for the occasionally endearing cut scene. But on the whole, you won't miss much but skipping ahead.

The game's developer, Avalanche Studios, has pushed the franchise to its empirical limit with the third installation. Just Cause 3 may lack the polish of other triple-A open-world games, but that's mostly overshadowed by how much fun it is to make things go boom.

Avalanche Studios

That's what Just Cause 3 does so well. It forces the player to just let go and have fun. Headlining that ethos is an endlessly enjoyable parachute and wingsuit combination that essentially gives your character the ability to fly or glide through the entire playable island.

Traversing the island this way is usually the best way to get around if fast-traveling isn't ready or a jet isn't readily available. Driving around is also option, but I found it to be among the least compelling features of the game. Jumping out of a helicopter and gliding over a cliff and then down through a gorge never gets old. Best of all, the game's controls are intuitive and feel just the way you'd want them to.

Just Cause 3 is set up like a lot of open-world games you might have played before. When you start, the entire map is under General Di Ravello's rule. You'll discover settlements and bases along your way and liberate them -- mostly by destroying stuff.

Avalanche Studios

A lot of the liberating that Rico does includes killing massive amounts of soldiers and at times innocent bystanders. The game is obviously over-the-top and does a good job and making that known from the start. Rico is told early on by his best friend Mario "whatever you destroy, we will rebuild," essentially giving him a blank check on all the inevitable collateral damage.

In the vein of not taking itself seriously, Just Cause 3 walks a fine line when it comes to balancing enjoyment and gratuitous violence. The enemy soldiers that bombard you are essentially a faceless militia and the game never ramps up the gore above an appropriate level. It's a strange, magic formula that just works.

Much of the game's progression is tied to liberating areas. The more places you free, the more extracurricular items become available, like challenges and side missions. It also pushes the campaign further and is sometimes used to gate the next story mission. Unfortunately, it's really the only mechanic in the game that feels like busywork, but because of their overall importance, you have to complete them.

Avalanche Studios

I liked Just Cause 3's weapon and ability upgrade system, even if at times it felt like a mixed blessing. It's not tied to currency or XP, but instead is directly linked to those challenges that get unlocked by freeing areas. Completing these will open up the next upgrade in the category of the challenge. The problem is it's not always something you want. Then there's the issue of certain challenges not being available even if you'd like to pursue its upgrade branch. Long story short, I liked being incentivized to complete tasks I would normally have skipped over, but the road to upgrading each component can be frustrating.

In addition to his fantastic wingsuit and parachuting abilities, Rico has a set of tethers at his disposal. These really open the door to creativity and problem-solving in the world of Just Cause 3. Rico can attach two items together with his grappling device and then remotely reel them together. Meaning, that pesky helicopter that's been chasing you through a valley can be tethered to the ground. Once Rico reels the tether together, that chopper makes a quick, unscheduled landing.

Just Cause 3 is undeniably gorgeous, rendering a lush, diversely terrained tropical island in spectacular detail. I played the game with two PC configurations: a Maingear Rush PC with two GTX 980 SLI Nvidia cards and an Acer Aspire V Nitro gaming laptop running an Nvidia 960M GPU. Performance on the Maingear was nearly flawless in 1440p (though I'm told the game won't support SLI out of the gate), but surprisingly enough the 960M performed quite well too when I dropped the game's resolution down to 1080p. I didn't have a chance to test PS4 or Xbox One personally, but I'm hearing it's far less smooth experience console side. It's worth watching NX Gamer's first technical and performance analysis of the game running on Xbox One.

Avalanche Studios

Of course not everyone has access to a state-of-the-art gaming PC, so if you are planning to play the game on a console, it might be worth checking to see if any day-one patches have addressed some of the dicey performance issues. Avalanche Studios has said the PS4 version of the game will run at a slightly higher resolution (1080p) compared to the Xbox One version (900p).

Because of Just Cause 3's impressive physics system, you're guaranteed to see a series of cascading explosions that'll leave you speechless. Most items in the world have breakable attributes and they all pinball around on screen with a super-satisfying sense of destruction. Combine that with the versatile set of tools available to Rico and you can imagine what's possible in the game's world.

Just Cause 3 does exactly what videogames are supposed to do: let you escape. Sure, it's a bit rough around the edges and there are a few questionable choices made in the upgrading and liberation systems, but ultimately, Just Cause 3 is just fun.

Avalanche Studios
Check out Just Cause 3 at GameSpot