Just Cause 3
Platforms: PS4 (tested), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: Out now
It's impossible to be enthused about Just Cause 3. Everything about it has been done, to death, by myriad other games, not just over the past decade but this year. Developer Avalanche's other sandbox effort from September, Mad Max, was a lot drier and duller but was built on the same standard, open-world model – go here, find these things, bring them back, tick another box. Assassin's Creed: Syndicate is a similar kind of game, so is Metal Gear Solid 5, Batman: Arkham Knight, Dying Light, and so on.
Since Grand Theft Auto 3, and probably before, sandbox games have been set in the same mould and if you've played anything from that cast in the past 14 years, you've played Just Cause 3. Sincerely, emphatically, the way open-world games are conceived and designed needs to change.
The stratified ideas of side-quests, collectibles and hours upon hours of "content" need to be pulled down and either discarded or reassembled, otherwise the experience of travelling across a vast virtual landscape – what ought to be gaming's greatest pleasure – will remain relentlessly bland and simplistic.
Listing Just Cause 3's mechanics feels like a waste of words. You know what this game is. You know what I'm going to write. You travel around a map liberating outposts, blowing things up and gradually ticking off each section of missions, sub-missions and collectibles toward completion. Whatever thrills might come from the explosion effects or your combat abilities are mitigated by the familiar, metronome situations in which you're made to experience them.
If that seems like a disinterested or disengaged way to describe the game then it adequately conveys what it's like to play – there is nothing here to latch onto, nothing to talk about or celebrate or reminisce. It's the gaming equivalent of junk food. That's fine of course, we all like to gorge, but there are so many of these games now. And one drive-thru burger is basically the same as another.
Partly it's just bad timing, or maybe rotten luck. If Just Cause 3 had come out a couple of years ago, or maybe earlier in 2015, it wouldn't seem so tired and run-of-the-mill – its ideas and conceits wouldn't have become so entrenched as to be called tropes, or clichés. But it stands today as – what should be at least – the punctuation mark at the end of a litany of samey, retrograde video games. Disc after disc of the basest gaming sensibilities packaged in the most superficial manner.
Before, you could chalk these games up to pure, dumb fun and enjoy them, quite rightly, on those grounds. But this kind of stuff: driving around a big landscape, experimenting with gadgets, scratching off mission after mission, isn't fun, dumb or otherwise, any more. Meet Just Cause 3 on its own terms and it's fine, just fine – it does, efficiently, everything which it intends to do. Only, it's not really operating on its own terms. It's operating on the terms of a hundred other games, so it's difficult to give it the benefit of the doubt. What it does it does well, but it's the easiest, most practised thing in games.
One thing that does stand out is how Just Cause 3 treats the theme of revolution. Ostensibly you arrive on Medici, the game's fictional Mediterranean island, as part of a rebellion against the corrupt government. But you have at your disposal a hoard of weapons and ordnance. If you access your phone, you can order helicopters, cars and weapons to be instantly dropped at your feet, free of charge.
I understand Just Cause wants you to play with all its toys, but like Far Cry 4 it doesn't empathise with its subject matter – there's something cackhanded, ignorant and ugly about using revolutionaries as a kind of window dressing, about ignoring the real-world context and depicting them as just as, if not more, able and equipped as the system they're battling. Being a revolutionary in Just Cause 3 feels like a breeze, a dodge, a bit of a laugh. Considering what's going on in the world currently, it sets an uncomfortable precedent.
Just Cause 3 is an absolutely functional, totally pedestrian sandbox game which just so happens to launch at a time when the old models of open-world structure and design feel more overused than ever. Every standard issue, familiar mechanic and conceit is present here – if we needed one more argument for a new type of sandbox, one that doesn\'t prioritise or even feature the tropes and clichés we\'ve come to expect, this is it. It\'s fine. It\'s there. It\'s benign. Even if you haven\'t played it, you\'ve already played it.