Editor's note: Just Cause 3's review embargo has just lifted, though we wanted to take a little more time with the game to take into consideration patches that have recently arrived on PC and console. We'll be posting our final review in the very near future, and based on final patched console code, and for now here's an impressions piece based on a handful of hours with the PC version.
Just Cause 3 can be a little bit broken at times, and yet the 15 hours I've spent with it so far have been as lovely as they've been maddening. On console, I gather that the problems come largely in the form of frame-rate issues and increasingly lengthy loading times. On PC - since a Monday morning patch, at least - the frame-rate fluctuates noticeably on my machine, depending on how much mayhem is taking place, while the loading is generally pretty zippy. Beyond that, however, there are stranger, seemingly more imaginative issues.
You'll go for a buzz around the mountaintops in a small plane, and the ground will break up into a jagged lo-poly maze. What's that huge thing flying through the air up ahead? It's a fishing boat, actually, and it's not flying so much as floating on an ocean that has suddenly become invisible. Best of all, when I die in battle, I sometimes respawn by rising, imperiously, out of the ground, as if riding a phantom elevator through the dirt. Sometimes I will get in a car that crashes the game every time I do a handbrake turn. Sometimes, I will be invading a base when all the floors will suddenly become translucent. It's all in a day's work, I guess.
Hopefully this will be sorted out fairly soon. At the moment, it's a bit of a tragedy, because for the 90 per cent of the time when the game isn't stuttering or generally freaking out, Just Cause 3 is everything I didn't know I wanted from Just Cause 2.
Sure, it's the stuff I did know I wanted, as well. Rico, the series' dictator-toppling super-agent has a vast new map to explore that moves the action to his home of Medici, an improbable Mediterranean paradise ruled by a brutal warlord and blessed by a strange local industry built around Bavarium, a mineral that is magnificently explosive. Speaking of explosions, there's been a lot of work put into them since the last game, and they're now glorious beasts, clots of black smoke lit from within with infernal reds and heavenly golds.
But that's the basic stuff. The best tweaks I never saw coming. Take the grapple hook. After attaching two ends of it to two different objects, as of old, you can now squeeze the trigger to draw those two objects together, yoinking guards against each other, or tugging oil drums into oil refineries. (It eliminates that awkward moment in Just Cause 2 where your foes seemed to stand there and say: sure, we're tied together. Now what?) The grapple targeting seems to have learned a few lessons from the Arkham games' grapnel gun, too, since it's quicker to highlight points on a ridge that will loft you into the air for deployment of the parachute. And then there's the wingsuit. Oh man, the wingsuit.
The wingsuit is a wonderful addition, allowing Rico to swoop and dive for enormously long distances - or, if mismanaged, pull off astonishingly violent face-plants. If you've played Super Mario World, you'll know the deal here: leap and deploy the wingsuit and you start to glide. Barrel down and then pull up to retain momentum, but be warned: the best way to travel at real speed is to practically hug the ground. The wingsuit forms the third point of a beautiful triangle when combined with the grapple, for getting you into the air, and the parachute, for lofting you that little bit higher, but that's not the entirety of its brilliance. It also requires Medici, a huge craggy mass of islands, scattered over a turquoise sea - turquoise when it's visible, at least. Medici is a joy to wingsuit over, and it's also a pain to drive around. It's an entire landscape that is urging you to get into the air - and it rewards you with amazing views once you're up there.
The final crucial thing about the wingsuit gets to the very heart of the series. Just Cause has always offered plenty of explosive pleasures, but in a strange way, it's rarely required very much of the player in return. With the wingsuit, you have a tool that cries out for genuine mastery. In the middle of a game that's largely concerned with mucking about, here is something that you can get actually better at with practice - and that turns out to be a welcome addition.
Not that the old Just Cause spirit has entirely receded, of course. I'm still only about a third of the way through this gigantic game according to the stats screen, but the time has been flying past nonetheless. By and large, your options are either story missions - these can often cling a little too tightly to escort templates, but still provide plenty of opportunities for creative mayhem as you zip between choppers and jets and tanks and motorbikes while you do your escorting - and liberating the map, moving from settlements to provinces and finally regions.
Liberating stuff was responsible for some of my favourite memories of Just Cause 2, but it's been quietly refined here with each settlement, whether it's a small village, a town, or a military base, offering plenty of different targets before you've taken over. Alongside radar dishes and oil dumps to blast to pieces, you'll also have to track down and destroy a propaganda truck, say, or zip between jamming towers within a set time limit. It's all about getting you down out of the chopper and onto the ground and - along with a nice little flourish that sees you raising a new flag on each town you reclaim - it goes a long way to making your progress feel more meaningful. Well, as meaningful as a game like this can feel.
Actually, this is a game built of little flourishes, and I can see that even now. When you call in an air drop, the crate opens with a shower of confetti, for example. while the way that RIco gently shifts his weight when he's riding the thermals in his wingsuit goes a long way towards selling the sensation of flight. Even in this build, when too many fireballs make the game stutter, Just Cause 3 can make you feel improbably powerful.
And it does that in an interesting way. Compared to the deadly playgrounds of Far Cry, the world of Just Cause 3 still seems strangely inert at times. With no wildlife to ruin a plan in promising ways, and enemy AI that seems content to give up on the hunt when you're just out of range, the only truly unpredictable part of the environment is you, the player, armed with endlessly satisfying traversal tools and an arsenal of weapons that for the first time in this series carries real weight. This works pretty well, thankfully: Medici is one big set-up to which you are an endless wandering punchline.
You can get a little giddy with your own explosive agency. I died, about fifteen minutes ago, from drowning, even though I was floating right next to the surface of the lake I was in and could have gotten a gulp of air whenever I wanted it. Rico's acrobatics - and his cheery nature when faced with endless rows of tanks and endless swarms of choppers - had simply lead me to forget the fact that a man like him would still need to breathe every now and then when exploring underwater.
There's plenty of evidence, then, that if Just Cause 3 gets properly patched, it will be the game that such an improbable hero deserves - explosive and whimsical and filled with empty-headed pleasures. Yes, there are times here when the plot is a little too aware of its own charms perhaps, and I suspect the campaign's already starting to run out of new tricks even before the halfway mark. Even so, the world of Medici snaps together so brilliantly with the game's leading man that I'm not ready to leave. And remember, when modders finally add multiplayer, this thing's going to be a riot.