Wingsuit desire - Just Cause 3 reinvents traversal
The Just Cause series is defined by the purest kind of action-hero thrills: adventure, exploration and anarchy. In one sense the games provide a sprawling playground for almost pornographic free-form violence, yet in another, they're a celebration of technology and artistic ambition, providing sumptuous tropical worlds from which to drink deep. In their best moments, they are both at once.
That there'll be bases, missions, objectives, guns, demolitions, jeeps, tanks and fighter jets is hardly worthy of mention with Just Cause 3, which shifts the series to a fictionalised Mediterranean island called Medici, whose name alone should give you a clue to the flavour of the local politics. All of those basic elements are a given, so let's return to the single most important feature of the game: the new wingsuit mechanic that adds far more freedom to world exploration than has previously been possible.
This is not to say there wasn't the freedom to conjure up endless travel in imaginative forms before, of course. In Just Cause 2, the most common form of traversal involved a rather clumsy combination of the parachute and the hookshot tether: up, up, away! Oh, and back down again. It was fine, but it looked a little weird as the 'chute constantly popped, vanished and reappeared while you jolted your way through the world. True, the weirdness just about worked in the context of this ultimate action-man fantasy, but it felt mechanically clumsy.
To get a feel for the way things work with the new wingsuit, picture for a moment those wonderful meat-people you see on television every Christmas, competing for the World's Strongest Man title. As each one attempts to tow a lorry over the finishing line, they desperately draw the rope hand over hand, and yet as they do so there's a sensation that the athlete is every bit as much pushing the world beneath the truck as they are dragging the truck itself towards them.
So it is with wingsuit flying in Just Cause 3, albeit with the lower risk of a torn sphincter. As you lose height through gliding, a grasping reach of the grappling hook ahead of you lets you plant a tether into the ground, which can then be used to draw Rico back up into the sky. This smooth and sustained back-and-forth rhythm of hooking and gliding, hooking and gliding, pulling at the world as you sail over sunflower fields and Sound of Music scenery is a frankly joyful thing to experience. It's very nearly lucid dreaming - an intoxicating illusion that adds a real sense of connection between Rico and his world.
Or rather, it does when it works. Cackhanded doesn't even begin to describe my early attempts with traversal, as I fumbled between joypad buttons to switch from hook to hangsuit, failing miserably in both timing and intent. It takes quite a while to acclimatise to switching between this assortment of movement systems in order to sustain a true sense of aerial flair.
At first, you're a good deal more likely to simply skin Rico across the whitewashed walls of a Tuscan chapel then you are to mimic the game's producer Omar Shakir by gliding effortlessly through the skies, peppering towers and guards with gunfire, before dashing through the arch of a bridge to casually plant a handful of C4 sticks. The final swoop around to watch the ballistic ballet unfold before us is, of course, the hallmark of countless hours of close development experience, but it's demonstrably achievable and so all the more exciting for it.
Until this degree of open-world mastery has been earned, however, wingsuit flying instead reaches its pinnacle in the very specific course challenges which are sprinkled here and there amongst the pastel, pastoral countrysides of Medici. An initial leap from a helicopter sends you swooping into the first of a series of hoops, each one of which contains a sweet spot designed to trigger a boost to your score that's as tempting to connect with as it is tragic to miss. There's no room for error during these timed runs - and no use of the tether either - and contact with the ground provides a very blunt end to your current crack at the leaderboards.
In the haphazard focus group of a press trip, where more people wait to play the game than there are terminals available to play on, one small pocket of players huddle around the downstairs cinema screen where a single machine runs a hot-seat wingsuit challenge. There's fierce competition, but there's camaraderie too, with the group wincing and whooping in equal measure as each takes their turn to desperately shave just a little extra time off the best run, push their luck even further on that merciless hill-crest, and beat the developers at their own game.
So it's the unsung heroes of world design - the artisans who expertly sculpt the landscape, masking the effort as they go - who get their moment to shine here. Rico's wingsuit may allow him to hang, glide and swoop convincingly enough, but it's the artfully carved tunnels, sweeping hill crests, and vegetation that mischievously obscures the next target that gives the experience its meaning, and makes the whole endeavour so satisfying to practise, perfect and, finally, perform.
This article is based on a press trip to Hamburg. Square Enix covered travel and accommodation costs.