Saturday, December 31, 2016

Just Cause 3

I was seriously considering of getting a refund for Just Cause 3 while I was still under 2 hours of playtime. I bought the XL Edition during Steam's Autumn sale at a pretty steep discount but still, even at 75% off I felt the game's many problems made it not worth its price. In the end I decided to continue playing, however, and beat the game at 100% completion after 70 hours. Time often simply flies while screwing around in Medici -- provided the game lets you actually play it.

Unwelcome online features

Of the various technical and game design issues JC3 suffers from, I think the obtrusive online features (i.e. the leaderboards) may be the worst. I have hard time believing that there exists a single person that gives a flying fuck another completely random person has gotten a higher score in some arbitrary activity. And that it needs a text feed in the game with a sound effect for every new line.

That would be a fairly minor annoyance alone but then there is the thing with how the whole leaderboard syncing process is oddly prioritized to the level it causes hitches in performance. It goes even so far that the whole game freaking pauses if you happen to lose connection to Square Enix's servers until it reconnects. If the game is then unable to reconnect (which is likely to happen) you can retry or go into an offline mode. The latter is however only a momentary respite as the next time you open the map screen (via which everything is accessed) the game will try to reconnect again! And that is the only place you can choose to go offline. (Launching Steam in offline mode might work too.)

Fortunately there is sort of a solution to this -- you can block JC3 on your firewall's outbound traffic. This will allow you go into the offline mode at the start and stay in it. This is not a permanent solution, though, as the game is protected by Denuvo DRM which needs to call home every once in a while. Three days after I had blocked JC3, it refused to launch until I let it temporarily through. For this I was rewarded with a half a minute's worth of feed of people who had beaten my scores, thanks to the leaderboards getting synced up again.

Lacks some optimization

JC3 also has performance issues. My PC meets the listed recommended system requirements on CPU and RAM, and exceeds them on GPU. That is apparently not a guarantee for the game to run at stable 60 FPS on 1080p at max settings, although it did so most of the time.

Heavy action especially in towns with many civilians in addition to the military would often cause framerate to drop. Then there were locations where simply looking at distant scenery caused low FPS and vsync to kick in to lock it down to 30. I disabled vsync around 75% through the game. That caused some tearing at places but the game in general seemed to run moderately better after that.

There are claims on forums for the game to have memory leaks, possibly caused by having a controller plugged in upon launch. I am personally not so sure there are leaks, though. I think performance would be way worse if the game was actually leaking memory. I would guess that JC3 is just not very aggressive at freeing up memory. Like compared to Just Cause 2 where loose objects would disappear pretty damn fast. For instance, in JC3 you can leave your vehicle outside a settlement, liberate the place while fighting a whole bunch of enemies, and then come back to find your vehicle still there waiting for you.

There is a low performance warning at the start nowadays if you do not have enough system memory. I am not sure what the game would be satisfied with but 8GB is not enough. People report that 16+ GB of RAM does help with performance, though.

Having JC3 installed on an SSD might hasten the many loading screens you get during story missions too. Many of them seem so unnecessary. Like, surely showing a squad of enemies getting into an ambushing position was not enough to warrant a loading screen? JC3's inital boot up time is also rather extensive. And according to some forum comment an SSD does not do much for that.

I think the shoddy performance surprised many for Avalanche Studios had put out incredibly well running Mad Max only three months earlier. But that was evidently Avalanche's main studio's work in Stockholm whereas JC3 came from their younger New York studio. The game never crashed for me, though. I have to give them credit for that.

Many small features removed

Gameplay in JC3 is familiar for anyone coming for the previous title. However, one quickly starts to notice these little things missing. What happened to sprinting for instance? It was not much faster than normal movement in JC2 but it was still faster. Combat rolls are also gone. No more strafe-dodging into cover I guess. No crouching either. I guess they wanted players to just use the damn grappling hook all the time. Minimap is gone as well. Hell, even weapon zoom was no where to be found, though I later learned it still existed -- it just had to be unlocked first by doing weapon challenges. The weapon zoom is a bit buggy as well -- it often likes to disable homing for certain weapons. This makes one story mission impossible to complete until you disable the mod and restart the game.

Upgrades behind a challenge wall

While I appreciate Avalanche for ditching the boring upgrade system, I am not sure if it was such a good idea to put everything behind completing various challenges and making the unlocks happen in a set order instead of giving you freedom to choose what you want first. A lot of the upgrades are simple, like more grenades and longer vehicle boost, but some of them also alter stuff. And they can be disabled if you do not want your grenades to home in on enemies anymore, for instance.

If you merely needed to complete the challenges at whatever level of skill, the upgrading system would be more lenient. Instead every challenge gives you up to 5 gears. And oh boy if getting full 5 gears from some of the myriad number of challenges is difficult. There are air, land, and sea races as well as destruction, crash bomb, bavarium gathering, shooting, and wingsuit challenges. You do not need to master every challenge to get every unlock but if you do not 5-gear everything, it takes longer to get access to stuff in terms of amount of settlements liberated.

Changes to movement controls

Surprisingly enough air races were not all that difficult like they were in JC2. Avalanche added somewhat requested feature of rudder controls to the planes and that made flying them so much more easier. The crash bomb challenges can be annoying due to the seemingly random way the vehicle acts after you have abandoned it. But the prize for the most challenging of challenges go to the all new wingsuit without a doubt.

I have kind of mastered the wingsuit now after 70 hours and now looking back at the challenges, they do not seem as difficult. But a few hours into the game, 5-gearing some of them seemed nigh impossible. The most trouble I probably had with was one that ended in an underground military base. I do not even dare to guess how many attempts it took to master the final tunnel.

The end of the game features also at least three wingsuit courses that start high up the game's highest mountain. They have a lot of rings to pass through and you can only miss about 2 perfects to still get 5 gears. The way you also have to dive straight down along the mountain side ramps up the difficult. You need to learn to pull up early enough.

In addition to the planes, land vehicles also had their controls slightly altered for the third game, although I do not agree with the general consensus that motorcycles became worse. To me they seemed the same and fine. Cars do not like turning at all, however. Mastering drifting with handbrake is required to make tight turns at high speeds. It is almost ridiculous how trying to turn normally does not seem to do anything but then a little tap to the handbrake and you are already going to a different direction. Getting the F1 car makes many of the land races much easier due to its great handling and speed.

Panau was better

It is weird how they chose to change Rico's appearance. I liked the black outfit and less The Last of Us Joel looking Rico more. He also has a different voice actor, which leaves us with just his name, I guess. Regardless, Medici -- JC3's setting -- is his home and he has returned to it to free it from a dictator. The plot thus plays out much like in the previous title. This time there is only one rebel faction, though, and no as greatly varying side missions.

Medici is sadly less diverse than Panau as well. There are fewer biomes and unique locations. The villages lack genii loci -- they all feel  like the same cliff-side Mediterranean town. The south side of the large main island has settlements but the north is simply barren outside of few outposts and military bases. The capital city is pathetic in its size compared to Panau's. And even though the whole map is almost exactly the same size as in JC2, it has a whole lot more water in it.

Some improvements too

Even though I found a whole bunch of negative and disappointing things in Just Cause 3, there are some positive stuff too. For example, there are no QTEs for hacking and taking over vehicles anymore -- Rico simply pulls the driver out. And the completionist me appreciates how a province's collectibles are revealed on the map once its every settlement is liberated. And collectibles also unlock vehicles and weapons, which is nice.

Destructibles are also not thrown everywhere in the world but are almost always within a settlement. And they start becoming visible on the map once enough of a settlement's objects have been destroyed. No more searching for that single little transformer hidden between two buildings.

The heat system is similar to JC2 and it can get as annoying at high levels if you are trying to get away and the game just keeps spawning enemies everywhere around you. However, JC3 has monasteries that are able clear the heat when visited. You can unlock them by completing random world encounters (which seem to be the buggiest feature the game has with how they rather often fail to complete). Enemies calling in reinforcement also have an icon appear over them, and taking them out quickly enough stops more enemies appearing. I like that the player has more control over the system like that.

Season pass probably worth it

The three bigger pieces of DLC that are included in the XL Edition add each an area to the world map. They have a very loosely connected story and the content is not really as good as the base game's. Their main purpose really seems to be to give you access to some truly powerful stuff.

Sky Fortress gives Rico a Bavarium powered wingsuit that allows infinite flying (and it also has machine guns and homing missiles, just 'cause). Mech Land Assault has a very powerful mech vehicle for you or a supporting rebel to drive.

And finally, Bavarium Sea Heist gives you a missile boat and the eDEN Spark. After fully upgrading the latter via its challenge, you will have a practically unlimited orbital laser at your command. It reminds me of Dawn of War's orbital bombardment or Independence Day's alien laser. It is about the most ridiculous thing I have seen in a video game. Although, I have to say that the M488 "nuke launcher" from the main game is pretty great too -- it destroys about half an oil rig's chaos objects with a single shot.

As fun as Just Cause 3 can be at times -- or maybe even most of the time -- its many faults can be really annoying. It is a small graphical update over the second game, and has some features developed further, but in many ways it also a step backwards. Avalanche really could have done better here.

I do love the doge filter, though. Oh yeah, the soundtrack is great too. I enjoyed Henry Jackman's work in the Kick-Ass movies and he composed well for JC3 too. There are many amazing tracks in the game.

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