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Just Cause 4 director explains how to make explosive barrels feel fresh

How can Just Cause 4 take the sandbox crown?

Just Cause 4 - Rico takes down a helicopter with an RPG Avalanche Studios/Square Enix
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

Just Cause 4 has a lot of fancy new features that look nice stuffed into an E3 demonstration. This iteration of the underrated open-world franchise has a brand-new engine, which allows for realistic wind, tornadoes, sandstorms and other extreme weather. And there are more weapons, more vehicles and more gadgets, further cementing Just Cause as the best unlicensed James Bond games. But when I sat down with Avalanche Studios game director Francesco Antolini, I couldn’t help but focus on how this entry would take the best bits from previous entries and make them stronger.

Few franchises have as strong a template as the Just Cause series, and yet it hasn’t quite had its big moment in the spotlight. After speaking with Antolini, I think Just Cause 4 has a legitimate shot. The director speaks to why Just Cause 3 struggled to find its audience, why weather is the holy grail of open worlds and how catering to streamers can mean encouraging players to be creative. Antolini even discusses the impossible: how to make explosive red barrels feel fresh.

Polygon: With Just Cause 3, it felt like the heart of the franchise — these giant open worlds where so much is destructible — was already running up against the available power of this generation of consoles. It had a bit of a rough launch. What lessons or takeaways from that experience have informed the making of Just Cause 4?

Francesco Antolini: That we needed a better engine, for example? [laughs] That’s what we’ve done. We’ve built a new engine from scratch. It was really a decision at that point at a company level. So you’ve seen Rage 2, and these games have been possible thanks to Apex. We really did not want to repeat the same mistake that we did with Just Cause 3, which was trying to pack too much with not enough of a solid technical infrastructure. I think that we managed to actually fix that, because we released quite some important [patches] for Just Cause 3, and finally the game was stable. And this time around, we really want to make it [run well] from the start.

If you’ve seen this demo, you’ve probably realized that actually, Just Cause 4, it’s so much more than Just Cause 3. And I don’t hide that a big part of the inspiration was also to get back some of the elements from Just Cause 2 that made it so interesting. First and foremost: variety, right? Just Cause 3 had a very, very nice landscape. It was inspired by the Mediterranean/Tuscan landscape. But then, it [could] be a little bit monotonous. After five, six hours of playing, you kind of run out of new things to see. Now we step back to South America with an environment that’s really diverse. So this time around, we’ve got four starkly different biomes. You’ve seen the rainforest and part of the grasslands. So, hopefully you’re gonna like this game. If you like 3 and love 2, it’ll definitely be the game for you.

Single-player only — for now

One thing that has popped up post-launch for both Just Cause 2 and 3 is multiplayer modes created by the fan community. Will multiplayer still be left for the fan community to figure out on its own, or is that something that you’re thinking about with this iteration?

Just Cause 4 is going to be a single-player game, because we wanted to focus on a great single-player experience. I don’t exclude multiplayer in the future, but we need to see how things go.

Just Cause 4 - Rico riding a motorcycle across a wooden bridge with an explosion going off behind him as a fighter jet chases him
Rico rides a motorcycle as a jet drops bombs in Just Cause 4.
Avalanche Studios/Square Enix

How to make explosive red barrels into a tool for creativity

When I think of Just Cause 3, I picture an absurd amount of destruction; it was these massive, huge structures. And I look at this and it feels like it is — obviously, there’s a giant tornado, so there’s still plenty of destruction — but it seems like it’s favoring weather and nature and landscapes, over the destruction of massive infrastructure we saw in Just Cause 3. And I’m curious, is that a thing that you wanted to pull back from, the humongous military complexes and giant steel towers, and focus Just Cause 4 on the environment and these big open spaces?

Not really. There’s actually a variety of considerations that go into the way that the model of destruction of Just Cause 4 has been shaped. First of all, something to consider is that, even in Just Cause 4, we still have big pieces of destruction. You’ve seen, probably, a bridge being torn apart by the tornado. But that bridge is not a scripted event. The bridge is destructible. So if you go back there and you begin to shoot rockets at it, it will go down. Funny you mention Just Cause 3, because in Just Cause 3 we just had one bridge that was destructible, and it was always the same. Here, we’ve got [many], so there is a variety of bridges, if you want, that you can destroy. We actually doubled — at least doubled — the amount of destructible things. We had, I think, 20 individual objects in Just Cause 3, and there are, like, 40 this time around.

For each and every decision that we’ve taken with Just Cause 4, including extreme weather — we’re gonna talk about this more later — is, let’s make things that players can have fun with, that can be an ingredient of the sandbox and contribute to the creation of emergent gameplay. In Just Cause 3, when you shoot an object, OK, what happens? You know, the red barrel. I think that you’ve seen this in the demo. When you shoot a red barrel, it starts a self-destruction sequence, and then explodes by itself after a few seconds. Unfortunately, that was not a creative choice. That was because of technical limitations. Thanks to [Just Cause 4’s engine] Apex, we don’t have that anymore. We can play a little bit more, and do things like what you’ve seen. Shoot an object just enough to make it not explode, but enough to where [it has] a flame and gas leaking from its side, propelling it, so that you can use it as a rocket. That for me is a fantastic achievement, because destruction now is not just about explosions, but it’s about actual chain effects and reactions.

Then another consideration: The systemic play in Just Cause 3 was — I’m [trying to think of] the right word here. It was quite repetitive. So you got in a location and you destroyed everything. Done. You’re gonna destroy everything. Done. Which is nice, but limited. It’s part of that feeling [that] after five to six hours, there’s nothing new to do, because you already did this thing. Of course, you don’t want to get rid of destruction in Just Cause. It’s what you do, right? It’s what the world is down for. It’s what it invites you to do. So this also means that I don’t need to constrain you so strongly in destroying everything in a location and [repeating] this thing over and over.

So you won’t have to 100 percent every location?

Exactly. Wait, wait. Because you are going to destroy stuff because it’s fun, so that system has completely changed. Now, destruction is no [longer] tied to a single location. Every time you destroy things around, you’re going to accrue Chaos that fits into another system. That’s another thing in Just Cause 2 versus Just Cause 3. [In] Just Cause 2, Chaos itself was much more meaningful than in 3, right? Because you actually [unlocked] missions. In 3, it’s more or less a measure of how long you’ve been playing, more than anything. So we wanted to give back meaning to the concept of Chaos. In 4, Chaos basically becomes notoriety.

What happens in this game, among other things, is that you build an army, OK? And why [do] these guys follow you? Because they see you. They aren’t military by profession. They kind of identify with Rico, and ‘if he can do it,’ right? ‘If he can [destroy the system], we should be able to do it, too.’ So the more the kills and destruction you cause, the more people come on your side, the bigger your army, the more you can progress into the world.

So as you can see, this [Chaos] system is very different. This does not mean, getting to what you were saying before, that we got rid of location gameplay. But the point is that now, in each location, you have a specific objective tied to the narrative of the location. In one type of mission, you will have to escort away a prisoner the [Black Hand] have taken. In the drone factory mission, you will steal the blueprint of the drones.

So it’s more of an objective-based [thing] rather than an Easter egg hunt?

Yes. However, on top of that, since we’ve seen that it’s possible, you also have a completion mechanic. But the completion mechanic this time around is independent from destruction. So, we’ve got stuff to do in a location. If you do all this stuff, you’re going to have your nice, you know, completionist itch scratched. You’re going to 100 percent that [area], right?

Just Cause 4 - car driving toward tornado
A classic car drives towards a tornado in Just Cause 4.
Avalanche Studios/Square Enix

Why weather is the holy grail of open worlds

I want to talk about weather, because obviously you’re not the only game here that has decided that weather is the future of open-world video games. It seems to be a theme of the show.

I’ve seen — actually, you know, I am cornered in this room. The only one I’ve seen so far has been Forza Horizon 4. Looks fantastic.

Yeah, Forza is the biggie.

Oh, so beautiful.

And Anthem is the other big game.

Anthem too? Do they have tornadoes?

[laughs] No, don’t worry, you have that advantage. What is it that is so compelling about weather that we’re seeing it begin to appear in big, expensive games?

You want me to talk about Just Cause 4 or the global trend in weather?

Let’s go with the trend first.

OK, let’s not consider Just Cause for a moment, just the open world. I think that there is something extremely compelling in experiencing a place under different conditions. It makes it feel real. Because that’s what happens in real life. No two times you visit a place will it look or feel the same. So it really adds a layer of depth to the world itself. Before, it was very hard to do, so as technology progresses and knowledge progresses, more and more developers think about weather as an element to offer — a character to the world.

Now let me go to Just Cause 4, and let me tell you how the weather idea came about, because you may think that somebody woke up one morning and said, “Let’s make tornadoes.” No. What happened was more like, “We have Apex, so we have a much more powerful engine. You know what? We can probably add another layer to our physics simulation.” What makes Just Cause a game that is very accessible is that the sandbox is entirely based on physics. There are no scripted [physics]. There is no special grammar you need to learn to interact with this world. It’s all physics.

So we started exploring different ideas. We started, for example, with fluid dynamics. What happens if I shoot a fuel tank and oil comes out? And then I can shoot the oil and see this flame going back to the fuel tank? But you know what? Why would players shoot the oil when they can just [blow up the fuel tank]? [laughs] So that idea went to an end very, very soon. The other idea that came up was wind. Whereas wind could just be an atmospheric element, in Just Cause it becomes much more than that, because Rico moves with his parachute and wingsuit, and both will interact with wind. It’s a physical-based interaction, so it’s part of the sandbox. And we did that, and we started to experiment. It was nice.

At the same time, Breath of the Wild was out, and confirming that that idea made sense. But you’re Just Cause; you’re not Breath of the Wild. And wind is not enough. We need to go over the top. How do we make this over the top? Extreme wind. It’s the tornado, the sandstorm, the windstorm, the blizzards.

Just Cause 4 - Rico using the wingsuit
Rico uses his wingsuit to travel across the world in Just Cause 4.
Avalanche Studios/Square Enix

Making an open-world game for Twitch streamers — and everybody else

Let’s talk streamers, because something that made Just Cause 2 feel revolutionary, especially back in the day, was player expression: the ability to perform with the game’s vehicles, weapons, grappling hooks. It arrived before people filming themselves in games was super common. And I look at this demo, and it looks like it’s very much catered toward those people — it seems [like there is an] almost infinite number of boosts and things you can attach to objects to allow for creativity. Are you thinking about Twitch streamers as you design this game?

Yes, a lot. It’s really one of our focuses when concepting the game, and something that we take into consideration every time we make a creative choice. It’s a game that wants to be Twitch- and YouTube-friendly, exactly because it’s a lot about creativity and expression. And it’s what makes it unique. It’s what separates it. With Just Cause 1 and Just Cause 2, we were unique because it was this big open world, and if you see a place you can go there, and we have this super innovative traversal system with the grappling arm and all the rest. With 3 and 4, as other open worlds were conforming to this thing and our standard in an open world — you know, if I see it, I want to go there — starting with 3, we are trying to take the crown of the true sandbox experience. So, total creativity and a lot of ways to interact with the open world.

The attachment, the way that you can use them to [repurpose objects in the world], the way that you can apply mods, has been designed as to offer quite a big variety of combinations, hopefully creating [player-imagined challenges] that can be played back and forth across Twitch streams. Like, somebody pulls off some type of stunt, because of the specific grappling hook mod they’ve chosen, and somebody else sees that and is like, ‘Oh, how can I top that? Or how can I do it?’

At the same time, what’s hard about this approach is that you don’t want to alienate players who don’t care about being creative. Because that’s a fact. Actually, it’s a minority of players who are the creative players, who want to play with the sandbox for the sake of the sandbox. So for everybody else who get out of your first tutorial, they can use the basic mod loadout around the whole game. You don’t even need to think about it if you don’t want to. Personally, I think that we’re going to be successful if one of those players, for some reason, gets captivated and enthralled by the sandbox, and spends five minutes just fucking around.

Are you adding any tools, either for making it easier to capture footage of this, or sharing things like loadouts?

Not at launch, but we may do something later for this. There are things we want to consider. You consider something like photo mode, video mode, but the truth is that now you’ve got a Share button on your PS4 controller and a similar dynamic with Xbox and PC, right? So we may do something down the road, but for the moment we think it’s rather easy to stream your game.

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