During my time at a recent press event for Just Cause 4, I was able to interview two developers from Avalanche Studios, Hamish Young, who is the Lead Mechanics Designer, and Ben Jaekle, who is the Narrative Director of the game. During the interview, we discussed things such as the development of their new Apex Engine, some insight into the characters of the game, and the new gameplay mechanics introduced in Just Cause 4.
mxdwn: What’s been the biggest challenge in designing and implementing the new Apex engine?
Young: The Apex Engine is a combination of a bunch of different things. Obviously, we made Just Cause 3, and we looked at what we had there and were like, “we want to build so much more”, but we needed to go back to some of the fundamentals to let us do that. So, there is a bunch of technical stuff under the hood, from simple stuff like DirectX 12, but also going much deeper with multithreading and reconfiguring a bunch of the very under-the-hood stuff that players will never see but lets them do stuff they will see. There was so much core work done that we were like, “basically, this is a new engine”. We wanted to name it and tell people about it because the things it lets us now do are really fun. The tornado, with all the stuff it throws around and the physics and so on; that just wouldn’t have been possible within Just Cause 3. We really factored the internals to let us do those kinds of things. There’s a whole bunch of rendering stuff that’s happened. Volumetric clouds, the tornado itself is a fully volumetric rendered thing. So it’s really been a way for us to refactor how everything works to push what we can do in the game.
mxdwn: Out of every new game mechanic, which is your favorite besides the new options you provide players now?
Young: I mean, my favorite new thing is the fact that those options are available when you’re in a vehicle. Being able to use the grapple hook in a vehicle is, I think game-changing in a way that we haven’t really talked about; but when you see people play it and the kinds of things you could actually do with that. It seems like such a minor thing but has such impact in terms of the kinds of things you could do. We were showing earlier putting a bunch of airlifters on a tank and flying it around. Being able to control that from within the vehicle then lets you do those things. It’s very small things that sometimes make the biggest difference. That’s one I’m really excited to see what people come up with.
Jaekle: That is definitely true. I also think that one of my favorite things that we added to the game are the new combat mechanics. We’ve done a lot of work to improve the ways the enemies behave and also add some interesting dynamics like a tornado. What does a tornado do when it enters the battlefield? How do the enemies behave? How do you behave? Or a sandstorm, for instance, it really kills visibility, but also because of the high winds, it makes it hard for Rico to do things he normally does like grapple around and fly through the air. In that way, how do we change the dynamics of the combat? The different enemy types and the extreme weather all contribute to that and make combat, I think, much more fulfilling and exciting than it has been in previous Just Cause games.
mxdwn: How many new enemy types are there?
Young: I don’t know at the top of my head, very good question!
Jaekle: There’s got to be at least a dozen right, I’m not sure.
Young: Yeah, we’ll have to come back to you on a number, there’s a bunch of them, and the whole setup with the secondary fire means essentially, while most have two weapons, you kind of have four. And I think that means you have more tactical options when you come to the different enemy types, so we’re trying to make it so the game is much more tactical from pure shooting point of view. But with the grapple hook, you get a layer of top of that and another layer on top of that, so we’re trying to give the player a much richer combat experience than they’ve had before.
mxdwn: Gabriela isn’t necessarily the same type of villain that’s been in the previous games. What’s it been like giving her that kind of make-up and making her different from the others?
Jaekle: Gabriela is kind of the perfect antagonist to Rico. Rico is a free, chaotic, intuitive individual. He is kind of a vessel to the player. Any kind of creative thinking you’re doing to solve a problem, it’s Rico doing the thinking. Any kind of free, “I’m gonna go to this thing now,” Rico’s making that decision too because you’re one and the same. So, we kind of wanted to present an antagonist to Rico who was sort of his perfect opposite. Where Rico is chaotic, Gabriela is very orderly. Where Rico is intuitive, Gabriela is strategic and plans out ten moves ahead. What that does is it forces Rico to adapt to strategy because the way he was doing things before doesn’t quite work against a villain like this. It’s a similar situation to the extreme weather which are sort of antagonists, and in a sense, kind of Rico’s rowdy siblings. They’re other forces of nature just like him that he has to go up against and he has to change the way he interacts with the world in order to confront these things.
mxdwn: Speaking of the change of weather, what has been the hardest part in designing and implementing the extreme weather conditions?
Young: The hardest thing is, with something like the tornado, you’re involving every part of the game team to achieve those things. You’ve got visuals, audio, physics, gameplay, even UI. Literally, every part of the game team has to do their part to pull that off. It’s very ambitious to try and build these things that are so coherent. That’s the thing you want to pull off, consistently and systemically. That tornado exists in the world, not just in the mission. You can see it from the other side of the island and when you fly there, it’s there. It’s not this thing that’s just an effect in a mission. It’s a thing that’s in the world that persists and has that behaviour. You can come across it in the open-world. You can interact with it in the open world. It’s something that we built in a way; visually, because you could fly in planes, you have to be able to see this thing from every angle. There’s no trick you can pull to make it only see from this angle, and therefore kind of cheat. No, you have to build a volumetric tornado and even an eye down the middle of the tornado so that when we look through it from the sun, you can see the structure of the tornado. You have to build things that way so that when the player interacts with them, it’s a living, breathing thing in the world, and that’s definitely a challenge.
mxdwn: What makes Solis the best world Just Cause has ever had?
Jaekle: I think the short answer is the sheer variety of things you could do here. So, Solis is made up of four biomes. Each biome has its own extreme weather system. Each biome has its own characters and its own characteristics and its own gameplay. In the rainforest, you can spend some time diving through ruins hidden amongst the trees. Those things are less common to find out in other parts of the world. In the desert, there is a train prowling around that you can interact with, but the train isn’t in the grasslands. Each of the biomes and each of the sub biomes within those biomes are packed with different things here and there. On top of that, the world is much more land mass than we’ve had before. Previous Just Cause maps have been about the same size, but with big stretches of water and small inland seas and stuff like that, whereas this one is pretty much all land, and winding rivers, and mountains and cool areas to traverse. There’s a ton of variety packed throughout the world. Any time you boot up the game, you’ll be like “oh, I’m in this part of the world now and I know I can do these things since I’m here.”
mxdwn: What’s it like flushing out Rico more as a character because I know that it was a big goal for this game?
Young: I think we were talking earlier before about building the mechanics and narrative around who Rico is. There’s a kind of solidity both from the point of view of what you can do in the world and all that stuff, and also we want that in the game. There’s a kind of capability that Rico has that makes him traverse ready, fast, and very impulsive and chaotic and these things. We’re trying to match Rico’s character and gameplay experience and move it to the next level.
Jaekle: We invested a lot of thought and time into making Rico a more active and vigorous protagonist in terms of how he interacts with the world. In previous Just Causes, and in a lot of other games, you see where the narrative breaks down into someone telling you what’s next on your to-do list. Here, we try and make it so Rico is always the driving force of what happens next. We never tell you to go do this mission next. We never tell you to go watch this cutscene next. We provide you with this open world of things to do and you can go engage with them in any direction you like. That kind of gives Rico his own sort of agency in the world and makes him feel much more like a real character. On top of that, we focused a lot on how Rico is written and performed and the way he behaves with the other people around him to make him feel like a real, present, living human than just sort of an avatar who’s there for you to play. We tried to make it where he wasn’t just a shell you inhabit, but a character whose goals are the same as yours.
mxdwn: Great, thank you so much!
Young: Thank you.
Just Cause 4 is set to be the best in the series with its emphasis and focus on player freedom. The new gameplay mechanics give players a huge variety of ways to interact with the world. The open world structure is set up so you can do what you want, when you want to, which also gives players the opportunity to make this experience their own. Personally, I’m excited to see what I can do with everything offered and just have fun playing in the world that Avalanche Studios has built.
Just Cause 4 releases December 4 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.