DISCLAIMER: A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Platform: Xbox One, PS4 (reviewed), and PC
Developers: Avalanche Studios
Publisher: Square Enix
Just Cause is a series that has long been known for its immense chaotic nature and explosive gameplay but, outside of that… it doesn’t do much else. Just Cause 4 carries that tradition but after four games, it feels like Avalanche isn’t taking the other criticisms into account by either fixing the problems or straight up nixing them.
Just Cause 4 sees Rico going to yet another South American country, a fictional one by the name of Solís, to wreak havoc and upset the forces oppressing the people both for personal reasons and to stop a sinister plot being hatched by the private army known as The Black Hand.
The story is largely yet another forgettable entry in Rico’s life, establishing characters who you couldn’t be any less interested in and furthering a fairly cookie-cutter narrative about liberating another country. Just Cause 4 does make attempts to pad the semi-serious story with humorous moments and characters such as an extravagant action film director but it feels very surface level. It lacks moments from a Rockstar game or even Saints Row that makes me truly laugh out loud, at best Just Cause 4 gets a small snicker out of me.
To its credit, Avalanche does have some enjoyable missions within its story. While there’s none that are true standouts that I’d put on a pedestal above any other mission, they play around enough with the variety of the mission structures. You’ll be doing very similar missions like going to bases to clear them out and complete an objective but they carefully ensure that they at least subtlely change up the objective itself and fill the mission with new toys and ways to accomplish the task at hand.
For example, you might go into a base to free some prisoners in one mission and then go to another base a little later to launch a blimp, climb up some balloons to reach it, and then hack it as it’s flying away. You might go to another base and drive an NPC around to hack some machines while you cover him.
You’ll be going in and out of bases a lot, defending NPCs while they drive or do tasks, hacking terminals, and so on but the game always finds ways to make it feel fun rather than “Oh great, this mission that I feel like I’ve done six times already.”
There are also some additional side missions which have you doing things like picking up Black Hand affiliates and then driving them off a cliff to a fiery demise, various car stunts, and more. There’s a definite variety to the missions in the game, something I didn’t fully anticipate and is incredibly welcome when looking at other games in the genre which string you along on the same missions for dozens of hours until the credits roll.
It also helps that Just Cause 4 is fun to play but it also causes a lot of frustration with its immense jank. Rico ragdolls a LOT and will take several seconds before he gets back on his feet, I get that it’s supposed to be funny or whatever because he’s bouncing and flopping all over the place but it gets really old really fast. You will get riddled with bullets or continue to get knocked back down by explosions as Rico takes a moment to sprawl out and tan on the ground from whatever knocked him on his feet, meanwhile you start mashing buttons to get up and he just sits there.
It’s no more than probably 3 – 5 seconds but when it happens constantly, it gets super annoying and slows down the flow of the action. The gunplay itself feels better than past Just Cause games with better aim assist/targeting to help make shooting feel less floaty. In the past, I used to hate using my guns in Just Cause which is obviously not good considering they’re what’s ultimately driving the game forward.
In Just Cause 4, I loved getting into gunfights because it feels far more coherent and competent. You will burn through ammo quite quickly and have to pick weapons up off the ground (which there are plenty of) but if you find yourself needing to melee an enemy to take their gun, it makes the combat come to a grinding halt.
Rico swings out his grappling hook like in the past and whips an enemy, waits for the rope to retract, and then does it again. It seemingly only has one slow animation and feels really unsatisfying, it’s usually better to just tether an enemy to the wall or a nearby object as it’s more gratifying and probably quicker than slashing someone two or three times. I’d like to see them refine melee combat if Avalanche does a fifth game as I think the grappling hook has potential to be a fun, deadly tool when up close and personal but they don’t utilize that in 4.
Just Cause 4 does make efforts to expand on the grappling hook as something more than just a Spider-Man-esque traversal method. On top of tethering objects together and using physics to pull them around, you can attach booster rockets onto objects and send them flying and even add balloons to cause things like cars to float away.
While these are effective tools in combat, I found their use to be far more enjoyable when goofing off. While experimenting, I once attached a handful of rockets onto a car, got in it, started driving, and then propelled myself nearly out of the atmosphere and back down into a passing helicopter. These are the ridiculous and chaotic moments we all strive for in a game like Just Cause.
It offers an arsenal of toys to play with, tells you “Hey, this is what these are meant for but… we’ll let you do whatever you want with them”, and then allows you to act on your imagination in really stupidly wonderful ways.
You can also call in supply drops as per usual which give you various vehicles and weapons at a moments notice, allowing you to almost always be equipped for any occasion. I typically tried to avoid using vehicles whenever I could as they all have rather mediocre controls from handling to camera movement.
The camera when driving feels straight out of the PS2-era/early Xbox 360 where it has this odd range of motion that doesn’t quite feel 360 degrees. You can move it around the entire car but it moves in a way that reminded me of old-school GTA where the camera had these almost fixed angles when you tried to look around. It feels stiff and awkward and it doesn’t help that vehicles handle poorly.
Cars feel really heavy and sluggish but not in a GTA IV kind of way where the physics feel designed around this to make a different but still fun driving system. They’re hard to turn and there’s lots of winding roads and cliffsides for you to fall off. There was a moment where I was in a car chase and a helicopter was aiming at me, I swerved and went all the way off the road and into this oddly misplaced crevice which got my car stuck.
I tried to grapple it out or use balloons to free it but no luck, I just had to blow it up and restart. Air vehicles feel similarly, with this odd sense of weight in a game that feels otherwise really freeing. Everything about driving or flying just feels outdated, they’re not impossible to use but they’re not particularly fun meaning you’ll spend most of your time navigating via wingsuit and parachute.
Visually, the game also looks incredibly outdated and outright bad. The lighting is really broken, causing weird shadows in cutscenes, character models look a way that can only be described as gross, and the textures are painfully ugly. The only way to accurately describe it is to imagine you’re playing this game on a really bad PC with very low settings which is not something you should feel in an AAA game on a console.
Textures aren’t just blurry, they feel like they’re just not loading at times along with other elements of the rest of the world. There’s lots of pop-in as you navigate Solis, I would frequently see vehicles, foliage, and other elements of the world just faze in.
There’s also this really odd motion blur that occurs in gameplay and cutscenes, it’s genuinely an eyesore and I rushed to settings to see if it could be turned off but it’s completely unadjustable. Just Cause 4 feels really unoptimized despite managing to keep a rather steady frame rate more often than not but that’s one of its two best technical achievements and something we should expect as opposed to applauding.
Just Cause 4 also features new weather systems which affect gameplay such as tornados that suck up people and other objects in the environment and storms with deadly lightning strikes. The weather is actually really cool and creates extra tension during action scenarios and adds a dynamic tool to try to manipulate to your advantage.
I had a lot of fun messing around with it and it’s something I’ve never seen fully captured to this extent in any other game but I’m not sure it was worth building a totally new engine for it as the rest of the game seems to suffer because of that.
Just Cause 4 is fun when you’re unloading lead, dancing around lightning, and blowing things up but it lacks significantly elsewhere. Avalanche has released a very unpolished open world experience that feels outdated visually and mechanically. To add insult to injury, the story feels bland and continues to make Rico one of gaming’s most uninteresting protagonists despite his wide array of skills and gadgets.
Just Cause 4 isn’t a really bad game, it just has a lot of shortcomings and issues that hold it back from being something more than average at best and really mediocre at its worst.