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Just Cause 4 review

Barely justified.

I may have put more time into Just Cause 2 than any other single-player game. I was hooked from the moment I put my hands on the demo, and while I never played the first game, I’ve considered myself a fan of the series ever since. In the following years, Just Cause has established itself as one of the dominant open-world action series of this generation. While Just Cause 3 didn’t check every box, it was sound enough to give Just Cause 4 a good jumping off point. Balancing change and innovation is a precarious act for any sequel, but while Just Cause 4 is all-around entertaining, it has put some cracks in the Just Cause pedestal.

There are two ingredients necessary for the start of any Just Cause game: an exotic island nation, and a tyrannical military regime. For Just Cause 4, these are the island of Solís and the Black Hand, lead by the malevolent Oscar Espinosa. On a mission to discover the truth about his late father, returning hero Rico Rodriguez arrives in Solís, where he galvanizes its oppressed people to form the Army of Chaos. This allows him to begin dismantling Espinosa’s weather-manipulation technology, which is being tested on the defenseless population. Just Cause games have never concerned themselves much with profound story-telling or characterization, and the fourth installment generally stays this course. Rico has his charming moments, but you’ll forget the “why” and “who” of the campaign’s events as soon as they’re off screen.

More important is the “where,” this time being the island of Solís. One of the hooks that pulled me into Just Cause 2 was its environment design, fitting every climate and terrain variety you could want into its massive map. Just Cause 3 was beautiful to look at, but it lacked the same diversity in its setting, which is something Just Cause 4 brings back with four distinct biomes of jungle, grassland, desert, and arctic.

So why, then, does this return to a broader spectrum of environments not resonate with me as it once did? Maybe it’s how mountainous the entire map is. Immense portions are inaccessible by foot, making it harder to appreciate what makes each biome different when all you take away is the color of the mountain you’re flying over. Or maybe it’s the lack of detail in the environment. When you’d dive underwater in Just Cause 2, you’d enter a vast world of reefs that made you feel like there was something new to discover under the surface, even though there never really was. That level of detail, and the intrigue that came with it, doesn’t have the same presence in Just Cause 4. The map is massive in scale, but if I’m only motivated to jump to set points of interest, that’s just a lot of wasted space.

Accessing those points of interest across the landscape requires completing Region Strike missions. The regions that make up each biome are locked down by the Black Hand, and they must be conquered by advancing the frontline of Rico’s Army of Chaos one adjacent region at a time. The squads necessary to advance the line can be earned from the Region Strikes themselves, or by causing Chaos (destroying select Black Hand structures), but this balance seems a little out of whack. You’d expect the game to encourage Chaos as much as possible, but I earned enough squads from the Strike missions to plow through each region with only a moderate amount of Chaos. Between this and the offputting infrequency of enemies hunting beyond the limits of military zones, Just Cause 4 seems to be losing its grip on the anarchy that makes this series tick.

Strike missions are also not particularly interesting, rarely posing objectives more complex than hitting a few buttons or defending a point, but I don’t expect too much from such ancillary tasks. My expectations instead fall on the story missions, which is where the game hits its mark. The story of Just Cause 4 involves undoing the different storms the Black Hand has unleashed on the map— lightning storms in the jungle, tornadoes in the grasslands, sandstorms in the desert, and blizzards in the arctic—and each is an adventure in of itself.

Different storms introduce distinct gameplay challenges and effects on the environment, like tornadoes ripping up nearly everything in their path or lightning storms striking friendlies and enemies alike. Each story mission builds toward a showdown against one of these forces of nature. The storms are an awesome spectacle to behold, both within the confines of their story mission and when they spawn randomly in the open world. Players can even summon them manually once their respective story arc is completed. The storms’ only drawback is that their effects are fairly one-note, and after you’ve messed with them a couple times, the novelty can wane.

Aside from the Region Strikes and story missions, there are three types of sidequests handed out by supporting characters you meet on your travels, divided into training new army recruits, performing crazy stunts, and discovering ancient tombs. Their requests can prove tedious after the first few times, but you’ll be tackling them for the reward, not so much for the activity. Each sidequest rewards rank toward a mod unlock for Rico’s grappling hook, which, aside from the storms, is Just Cause 4’s biggest selling point.

The grappling hook is a cornerstone of the Just Cause series, and while it’s undergone some tweaks over the years, never have fans had so much control over how it works. The hook’s rudimentary use is to zip Rico around the world, with increased effectiveness when used in conjunction with his parachute or wingsuit, allowing him to cover vast distances without the need of a vehicle. In combat, the grapple has long been ideal for sticking enemies to walls, toppling towers on top of them, or devising any number of comically vindictive ways to remove people from the equation. It’s always taken some thought to get the quirkiest results, and things have only gotten quirkier.

There are now three sections of the grapple that can be customized: the first end, which is equipped with air lifter balloons, providing means to elevate various objects; the opposite end, which comes with boosters, letting the player propel objects in all directions; and the retractor cable that connects the two. Ranking up each sidequest character unlocks modifiers for their respective grapple piece, modifiers that come in many flavors. Make the air lifters indestructible, have the boosters explode once burnt out, the list goes on and on. The overwhelming depth of the new system would be laudable, if the nature of it wasn’t misdirected to begin with.

The reality is that the depth of this customization system doesn’t coalesce with the speed at which Just Cause games move. Creating insane mechanisms with its smorgasbord of modifications has potential to be very visually rewarding, but it’s not efficient, nor is it ever a necessary part of progressing through the game. Even for players clever enough to come up with the most hilarious ways to use these mods, such schematics are contingent on what objects and structures are in the immediate area. Even with three swappable loadouts, players must constantly jump back into the editor to tweak their builds based on what’s available, which kills the adrenaline-pumping flow of Just Cause. At its best, the depth of the system is damn impressive, and even basic builds can go a long way coupled with the game’s second-to-none physics, but ultimately, this system feels like a creative toolbox meant for an entirely different game.

Rest assured there is still anarchic fun to be had, even without a Masters in mechanical engineering from the University of Grappling Hooks. Gun combat is the best in series history, partly in thanks to a remapped aim function that gives the player more control over their targeting. All Black Hand weapons— the vast majority of the firearms available to the player—come with alternate firing modes, encouraging players to use the full arsenal just to see what each can do. None of these guns come with enough ammo to last the average fight, which forces the player to be constantly switching out depleted weapons for new ones, preventing the gunplay from getting stale.

The creativity found in the gun design is even greater in Just Cause 4’s vehicle selection. The game has a staggering number of different vehicles, with options for every terrain and scenario. Beyond the sports cars, helicopters, and tanks one would expect, there is also a spread of vehicles with unique utility functions, like tow trucks that can be set up as ramps, or cranes that can be used to position objects for sweet stunts.

If only as much care went into the vehicle control as the designs. The standard turn for land vehicles is far too stiff, while the handbrake turn is too loose, leaving a void where the perfect level of control would be. This becomes even more hopeless when offroading, thanks to the aforementioned mountainous terrain. Air vehicles, while also functionally interesting, suffer from being similarly finicky, creating a perpetual flux between fun and frustration.

Weapons and vehicles can be summoned through supply drops once they’re unlocked by completing missions, and these drops may be the game’s most notable area of improvement. Just Cause 2’s supply drop was basically a nightmare, and while Just Cause 3 made fixes, never has it been as quick and efficient as in Just Cause 4. Once an item’s unlocked, players need only equip it to a support pilot and set its drop location. Within seconds, it’s in front of you, ready to use. The items are also delivered at no cost to the player, and while each support pilot has a recharge time after delivery, up to seven pilots can be unlocked by creating Chaos. Streamlining the system this way makes it so much easier to enjoy the game’s best content.

This core change demonstrates that the developers know how to push the series forward, which calls into question why other changes were made that hold it back. It can be understandably hard to sell things like new maps or customization systems, but you’d think outright removing popular series features would be unambiguously inadvisable. No longer can players detach mounted machine guns and walk around with them, no longer can smaller weapons be dual-wielded, and no longer is there even a dedicated remote-detonated throwable anymore (it’s now in the form of a weapon that takes up a weapon slot).

Players looking to 100 percent the game will also find that locations are no longer completed by destroying structures, but rather by completing nearby stunt challenges and mini-objectives. This is a particular shame, given how well the game does the visual effects and debris physics of each explosion, and more motivation to seek them out would be a plus. It’s not that the series is changing that’s the problem; it’s that these changes seem to be abandoning the qualities that first lured fans in.

This problem is compounded by some severe technical issues that surface throughout the experience. Most prevalent are the AI bugs that leave NPCs regularly running into objects or incapable of finding their way into mission-critical vehicles. This might be for the best though, as said NPCs seem near-suicidal when behind the wheel, constantly driving cars off the road or flying helicopters into mountains. Even when the glitches don’t directly impact gameplay, they can still throw you off, like a bizarre and pervasive glitch that causes rocks on the map to grow and shrink in a way that no description could do justice. I could forget these technical issues if it wasn’t for the omissions above, but dealing with both is a lot to get over.

It’s always hard to come to terms with conceptual and technical missteps in a series you’re a fan of, and that is where I am right now. I won’t say that Just Cause 4 is a bad game. There are many genuinely epic moments and excellently designed systems to be enjoyed, but I hold the Just Cause series to a higher standard than others. While I don’t want to deter the series from innovating, more integral is that it doesn’t lose sight of how it earned its reverence.

★★★☆☆

Just Cause 4 has so many good systems in place, but it seems to have lost sight of what to do with them. While it’s a relatively decent game in its own right, it continues the series’ decline.

Developer
Avalanche Studios
Publisher
Square Enix
ESRB
M- Mature
Release Date
12.04.2018
Just Cause 4 is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4 Pro. Review code was provided by Square Enix for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.

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