For years, Just Cause has set the bar in sandbox games. Delivering the sort of gaming freedom that most games struggle to emulate, Rico and co are soaring above most of the competition. Does this latest adventure reach new heights or does it crumble under the weight of its own ambition?
As another tropical country falls to a fascist dictator, it’s down to Michael Bay’s favourite (probably) video game character, Rico Rodriguez, to once again liberate the innocent by blowing up as much stuff as possible. The island of Solis has fallen under the thumb of the Black Hand, run by Gabriela Morales and the ruler of Solis, Oscar Espinosa. The story doesn’t bring about many twists, but attempts to add more to Rico’s backstory adding some deviations in pacing. Some revelations are very clichéd but, in an effort to inject some emotion into the narrative, well received, if not clumsily executed.
Rico has three allies in his quest to free a town with a personal meaning to him – returning resistance leader Mira, enthusiastic local Luis and arrogant film maker Garland. While each have their own personality and traits, none stand out as people you want to help. Another familiar face returns from previous entries and leaves more of a mark than the fresh faces. Ultimately, Just Cause 4’s characters are playing second fiddle. After all, the story is not the reason we play Just Cause.
Avalanche made great strides with Just Cause 3’s open-world gameplay and all the strengths, and weaknesses, remain here. The use of near-futuristic weapons, the creativity of the grappling hook and aerial battle tech is just as pulsating and fun as it was before.
The newest and best additions are the customisable tether loadouts. Tethers now pack multiple uses. Rocket boosters and balloons have been added to the loadout and combining each can lead to some hilarious shenanigans. The airlifter balloons can be customised to affect how high you wish to hoist an object. Or you can program them to follow you as you move around the world. Three tether loadouts allow you to infinitely try different strategies when it comes to combat.
These can also provide some of the most comedic moments in the game. Car surfing across the world is a thrill and brings a different meaning to the phrase “flyby.” If you wish to bring some backup to your battles, try tethering two tanks together, outfit them with a couple of airlifters, a few low powered rocket boosters and set them to follow you and cue “Ride of the Valkyries.”
The mission design of Just Cause 4 feels very routine and, while clearing out each base, with specific objectives attached to them, it is just another reason to cause chaos. Objectives only range from – defend this console or person, blow up generators (endless bloody generators!) or flip electrical breakers. It can become very repetitive, but the fun of creating chaos and seeing things go boom keep it from becoming blatantly boring. The worst offenders are the missions you run for the resistance Sargento Luis as most of these lock you into a specific playstyle – more defend and escort missions. The most tenuous is escorting resistance novices across three or four checkpoints, locking you into long driving sections with the awful land vehicle physics and handling. It certainly feels a drag and I have been glad when they have been over.
Causing unlimited destruction recruits followers to Rico’s “Army of Chaos.” With every territory cleared of a Black Hand base, your army squads can reclaim provinces. After liberating each area, more missions become available. Progress in each story arc is locked behind these liberations, so completing them is mandatory and, unlike Just Cause 3, after it’s been liberated, you can’t return to each area and have more fun.
Just Cause 4 presents you with the biggest, densest and overly ambitious world in the series. Set on the fictional island of Solis, the developers have created a world of diversity in its locations that was severely lacking in the previous game. Shanty towns, rural villages, bustling ports and Metropolitan areas makes Solis feel more alive than Rico’s hometown of Medici. The concentration of civilians and militia roaming the world also gives each province its own look and feel. Depending on the local economy, the density of each is drastically different too, with rural areas sparsely populated, town streets full of pedestrians and vehicles, while more military checkpoints scour the ports.
The landscape also bears a resemblance to its predecessor but has upped the verticality (pun intended) considerably. To take constant advantage of Rico’s grappling hook, higher mountain peaks and steeper climbs just keep you wanting to climb higher and higher and higher. Localised weather patterns also add another dimension to exploration. The highly publicized tornadoes cause catastrophic devastation of everything in its path, but it also sends Rico spiralling in all directions, if you dare cross its path. If approached with caution, Rico can use the uplift of the tornado to gain altitude and then propel himself out of its grip, which offers the best sensation of speed in any wingsuit situation. While destroying bases and liberating settlements, Rico can utilise the tornado as another ally. Strategically destroying the Black Hand’s wind cannons, you can manipulate the tornado’s trajectory and decimate enemy forces.
The Just Cause franchise is synonymous with the word destruction and, in Just Cause 4, it is as beautiful as ever – how explosions rip through metal, how bullets ricochet off vehicles and how the tethers yank at objects gives you as much fun as it always has. Rather than just huge fireballs, electrical storms and pressure pops (the best way I can describe it) it all adds more variety to the destruction rather than setting everything on fire.
Unfortunately, it’s the presentation that is the biggest downfall in Just Cause 4. Admittedly, I may have been running the game on the original Xbox One, but the overall performance seems weaker than the previous game. While the frame rate issues have been addressed, it comes at a cost to the environmental presentation. Textures look decent up close, but fade into a humid looking haze, making objects in the distance almost impossible to make out. Ironically, the higher you are above the world, the better it seems to look. As is the case with a lot of open-world games, there is a fair amount of pop-in and texture loading as you traverse, but Just Cause 4 struggles to render the setting until you are literally right on top of it. Having seen footage from the Xbox One X, it does look better, yet I was expecting more from a Just Cause game after over a year into the X’s lifetime and three years after the previous game which looked better on the original Xbox One.
Character models, mainly in cutscenes, are passable. Rico shows all the scars and traits he has acquired over the past games, but his compadres can look more like waxworks than living breathing human beings. However, the bit that irks me the most, is the lighting. And while it does the basics right, such as how it casts shadows through the environment, it’s so rough. Shadows are pixilated throughout and the reflection of light on characters is so unrealistic. In one scene, I had Rico standing in a dimly lit room, with one lantern, his face turned away and his beard and hair were lit up like a novelty Santa Claus beard! The immersion of Rico’s tale was drained due to these technical mishaps.
While Just Cause 4 is not the worst looking game, I would have expected more. And after all their work on the new Apex engine, I thought even the vanilla Xbox One version would look better than Just Cause 3.
Overall, Just Cause 4 feels every bit the game that Just Cause 3 did, yet it pales in comparison due to its lacklustre presentation, stilted design and derivative story. While Rico’s adventure is all about liberation, it fails to inspire and comes back down to earth with a bang.