Playing Just Cause 4, I can’t escape the notion that something went wrong in Avalanche’s open-world series, with a slightly new design direction that doesn’t fit quite as well as fans would hope. I’m still having a blast destroying the multitude of enemy bases scattered across the huge map of Solis, which I traverse with Rico’s trusty grappling hook, paired with weirdly unlimited parachute, and a jet-powered wingsuit you can now use. Blowing up explosive barrels and enemy structures is a usual display of unlimited chaos, which you can now further facilitate by sending a tornado towards an enemy base. Weather effects have a convoluted plot around them, and Just Cause never aimed to have complex exposition, but utilizing them leads to spectacular results. Yet in many ways, the revamped mission structure here feels too restrictive, taking away much of the freedom to do your own thing, where you’d normally be able to progress in the game simply by engaging with its open world. In Just Cause 4, repetitive objective design is now more apparent than ever, and so is its serious lack of improvement over predecessors, though let’s not write the game off just yet.
Developer: Avalanche Studios, Publisher: Square Enix
Released: December 4th, 2018; Reviewed on: PC
Testing specs: Core i5-6500 3.2GHz, 16GB RAM, GeForce GTX 1070
Available via: Steam
Rico Rodriguez is back to destabilize yet another island dictatorship as a one-man army, venturing out to Solis to challenge the most powerful mercenary group in the world. You get the most diverse arsenal in the series yet, with plethora of automatic and explosive weapons, tanks, helicopters, and even extreme weather conditions at your disposal. With easy access to all of that, you’re never left defenceless, overpowering everything in your path, but can always speed into the distance through a combination of movement options if things get too crazy. Air drops provide instant access to whichever gear you desire, provided you’ve survived the mess of menu screens to call them in. They’re thankfully not bound by limited physical beacons like in the past, but each pilot has a small time frame they can’t be used, which becomes less of an issue the more of them you unlock. Player arsenal in Just Cause 4 remains a strong design point, and minus the absence of unlimited C4, delivers everything you need to go ballistic. So far, so good.
Just Cause games have always put player fun in front of challenge, none being infuriating in their gameplay difficulties, though here you’re practically a god. Using an optional jet-powered wingsuit, I’ve accidentally slammed into a hill at full speed, and it only took off about half of Rico’s health bar. Enemy gunfire is like rocks, and it’s extremely difficult to die here unless you’re caught in a massive explosion or overwhelmed with bullets. One can’t complain here, though I’d have preferred a little more challenge out of the game, simply for the fact it is much too easy. With Rico’s grappling hook, you can always pull yourself out of sticky situations with ease, and fly back in as soon as his health regenerates; there’s simply no way to die from regular gunfights.
Player arsenal in Just Cause 4 receives a slight upgrade, although don’t expect to see much difference in how the game plays. It’s a slight iteration at best, where your tether gets an air lift upgrade, along with boosters and retractors you’d have already seen in the past, and now also allows for various quick loadouts on the go. Otherwise you’re treated to a vast array of projectile and explosive weapons, and for vehicles, can pick anywhere between a tiny motorcycle and large warships. Slamming two things together using your grappling tether is inherently fun, as it is lifting enemy fighters in the air using balloons, but I never found myself relying on these as a rocket launcher typically takes care of any bigger threats. Picking your tether loadout is also unnecessarily complex, taking you to one of the sub-menu screens that are impossible to navigate with mouse & keyboard. I played with a controller as I do for most action games, but PC Gamers will be frustrated with the odd key mapping Avalanche chose for the game’s menus. It doesn’t follow any sensible key combinations, and to further add insult to injury, Just Cause 4 won’t allow you to remap any of its keys. Gamepad controls work much better, though you still can’t escape the pains of moving between the layers of menu screens, which don’t have the worst UI in gaming, but I’d avoid them as much as possible.
Where I begin to find major issues with Just Cause 4, enough to often cause complete frustration, is the poorly thought-out mission design that takes out much enjoyment in messing with the open-world for hours on end. Albeit I admit that like many others, I was getting tired out on the series’ well-tried progression formula that forced you to hit certain chaos metrics before missions unlock, here the changes Avalanche made frankly don’t feel welcome. Whereas in Just Cause 3 and others before it, going off on a chaos spree was rewarding as the main way to progress, so despite repetition you never felt like you’ve been wasting your time doing nonsense. Just Cause 4 then, throws in a bunch of random side missions as means of progression, neglecting any open-world mayhem you desire to cause. It simply doesn’t matter now, and whether or not you take the time to clear enemy bases, once your ‘rebel force’ moves into the area, you’ve secured a new region without much hassle. Still, you typically may have to do a mission or two where you flip a bunch of switches all over the place, or defend prisoners, neither of which could be any worse of a way to spend time.
Creating chaos consequently, takes a secondary position to all that aforementioned fuss, and I’d often have entire bases covered in red-painted enemy structures as my allies clearly have complete control over them. Just Cause 4 expects you to venture into enemy territory and create your own fun, yet doesn’t reward any player effort for doing what the series always encouraged in the first place. Chaos isn’t completely pointless, and still gives out some points used to level up the resistance force, but even as I’ve tired out on somewhat repetitive grind of Just Cause 3, this isn’t a change I appreciated by any extent.
While one can slightly support the developers’ efforts to add in some new features into the experience, the map-based warfare elements feel completely out of place as one of recent introductions. The vast area of Solis is split down into a myriad of tiny regions, controlled by the enemy in the beginning, and taken over by rebels during your playthrough. Rico’s actions somehow gain him enough trust from the resistance that he’s placed in charge of taking over new areas, sending forces to the front line through the map overview. It never gets more complex than selecting the next red border to move your forces to, provided you have enough squad reserves, and the enemy never once threatens to take friendly zones back. For a series that’s well-known for letting players loose in a sandbox map with few questions asked, this map warfare mechanic simply complicates your progression in various ways, though thankfully entire world is still accessible from the get go. Just Cause 4 tries to signify this element, yet never fleshes it out beyond what I’ve described; frankly, if I wanted a strategy game, I can switch over to the numerous titles I have in my gaming library to satisfy that itch.
Despite my numerous complaints with Just Cause 4, I still managed to enjoy its moment to moment gameplay enough to spend considerable time in Solis, exploring its diverse biomes and having fun with traversal and explosions. Air controls are very intuitive with smooth transitions on the fly, and one doesn’t need to question how Rico somehow has unlimited parachutes available at any time. You’re never tempted to use other means of transportation, unless it is a fighter jet obtained using the air drop, as there’s simply no fun in slowly trudging along a road when you move faster than an average sports car here. Ground controls aren’t as exciting, with Rico still lacking a sprint function that fans undoubtedly would like very much, though it’s serviceable enough to enjoy nonetheless. It is unfortunate then, that a solid gameplay framework is hindered by unnecessary progression elements, where I wonder how come Just Cause 4 hasn’t asked me to blow stuff up.
The island of Solis is a huge expanse, and suffers from the gaming industry’s need to create larger and larger worlds, yet forgets to get filled with meaningful content.. As always, Avalanche combine tropical, desert and mountain regions into one map, so you’re always bound to get a change of scenery between smaller zones, even when they’re subtle. Somehow I feel like there’s way more empty land to cover here than ever before, and while Just Cause games always had a problem of possessing ridiculously huge maps you get bored in halfway through, the density of enemy bases and populated towns in Solis is even lower. You can eventually fast travel all over, although only areas you’ve ‘liberated’ enable it, so again: more busywork to get access to the whole map.
The Apex engine showcases some impressive tech when it comes to weather effects, although overall I wouldn’t say I’m impressed by it. Close up, lightning storms and tornadoes certainly look impressive, full of particle effects that make the weather in Solis look unmistakably close to natural. Yet when it comes to the overall picture, I kept noticing vast amounts of graphics pop-in as I played, and my PC is by no means a slouch. My GTX 1070 has kept up with all recent titles impressively well (read my review of the card here), and Just Cause 4 is no exception here, but graphics have a staggering tendency to disappear now and then. Looking at a wind farm from one angle, and all turbines will be missing the large rotating blades, but from another, everything looks just fine. Apex looks to provide a roadmap for future Avalanche games, and here feels more like a tech demo for weather effects, but one can applaud the developer for its impressive visual technology at hand.
I really want to like Just Cause 4, and on occasions, I’ve enjoyed it immensely because it keeps the momentum of chaos going, as you slingshot around like a madman and blow up everything in your path. If it weren’t for its convoluted progression, I have no doubt I could go for hours in Solis as I free yet another nation of oppressive rule, and its weather effects create some breathtaking moments to play around in. Not all new introductions turned out as well as one could hope, though admittedly the series did need a slightly fresh direction to keep players coming back for more. It’s not gone as smoothly as expected, and progression design somehow deflects the main purpose of creating chaos, but nonetheless, you might like Just Cause 4 for its non-stop action and spectacular explosions. Though as a fan of the series, this isn’t quite a direction I wanted it to go in.