“Wow, what an awesome narrative,” said no one, ever, about a Just Cause game. It joins other superlatives such as “great characters and dialogue,” “elegant mission design” and “bleeding edge graphics” on a dusty shelf of forgotten praise. What Just Cause has been lauded for — and rightly so — is its gleeful embrace of mayhem and a firm belief in giving the players a rickety playground filled with things that blow up and fall down real good, and lots of ways to make that happen. Sure, there’s been just enough of a story to move the character around the map, but no one ever paid the admission price expecting more than another chapter of “Rico Blows Up South America.”
This time around, developer Avalanche has tried to gussy up the game with an annoying, Risk-lite territory capture systems, lots of inscrutable weapon loadouts and ability upgrade systems, missions on timers, and while it isn’t lipstick on a pig bad, it does smack of a desperate bid for “depth” in a franchise which has heretofore worn its superficiality proudly.
Once again you play Rico Rodriguez — maybe by the fourth installment we could get a new protagonist? — who, once again, must defeat a South American island despot, only with the twist being said despot is using weather-controlling super-weapons developed by Rico’s father. This basically gives the game the ability to add tornadoes, sandstorms and other natural phenomena to the bag of mayhem-and-destruction tools.
In addition to story missions, Just Cause 4 adds missions to control regions of the map, which are then held by AI squads (that can’t, incidentally, be then defeated in any permanent sense). These territory missions are cookie-cutter bland in their broad strokes, no matter how creatively they are carried out. Actually, mission design in general is very repetitive, and often needlessly frustrating in its objectives and locations. Squad after squad of suspiciously dumb AI soldiers falls under Rico’s creative use of physics, but there’s rarely any real satisfaction in the combat. Rico himself — weapons aside — is like a relic from games gone by, with a limited moveset in melee combat on the ground and no punch to his punch.
Just Cause 4 succeeds, like the games before it, as a showcase for wacky destruction, insane physics-defying movement and an edgy sense of mayhem that may or may not be intentionally linked to the game’s overall janky behavior. Although the game runs better than the last entry’s notable mess of a framerate, it still has issues and lots of them: mission and AI bugs, graphics anomalies and more. Zipping around with Rico’s mutli-tasking grappling hook, wingsuit and parachute is still fluid and fun — for a while — and the game is stuffed to the gills with weapons and upgrades right from the start.
Anyone who thinks of Just Cause 4 as a triple-A game is mistaken, despite its diverse biomes and miles and miles of open world island landmass. Truth is, compared to some of its recent brethren, Just Cause 4 doesn’t always look great up close and the endlessly repeating military installations lack imagination. While the soundtrack is quite enjoyable, the overall audio design is less successful. Just Cause 4 could take some pointers from games like Battlefield, where weapons and explosions hit like a kick to the sternum. The voice acting is competent, given that the actors are tasked with reciting forgettable claptrap that is only rarely funny or engaging.
Just Cause has always done, and still does, one thing very well, but it has long lost its novelty and desperately needs something - a reboot, a visual upgrade, a good story. Adding interface and systems complexity does nothing to make core experience more compelling or less familiar. Bugs and opaque mechanisms aside, fans who love the Just Cause games for their unadorned mayhem and destruction will find it once again, but it is hard to imagine anyone coming away excited for another sequel.