Reading this review will tell you everything you need to know about Just Cause 4’s strengths. This is a very iterative sequel, and therefore it’s just as gloriously over-the-top and action-movie stupid as the last one. It does learn from and address many of Just Cause 3’s mistakes, especially when it comes to some of the more annoyingly repetitious mission types, but it doesn’t really come with a must-have new idea to give it its own identity.
There are two kinds of story generated by a Just Cause game, I reckon. The first kind of story is breathless – action piled upon improbable reaction with no pauses in the telling whatsoever. The other kind of story – you could call it the Larry Story – is defined by its pauses: confusion, disbelief, slow realization, shame. This guy was dead…and I think I killed him…and then I attached him to my car…? And to a balloon…? And I drove around for another half hour?
Just Cause 4 wants to indulge your every destructive and playful impulse.
If you’re keeping track, this is now the fourth Latin tropical despot whom Rico Rodriguez – effectively the secret lovechild of Wolverine and a flying squirrel who is also a secret agent – has set out to depose. Adding the personal angle of Rodriguez family involvement in Dictator #4’s weather-control scheme means very little due to the completely twist-free nature of the story, especially since that dictator shows up only at the beginning and end. I did enjoy the way cutscenes lay out the next series of mission objectives as steps toward a long-term goal, almost Ocean’s 11-style, but otherwise it’s yet another tale of regime change via explosion.
I had learned that my nemesis – the bland dictator I had turned up in the Latin American state of Solis to take down – had learned how to meddle with the weather. Blizzards, sandstorms, lightning, that kind of thing. He knew how to make tornados, and now my guys, the liberators had learned how to make them too. The plan was to make a tornado, grow it to a great size and ride it straight into one of his cities. (I think this was the plan anyway – snappy, memorable plotting is not a series strength.)
In the absence of a new Red Faction game, Just Cause 4 is at the top of its field when it comes to blowing stuff up. Virtually everything that’s red – and a few things that aren’t – will explode when damaged, and destroying one of the huge, Epcot Center-like fuel tank spheres produces some of the most spectacular fireballs seen in any game. I can’t stress enough how big a part of the satisfaction of Just Cause 4 comes down to watching a thunderous chain reaction of detonations. But, at the same time, that’s all carried over from the previous game, and I’d have loved to have seen Just Cause 4 double down even more on destructibility. It doesn’t, really.
The developers have made loads of changes under the hood to everything from gunplay to vehicle handling, but the moment-to-moment action feels as wonderfully scrappy and improvisational as ever.
In truth, Just Cause trades precision for its hectic, pummeling pace. It would rather have you react than plan ahead and execute the plan. And because of this, I think, the game has picked up some bad habits. Underneath the magical stuff – the balloons and the winching and the wingsuiting for miles and miles – this is a fiddly game, filled with buggy NPC AI that wants to jog against your car rather than get in when it’s under fire, weapon crates that it is hard to get open unless you’re standing in just the right place, waypoint markers that aren’t brilliant at functioning meaningfully when you’re up close, bikes and jets that are far too jittery, and, this time around, a territory capture mechanic which over-complicates the process of opening up the map. The more that chaos – which is how the games have always tracked Rico’s rampages – is used to define your progress, you end up grinding the game in very unusual ways. Time and again when I was trying to move to a new area and I had already completed that area’s specific mission, I would fall back on earning the chaos I needed to advance the border by attacking my own bases for the easy chaos points. I’d find one of my team’s helicopters, throw the innocent pilot into the troposphere or wherever we were, and then ruthlessly machine gun my own infrastructure from 15,000 feet.
Just Cause gets away with this, though, just as it gets away with building a sequel around a few stand-out weather missions and a bunch of balloons, because it has that rare commodity in games. Just Cause is charming, and Just Cause 4 is as charming as all the others. Rico isn’t just a liberator on a mission, he is likable and fun to be around. He moves beautifully, he hums Wagner as he obliterates his own bases in a helicopter, and even when he isn’t humming he sounds amazing as he zips about, a muddle of buckles and winches and tiny motors purring. The plot pulls off a potentially murky blend of regime change and climate-conspiracy because it’s obvious that nobody expects anybody to think too seriously about these things, and the game beneath the plot throws the same objectives at you over and over again because it knows that the tools you’re given are fun enough to ensure that you can do things a little differently each time.
The trusty retractor grapple is basically the ultimate weapon.
That said, combat in Just Cause hasn’t been about challenge in a good long while. Rico can absorb so much damage – and heal back to full health so quickly – that a typical enemy soldier shooting him in the face is no more cause for concern than a sunburn. In fact, most of these battles aren’t a question of whether you can defeat the army of mercenaries lined up against you, because of course you can. When they roll up in a tank, all you have to do is look at it and push a button and suddenly their tank is your tank. And, especially when there’s any significant number of enemies on the field at a time, their AI all but ceases to function and reduces them to punching bags. As long as you keep moving and remember to bail out of a vehicle before it explodes, you’ll probably win. So the goal, effectively, is to look good wiping the floor with them – which, don’t get me wrong, can be quite satisfying. It’s the moments when the enemy is throwing all of its firepower at you when Just Cause 4 feels the most sensational, with chain-reaction explosions and spectacular crashes right and left as you sail through the flames unscathed.
It’s not that there’s nothing new under the tropical sun. For one, the map of the island of Solis feels just as expansive as Just Cause 3’s Medici without directly repeating it, and its diverse environments keep exploring it from becoming monotonous. Like a great filming location, you’re never far from beaches, jungles, deserts, snowy mountains, and everything in between. Its urban settings are a tad on the bland side, especially if you’re coming fresh off of Spider-Man, but outside of that it checks all the boxes for what you want and expect in an open-world game map – including a huge number of side challenges to complete with your wingsuit and/or vehicles.
Liberating the map piece by piece has a new spin that resolves one of my chief complaints about Just Cause 3. Instead of taking back every town by knocking down annoying propaganda speakers and statues, now almost all of the several dozen provinces has a real mission associated with it that must be cleared in order to claim it – and the weapon or vehicle unlock it comes with. Sure, you’ll play most mission types more than once, especially the one where you have to hunt down several switches in an area, or the one where you have to drive bomb-rigged cars into the ocean to disarm them, but it’s a significant step up in variety. That said, it’s a bit of a downer how many missions are built around the idea of finding switches to disable indestructible turret cannons. This is a game about blowing things up, and being told all your firepower means nothing in these circumstances is a little frustrating.
Just Cause 4 has everything you expect from a Just Cause game, almost to a fault. Relative to Just Cause 3 the improvements are widespread across its beautiful open world, but generally minor. So while blowing up yet another dictator’s army is the same kind of mindless explosive fun and physics-based comedy the series is built on, it doesn’t do much to incorporate the new weather systems or grapple mods into combat. That leaves me with a distinct “more of the same” feeling.