This is my coming of age article. My first official preview of AAA game was Just Cause 3 at the Bandai Namco offices all the way back in 2015. I was so terrible at the game that an employee of Bandai Namco had to coach me through which buttons to press and was remarkably tolerant when I kept wingsuiting into walls. Fast forward to 2018 – I am now equipped with three years of Just Cause training and an absolute love for the franchise. I have never been so excited to play a new release.
Just Cause 4, likes its predecessors, is all about creative destruction and chaos. However, this time, Rico’s signature grappling hook has more features, more aspects of the environment can be interacted with, and the environment interacts back! It has been marketed as an amped-up version of Just Cause 3… plus tornadoes! But have they made EVERYTHING bigger and better? Or do I still have to deal with fodder for enemies and crappy swimming? Bandai Namco invited me to their offices to explore that fine line between hype and hypercritical.
For context, Just Cause 4 is an open-world action-adventure sandbox game designed to allow players to… destroy everything they can in every way that they can imagine. Players take control of the returning protagonist – Die-hard flavoured action-man, Rico Rodriguez – on the South American inspired island of Solis. Rico is drawn to the island by news that his father was contributing to a weapons research project. He soon discovers that the people are under the thumb of the paramilitary group cum scientists, the Black Hand – led by Gabriella. From their James Bond style alpine base in the centre of Solis, Project Illapa, the Black Hand are terrorising the inhabitants of the island by creating extreme weather conditions.
Even though it is one landmass, Solis is split into four distinct biomes – the grasslands, the desert, and the rainforest encircle a central alpine region. In each of these biomes, the Black Hand has unleashed an extreme weather condition. The trailers and available gameplay footage show off the extreme weather conditions from the grasslands – tornadoes.
But what are the other weather conditions like – the sandstorm, tropical storm, and blizzard? Can extreme weather conditions happen in all the biomes simultaneously? And are they randomly generated? Unfortunately, fly as I might, I came across none of the other extreme weather conditions during my hands-on session. However, I did come across some rain and snow in the other biomes, and I can see how these could be used to limit your vision and the vision of your enemies.
My theory is that the occurrence of weather conditions in other biomes is story driven. Alternatively, the demo I played simply did not allow for players to experience conditions other than the tornado.
Regardless, the tornado is pretty epic. From a distance, you can spot a tornado by the swirling mass of black clouds that gather at its top. As you get closer, you’ll notice the sound of the tornado and the impact it has on the surrounding environment. As it is ripping through a town, the swirling vortex of death will suck up any destructible object in the environment. If you wingsuit or parachute straight into its path (a natural desire), you’ll become caught up in the chaos. The tornado won’t kill you, but it will change your trajectory and possibly launch you into the path of objects that will. The new physics system and the way you interact with wind and the tornado is all thanks to Avalanche studios’ new proprietary game engine – Apex. It’s pretty neat. If the tornado is anything to go by, the forecast looks good for the other extreme weather conditions.
There were two things that I particularly enjoyed about the tornado. Firstly, even when you’re passing by or way off in the distance, the tornado continues to do its own thing – it is procedurally generated. At one point, I watched from a hill as the tornado ripped through a town, sucking up and tossing out vehicles and destroying buildings. Later, it destroyed an enemy base and I received all the credit. Who knew that a tornado would make such a great wingman?
Secondly, I found it amusing that the villagers would run in terror, cowering in the streets as the tornado approached… while cows and llamas acted as though they were completely oblivious and went about their daily business.
Grappling Hook Upgrades
The upgrades to the grappling hook are the other big features being focused on by the Just Cause 4 marketing team. The grappling hook (along with the wingsuit) is one of the features that sets the Just Cause series apart from other action adventure games. It can be used as a way to quickly traverse the environment, to manipulate objects, or attack enemies.
Now, the grappling hook has three new modifications – the air lifter, the retractor and the booster. Each of these modifications has been shown off in gameplay footage. With the air lifter mod activated, the grappling hook spawns a hot air balloon when it comes into contact with enemies, vehicles, or any other object – sending them up into the air. The heavier the object, the more balloons required. The retractor changes the intensity of the pull of the grappling hook. The booster is like a mini propulsion device. I recommend attaching 12 boosters to a sports car and hurtling down the freeway.
Each of these modifications can be customised. They can be activated automatically when you shoot the grappling hook, or when you tap or hold a particular button. Maybe you want both the air lifter and the retractor activated simultaneously, or just the booster, or all three. You can even adjust individual components of each of these – the peak vertical height of the air lifter, the intensity of the booster etc. There are apparently over 4 million combinations.
The basic components of each of these mods are unlocked early on in the game (the first three main story missions), and you are taught how to use them. It is also very easy to navigate the customisation menu. So you can jump in to some creative destruction straight away! Or create your own crazy vehicles. Flying tank? Don’t mind if I do.
The extreme weather conditions and the upgrades to the grappling hook are probably the two most talked about features of this game. However, we really need to talk about the sound design. The sound design is a triumph!
Your wingsuiting and parachuting adventures are accompanied by Avalanche Studios’ take on the music of Latin America – with strong use of pan flutes and percussion instruments. There is a relaxing ebb and flow to the music, and it builds as you maintain wingsuit and parachute for longer periods of time. It is the perfect adventuring music, complementing the effortless movement mechanics and eliciting a sense of freedom. I felt encouraged to perfect the wingsuiting mechanics so I could keep travelling by air and listen to the music.
If you happen to fly into conflict, the music is not drowned out. Instead, sounds from the battle are incorporated into the music and the tone changes. The same thing happens when you are flying near the tornado – the whistling of the wind and the impending sense of danger are all artfully woven into the music to create a unique soundscape. In my opinion, the variations in the wingsuit music and the way it incorporates the sound effects of weather events and battle is easily one of the best aspects of Just Cause 4.
The wingsuiting and parachuting movement mechanics in Just Cause 4 remain just as strong as in Just Cause 3. In fact, the transition from wingsuit to parachute (and vice versa) feels crisper than ever. This is the best way to traverse the environment.
However, if you want to travel by vehicle, Avalanche Studios have you covered with their complete overhaul of the vehicle handling system. Each vehicle is now distinctly different, and you can really feel it- small cars are slow and reliable, big trucks have terrible handling, while motorcycles turn sharply with the touch of the joystick. If you need to get anywhere quickly, hijack a high-end sports car – they feel like they stick to the ground (unless you attach twelve boosters to them).
Under certain circumstances, the graphics were truly… tested. I am going to blame this on the fact that I was playing an older build of the game. The first couple of cutscenes were jumpy, flickered, and the audiovisuals seemed to be out of sync. I also found that travelling at high speeds around the tornado, or walking around at the peak of the alpine region caused Rico’s head and body to become a pixelated mess. I can’t even comment on the swimming in the game because it didn’t seem like the developers had even started the art for areas below the surface of the water.
Unexpectedly, I was not blown away by Just Cause 4. While the upgrades to the grappling hook and the inclusion of extreme weather events are welcome additions to the game, I am not sure they alone create an experience that is significantly and satisfactorily different from Just Cause 3. To be fair, there are other elements I have not really discussed in this piece – for example, the chaos bar that is used to unlock new weapons and progress your frontline- because I did not interact with them as much as I would have liked to. Perhaps the plot and main missions will keep me more enthused than my random meandering did, though I always felt that random meandering and settlement liberating were some of the most entertaining parts of Just Cause 3. I do believe Just Cause 4 has great potential, and I eagerly await the opportunity to interact with the other weather events, learn more about the supporting cast of characters and Rico’s father, and take down the Black Hand when the game is released on December 4th.