At its heart, the Just Cause franchise is all about creative destruction. Typically, players have access to interesting gadgets for fighting and locomotion, a hapless enemy, and an interactive environment ripe for exploitation. The result is physics-defying warfare and over-the-top explosions. Just Cause 4 hits all these marks, but misses on so many others. What you’re left with is a game that feels like a step back from its predecessor.
The hero of the Just Cause franchise, fearless action man Rico Rodriguez returns in this instalment. This time Rico is on the South American inspired island of Solis, where a paramilitary group called the Black Hand is using climate terrorism to wreak havoc. Rico’s mission is to take down the Black Hand, take on the extreme weather conditions he is presented with, and uncover the secrets of Solis. It’s the perfect pretence for some chaotic, destructive fun.
Unfortunately, Just Cause 4 lets itself down in the very first minute of the game with its visual design. This is the worst aspect of the game, and these problems persist throughout the player’s entire adventure. The character models have jagged edges and look as though their faces were given up on halfway through development, there is annoying motion blur during periods of high activity (which is all the time in an action game), objects often render after you arrive at a location, and the whole game is washed in dark tones that make the game unplayable during night scenes unless you want to experience severe eye strain. These issues affect gameplay and the story – it’s difficult to connect with characters when they look like potatoes.
The most poorly executed element, however, is the lighting – both during cutscenes and gameplay. The lighting changes inappropriately and seemingly at random during cutscenes, and the underwater swimming is best avoided if you’re prone to headaches. Further, this heavy-handed use of light and shade, and the dark colour palette of the game combine to make it difficult to discriminate between objects in the distance. This is particularly problematic when driving in fast cars, as players will only see a bend in the road after it is too late.
The visuals also detract from the Just Cause 4 experience by breaking the flow of the game and offering players (across all platforms) anything but an immersive experience. It’s important to note that these are not problems that are exclusive to the PS4 version. Just Cause 4 was met with backlash from players on PS4, Xbox and PC soon after the release date. Consequently, Avalanche Studios delivered a patch to rectify many of the graphical issues. However, even with the patch, I find that nothing has improved visually.
This is a shame because there are audiovisual elements of Just Cause 4 that have been executed well – notably, the setting and the sound design. Unlike in the previous title, the cities of Just Cause 4 are diverse and interesting. Early in the game, Rico meets with a resistance member in a town constructed under a bridge and entirely from shipping containers. Later, you’re wingsuiting over Football stadiums and Machu Picchu-inspired outposts. It gives Solis an authentic feel and is a nice change from the carbon copy towns of Just Cause 3.
I’ve made no secret of my love for the sound design of Just Cause 4. The Latin-America inspired musical accompaniment and environmental sounds bring battles to life, and it makes the frequent, long periods of travel via wingsuit and parachute quite relaxing.
This seamless movement system continues to be one of the highlights of the Just Cause franchise. Players can easily transition between traversing the environment using a parachute or in-built wingsuit. It gives the battlefield and the game world another layer, meaning you’re never stuck anywhere without transport while also providing a sweet sense of satisfaction when you masterfully navigate tight spaces while wingsuiting.
The combat in Just Cause 4, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. Enemies seem slightly more intelligent than your typical Just Cause non-player characters, and the new drones and titans at the disposal of the Black Hand make combat more diverse and challenging than in Just Cause 3. However, there was an issue with the quantity of ammunition and reload rate that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. I was often running around trying to pick up the guns of my fallen victims or trying to source ammunition. Further, the poor graphics often made it difficult to determine where enemy or ally gunfire was coming from.
During combat, players are encouraged to use the grappling hook and the new features associated with it – the air lifter, the retractor, and the booster. These features allow for more creativity in movement or destruction and are unlocked early on in the game through story missions. All three features are distinctly different and are fun to experiment with. Unfortunately, though, I found that skirmishes with the Black Hand frequently seemed to take place in natural corridors rather than expansive spaces so the grapple often couldn’t be used to maximum effect.
The other feature that the developers pushed during the marketing phase is the extreme, new weather conditions. Solis is split into four distinct biomes – the grasslands, the desert, the rainforest, and the central alpine region. Each biome is home to a specific weather condition – Tornadoes, sandstorms, rainstorms, and blizzards respectively. The extreme weather conditions offer different ways to interact with your enemies and are completely unpredictable as they are randomly and procedurally generated. For example, the sandstorm blinds your enemies, while the tornado can blow them away. Attracting your enemies towards the tornado then expertly wingsuiting your way around it while they are swept up is particularly satisfying. The extreme weather conditions are certainly a welcome addition to the franchise.
Finally, it is worth noting that I found the user interface of Just Cause 4 to be quite poor. The map and menus weren’t easy to interpret or interact with, and it wasn’t particularly clear what my objectives were or how to achieve them. In the previous Just Cause title, the objective was clearly to liberate each city marked on the map. In Just Cause 4, it feels as though they tried to emphasise the story, but it comes at the expense of the sandbox elements of the game. It also felt like there were Black Hand bases I was never encouraged or felt the need to destroy.
Just Cause 4 has everything you’d expect from a Just Cause title, but it also suffers from a major case of one step forward, two steps back across many key areas of the game. The new grapple features and extreme weather conditions are well executed and are a perfect fit for the franchise, but poor design choices with the visuals, lighting and animation, and issues with object rendering combine to deliver an unpleasant and sometimes unplayable experience. This was a highly anticipated game for me so, so it pains me to say that players looking to jump into the Just Cause franchise should look to and would have more fun with Just Cause 3.