When Avalanche released the first entry in the Just Cause series, it was a fun-filled take on open-world action games. Fast forward twelve years and four games and not a whole lot has changed. Sure everything has been dialled up to ten, but the core game remains, largely unchanged. For better or worse, I still know next to nothing about who Rico is as a character and what his motivations are for wreaking chaos in pristine tropical paradises. You're probably sitting there thinking "but Dan, it's a game about blowing stuff up. The story has never been important", and you wouldn't be incorrect. The problem is, after four games, I'm struggling to stay invested and find a reason to strap on the parachute and wingsuit again.
Avalanche has created a new version of the Apex game engine for JC4, and it takes steps in the right direction when it comes to fixing the performance issues peppered throughout the previous entries in the series. Unfortunately, there are still moments where the mayhem onscreen is too much for the new engine to handle, leading to a less than ideal frame rate. Performance problems aside, the new engine also introduces a few other changes to the look of Just Cause 4. Close up details generally look better, and explosions tend to look a bit more realistic. With that said, I can't help but feel like the explosions in Just Cause 3 looked more chaotic and impressive.
Another victim of the revamped engine is the game's water. I was shocked when I first careened over a ramp into the sea in a delivery van, only to discover that it didn't make so much as a splash in the water. I wasn't sure if it was just a bug so quickly commandeered a locals speedboat to try and carve some waves. The only effect this had was a foamy water trail texture left in the boats wake. For a game set in a country so vastly surrounded by water, it's a shame it feels so overwhelmingly flat and reminiscent of games from a decade ago. Hell, I remember Baldurs Gate on PlayStation 2 having more impressive water effects.
It's not all bad though. The new engine has allowed for some spectacular new weather effects. The introduction of sand and lightning storms, blizzards and a spectacular tornado lead to some jaw-dropping moments the first time you encounter them. When flying through a storm, lightning will strike Rico if you don't stay on the move, but the real star is the twister that exists in the game world at all times. This visually impressive act of nature will suck up all vehicles and non-building debris in its path. Giant passenger aeroplanes and big rigs are scooped up into its vortex until they explode in a daisy chain of destruction. I have to admit that seeing one of these for the first times an awesome moment and I did the first thing any sane person would do when presented Rico's toolset. I let my zip line rip and pulled my parachute. The wind launched Rico skyward, and as I ditched the chute for the wingsuit, the tornado continued to pull Rico upwards to the game's ceiling. Naturally, I tried to enter the tornado, but an invisible wall, unfortunately, makes that impossible.
JC4 hits all of the beats of a great action game when you're in the middle of a massive military hold and are fighting off waves of enemies and vehicles, all the while, a raging tornado is at the gates of the base. Tethering tanks to explosive balloons and flinging baddies off of ledges is always immensely satisfying. Combining the tether, balloons and booster jets in unorthodox ways often leads to hilariously macabre outcomes. Attaching a few boosters to the back of a cow and watching it barrel through a busy intersection leading to numerous crashes and explosions is a fantastic thing to witness.
While these moments of chaos and hilarity are frequent, the formula is starting to feel tired and uninspired. Going through base after base, destroying anything red and killing waves of suicidal enemies all starts to feel a bit like a warped gaming groundhog day. Missions bleed into one another, and the nonsensical story does little to draw the attention back. It's the slow moments and side missions where repetition rears its ugly head.
The game's map is split into several areas. The goal is to cause damage to enemy bases, thereby recruiting more soldiers for Rico's rebellion. As Rico, you'll generally have to undertake a mission in an areas main outpost, clearing it of enemies and ticking off some "go here and kill/switch/destroy this" objectives to allow you to move your troops into the area. Once you complete the mission, you enter the map and select the zone, if you have the rebel numbers that is. Taking over these regions will unlock new supply drop items and vehicles along with a few challenges like going through a checkpoint over a certain speed or wingsuit through a series of rings within a time limit. Completing said challenges gives you stunt points that unlock missions where Rico helps a Hollywood director with explosive action scenes. These missions are generally fun but feel a bit out of place set to the backdrop of a government overthrow.
Combat is alarmingly easy with Rico able to take a small countries quota of bullets without so much as a stumble. Enemy soldier AI is also laughably terrible, taking away any and all challenge from combat encounters as Rico cuts through hoards of bad guys blindly introducing their faces to your bullets. Adding Rico's tether and boost pads to the mix adds a little variety to the encounters but taking the time to attach an enemy to an object in the heat of battle is more trouble than it's worth. Why bother making it look fancy when a few bullets bring almost any engagement to an end. What about all of the tanks and helicopters the enemy send at Rico though? Surely they provide some extra challenge? Nope. Not a bit. Rico can steal enemy vehicles with such ease that it negates any threat they introduce. I wish there was a bit more challenge to some of the encounters in Just Cause 4 to elevate it from being just another run of the mill open-world action game.
The story of Just Cause 4 takes a backseat to the sandbox gameplay that has become synonymous with the series. There's some generic big bad that Rico needs to stop, but they only really show up at the beginning and end of the story. Rico's out to find out something about his dad, but there's never any surprising emotional punches or unexpected twists to drive players through the story missions. Having now played every game in the series, I can honestly say I think it's time for Rico to hang up his wingsuit and let a new character take the reigns. The series needs a massive shakeup for it to keep me interested. While I do love the gadgets and the gameplay freedom they allow, There are only so many ways you can use them in combination with the scenarios encountered. There were countless moments during my playthrough where I couldn't help but wish that Avalanche could somehow make a new entry in the Mercenaries franchise, previously developed by the now dEAfunct (not a typo) Pandemic Studios. While Just Cause 3's Medici is replaced by the fictional South American country, Solís, the new location doesn't feel remarkably different to any of the previous locations. You can expect to parachute across tropical forests, river, snow-capped mountains, barren deserts, military compounds and large cities. My main complaint is that I've seen all of this before and there aren't enough new visual or gameplay beats introduced to make the game feel like a worthwhile sequel.
It was hard to write this review as I think Avalanche Studios is full of incredibly talented people. It's no surprise they're handling Rage 2 for Bethesda as they have a great understanding of combat and style. It will be great to see what the freedom of a fresh IP does for the studio. As far as Just Cause is concerned, I can't help but think that the studio and Rico's relationship needs to be put on ice.
If you've never played a Just Cause game before, I'm sure you'll find a lot to like in Just Cause 4. For everyone else who's played the previous entries, you may struggle to see it all the way through to the credits. After finishing this review, I promptly uninstalled Just Cause 4. If for some strange reason I get the hankering to go back at any point, I think I'll just go outside for a walk.