Unpretentious, unpolished and unhinged, Just Cause 4 is a mad old goat of a game, dancing on a windswept hillside to the tunes in its own head.
Like all the other Just Cause games, it delights in chaos, its eyes shining in the glare of explosions. It rampages across the meadows of its own fancy, turning itself inside out in a frenzy of disorder.
And yet, despite its sense of abandon, there’s something not quite right about this game. I’ve played about 30 hours so far, and I’m undecided if my state of mind is admiration, boredom or confusion. Just Cause 4 inspires all three, sometimes at the same time. It’s a fun game, occasionally, but it’s also a dull game. It’s tumultuous, but vapid. It’s funny, but it’s also annoying.
I play as macho action-man Rico Rodriguez, visiting the South American island of Solis, homeland of my father. The people are ruled by a bad man and his army of thugs. I must destroy the infrastructure of oppression.
I’m aided by a fantastical array of weapons and tools, but my greatest power is a wrist-tether. This allows me to zoom across the landscape, scale buildings and crash into enemies, a la Spider-Man. My tethers are also range weapons, including remote control jets, balloons and ties that pull objects together, usually with catastrophic consequences.
If you’ve played previous Just Cause games, this will all be familiar. The thrill of the series is wandering into a heavily fortified installation (power-plant, mine, harbor, factory etc.) and letting loose the dogs of war. Enemies are gunned down. Shiny fuel containers are immolated. Vehicles are sent whizzing into the air. Bystanders are hooked to a balloon and left to float, hilariously, by their ankles.
Rico is so much the bad-ass, that he is able to commandeer any vehicle or weapon the enemy throws at him. Tanks, helicopters and rocket launchers aren’t so much threats, as opportunities. I see one, I tether myself to it, I own it.
Just Cause 4’s special distinction is a focus on extreme weather. The bad man is a technology nut who’s figured out how to control the atmosphere. He unleashes tornadoes and blizzards on his own people. Rico and his band of helpers must capture this mayhem, and turn it on the villain and his goons. Soon I am master of the winds, sending storms against my enemies.
When it clicks, this game is a lot of fun, especially once I feel I’ve mastered the many tricks at my disposal. Just Cause games are at their best when they allow me to go wild, finding innovative ways to break stuff and inflict amusing acts of cruelty on my targets.
There’s a good deal of merriment to be had, just fooling around with Rico’s abilities, crashing one thing into another, to see what occurs. It’s a demonic form of crafting, in a way, except the end result is collapsed towers and squished goons. Destruction is the only recipe in town.
But Just Cause 4 trips on its own feet, hampered by maddening design flaws, most especially a linear mission structure that pulls me along like a marionette. I unlock the map, section by section, working my way through a convoluted tale of conflict. It’s an open world, in the sense that I can move around it freely, but most of the time, my activity options are limited to a string of missions that (with a few exceptions) feel much like one another, or a bunch of frivolous activities such as breaking driving records.
The missions are predictable and repetitive. Each installation feels like one of those Lego sets, in which the same pieces can be used to make a truck or a boat or a plane. Familiar elements are rearranged in slightly altered patterns. I travel great distances to unload havoc, but I feel like I’m always in the same place. Each time, I’m urged to go to the thing and switch it on, so the big doors can open, at which time I can go in and destroy something else.
This repetition is exacerbated during irritating timed missions, which become tedious exercises in trial and error. I find myself restarting missions again and again, teeing myself up just to get through the damned thing. This is a mark of poor design. The map is often confusing, leaving me wondering where I’m supposed to be going. User interface problems abound.
I take on side-missions, usually accompanying rookie soldiers as they attack the enemy. I endure the same-old same-old: drive someplace, attack some dudes, repeat. All this is punctured by repetitious NPC barks that make the game feel old-fashioned.
Solis is a huge island, which allows for a realistic distribution of targets, and environmental diversity. There’s some pleasure to be had exploring its various environs of city, jungle, mountain and beach-fronts, making use of an almost infinite variety of vehicles.
But having just spent weeks playing in seriously detailed worlds like Red Dead Redemption 2, Spider-Man 2 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, I find this world to be slightly lifeless and plasticky, an obvious simulation, rather than a carefully weaved place. It lacks the finesse of sophisticated late-console generation rivals.
The story is videogame-standard, often coming off like something from the PlayStation 2 years (“if we hack the system and reverse the gizmo’s parameters … blah blah blah”), its crass beats tempered by a few funny lines from Rico, and a couple of likable side characters. Still, in comparison to the better game narratives we’ve seen this year, it feels amateurish.
I’m hoping that the restrictive humdrum of the campaign opens out into a more liberating game of exploration and experimentation; traits that marked the much-admired Just Cause 3. As I say, doing the Just Cause thing of mixing up modes of destruction is still fun. But I’m beginning to think that this series needs more than a few storms to stay relevant and vital. It should take a cue from its own example: Destroy the established order and find something fresh in the ensuing wreckage.
I’ll post an update in the next few days when I’ve opened up the whole map and finished all the narrative threads. Just Cause 4 is out on Tuesday, Dec. 4 for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.
Just Cause 4 is being reviewed on Windows PC using a final “retail” Steam key provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.