This year has been chock-full of thoughtful, story-driven experiences, like Celeste, God of War, and Red Dead Redemption 2. Sometimes, it’s nice to take a break from these rich experiences and have fun for the sake of it. That’s exactly what Just Cause 4 offers. It’s a mindless summer blockbuster but in game form. Avalanche Studios has been nurturing its star franchise throughout the past 12 years, and this fourth iteration might be the best one yet.
Let’s Overthrow a Dictator… AgainFor anyone new to the series, Just Cause is a third-person shooter that fulfills the most high-octane power fantasy. Series protagonist Rico Rodriguez equips himself with an arsenal of guns, his trusty grapple hook, an infinite supply of parachutes, and a well-hidden wingsuit. An undisclosed group called “The Agency” deploys him to a fictional island nation ruled by a dictator. His mission is simple: cause as much chaos as possible to overthrow the evil government.
Just Cause 4 changes the premise ever so slightly, since Rico doesn’t align with The Agency. Nonetheless, he still works to depose the despot of Solis, a fictional representation of South America. The story is more interesting than I had expected (although I wasn’t expecting much), but it's not going to win any awards Much like the previous entries, the cast are all clichéd simplified caricatures. Within a few minutes, you’ll quickly pick up on what each character is all about, and any sense of nuance is lost almost immediately.
Essentially, Oscar Espinosa (read: Generic Evil Dictator IV) has risen to power in Solis after his father’s death. He and a team of scientists — including Rico’s father — have built a machine that controls the weather. Using his country and people as lab rats, Espinosa unleashes a host of natural disasters. It’s up to Rico and his newly formed Army of Chaos to stop the despot from harnessing the destruction of nature.
While not necessarily memorable, the quirky characters provide a solid foundation for the narrative. For a story that serves as an excuse to pull off explosive stunts, it has a decent payoff. Things get personal for our protagonist. Rico finally has a second mood outside of “cocky and cool.” Rather than being a one-man show, Rico at times leans on the supporting cast, creating somewhat believable relationships. It’s enough to beg the most surface-level investment in the story, and frankly, that’s all the game needs.
As a cherry on top, Just Cause 4 isn’t bogged down by an endless checklist of settlements to liberate. Instead, the map is split into more than 30 regions. Most of them require one liberation mission, which can be hit or miss depending on the objective. After that, you use the map to send in squads of Rico’s Army of Chaos to take control of the region. Most story missions are locked until your army controls the region they’re in, but the brevity of the process helps keep the story more at the forefront.
Weathering the StormsIn Just Cause 4, Rico must shut down three weather machines, unlocking the path to Espinosa and the final evil machine. It’s easy to guess how the story ends. That’s not going to stop you from enjoying what this game has to offer. Aside from dealing with bullets and rockets, Rico has to worry about tornadoes, thunderstorms, sandstorms, and blizzards. These extreme conditions serve as the perfect spice to keep the series interesting. Fortunately, they can be turned back on while freely roaming the open world, effectively putting gameplay over the narrative.
Every weather event acts in the way you’d expect. Your visibility drops drastically in sandstorms, and that’s pleasantly reflected in the enemy AI, who won’t see Rico through the thick sand. You — and by extension, Rico — can see enemies way before they see you. Maybe you can chalk that up to Rico’s extensive combat training. Or maybe it’s a concession for player experience, considering Just Cause goes for the ultimate power fantasy. Winds are strong, and if Rico is in his parachute or wingsuit, expect him to be pushed in one direction.
Thunderstorms feature some impressive rain graphics and heavy lightning strikes. The higher up Rico is, the more likely lightning will strike him. Winds aren’t nearly as strong as with sandstorms. Blizzards are oddly a mix of both thunderstorms and sandstorms. It’s a little underwhelming, but it can’t be helped.
The best weather condition, however, is the tornado. It played a prominent part in the pre-release hype marketing, and for good reason. Rarely do games let you freely experiment with frantic, haphazard winds that fling you in every direction. The other weather systems act as obstacles, hampering the gameplay (albeit in neat ways). The tornado creates a whole new playground that leads to a long line of “what if” questions. It’s the perfect way to test the physics in Avalanche’s new and improved Apex engine.
The Apex of the Series
Evidently, Apex is an apt name for an engine. After the performance issues of Just Cause 3 on launch, I had my worries about how the fourth would play out. While I can’t speak to the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One versions of the game, I can say that it plays well enough on PC. I’m running an Intel i7-4790K and an MSI NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970, and I could get it running mostly at 60 frames per second at 1080p. There were occasional frame dips when things got extra explosive, but I was also playing with a build before any game-specific drivers came out.
While this isn’t necessarily the prettiest game on the market this year, it’s hard to deny the engine’s prowess with all the crazy physics. Rico’s freeform locomotion is second only to Marvel’s Spider-Man thanks to the seamless transitions from grappling hook to parachute to wingsuit. All this free movement plays well with the explosive debris that flies around. Rico can even hook to larger pieces of wreckage, making for some impressive stunts while skydiving or around a tornado.
The Reel Reason You’re Here
The Apex engine sets the stage for the ultimate playground. Beyond those organic moments that lead to epic skydiving feats, Rico has a lot of tools to intricately craft cool moments of his own. A majority of these tools relate to the new and improved tether. Rico’s grappling hook can reel things in, create boosters, and spawn balloons similar to Metal Gear Solid V’s Fulton system. Each option can trigger automatically or by the press of a button. With just a few buttons and a matrix of if-then statements, there’s an unexpected but welcome amount of scheming involved in Just Cause 4. Avalanche champions the ideology of “creative destruction,” and that’s evident in these new options.
Each of the three tethering modes come with an assortment of mods that change how they interact. When you attach a balloon to someone, you can make them hover 15 meters in the air for an easy kill. Alternatively, you can make them fly straight up at breakneck speed until they hit the edge of the skybox. In another scenario, I attached an explosive balloon to a red barrel and guided it to a group of enemies. Land a shot on the balloon, and the rest is pretty obvious.
Reeling in isn’t necessarily a new concept to the series, but the mods implement more player agency. After tethering two objects together, they can reel into each other at various speeds or be used as a leash of sorts. I’ve pulled down countless radio towers and gas silos using this, and I’ve made quite a few trains of cars just for the fun of it.
The boosters return from Just Cause 3, but instead of being expendable items, they’re now integrated as a part of your tether. You can change their speed and acceleration at will, along with when and/or if they’ll explode. The number of options in this open world leads to potentially limitless sandbox exploration, especially when you start combining the different tethers.
This is absolutely where Just Cause 4 shines the brightest. The story missions aren’t necessarily the most interesting, but it’s the plethora of choices in how you approach your objective that matters. If a helicopter starts raining fire on you, attach some boosters to it and watch it spin out. Hook it to a gas silo and let your tether retract. Or do things the old fashioned way and take it out with a rocket launcher. The most fun I’ve had is in playing with the different tethers. Just that chaos alone is worth the price of admission.
Bigger and Better Guns
The grappling hook isn’t the only thing to receive an interesting overhaul. Just Cause 4 is primarily a third-person shooter, and the weapons range from serviceable to overpowered. Most guns have two fire modes. More often than not, the secondary fire surprised me when I first saw it. Some guns shoot drones that attack enemies for you. One of the machine guns deploys a shield, creating a makeshift turret for when you want to dig in. Expect to find some uncommon guns that harness the power of wind or thunder. It’s a level of variety that makes Avalanche’s newest title stand out.
On the other hand, the vehicles aren’t anything to write home about. The list runs a similar gamut to most other open-world games. I found myself using helicopters the most, and not even for transportation necessarily. It was just nice having big guns on a highly mobile flying machine so I could destroy settlements fairly quickly. Although I’ve heard more than my fair share of Rico humming “Flight of the Valkyries” while raining down flak. The driving isn’t all that reliable, especially off-road, where not even tanks have a semblance of traction. Sports cars drift well enough on roads, but why take roads when you can wingsuit your way through the sky?
The best way to get around the map is using the tools on Rico’s person. Slingshotting through the sky using the grappling hook and parachute is as fun now as it was in Just Cause 2. Add in the wingsuit from 3 and I’m almost convinced Rico can fly. The game measures how long you can glide through the air (among other superlatives), and it's a good challenge to keep breaking previous records. Toward the latter half of the game, everything clicked for me. I could get to wherever I needed to go without ever really touching the ground.
Why Play It? Just ‘Cause
Just Cause 4 is the pinnacle of the franchise, bringing the best parts of the series to light. The world acts as an open playground that’s conducive to recreating summer blockbuster set pieces. This openness serves to enhance the process of unlocking all the regions of the map, which is truly a labor of love and chaos. Above all, the much-improved narrative complements Rico’s penchant for creative destruction and keeps the door open for a sequel. Just Cause has always been a game full of moments that are cool for the sake of being cool. This fourth game lives up to and exceeds that ideal. For those who want to feel like action movie heroes, stepping in the shoes of Rico Rodriguez might be the best way to do it this winter.
TechRaptor reviewed Just Cause 4 on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Just Cause 4 is the most essential game in the series, perfecting years of blowing things up in the most creative ways. While the narrative doesn't have any lasting impact, the overall package delivers as video game comfort food.
- Delightful Tether Options
- Fantastic, Addictive Locomotion
- Exciting Gun Variety
- Action Movie Heroics
- Skin-Deep Story
- Uninspired Characters