Just Cause 4 Review: Gameplay Impressions, Speedrunning Tips and Appeal

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistDecember 6, 2018

Square Enix

The Just Cause 4 cover depicts hero Rico Rodriguez standing before a swath of chaos featuring helicopters, boats and highlighted by a tornado, which is fitting because the player rips through the game's fictional Solis much like a twister.  

As expected, JC4 is more of the same—which is good and bad. Fans of the series will be able to drop in and immediately have fun with an array of tools and a military arsenal a few button presses away in mostly destructible environments. 

But the drawback is the charm of the series has faded enough that visual oddities, a forgettable story and repetitive missions don't get as much of a pass as they have in the past. 

Ambitious as ever, JC4 can leave a player grinning in a silly manner over some of the chaos and creativity possible when everything works right but rubbing the forehead moments later when something breaks the immersion.

Understanding the balance required is key to enjoying a sequel that sticks close to its last two predecessors. 

      

Graphics and Gameplay

At its peak, Just Cause 4 offers some of the most fun available in video games this year. 

Getting there isn't too difficult, either. The game doesn't block off tools through some silly progression scheme to start things off. Players have access to the parachute, wingsuit and grappling hook right from the start. 

Making it all better is three key elements to the grapple, the retractor, balloons and jets. The first functions just as it sounds: slap one end of the grapple down, put the other on another point and whatever they are attached to ends up slamming together. 

It's cool, but it doesn't come close to the balloons. Players can deploy multiple on anything, anywhere, then inflate them and watch as they carry stuff away. Ditto for the jets, which are a tad more violent. Attach it to something and hit the button and away it goes. 

Now throw these all into the mix that is JC4's world-best physics system and explosions and have some fun.

Want to send two enemies careening into each other? Retractor. Tired of the army vehicle blocking the way? Attach a few balloons and send it on its way. Want to send an enemy flying? Thump a jet into their chest, click the button and watch them flail wildly around the map, into things and eventually off into the atmosphere. 

These opportunities scale in creativity and size, too. Creatively, mixing and matching creates some hilarious results. Throwing down a few balloons on the top of a car and some jets on the back makes that bad boy fly. The gameplay can lead to massive, spectacular results, such as throwing down jets on an explosive reactor and sending it flying at a group of enemies.

While these tools leave the player in control of epic, grandiose set pieces if they so choose, actual gunplay is an auto-aim slog that almost feels like a handheld game.

All A.I. is sloppy, too, with some escort missions going off the rails because friendlies decided to get suicidal or freeze (in one mission, a friendly got left behind because he didn't feel like leaving?). Enemy A.I. at times won't react to Rico blasting the bejesus out of their base. The radio says enemies are searching, but they never come.

Overall, the gameplay here is more about style points than anything else. Rico can take more damage than any video game character on the planet at this point, and he's back to full health in the blink of an eye. The NPCs aren't exactly threats. Standing right in front of one will see them miss a handful of shots and not secure a kill for what could be as long as 10 seconds. 

As IGN's Dan Stapleton noted, fans could call Just Cause 4 the GIF game, as it's more about making mini-moments for social media than an actual challenge. 

That's a shame given the disappointing visuals. 

Solis features a handful of distinct biomes that help the game feel unique, and traversal from Point A to Point B is always interesting. Just Cause 4's unique weather systems are impressive feats as well, if not underused. A blinding sandstorm is fun to navigate, and getting as high up as the tornado itself while trying to dive through it is a good time. 

But in motion, JC4 struggles visually while otherwise running like a charm, which seems to be the massive tradeoff here. As of launch at least, there are some miserable-looking textures up close on NPCs and sometimes in the environment on rocks or water.

Several times a character's hair had glossy, silver strands in them. While quickly traveling the map via wingsuit or otherwise, there are massive, distracting pop-ins. In vehicles—especially cars—there is also a huge amount of motion blur. At times, bodies of water won't even react when something heavy like a vehicle passes through it. 

Granted, some of these issues felt like bugs on console and others will vary by the strength of the PC running them. But if unaddressed, these could be make-or-break issues depending on the player, as the visuals and pop-in can serve as a detriment to the experience. 

Just Cause 4 is also in a bit of a weird space, especially this year. Traversal in a game like Spider-Man feels smoother, while the destruction pulled off in Battlefield V is arguably more impressive. However, it's important to note that Just Cause 4 combines traversal with immense destruction.

Cities also feel lifeless and lack density, which is what happens for a game releasing around some city-spanning offerings like Spider-Man this time of year. The vehicles inhabiting them and elsewhere, at least, look better and boast improved handling compared to past iterations.

Little oddities still pop up here as well—it's almost impossible to knock an NPC off the bike they are riding, for example—but by and large, the endlessly accessible vehicles on land, sea and air all felt solid. Don't expect the game to offer much help, though, as the button prompts on the bottom right show how to, say, exit with a parachute out but not how to actually control the jet. 

While on the traversal slant, it's still a great time to figure out the best way to combine the three tools creatively to travel quickly across the map. Like the rest, it takes a balancing act of accepting the hiccups in exchange for the fun factor. 

Update: Avalanche Studios will push out a post-launch update addressing various graphical issues, according to Square Enix

      

Story, Features and the Rest

The story here is a throwaway affair, which is about what one should expect with the main villain being called something like the "Black Hand Army." 

After quickly discovering he can't do it all on his own, Rico is tasked with stirring up the overthrow of a dictator who has the power to control the weather and features like tornadoes. But the cutscenes suffer from visual issues as well, and, let's be honest, like any game in the series, this is a play-and-forget game when it comes to the story mode.  

The side missions are drab as well. Go to a location to blow up this thing, or protect this guy as he does a thing, or escort these guys while they do a thing. These side offerings unlock gadgets and such, but they routinely felt plainly slapped on. The real star of the show is the gadgets, so it feels like the game is throwing out some bland missions and asking players to inject the fun—which is a risky approach. 

There are a few unfortunate systems that put a bowtie on the situation. One is the progression of the map unlocking. It's a huge space, but missions in certain areas only become accessible via the advancements of locals fighting off the baddies, and players might find themselves wishing for the boring Assassins Creed or Far Cry-esque radio tower map unlocks instead.

The attempt to do something different is appreciated, but it falls flat in large part because this isn't dynamic, as the bad guys don't try to take portions of the map back or anything. 

This progression is tied to the Chaos meter, which simply boils down to...do wild stuff. The bar fills up and the number goes up, and the story explanation is it inspires more rebels to join the cause and fight back. Yet killing off NPC's at the player's base and its infrastructure is pretty wild, too, and fills the bar all the same. Just saying. 

One of the better features is the implementation of airdrops. After unlocking something, a few key presses lead to a tank or some other form of hardware getting dropped down for usage. Having a full military arsenal a few button presses away should fuel the fun and make things even easier on the uber-creative. 

The game's menus are not only tough to figure out despite its best efforts to tutor, but they don't end up meaning much. It really, really wants players to think about the choices they are making with gadgets and their minor modifications, but in the heat of the moment, the thought doesn't arise often. Call it a microcosm of the game itself—why think about the minutia while blowing up everything in sight? 

It's disappointing to see no co-op or multiplayer in a game like this, because it would definitely become a cult hit of sorts. But with some of the systems already struggling on all hardware and the game clearly prioritizing performance over graphics, adding more than one player to the fray maybe wasn't in the plans. 

         

Speedrunning Tips and Appeal

Interestingly enough, a speedrun of JC4 would be wildly entertaining in the right hands. 

Those hands would have to spam map-unlocking missions to help win the turf war and take down the overall story while figuring out the best possible way to use the varied options for travel. 

This series is a joy because of how the most dedicated and creative players can use the tools at their disposal to cause the most mayhem. Add in a new weather system and arguably the best physics system in video games today, and asking those minds to gear their talents toward a speedrun sounds brilliant. 

The top Just Cause 3 any-percent speedruns outline the basics. Prioritizing grapple-parachute combos to elevate and gain speed will make traversal a breeze. And while getting creative and finding fun ways to blow up objectives is fun, it's also time-consuming when a gun and explosives like RPGs work all the same, but faster. 

Like the arsenal itself, dissecting just how to attack the story is a must. In other words, spamming and snowballing the map-unlock missions is the way to go. Ignoring the side quests from three characters that offer gadget modifications isn't a terrible idea either, though further experimentation might reveal some of those gadgets are key to a better-timed run. 

Standard ideas behind speedruns also apply, such as skipping cutscenes and using checkpoints to the user's advantage. That those attempting speedruns can call in anything they want at a given time and use it will only make things more interesting. 

JC4 was destined for a huge Twitch and highlights community thanks to its niche brand of gaming. That speedrunners can crack knuckles and dive into a deep, layered system of tools and play with physics should only further the appeal and increase its reach. 

      

Conclusion

Just Cause 4, unlike Rico who often finds himself in dangerous situations close to the atmosphere, has serious balance problems.

Not-so-hidden within this release is some of the best laugh-out-loud, joyous moments gamers can find today. Whether it's spinning enemies out, sending a goat to the moon or ballooning up a warship and watching it float into a building before erupting, there is must-see fun here. 

But hidden within are graphical sacrifices and a weak open world presumably cut down for the sake of performance. Few games attempt what JC4 does on a power scale in terms of the physics, so a hit in the visuals department is to be expected.

And harping on about it too much would explain why console makers in particular jam buzzwords like "4K" down gamers' throats all the time. But when there is such a noticeable compromise, it can create problems for many gamers. 

For would-be players, it comes down to whether more of the same, plus weather and an improved physics engine, is enough to overlook shortcomings.

There are short, fast food-esque bursts of gameplay here wrapped around a neat central idea, which makes for a unique experience right in line with the past two games in the series. Surrounding pieces and lack of improvements from previous editions prevent a major leap forward in this release, but Just Cause 4 does wacky, action-movie fun in expert fashion.  

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