Just Cause 4 review impressions: A buggy and boring overhaul
Can we make a "Just 'cause" joke? Please? Just for old time's sake?
By Hayden Dingman
PCWorldDec 3, 2018 7:54 am PST
Being in a creative rut is bad, but getting out of one isn’t always better. The proof? Just Cause 4 ($60 on Humble), a game that could’ve been a mindless retread of old ideas but instead opts to do something different, with middling results. Everyone’s favorite explosion simulator has been overhauled from head to toe, but the changes here often make for a tedious, meandering experience even when the game’s at its most exciting.
I’m not finished with Just Cause 4 yet. I’m only maybe 10 hours into it. I plan to keep playing, but it’s worth mentioning that the reason I’ve only made it 10 hours in so far is because I just don’t enjoy playing it. Well, that and an enormous helping of bugs.
Every minute another problem
Let’s start with the bugs, just to get them out of the way. This is the stuff that’s most fixable, right? And hopefully a few patches will fix the problems.
It’s a whole mountain of problems though. An hour and a half into the game I’d already had it crash on me six or seven times. It’s calmed down on me since then, but I’ve still had two or three more crashes to desktop in the hours since. At one point the game crashed before I’d even made it to the main menu.
I’ve also loaded the game up on two different machines only to have the graphics settings default to 720p for some reason. Both were running top of the line cards (a GeForce GTX 1080 Ti in one and an RTX 2080 in the other, I believe). Borderless windowed mode is a mess, sometimes deciding not to lock the mouse to the game window and wreaking all sorts of havoc in the process.
The mouse-and-keyboard controls are a disaster, with some decisions so baffling I’ve literally never seen them before. My favorite? To open the map you hit the “1” key. Not Escape, not Tab. “1.” Then you use “2” and “3” to navigate between sub-menus. You also use Shift to aim down your gun’s sights, which—again, I can’t stress this enough—I’ve just never seen before ever in the history of PC games. Remapping controls is also unnecessarily arduous, forcing you to first unmap the key you want before you can map it to a new command. Also the controls are broken up into about a dozen subcategories for some reason.
You should just use a controller, which is annoying because the guns work a lot better with a mouse. Vehicles are almost unusable with a mouse and keyboard though, particularly motorcycles and planes. The game also has an annoying habit of listing all the controls on the screen—except the ones you might actually need, like “Throttle Up.” That’s mapped to Shift too, by the way.
Then there are the more problematic bugs. The quest scripting’s broken on me in four different missions, often through no fault of my own. There are a lot of escort missions in Just Cause 4, a problem we’ll talk about in a bit. Escort missions are even more annoying though when the people you’re escorting just stop moving and get shot to death, or run straight into an explosion, or stop driving because there’s a random pedestrian in the road. Just Cause 4 is so chaotic, it’s almost asking for missions to break in new and terrible ways every time you load the game.
I’ll also note that I’m writing this two days before release and we’ve yet to be told whether the cutscenes are final. A stipulation in our initial review guide said we weren’t allowed to capture cinematics because they weren’t done. That stipulation hasn’t been lifted to my knowledge. Again, two days before release. And for good reason, because cutscenes run terribly with all sorts of stuttering, lighting glitches, ugly character models, out-of-sync audio, and a half-dozen other problems I’ve run into in 10 hours.
That said, the game itself runs okay when you’re just meandering around, blowing stuff up and admiring the scenery. The level of detail doesn’t seem quite as high, the motion blur is egregious, and the anti-aliasing can be rough at times. But I’ll take smooth performance in this case.
The draw distance is fantastic, I’m getting a smooth 60 frames per second with everything maxed out on my GTX 1080 Ti even during the most hellish explosion-chains, and that part certainly works better than Just Cause 3’s rough launch. Small miracles.
It’s just not that fun to play though.
Listen, I was pretty tired of the Just Cause schtick by the end of Just Cause 3. The loop was fun, at first—parachute-grapple into the enemy base, blow up all the red-colored machinery, maybe steal a helicopter or a tank to cover my escape. But I petered out after 25 or 30 hours, wishing there were fewer outposts and more to do.
Honestly after Just Cause 4 I wish Avalanche had just made more of the same though.
The entire structure of Just Cause 4 is different. Gone are the hundreds of outposts you’d conquer in the previous game, working your way up to 100 percent in each region. Instead the map is broken into a bunch of large provinces, and it acts as a sort of strategic war layer on top of Rico’s actions. You start the map with a single province, then “conquer” new provinces one at a time.
Sometimes this means a mission to complete, such as capturing blueprints at a military base or blowing up some missile launchers. It doesn’t really matter what the pretense is because all of them are basically the same. Rico goes to a place and either stands next to some computers while his team “hacks” them remotely, or he escorts some people out of a base while they’re being shot at.
But even these are better than the alternative. Around half the provinces have nothing at all in them! Instead, Rico’s destructive tendencies now earn him “Squads” which he spends to unlock parts of the map. One province might take two squads for instance, meaning Rico has to unleash enough destruction to fill the bar twice to earn those two squads. But wait! There’s more! Certain provinces give you squads when you take them over, which you can then spend to unlock other parts of the map and—wait, where are you going? Come back! We’re almost done, I swear!
Suffice it to say it’s not very complicated while playing, but it isn’t especially interesting either. Certainly not as interesting as the old Just Cause, where you’d swoop in and blow everything up. In fact, the way this new system works there’s rarely any reason to actually engage in the rampant chaos Just Cause traditionally encouraged. Missions tend to cause enough destruction to award you the squads you need to progress, and then you just sort of…move on. Not to mention you get points for destroying infrastructure in provinces you already control, which seems completely baffling. Like, none of the rebels want to point out to Rico that they could’ve used the enormous fuel tanks he blew up to score some squad points?
The result is a game that leans heavily on its missions instead of the typical emergent chaos, and missions have never been Just Cause’s strong suit. Worse, the storytelling in Just Cause 4 actually feels like a step down from its predecessor. I praised Just Cause 3’s story, not because it was particularly compelling but because it knew its strengths and leaned into them. It was a goofy story with goofy characters and plenty of opportunity for Rico to go wild.
Just Cause 4 hasn’t impressed me yet. Its characters are mostly forgettable, the story missions even more so, and while the “This dictator is controlling the weather!” gimmick has potential to go some fun places in the future it’s sabotaged by a mission-unlock system that requires way more hours doing mindless open-world chores before you can do any of the fun stuff. The pacing is terrible, and 10 hours in I’ve yet to see any truly amazing setpiece moments. Contrast that with Just Cause 3, which opened with Rico riding on the back of a jet with an infinite supply of rockets.
The only saving grace are the balloon tethers. Joining the standard retractable grapple and the boosters from Just Cause 3, these new additions strap a miniature balloon to any object and lift it up into the air. Goats? Yes. Cows? Yes. Motorcycles? Absolutely. Just Cause 4 feels like it’s missing much of the ingenious sandbox fun I had in previous iterations, or at least downplaying it, but the balloon tethers are inspired. I also like that you can attach multiple effects to a single tether, giving it (for instance) both a balloon and a booster that activate at different times. There’s lots of potential with that system, at least.
As I said, I’m not done. I plan to chip away at Just Cause 4 ($60 on Humble) over the next week or two and hopefully write a definitive review at some point. Between the technical issues, the drab story, and the baffling mission structure though I’m feeling pretty disappointed so far. I didn’t necessarily want Just Cause 4 to be more of the same, but I don’t think this new direction works very well either—not to mention it feels like the game needed another few months of development.
We’ll keep you updated if anything significant changes between now and release, but at the moment this one’s hard to recommend.