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Wot I Think: Just Cause 4

Under The Weather

Featured post Visual metaphor

Let me try to capture the feeling of Just Cause 4 in an anecdote: I’m currently attaching tethers to the side of a giant warship to drag it from the hill on which it is perched. I’m aiming to get it back into the water where it would much prefer to be. And it’s working! Slowly but surely, with enough tethers, the boat is inching down the grass and rocks. Why am I doing this? Because this is where the ship landed after a helicopter fired on me, causing the 150m, 2000 ton vessel to impossibly flip up high into the air, spin around and around and around for a bit, and then like a big metal leaf, float down gently onto the hillside. This is Just Cause 4 at its best. Just Cause 4 is a colossal mess.

Since the first Just Cause was released in 2006, there has been only one thing the series had to not get wrong in its joyous carnage: don’t ramp up the enemy response to the point where fun can no longer be had. It made the mistake anyway, in all of the first three games. Brilliant fun games, tempered by the same issue. Just Cause 4, however, has taken a very different direction: it’s decided to make just so many other mistakes as well.

From the opening moments, it becomes clear that something’s gone very, very wrong. Because those early moments likely involve trying to use the game’s freshly ruined nonsense of menus, trying to, say, remap the controls, which is near impossible. Get to the game itself and wow, does it begin its elaborate process of getting in its own way.

Remember the simplicity of Just Cause? Rico is a one-man army, who shows up in banana republics to overthrow despotic leaders through the implementation of chaos. Blow shit up, blow more shit up, shoot everyone, blow some other shit up. And do this with his ever-growing arsenal of wonderfully impossible gadgets, like his infinite supply of parachutes, his wingsuit that hasn’t read up on the rules of gravity, his grapples that draw any two attached objects in the world together and have them most likely explode. That’s all Just Cause 4 needed to be, but prettier, perhaps some new gadgets, more opportunities for explosive carnage.

Yet what we’ve got is… map-based war-game strategy elements? Madly complicated load-outs for your grapple that require juggling three different setups in yet more of the game’s obnoxiously badly designed menus? Five different versions of the map screen that are never explained, each offering opaquely different tasks to complete, the path of progress never made clear. And this is in the first hour. After this, the real problems get started.

While you too may have become a little weary of base-clearing open-map games, Just Cause 4’s approach seems to have been to pretend it’s far more complicated than that, while absolutely being that. Gone is the simplicity of needing to find each area’s collection of gubbins, blow up all of its red-striped structures, and 100% a zone. Instead you’ve got a splurge of bizarre and under-explained tasks to perform, each tied to a different metric, that conflates the previously delightful seeking of chaos with an arcane confusion of a locked map that you can explore anyway, in which missions are locked and gated behind other missions locked and gated behind other missions locked and gated behind menial tasks. Seriously. (Oh, bonus: You can’t zoom out any useful distance on the map, for absolutely no reason.)

100%ing a zone now requires not entertaining yourself by exploding everything, but by performing the worst, worst trivialities, like driving a specific model of helicopter through a blue circle in some arbitrary place in the sky. Or wrestling with the abhorrent wingsuit controls to bungle through a string of blue circles in a time limit. Or drive a certain car through a circle over a certain speed. Just utter guff, tenuously tied to a woefully incongruous side-plot about a film director wanting you to perform stunts for some deeply disturbing snuff movie she’s apparently making.

Yet for all this UI posturing, the reality is the game has nothing else to offer but clearing out bases. Rather than being honest about this as with the previous games, here each is dressed up as a “mission”, but in the end boil down to “rescue the hostages” or “flip some levers then defend a turret”. Ad nauseum. You blow the shit up while you’re there, because this fills the freshly ruined chaos meter, which – it pretends – has something to do with unlocking areas of the map. I say “pretends” because it genuinely seems to forget about that about midway through the game.

Oh, why? This time you’re on the island of Solís, where evil baddie Espinosa is something something The Black Hand something something your dad wah wah something. Good grief, they talk about it so much, and say absolutely nothing. (Although I note with some interest that all the marketing for the game says the baddie is called Gabriela Morales, so colour me absolutely… no, still utterly uninterested.) Which is to say, it’s the same plot as last time, only with barely any actually scripted missions related to it. And this wouldn’t matter a jot if the rest of the game just let you get on and have fun. But between quite extraordinarily terrible AI and bugs, and the demoralising confusion of every aspect of its delivery, it does everything it can think of to stop this.

Not one single aspect of this is helped by a control scheme that borders on Dadaism. Remember how we all laughed and made memes when Fallout 76 came out and decided that it would use Tab instead of Esc, for literally no reason? Part of me wonders if Avalanche saw this and thought, last-minute, “Quick, let’s outdo this!” Because in Just Cause 4, to bring up the menus, you press… 1. Yes, the 1 key. And then, this done, to move between the different tabs, you press 2 or 3. 2 to go backward, because of course 2 goes backward! 3 to go forward, like 3 is always used for! These will take you to the grapple load-out menus, and the “Feats”, which are a seemingly infinite set of ‘achievement’-like meters to fill with absolutely every action in the game. Then there are sub-menus inside these menus, also obliquely delivered, and here to change it’s Q and E!

Let’s be clear – you use the mouse in the menus – it’s not like it’s not implemented. But there just aren’t any buttons to click with it to replace these utterly insane keyboard options. So, you cry, why not just change the keyboard options?! Oh I’d like to see you try.

Key mapping is a clusterfuck of epic proportions, such that controls are split into an astonishing ten separate sections, and you can’t assign any that is already used for something else. What else? It won’t tell you. You have to scour through ten different pages to find out. And then change that key to… oh no wait. So, I figured, I’d fix this by setting a few of the most frustrating keys to my bog-standard five button mouse. Ha ha. I swear this is true: when you try to assign to buttons 4 or 5, it replies, “Not supported. This key is not supported.”

The moment I was first faced with this screen, the “pilot load-out” options screen, I wanted to go outside for a walk.

Still though, that’s slightly better than the alt-fire set to middle-mouse, that every now and then instead opts to put the game onto my other monitor, change the resolution, but also not know that it has changed the resolution. You should hear the screaming.

It’s graphically very shoddy in many ways, although we’re promised GFX driver updates on launch specific to this game, so I will be checking to see if the pixellated sparks and fires are gone, whether it can render hair without static patterns, if the cutscenes look like they were rendered on something more modern than a Commodore 64, and perhaps most of all, if the new innovation on pop-up – “pop-up-and-down-at-random” – is cleared up. This is the phenomenon where flying over hillsides on your parachute sees trees and bushes leaping in and out of existence with no meaningful pattern all around you.

But truly, the real credit needs to go to the bugs. I do not use the following lightly: Just Cause 4 reminds me of Boiling Point. (Only without the joy.) I’ve watched helicopters glitching at light speed on the surface of lakes, seen enemy AI repeatedly drive their cars into walls until they explode, watched as opposing troops throw themselves off bridges in a terrifying display of suicidal defiance, and best of all, enjoyed many a while hovering over intersections in towns where the NPC traffic utterly loses its minds. It’s hard to play for a few minutes without seeing something ludicrous happening at the expense of the AI. It’s harder not to be frustrated by the game locking up, or freezing mid-cutscene, or just discovering a mission you’re midway through is impossible to complete because the game’s forgotten something.

And it’s just this, incessantly. And it even seems to… well, makes mistakes? It’s the strangest thing. The first time you fast travel it introduces this as a “mission”, because of course it does. So I’m told to bring up the map. (Which by this point is now Alt, not 1 – something I absolutely didn’t change.) Map up, a tutorial pop-up telling me to select a specific village, then press R to travel there. On arrival it told me to press Alt to open the map again. Pressing Alt didn’t do anything. I pressed it lots of times. So I pressed 1, which did bring up the map! Here it asked me, via a tutorial pop-up, to select the small village I was currently floating over in a helicopter, and press R to travel there. Huh. So I closed the map, pressed keys at random until Space let me freefall (Space is usually used to open the parachute when in the air) and then as I fell through the sky it told me to return to the mission area! Um! I can’t! I’m falling and the mission area is high up in the sky! It started counting down at me! So I “failed”, and restarted. This time on arrival above the town, I was told to press Space. Not Alt. Did the game… did it get it wrong? Is it distracted? And because I’d done the correct thing, not the wrong thing it was telling me to, I’d failed the mission?

Honestly, after a while in the gruesome opening hours I started to laugh out loud. Like the first time I got into a helicopter and the on-screen controls told me vital information like how to look backward and, um, honk the helicopter’s horn, but not how to – you know – take off. Seriously, it never, ever tells you how to actually control a vehicle – just minutiae you absolutely never need. And it tells you this… FOREVER!

There is NO WAY TO TURN OFF THE ON-SCREEN CONTROLS. See the screenshots in this review? They all have controls on them, because they never, ever go away. I’m near the end of this game, and they’re still there. The only option to get rid of them is to turn off the entire UI, which makes the game literally impossible to play! You must always be told to press C to honk an aeroplane’s horn, from beginning to end. (But of course never how to actually make the plane take off.)

There does come a point, many hours in, where the horror of the menus and bugs and story bullshit and confusion over how to progress and idiocy of the map unlocking and and and can be better ignored, and you can get on with darting around and blowing shit up. Never without something infuriating happening, like the game suddenly telling you you’re dead out of absolutely nowhere, or the ever-present annoyance that the grapple and wingsuit aren’t compliant just like in JC3, or all the enemies suddenly sinking halfway into the floor, or the light levels changing like someone just pressed a switch, or or or. But I have, I must admit, had some decent enough times pratting about and watching things (pixelatedly) explode. Until something else goes wrong.

And it remains true that you can now attach grapple balloons to items in the world, and have them float off. Which means you can entertain yourself by putting a field of cows in the sky. And that is, unquestionably, brilliant. But then it reminds you of the grapple mod menu, which honestly I just can’t be bothered to try to explain. It’s so, SO bad, a decent amount of it doesn’t work (tweaks to tether retraction just make it snap instantly), it’s astoundingly badly laid out, and most of all, never, ever needed at any point in anything the game asks you to do. It’s so awful you may as well just ignore it.

Oh my this is already so long, but there’s more I want to share. Like the time I found a sniper assassination task on the map, that didn’t spawn a sniper rifle, yet had Rico loudly declare to one of the half dozen nobodies that make up his mostly invisible gang of friends, “I’ve found the sniper rifle!” So I just mowed down the targets with a machine gun, and it congratulated me on my stealthy assassinating snipery ways, and gave me the win.

Or how in every single base you enter, you run around blowing everything up (because earlier on it seemed like you were supposed to to unlock the map, but now you’ve over a dozen of the unlock tokens and the rest of the map is locked behind missions you can’t yet do), and at a random point the AI will declare over its radio that it’s lost you. “Hostile hasn’t re-engaged,” it announces, literally as I’m firing on vast fuel containers that release explosions you could see from the moon. “Eyes open for further contact.” Every, single, time.

Oh, and in a rare deliberately included bad decision, they’ve removed C4. There are no grenades, no throwable bombs, nothing. Screw that. And you might note I’ve never mentioned weather – supposedly JC4’s big new feature. And that’s because it’s barely a thing, and just a tiresome irritant when it incredibly rarely occurs.

I’m just at a loss as to how this has happened. Just Causes have been buggy, sure. But they’ve never felt at least six months from finished. I cannot fathom how this wasn’t lengthily delayed, because it’s in such a dismal state. Although that said, even if the bugs and AI were fixed, it would still leave behind a version of Just Cause that barely changes anything you actually do since the third edition, yet has made every aspect of doing it so astronomically more annoying. What went wrong? How did such an established and entertaining series end up in such a quagmire? Gosh I’d love to know.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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