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Just Cause 4 review: A tired retread of old ideas

Action-destruction game fails to move on from past glories

Just Cause 4
| Avalanche / Square Enix

Like its predecessor, Just Cause 4 is an unpretentious, unhinged, mad-old-goat of a game, dancing on a windswept hillside to the tunes in its own head. 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.

(Editor’s Note: This article is an updated version of a review-in-progress, originally posted on Dec. 3.)

And yet, despite its sense of abandon, there’s something phony about this game. It feels too much like a replay of Just Cause 3, which came out three years ago. And as much I enjoyed that game, I’m not sure I want to play it again, albeit with a bigger map, a different location, and a few added widgets.

Publisher Square Enix scored a commercial hit with Just Cause 3, presumably adding to the development coffers of this game. Developer Avalanche has had three years to come up with new ideas, to move its series forward. Despite all this, the game offers very little in the way of freshness. It’s a retread.

I find myself feeling some sympathy for its adherence to a well-liked formula, but I’m frustrated that it has failed to surprise me in any way. And I’m bothered that its execution is far from flawless. In my original review-in-progress, I said the game is “unpolished.” But the more I play, the more this seems like a generous characterization. There are so many annoyances that I’m tempted to call it sloppy.

Just Cause 4 is an action game in which I play as macho hero 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.

Just Cause 4
Just Cause 4
Avalanche / Square Enix

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 badass 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 can deliver moments of intense 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 tiresome 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.

Just Cause 4
Just Cause 4
Avalanche / Square Enix

The biggest problem with Just Cause 4 is that 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. By the time I reach the final missions, I’m really feeling ready to quit.

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. Destination markers swivel in and out of view. Distances are difficult to judge. 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 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, I find this one 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 video game-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.

The campaign never manages to escape its own mediocrity, it threatens to open out into a more liberating game of exploration and experimentation, but doesn’t quite make the jump. Yes, doing the Just Cause thing of mixing up modes of destruction is still fun. But 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.

Just Cause 4 was 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.

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