LOS ANGELES—Just Cause 4 has the opportunity to take a video game franchise that has never quite hit its stride into the spotlight. 2015’s Just Cause 3 was the franchise’s best game yet, and though it had some major flaws, the basic ingredients were so fun, players could be forgiven for thinking just one more iteration would lead to “classic” status.
Just Cause 3‘s flaws were very notable indeed, especially on the PC. Performance and network issues severely hurt the experience on that platform when the game first launched. Low framerates (20 to 30 frames per second in high-intensity moments) were the game’s Achilles’ heel on the PS4 and Xbox One.
I played it on PS4, and for me at least, the sandbox mayhem and core gameplay loop were just too fun to get hung up on the framerate. Besides, it wasn’t a game about precision; it was a game about seeing your hilariously ridiculous hair-brained schemes come to fruition in unexpected ways. It was part Grand Theft Auto, sure, but it was also part Garry’s Mod or Kerbal Space Program. I was more bothered by the fact that the game’s open world wasn’t that deep, and it felt repetitive pretty quickly—probably a sign of a significantly smaller budget than something like GTA V got.
I would even go so far as to say that Just Cause 3 was one of my favorite games in recent years, despite its flaws. In addition to playing the fun and goofy story, I spent dozens of hours working on getting better scores in its many races and stunts, and even more hours concocting absurd ways to bring pain to my enemies with the grappling hook, remote detonators, jets, and much more.
In other words, I’m a fan—a fan who saw a 30-minute live gameplay presentation by the new sequel’s developers at E3 this week. So how might a fan feel about that? Pretty good, for the most part.
More crazy ways to cause chaos
A battlefield’s front line was the first thing we saw in the demo. Developers explained that the front line moves as you progress through the game. The further in the game you are, the farther the front line moves on the map in favor of your allies. The devs didn’t explain exactly how this works. Player character Rico can cause the enemies at the front line a lot of pain—we saw the devs make a missile out of a gas tank using Rico’s various tools, then shoot it the enemies on the front—but I’m guessing it moves based on your chaos level.
That measure returns from prior games. It’s a measure of how much destruction you’re causing to the evil, oppressive force you’re battling. The higher you drive the chaos level, the more Rico and his allies can control where things are going.
To push that chaos level up, you have to destroy stuff—the enemy faction’s buildings, cars, statues, monuments, infrastructure, and more. And the fun of Just Cause games is in the toolset they give you for accomplishing that.
Just Cause 3‘s primary tools were a grappling hook, remote detonation mines, a parachute, and a wingsuit. There were some fun variations; the grappling hook could be used not just to propel Rico around, but to tie objects or enemies to each other. You could connect an enemy vehicle to an explosive gas tank, then draw the line shorter until they collided and exploded. You could connect multiple objects in a chain of destruction. There was also a variant on the remote mines that turned the mines into jets, propelling whatever you attached them to into until that object (or person) exploded.
Just Cause 4 has all of those things. It adds some fun new variations too. Now you can set those attachable jets to never explode, so you can make a crane turn into an eternally spinning wrecking ball. You can attach jets that make objects hover, then program them to follow you around or behave in other ways. In one example, the developer found two large, explosive objects, attached the hover jets to them so they flew in the air, then programmed them to follow him. He proceeded to fly with his wing suit and lead them over an enemy base, then let them fall and blow up, destroying numerous enemies.
The grappling hook now has a new upgrade tree, and you can customize it to do new things, though we didn’t see all of these in the demo. Just Cause 4 takes all the physics-based tools that made Just Cause 3 an enjoyable sandbox and adds more tools that are very much in the spirit of its predecessor. Series fans won’t be disappointed on that front.
You probably saw that giant tornado in the trailers. The developers say that the tornado is a full-fledged physics simulation, along with all the other wind and weather in the game. It looks great, and it really does drift around the map sucking enemies, civilians, and objects up.
It wasn’t clear during the demo whether the tornado is always there, or whether it just shows up sometimes. I got the impression it was the former, though. That’s because enemy bases are equipped with devices that essentially act as tornado repellers.
But Rico can destroy those. In fact, he can selectively destroy them in clever ways to essentially direct the tornado where he wants it to go. I saw the developer who was playing the game do just that to drive the tornado into an enemy base. He also shot a bunch of rockets into the tornado, making it even more deadly; we could see the rockets spinning around precariously and hitting hostile buildings and vehicles.
The tornado did worry me in terms of performance. At certain times, it had sucked up what looked like hundreds of cars, ragdoll people, and building fragments, with explosions and particle effects to boot. It looked good on the PC the team was demoing it on, but that’s a lot to calculate, and I’m not confident the OG PS4 and Xbox One are up to the task. (The PS4 Pro, the Xbox One X, or a solid Windows gaming PC should able to handle it though.) If console players don’t have the latest hardware, I’m pretty sure they’ll be dipping under 30fps again.
It’s this sort of thing that makes me think Just Cause 4 might not be the watershed moment that was hoped for. It’s more of the same set of priorities—more zany options over polish and refinement. But that’s also good news for fans of the previous game. It just means this likely won’t win over anyone who didn’t like the last one.
A more-varied world
Right at the beginning of the demonstration, the developers admitted that fans had criticized the sameness and lifelessness of their previous open worlds. They said fixing that was a priority in this sequel.
From what I saw, I’m expecting an improvement, but not a reinvention. On one hand, the world is more varied, with several visually distinct regions. The developers making the presentation referred to them as biomes. Having a few unique areas is a lot better than the overwhelming sameness of the previous game’s (otherwise lovely) setting.
But on the other hand, I didn’t see much to suggest that the world feels lived in or fleshed out in the way that the worlds of Grand Theft Auto V or Mafia III do. Just Cause 3 was like Saint’s Row or early Assassin’s Creed titles; there were people in the streets, but they all looked the same, and none of them seemed to do anything but wander aimlessly, waiting to be blown up. Viewed up close, the world’s little details just didn’t hold up—because they weren’t even there.
I didn’t see in anything in this demonstration to suggest that it’s any different in Just Cause 4. But maybe that doesn’t matter. After all, you’ll spend most of the game flying high above it all and raining death from above. And it’s not a game about experiencing a living, breathing world; it’s a game about having fun blowing stuff up in endlessly creative and goofy ways.
I have no doubt Just Cause 4 will deliver in spades on that front. I’m already concocting crazy schemes in my head to achieve maximum chaos when the game releases.
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