Republished on Wednesday 25th November, 2020: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of December 2020's PS Plus lineup. The original text follows.
There's moments playing Just Cause 4 when you'll almost certainly find yourself grinning from ear to ear in much the same way that you might watching a ridiculous '80s action movie. It doesn't matter that the characters are personified clichés, or that the plot's limper than the lettuce in a Big Mac, because you just strapped four balloons to a car, then attached a rocket booster to the back of it and sent it flying into an enemy helicopter. The retina-scorching explosion that lit up the sky as a result needed only The Final Countdown playing in the background and it'd be about as glorious a moment as you're ever likely to experience in a video game.
Now, imagine an open-world action game absolutely packed with bombastic, jaw-dropping moments like this, and that's exactly what Just Cause 4 would be like if practically every mission in the game didn't seem like it was intentionally designed with the express purpose of not letting you have any fun at all. What a letdown. It's like they spent so much time perfecting the physics engine and crafting the various tools that you'll be able to use to cause consummate mayhem that they didn't leave themselves enough time to build a game around them. So what you're left with is a title that allows you to dole out all manner of destruction in fantastically creative ways, but one that also requires you to invent your own reasons for using them, because playing the game as God intended scarcely affords you the opportunity to do so.
Series hero Rico Rodriguez, a leather-clad, bearded renegade who looks like he could play the stereotypical sleazy love rival in a Hugh Grant rom-com, is in the mood to usurp a South American dictator. There's some sort of background story involving his father, and weapons of mass destruction, and something called "the agency", but it's all just an excuse to give Rico things to blow up real good. And that's okay. Just point us at the genocidal tyrant, hand us the nitroglycerine, and we'll have him deposed in time for Match of the Day. Rico, you see, has a PhD in Advanced Explosionomics, and by God, he's going to use it.
Rico can use a vast arsenal of guns and explosives in his quest for Third World political upheaval, but it's his grappling hook and parachute that are perhaps the stars of the show. The parachute can be deployed and retracted via a quick tap of the X button, and while the aiming reticule is positioned over any structure – wall, ceiling, tree, innocent bystander – giving L1 a push will allow Rico to quickly zip to that point. There's also a wingsuit for gliding, and so combining the three lets you traverse the map quickly and in style, playing 'the floor is lava' to your heart's content, without ever having to travel on foot like some kind of peasant. It can be a lot of fun.
The major issue with Just Cause 4 becomes apparent after only a handful of missions. They're all as dull as dishwater. We're not just talking about the side-quests either: all the missions are rubbish. The first mission in the game sees you having to stand next to a console while your off-screen partner downloads information from it or something, and while a bar on the screen fills up you have to fend off waves of enemies. Just in case you didn't get enough of it the first time around, you'll also do the same thing, over and over again, in numerous different locations across the map. Escort missions, generic shoot-outs, and hitting a bunch of buttons within a slim time limit – you'll do them all, and again, and again.
The missions are clunkily designed, too. Sometimes you'll be battling through innumerous baddies in order to reach – usually – a console that you'll have to press triangle next to before moving on to another one. If you die en route, often you'll be respawned not where you died or even at the previous check-point, but right next to the objective you were attempting to get to only now there's no enemies around. When the fastest way to complete a mission is killing yourself and letting the respawn take care of the tough stuff for you, you know something has gone wrong.
Extreme weather has been touted as one of the selling points for Just Cause 4, but that too is a disappointment. The tornado is pretty radical, and the swirling winds do mean that using your parachute is a bit of a lottery, but the others barely change the gameplay at all. At least they look pretty cool. Speaking of looks, graphically it's hit and miss, suffering from frequent instances of pop-in, and it occasionally looks like a game from the previous console generation.
You do get to blow a lot of things up though, so every cloud and all that.
Just Cause 4's traversal system can be wonderfully entertaining, and the chaotic, explosion-sim physics in play are frequently exhilarating, but they're manacled to a game that has absolutely no idea how best to use them. What's the point in giving players an array of tools that lets them cause wanton destruction on a gargantuan scale, and then designing a campaign full of drab, copy-pasted missions that barely require you to use them? It's a bit like getting the coolest BMX on the market for Christmas, but then your Mum tells you you're only allowed to ride it around the garden where she can keep an eye on you. Cheers, Mum.