Just Cause is probably the dumbest videogame series in the world, but Just Cause 4 might be the smartest dumb videogame I’ve ever played. If all you want from games is glorious, cathartic destruction, Just Cause 4 makes GTA 5 look like Papers, Please. Few games tap so vividly into that primal urge to watch stuff burn, and few offer so many tools in order to make that happen. It’s the new chaos-wreaking tools that make Just Cause 4 both dumb and very smart, actually, at the same time. Bear with me.
I played a few hours of Just Cause 4 last week, and left with three overwhelming impressions: one is that Avalanche Studios should just give up trying to weave a narrative through its destruction simulator. The second is that floating in your wingsuit at the peak of a tornado is one of the most relaxing experiences in video games. The third is that in the hands of a dedicated community, Just Cause 4 could become a kind of Minecraft for carefully-planned violent tomfoolery.
Just Cause 4 is set in a massive, mountainous South American country with four distinct biomes, and really all you need to know about the plot is that Rico is fighting to thwart a private army called the Black Hand. I played through a few story missions, and felt the same restlessness that Just Cause 3’s campaign stirred in me. It’s possible to skip cutscenes and get straight to the action, but there’s no getting around the fact that Just Cause mission design, as far as I saw at least, is a bit drab. Go here, blow up a certain number of these things, flick a couple of these switches, shoot these barely competent foes: rinse, repeat.
I did enjoy one mission that required me to fake the death of an American documentary director. I’m not sure why she needed her death faked or even what her documentary was about, but commanding her vehicle through the dense mountains of Solis before barrelling through the air and onto a ferry filled with explosive barrels was intensely satisfying. Overall, the mission design and storytelling is competent. It feels like an obligation fulfilled. The creative destruction, on the other hand, is exceptional.
The core novelties here are the storms and Rico’s customisable grappling hook. The latter is a welcome addition to a game that shines when the player is allowed to construct elaborate action film set pieces. The grappling hook can act as an air lifter (think Metal Gear Solid’s fulton extractions), a booster (think rockets) or a retractor. Each of these are upgradeable so that, for example, the behavior of the air lift balloon can be modified to explode when it reaches peak altitude, or else just float there. The balloons can even be set to follow the player, and they can be filled with either helium or explosive hydrogen.
The speed at which retractor hooks drag objects together can be modified as well, as can the length of the retractor and the power of the inevitable collision. The booster mods are especially fun: they serve as mini-rocket propellers. A bunch of these can be applied to most surfaces in any configuration, and I spent a long time experimenting with a ferris wheel, using rockets to propel the wheel and, inevitably, to blow the carriages down onto unsuspecting witnesses. The speed and power of these rocket hooks can be adjusted, as can the direction of their momentum and the duration of their boost (this can be toggled anywhere between 2 and 30 seconds).
While I only had time to tinker with this stuff for a while, the way the grappling hook mods can interact with vehicles and destructible terrains is, alone, justification for a new Just Cause. It also helps that supply drops—vehicles and weapons that can be called in immediately via air drop—now include an array of mayhem tools including explosive barrels, wind cannons, shipping containers and more. As fodder for creative YouTubers, Just Cause 4 is a much more flexible and creative sandbox than its predecessor, and I can imagine spending tens of hours orchestrating ever more ridiculous explosions.
The weather systems seem fun, too, though I only encountered a single tornado during my session: luckily I was in a fighter jet at the time. I beelined for the storm and leapt from the jet into the fray, taking care not to get hit by the several zeppelins already tearing around inside. Floating at the peak of the torrent, I watched, mesmerised, as every passing airborne vehicle was guzzled up by the storm. I know it sounds weird, but the eerie quiet inside the tornado, coupled with the oppressive water-blown surrounds, was beautiful. I was entranced.
I have my fingers crossed that a lot of Just Cause 4’s most empowering tools won’t be locked behind story mode milestones but, realistically, they will be. This is a blockbuster, full-priced video game, and to ship a destruction sandbox without some form of campaign would probably be unwise for Avalanche and Square Enix. It’s disappointing that Just Cause 4 won’t boast cooperative play out of the box—modders will rectify this—but for what it’s worth, the pleasures in Just Cause 4 are closer in spirit to Kerbal Space Program or Besiege than GTA or Far Cry. I’ll have fun playing it when it releases next month, but I’ll probably have even more fun watching animated gifs of it.