Games Review: Just Cause 4 (PS4, 2018) looks like a relic of the PlayStation 2 era and I wish I knew why

Only two years ago, I reviewed Just Cause 3 for what was then the AU’s film and TV masthead, The Iris. In writing that review, I learned an important lesson about the link between taking your time and offering responsible critique. What a great opportunity to reaffirm that lesson, I thought when our review copy of Just Cause 4 arrived. This time around, I would pace myself and make sure I really got to the heart of what the game was trying to do before I posted a review. With that in mind, let’s begin.

God, Just Cause 4 is a mess.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a full-priced title from a well-known developer, released on a major console that looked as woebegone as Just Cause 4 does. It legitimately looks like it was hauled out of the PlayStation 2 era. Zero anti aliasing, super close pop-in, low resolution textures — it’s ticking every possible box on the Bargain Bin Checklist. It deploys so much motion blur that the game as a whole becomes almost totally unreadable. Add to this its weird relationship with contrast — whites are ridiculously bright and shadows are inky black, no matter how I messed with my TV and HDR settings — all of which in concert makes the game almost totally unreadable. While watching me play, my software engineer housemate idly wondered if the game was stuck in some kind of debug or safe mode, scaled down to consume the smallest possible amount of system resources.

This is as reasonable a way to explain Just Cause 4‘s visuals as any I’ve heard, because there’s simply no way the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One aren’t up to handling a game like this. I know this because all of the game’s cutscenes are fully rendered and look the way the game was obviously supposed to look. We aren’t talking about Crysis here. This isn’t a game that was ever going to set some kind of crazed new benchmark for visual fidelity. That the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X versions are experiencing the same horrendous graphical issues suggests something has gone terribly wrong under the hood.

While writing this review, developer Avalanche Studios addressed the graphical issues in a blog post, promising improvements in forthcoming updates. I hope they’re able to do something about it because here’s the thing — almost everything around the terrible visuals is quite good.

Just Cause‘s biggest draw has always been its slavish devotion to the Rule of Cool. That is, it will permanently suspend any kind of disbelief and allow its hero Rico to defeat the laws of physics themselves if it means he can blow something up in a fun, cool or interesting way. Just Cause 4 continues this trend, giving the player all sorts of new ways to blow things up and get creative with the ways that wreak havoc on the environment.

Just Cause 3 made me do a bit of busy work before it let me have my wingsuit and my parachute. It gave you an hour or so of being stuck on the ground so that when you unlocked these items, you appreciated the incredible boost in mobility they provided. By comparison, Just Cause 4 couldn’t give them to me fast enough. I thought the game was going to pull a Metroid on me, start things off with all my gear fully upgraded before taking it all away to create a power creep as I pieced it all back together. And it did do that, to a point. But it was also only a few minutes before it gleefully stuffed the wingsuit and parachute back into my hands as though it had had an abrupt change of heart. Avalanche’s thinking is clear: “There’s actually no game without these so you can just have them.”

One mechanic that Just Cause 4 introduces that I really did enjoy was the War Front mechanic. This is a way to change up the “reclaiming each part of the map, bit by bit” trope popular in the open world genre. Previously, despite being wrapped up in a supposedly revolutionary splinter group, Rico has always been a one-man show. No new territory would be taken unless he swooped in and blew up all the high value real estate himself. Now he must rely on revolutionary foot soldiers to help him push into each new area. It’s over to them to find a crack in the facade, distracting the occupying forces long enough for Rico to swoop low overhead like a fucking dragon and begin his firey work.

Elsewhere, Just Cause 4 leans on many of the same crutches as Just Cause 3. The core loop — ridiculous stunts that end in spectacular destruction — are as much fun as they’ve ever been, but there’s a reason the Square Enix marketing department leaned into the destructive weather angle in the lead up to launch. The storms are really the only things that Avalanche are doing differently here over its predecessor, and it as a result it wears out its welcome quite a bit faster.

Storms are an interesting idea, and are a great aid to Rico’s destructive presence. They afford him a massive, panic-inducing distraction and allow to slingshot himself into any enemy base he likes at nine-tenths the speed of light. Unfortunately, given the way the game looks and runs, it wouldn’t matter how many new mechanics the game was able to squeeze in. There’s no point getting caught up in a storm because the visuals are so muddied by all the low-res motion blur that it’s impossible to tell what’s going on.

Just Cause 4 is a decent game that is entirely obscured by some of the worst visuals of any AAA release in this hardware generation. If you feel I’m being unfair or that “gameplay should trump visuals” on the scale of video game importance, then I’m sorry you feel that way. The thing is, at least in my view, the gameplay > graphics philosophy only applies when graphics don’t impact negatively on gameplay. In Just Cause 4, they do, significantly, and if Avalanche can’t do anything about the visuals then it simply isn’t worth your time or money.

I was so looking forward to Just Cause 4. To say that I’m disappointed would be understating things. That said, If it turns out to be, as I hope, a monumental error that can be rectified with an update or two, I’ll happily review the game again and adjust my score accordingly.

 

TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Splosions; Rico remains a hilarious flying rock of a man
Lowlights: PlayStation 2 era visuals that decimate readability
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now

Review conducted on PlayStation 4 with retail code provided by the publisher.

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David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.