My favourite character in the new Just Cause is called Larry. That's what I decided to call him anyway. When I met him, Larry was - how can I say this? - recently dead. Furthemore, Larry was - how can I say this? - attached to the fender of the car I had probably used to kill him. I say probably because in the heat of the moment in a Just Cause game it can be hard to say what happens and who makes it happen. The thing is, Larry wasn't just dead, and he wasn't just attached to the fender of the car I was driving. He was also floating in the air, ragdolling in a perfect summer breeze. That's because one of his legs - I forget which one - was attached to a massive helium balloon that was holding him aloft. I didn't spot Larry for a good five minutes, I reckon, such is the pace of a typical Just Cause mission. Once I did, I found it hard to let him go. For one thing, I had grown fond of him. (You could say I was attached to him.) For another, I couldn't remember the button to snap the tethers.
There are two kinds of story generated by a Just Cause game, I reckon. The first kind of story is breathless - action piled upon improbable reaction with no pauses in the telling whatsoever. The other kind of story - you could call it the Larry Story - is defined by its pauses: confusion, disbelief, slow realisation, shame. This guy was dead...and I think I killed him...and then I attached him to my car...? And to a balloon...? And I drove around for another half hour?
Just Cause 4 isn't short on the first kind of story, of course. Here's an example from a mission I encountered about halfway in.
I had learned that my nemesis - the bland dictator I had turned up in the Latin American state of Solis to take down - had learned how to meddle with the weather. Blizzards, sandstorms, lightning, that kind of thing. He knew how to make tornados, and now my guys, the liberators had learned how to make them too. The plan was to make a tornado, grow it to a great size and ride it straight into one of his cities. (I think this was the plan anyway - snappy, memorable plotting is not a series strength.)
We started out in the countryside and the tornado started to grow. Here's where the story gets breathless. We were driving an armoured car that could withstand the tornado, but little else in the environment could, so as we followed the twister down the road it started to chew up everything else in sight - barns, traffic, foliage. My NPC colleague in the armoured car put on a mix-tape and we listened to that for a bit as the wind howled, but the tornado could not be entirely trusted. Enemies had set up wind cannons to blow it off its path so I had to get out of the car, fight through the storm and take those out. By the time that was done, we were in the city where our own wind cannons were waiting, but the baddies were attacking them. Because of all that jazz I had to zap back and forth between the skyscrapers these cannons were mounted on, clearing off waves of skirmishers. Finally, when the tornado was big enough, I rode a thermal or whatever it was to the very top and then dived inside and whiteness filled the screen.
Put these two types of story together and you have the best parts of Just Cause 4. Most of the time, it's business as usual: baddies to depose, a new island to liberate, a grappling hook and a parachute and a wingsuit to make the best of things and endless hordes of bullet-sponge enemies to shoot, blow up, and attach to things. Then you get a bit of sequel magic: a new gadget that makes you giggle with joy or a massive, screen-filling bit of weather in a campaign mission to jolt you out of your sugary, explosiony stupor. And then you're back to the basics, which in Just Cause are relentlessly formulaic and relentlessly hectic. This is a game, in other words, for people who don't think double-A is an insult. The tech is ingenious and some of the emergent stuff the game can pull off in the heat of the moment are spectacularly hilarious, but this is still, in its heart, a proud direct-to-video offering. In these glossy, ponderous, shared-universe times, I mean that as the very highest compliment.
What's new? The plot is very similar to the previous games. The bad guy can control the weather this time, which means that the campaign is built around a series of set-pieces as you take out machines that cause stuff like lightning, sandstorms, and that twister, and there's a link to hero Rico Rodriguez's father, but it's business as usual in every way that matters. Solis, meanwhile, the country you're dropped into, is pretty and varied - jungle, desert, snow and lovely coast all accounted for, alongside lovely spiny mountains and looping roads. But like other Just Cause locations, it utterly fails to come into focus as an actual place where set-pieces are connected in any kind of meaningful way. More than before, in fact, this is just a cluster of concrete military bases where the missions happen, connected by foliage and expanses of sand or snow. None of this matters, of course. It never has with Just Cause.
The weather effects are new! And in the missions when you go up against them they're pretty exciting. Driving a boat into a thunderstorm or following red lights that throb through the mineral wind of a sandstorm make for some lovely moments, and it's a thrill to pull the parachute and discover that - oh boy - you've made a huge, huge mistake as you're carried miles from your objective. But elsewhere, the missions you use to unlock regions of the map are made from a handful of endlessly repeated pieces: go here, protect this hacker, download something from this console, escort these soldiers, find and wreck these generators. The blandness of the things you often do in Just Cause make for poor reading, but they're bland for a decent reason, I think: the tools you have at your disposal are the real stars here, and the missions exist simply to give you reasons to use them in the heat of combat.
With the wingsuit and parachute returning this is still a great game for getting about and ignoring the mainly clunky cars and bikes and boats on offer. And with the grappler, it's still a great game for tying two things together. Or ten! Baddie to exploding canister? No problem. Exploding canister to exploding canister? Even better! Car to building? Go for it. Car to exploding canister to baddie? Now you're thinking. The sequel wrinkle here is three new gadgets that work with the grappler, a retractor, a booster rocket, and a balloon.
The retractor and booster rocket have both been seen before. The retractor allows you to link two things together and then pull them towards one another. The booster now allows you to attach many, many rockets to an object and then set them going at once, blasting a cargo crate, perhaps, across a busy military base for fun and profit. The balloon is where the money is, though. It's the Fulton Recovery System from Metal Gear, except now you can use it offensively rather than just for picking up cargo. You can point the tether at a baddie and attach a balloon to them, sending them into the sky. Then you can cut the thread and drop them back to earth. Or you can use the balloon to rip a piece of machinery apart. Or you can use it to get rid of pursuing cars. And on and on.
All of these gadgets can be arranged in loadouts, and all of them can be flared with mods, which you pay for by completing three chains of side-missions, one of which did not seem to appear on my map screen for vast stretches of the adventure, but in a game like Just Cause, who's to say if that's the game's fault or mine? Anyway, the mods allow you to do stuff like fill the balloons with hydrogen, which as history knows, is a terribly good idea, or add a tasty yank moment to the retractor. In truth, these gadgets are so much fun together or in combination - particularly when deployed in close quarters and by accident - that the mods didn't make much of an impact for me. They're built around the idea that you play Just Cause with clarity and precision, but this is never a precise experience for me. Example: in one mission, I was escorting a hacker in a buggy and I missed a turn in the road and fell off a cliff and continued to fall for what the game informed me was a kilometer and a half. We ended up underwater. I still completed the mission. But I didn't do it with clarity of precision.
In truth, Just Cause trades precision for its hectic, pummeling pace. It would rather have you react than plan ahead and execute the plan. And because of this, I think, the game has picked up some bad habits. Underneath the magical stuff - the balloons and the winching and the wingsuiting for miles and miles - this is a fiddly game, filled with buggy NPC AI that wants to jog against your car rather than get in when it's under fire, weapon crates that it is hard to get open unless you're standing in just the right place, waypoint markers that aren't brilliant at functioning meaningfully when you're up close, bikes and jets that are far too jittery, and, this time around, a territory capture mechanic which over-complicates the process of opening up the map. The more that chaos - which is how the games have always tracked Rico's rampages - is used to define your progress, you end up grinding the game in very unusual ways. Time and again when I was trying to move to a new area and I had already completed that area's specific mission, I would fall back on earning the chaos I needed to advance the border by attacking my own bases for the easy chaos points. I'd find one of my team's helicopters, throw the innocent pilot into the troposphere or wherever we were, and then ruthlessly machine gun my own infrastructure from 15,000 feet.
Just Cause gets away with this, though, just as it gets away with building a sequel around a few stand-out weather missions and a bunch of balloons, because it has that rare commodity in games. Just Cause is charming, and Just Cause 4 is as charming as all the others. Rico isn't just a liberator on a mission, he is likable and fun to be around. He moves beautifully, he hums Wagner as he obliterates his own bases in a helicopter, and even when he isn't humming he sounds amazing as he zips about, a muddle of buckles and winches and tiny motors purring. The plot pulls off a potentially murky blend of regime change and climate-conspiracy because it's obvious that nobody expects anybody to think too seriously about these things, and the game beneath the plot throws the same objectives at you over and over again because it knows that the tools you're given are fun enough to ensure that you can do things a little differently each time.
How long will this confection hold together? I don't know. I forget Just Cause games the minute I complete them, and yet the moment the next one appears on the horizon, waving a couple of balloons, I'm back in, boots-first. Rico loves this stuff. I love this stuff. Even Larry, I suspect, sort of loves this stuff too. (Rest in peace, obviously.)