Rico Rodriguez is back. He's a little older, a little rougher for the journey, but there's another country that requires his help to reach a state of freedom. This time around, Rico is in the South American nation of Solis, taking on a organization called the Black Hand lead by a woman named Gabriella.
Rico isn't the only thing returning from previous Just Cause games. You still have the parachute, grappling hook, and wingsuit to get around the environment. The game is still a playground of destruction, tasking you with blowing up, flattening, and generally wiping enemy structures off the map. If you've played Just Cause 3, it looks like Just Cause 4 will be a warm blanket. That's confirmed in my talk with Just Cause 4 Executive Producer Adam Davison.
"If it's gone away, it's gone away for a reason. Otherwise, we've tried to bring everything back. Everything you love is back, but more," said Davison.
In the show trailer and behind-closed-doors demo shown at the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2018, Square Enix and Avalanche Studios showed off the new pillars of the Just Cause experience. Many of these systems are aimed at providing more variety to the experience. For example, while Just Cause 3's Medici was largely the same Mediterranean island throughout, Just Cause 4 has multiple biomes stretching across Solis: grassland, jungle, deserts, alpine mountains. Each one comes with a few sub-biomes as well.
"We got we certainly got some criticism that some of the settlements and bases got a little same-y and the environment was all basically this Mediterranean biome. It had some biomes and things like beaches, but it was mostly one place," explained Davison. "South America offered us the opportunity to have a great deal of variance: so you have rolling grasslands, you have dense, thick rainforest, you have barren, arid deserts, and then you have the outlying biomes."
Severe Weather Alert
Within each of these biomes lies the biggest hook of Just Cause 4: the extreme weather system. Each of the four main biomes has a catastrophic weather event: the tornado in the grasslands, lightning storms in the jungle, the sandstorm in the desert, and a vicious blizzard in the alpine region. These aren't random events; it's best to think of them like giants roaming the countryside. The extreme weather is ever-present in its biome, wandering around causing destruction.
"That's kind of a big thing for us. We take such an approach to sandboxing, allowing the player to have fun on their terms. We want to ensure that those things are always available and you don't need to be in a story mission or anything like that to have fun with it. It's there. It exists. It's a big problem to be dealt with," said Davison.
In the demo, an Avalanche developer was chasing the tornado in the Stormchaser, the only vehicle in the game that can brave the storm. The mission involved following the tornado in its path, as it destroyed Black Hand structures. You'll build the Stormchaser across a few missions in Just Cause 4, so you'll have something for missions like this. At one point, the tornado is blow off its path by the Black Hand's wind cannons.
Wind Cannons are one way that you and your enemies can interact with the weather. It's not only about being able to play inside or around these events: you can wingsuit around the tornado if you're bold enough, or grapple onto an object picked up by it. The developer wants you to play around with everything, including the weather. Avalanche busted out the physics modeling on its new Apex Engine, so everything is simulated, like wind and water currents.
"We want as much play as possible," said Davison. "So everything's based off a physics system. That's why when you interact with something it actually mostly behaves the way you expect it to. Everything is destructible, aside from things that we need structurally there. So when we thought about the next big step, extreme weather seemed very logical to us."
"So when you saw the demo today, that's real. It's not just vis-a-vis effects, that's a full physics simulation. Every cargo container, 747, car, or person that's getting sucked up into that thing is an actual object reacting with real physics. So if you see something and it's within reach and you grapple, you'll pull right to it and land on it. There's no smoke and mirrors there."
Peaks and Valleys
As an avid player of the Just Cause games, one thing I noticed by Just Cause 4 from the beginning of the demo was that the landscape is much more vertical than previous games. Just Cause 3 went higher and lower with its Sky Fortress and Bavarium Sea Heist downloadable expansions, but it looks like Just Cause 4 will start from such a point. (Davison did confirm that downloadable content is planned for Just Cause 4, but declined to explain what form it will take.)
Avalanche thought about building the map in terms of depth, not wideness. The Apex Engine allows for volumetric terrain rendering, so the team is able to sculpt features into the overall landmass. A cave isn't a level that's built and attached to the rest of the map: it's carved out and then filled in with playable assets.
"One of things we emphasize to differentiate ourselves from other games is that we are a vertical game," Davison told me. "In fact, even the way we talk about the world now is about square miles the map is thousand square kilometers. There is more geographic land space [in Just Cause 4], but we've actually started thinking about it more in a cubic context of playable area. We picked South America also because you have these very dramatic kind of stark peaks, plateaus, and shapes to the world. So when we think about the playable area in the game, it's much bigger without necessarily taking up much more space. We didn't need a bigger map to accomplish that, we just need to go up or down."
Just Cause 4's engine also means enhanced destruction for things that aren't buildings. That tornado will pull up trees in its wake, giving the player a visual path to follow if they're storm chasing. You won't have to wait forever for those trees to come back though; Just Cause 4 prizes play over realism. Leave and come back later and everything should be right as rain, Davison told me
"Those things will respawn and come back," he said. "If you want 747s, but you blew them all up, they'll be back. You can go back and get another one so you can play around with that. That's important to us."
The Army of Chaos
Environment visual indicators extend to Rico's liberation of Solis. He stands at the head of the Army of Chaos, a revolutionary force that fights in Rico's image. They'll take on your colors and use the resources you bring them. Take a tank depot, of bring them an armored APC and it'll be incorporated into your overall army. And the Army of Chaos makes its presence felt at the Frontline, a new system showing Rico's area of influence. On the barrier between your territory and Black Hand territory, there will be a constant ongoing war. It's an easy way to keep track of what's next without checking your map.
"It was important to us this time around to show that there is an army that is advancing, Rico is supporting, and they're ever-present in the world. A war is always raging until basically you beat the game; the things that you're doing have a tangible effect on it," said Davison. "You can see, especially at night, the flares from the gun battles. We're not showing night right now, but it's gorgeous. It's not like you're managing troop numbers or anything crazy; there's nothing like a metagame. It's more a representation of what you're accomplishing."
Expanding Rico's Equipment: Enter the Customizable Grapple
This effort to bring "more" to Just Cause 4 extends to Rico's equipment. The grappling hook has been a key part of the character since the first game, but Avalanche has really blown out the concept. You have more tethers available, but the grappling hook itself is fully customizable. It has a number of slots to determine how it reacts to different situations and you can put new abilities in those slots.
You can attach bombs, boosters, and the all-new air-lifter mines to enemies with the grappling hook. The air-lifters are balloons that make objects and enemies lighter than air. The tethers can be changed to create new effects, like exploding when they slam two objects together. Even the attached objects can change modified: air-lifters can be changed to cause the balloons to slowly float towards Rico once activated. Players can set three different grapple loadouts in their inventory and switch between the three options on the fly.
Davison said the change was about giving players more options to work with in terms of creating interesting situations.
"We were very fortunate when Just Cause 3 came out," he told me. "Happened to kind of coincide with the rise Youtubers and Twitch streamers really becoming more prolific and more visible. That gave us a window we never had previously; we could see players doing wild stuff. In many of those cases, we didn't know that stuff was possible."
"We just passed those around the office and the team would get very inspired. To us the configurable grappling hook is maybe a feature on par with the weather systems in terms of how much it changes the game. Since we want to empower players to play with this world that we've created and give them as many ways as possible that feature became very central to us. It was very important to us to give them a toolset; the people coming up with funny ideas we give them as much as possible to really go wild with it. We think it's something that they're going to enjoy and they're gonna love showing off as well. So that's a that's a massive feature."
Better Weapons, Bigger Explosions
Weapons were a bit vanilla and basic in Just Cause 3, but in Just Cause 4, Avalanche has given every weapon a secondary fire. This allows the team to offer more abilities while not changing the number of guns Rico can carry. So a Grenade Launcher can shoot a single grenade, or a shower of them all at once. A Railgun works as a long-range rifle, but its secondary fire can create a drone that join Rico in combat. (You can even grapple to it and let it carry you around.)
"We have other weapons that are a little more experimental. They do things a little bit outside of what a traditional firearm would do. I don't think we're talking about those just yet. So I'm holding that back a bit, but we wanted to look at the weapons and ensure that we're bringing more to the table," said Davison.
The improved weapons are combined with new enemy types. Avalanche heard players when they said that Just Cause 3's basic enemies were a bit too easy to dispatch. The rank-and-file will still be easier to takedown, but there are expanded ground troops. There are those who carry mini-guns with expandable shield, some are like ninjas cloaking their presence, while even the snipers have gotten a little better at hitting Rico in the air. Avalanche wants to encourage players to have to think up new tactics on the fly.
"We want the player up in the air," said Davison. "We want them almost making it up as they go along because we think that's where Just Cause shines. When you're just basically jumping first and thinking second. Now we want you to jump first and have to think second by having enemies that are doing things that you have to pay attention to. That's kind of the way we approach making them more elite enemy force but without making them punishing or a chore to deal with because we don't want to ever do that Just Cause."
One thing that's still not making the cut for this expanded Just Cause experience is multiplayer. Yep, still no multiplayer. Fans got together to add multiplayer to Just Cause 2 and 3, and that's likely going to have to be the case for the fourth game.
"We're not ruling out multiplayer in the future. This team at least is completely focused on delivering a premier sandbox single player experience," said Davison.
It's going to be a good twelve months for Avalanche Studios. The studio has Rage 2 and its self-published Generation Zero coming in addition to Just Cause 4. And while those titles may offer newer experiences from Avalanche, it's good to see that the studio hasn't forgotten where it came from. Just Cause 4 is looking to deliver the best sandbox of destruction yet when it launches on December 4, 2018 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.