In one of the trailers for the upcoming “Just Cause 4” developed by Avalanche Studios, longtime series protagonist Rico Rodriguez steps behind the wheel of a roaring American muscle car, dipping through trenches, mud splattering all over the classic vehicle. Just as he crests the top of a hill, he spies the immense pillar of a tornado towering over the grasslands, a corona of debris twirling around it. Rico guns the engine and heads for the heart of the storm, the car taking flight towards the heavens just as the game’s logo slams dramatically into view.
As the image fades, I ask the producer running the demo why exactly Rico would decide to drive his muscle car headlong into a tornado. He just laughs. “Why not? Isn’t that what you would do?”
Such a response reflects the deeply compelling core of the “Just Cause” experience: pure, unadulterated chaos,. Over its decade-plus run, the series that gave us a plethora of grappling hook GIFs has pushed the creative boundaries of the open-world genre over three entries, each less-grounded than the last – often literally, given the game’s penchant for wingsuit-based shenanigans. Now, for the fourth nears release, the series is doubling down on its more fantastical elements, all for the sake of pure fun. But, at the same time, Avalanche hopes to bring a new level of storytelling and character to the franchise, rather than just leaning on a a well-worn pile of action-movie cliches like so many games of its scale and scope.
“When you compare ‘Just Cause 3’ to ‘Just Cause 2’ and ‘1,’ it’s pretty obvious that we’re trying to be more plausible, rather than just campy,” says game director Franchesco Antolini. “With ‘Just Cause 4,’ we want to take everything that makes the game fun, like the sandbox, and we want to lean into our strengths in terms of toys, because that’s what people want. But at the same time, we want to make a narrative and story that has some depth to it. If you’re interested in it, we want you to learn something more about Rico, about the Black Hand, something other than the classic structure we had before. That’s why we built a proper narrative team to make that design come true.”
Keeping the player invested in the ceaseless explosions and carnage might seem a bit difficult – especially now that the pyrotechnics are careering into future-weapons territory, like handheld railguns and wind cannons – but Antolini and his team are determined to square that circle. That’s why they’re upping the ante by adding extreme effects that dramatically affect the four biomes of Solis, the fictional South American country where the game is set, including the devastating tornado that cost Rico his beloved ride. Unlike most open-world games, these dangerous weather systems aren’t just a nifty graphical effect, or a scripted setpiece designed for a particular mission. Instead, blustery blizzards and terrible tornados will occur naturally on their own, through organic play, sometimes throwing a wrench in the player’s plans. But, in true “Just Cause” fashion, players are encouraged to use these forces of nature to creative ends.
“It’s a fine line to walk,” says Antolini. “We want to be best-in-class when it comes to sandbox gameplay. There aren’t other games that have such a wide design vocabulary, such a wealth of toys.
Antolini describes Solis as a country essentially ruled by a recurring antagonistic group known The Black Hand, a mercenary outfit depicted as somewhat reminiscent of real-life PMCs like the infamous Blackwater. And though Rico builds his own group to fight against his foes – known as the Army of Chaos, ostensibly because they’re so inspired by Rico’s wanton acts of destruction – Antolini describes “Just Cause 4” for as a totally apolitical game, saying that it has “absolutely zero” in the way of political message or aspirations and calling it “a complete work of fiction.” When asked about the fundamental differences in belief that caused the conflict between Rico and The Black Hand, Antolini’s answer was simple.
“I’d say freedom,” he said, laughing. “We’re not calling it the Solis National Liberation Army. We’re calling it the Army of Chaos. They’re inspired by what you do as a player, which is blow stuff up. We could’ve gone a different direction, and called it the Solis National Liberation Army, and made it a thing where your best friend dies, and you have a big, deep reflection about revolution. But then you’re firing balloons and blowing stuff up. It doesn’t really fit, does it? We don’t want to be a political game.”
“I don’t know if people have noticed yet, but in ‘4,’ when the Black Hand is depicted, we always show them in masks,” he says. “That’s a creative choice. It’s the same reason why we don’t feature dismemberment, for example. We’re not trying to create a torture simulator.”
While some might view this as a odd choice for a game titled “Just Cause” – and especially given the first game’s very explicit satire of US military adventurism in the Caribbean and elsewhere – it’s clear that for “Just Cause 4,” it’s more about the explosions than anything else. It remains to be seen whether Avalanche can fulfill their escalating narrative ambitions, or crank the series’ intense chaos up another notch. Perhaps they will, but one thing’s for sure: try not to worry too much about the masked goons you’re blowing up in the process, because, for better or worse, Avalanche certainly isn’t either.