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Just Cause is a game I skipped for the sequel, mainly because I didn’t know it existed at the time and as it turns out, a lot of players recommend doing that anyway. Just Cause is a franchise that puts players into open world sandboxes and gives them all kinds of toys to play with. I’ve played 2 and a little bit of 3 but never finished their storylines so I figured I would jump back into the franchise again but this time start from the beginning. Developed by Avalanche Studios and published by Eidos Interactive, Just Cause was released for PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox and Xbox 360 in September, 2006. For this review, I played the Xbox 360 version on a Series X. I was initially going to play the PC version but according to the game’s PCGamingWiki page, it’s based on the original Xbox version and is missing some of the graphical enhancements of the 360 version.
Set in the fictional Carribbean nation called San Esperito, an organization known as the Agency deploys operative Rico Rodriguez to overthrow the nation’s president who they believe is in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Rico allies with himself with a guerrilla group and even assists drug cartels in an effort to dismantle the president’s regime. Ultimately, the story feels like an afterthought. The writing leaves a lot to be desired, many attempts at humor fall flat and if you just stick to the story missions, it shouldn’t take you too long to beat. The real meat of the game is found in everything else and all the side content.
Just Cause is a dumb fun action sandbox. I say dumb because there’s not a lot of depth or thinking required to do anything. Unlike it’s successor, it’s not really a destruction sandbox. You can blow certain structures and buildings up, but the game is more about action than destruction. A lot of objectives require you to kill people and blow up or destroy specific targets but you won’t be leveling towns or settlements.
Just Cause is all about freedom. You are free to tackle objectives however you want and do whatever you want whenever you want. San Esperito is a rather large open world and gives you plenty of ways to get around. You can walk, run, swim, drive, fly and utilize boats. As Rico completes story missions and liberates settlements, he’ll unlock safehouses and new weapons and vehicles. He can also call for a vehicle, aircraft, or boat to be delivered to him and call for an extraction to any unlocked safehouse, like a fast travel system.
Unfortunately, Just Cause does feel dated, a little janky and the gameplay is repetitive. You can see everything the game has to offer in under an hour. You’ll spend a lot of time shooting and most firefights lack challenge because of the auto targeting system. With a gun equipped, reticles will automatically appear on nearby targets so it’s almost impossible to miss. You can zoom in and aim manually but I rarely felt the need to do this. I would say any challenge comes from the fact you’re always outnumbered. But even when you’re being attacked from every direction, enemies frequently drop health packs when killed so it wasn’t often that I died. Plus, you can fully replenish health from health cabinets at safehouses.
One of my biggest problems with Just Cause is getting around. For a world of this size, there’s not enough ways to get to destinations quickly. Rico can’t run fast, extractions take a minute or so, and despite some fast vehicles, driving can be tedious. You can freefall and deploy a parachute but descending through the air is slow. You will acquire a grappling hook at a certain point which enables you to grapple onto vehicles and even aircraft, allowing you hijack them while they’re in the air which is a lot of fun. The best, fastest and easiest way to get around is by aircraft and, luckily, they’re not too hard to come by. When driving vehicles or piloting aircraft, Rico can enter a stunt position which means he’ll jump onto the roof or hang from the aircraft allowing him to jump off and/or deploy a parachute and can even jump to other vehicles.
The heat system is the game’s way of stopping Rico’s criminal activity. There’s two different kinds of heat, one that represents the police, military, and mercenaries and the other which represents the Montano cartel. When you shoot people and steal vehicles, that will often increase your heat level which means one or both of the factions will come after you. Since almost everything you do in the game involves some form of violence, it’s very easy to attract heat.
The heat can be annoying because the enemies are relentless. Helicopters will be constantly firing at you and enemy vehicles will chase you and knock your vehicle all over the road. It’s kind of cool at first because it makes for a lot of action but after while, it gets to be annoying because you’re just under constant attack everywhere you go. It makes driving around a real pain in the ass especially if driving off-road where it’s easy to drive into rocks and trees. Oddly enough, Rico can’t perform drive-by shootings which would have been a cool way to defend yourself while being chased or attacked. It also makes chasing down enemies you need to kill somewhat frustrating. In that case, it’s often best to drive an armed vehicle or pilot an attack helicopter or jet.
Another problem I have with the game is that most of the world looks the same. San Esperito consists of a bunch of islands surrounded by water. It’s a lot of jungle with settlements, towns, villas, and cities peppered throughout. All the villas look the same and all the cities, towns and settlements look way too similar making it difficult to get your bearings. Luckily, you can reference a map to know exactly where you’re located in the world.
The story missions are easily the most enjoyable missions in the game simply because most of them are more diverse than any of the side missions. There’s not many set pieces or scripted sequences other than a few missions that have you utilizing mounted weapons to gun down enemies. You’ll do typical shit like kill people, rescue people and blow stuff up along with more interesting objectives like destroying coca fields and shooting down missiles in mid-air.
Outside of the story, there’s plenty of settlements to liberate and strongholds or villas to overthrow, collect missions to complete and races to participate in. Once you liberate a settlement or overthrow a stronghold, you unlock a side mission trigger point in the area. Liberating settlements, overthrowing strongholds, completing side missions and collecting a set number of items in the world increases your reputation and rank with the different factions and the better your reputation, the more rewards you unlock. Unfortunately, liberating settlements and overthrowing strongholds all play out the same making them extremely repetitive and the side missions are very basic and often buggy.
To liberate a settlement or overthrow a stronghold, you must locate the NPC near the area to initiate the takeover. Then you and a bunch of allies run through the area, killing any enemies in your way and destroying blockades. That’s basically all there is to it. The side missions are endless so there’s always opportunities for work. But there’s a finite amount of side mission types or objectives so they will eventually repeat. You’ll have to hijack vehicles, kill people, and destroy things and, sadly, the side missions are buggy fuck. I frequently couldn’t complete objectives because the missions were bugged. Like being unable to blow up a building or structure or my vehicle would get stuck on something or a garage door wouldn’t close or the structure I was supposed to land on was missing or invisible.
Just Cause does look dated but showcases a colorful presentation and some beautiful backdrops. Pop-in is rampant, animations are a bit on the stiff side and the bloom lighting hasn’t aged all that well. The best thing about the presentation in my opinion is the music. The soundtrack consists of catchy tunes that blend Spanish guitars and electronic beats, all of which fit the tropical theme and location, adding a layer of atmosphere to the experience. On the technical side, I can’t say I experienced any performance issues. The frame rate seemed stable throughout my entire playthrough. And again, I did play this on a Series X.
Just Cause can be a fun time but if you’ve played the sequels, then this will feel like a framework or template for what’s to come. I like the concept, premise and atmosphere but it could have used more polish. The story is forgettable, the gameplay is repetitive and all the bugs can bring the experience down. This is the kind of game where the story takes a backseat to the gameplay. It’s there if you want it as some like to say so I can’t really hold the lackluster plot against the game. However, the sandbox you’re thrown into isn’t all that exciting. You’re given a lot of toys to play with but the world and side missions lack variety and liberating strongholds and taking over villas becomes a repetitive slog. You can always just goof around and take in the sights but that will only last for so long.
I would only recommend Just Cause if you can get a copy for cheap or on sale. Otherwise, I would say skip it and jump right into Just Cause 2. Despite the issues, I can’t say I had a terrible time with Just Cause. Even with it’s jankiness, clunkiness, and lack of variety, there is something about it that kept me coming back. I want to say it’s the atmosphere. At this point, almost everything about it has been done better in the sequels and other games in the genre.