This game is bloody hard to stop playing!
With Just Cause 2, Eidos Interactive has shown what matters and what doesn’t in a sandbox game. Just Cause 2 throws you into a generic B-grade action flick with a bunch of toys and lets you run wild. Forget the question of whether videogames have their Citizen Kane – Just Cause 2 is their Licence to Kill.
I’m gettin too old for this shit
If this game is a B-grade action flick, it’s also a buddy movie starring Messrs Grappling Hook and Parachute.
The parachute is a solid sidekick, like Felix Leiter: nothing too flashy, but it will save your life every now and again. It does pretty much what you expect a parachute to do. Unlike most action movie sidekicks, however, you have an infinite supply of parachutes and you can whip one out at any moment.
The grappling hook is Bond, a versatile operator with considerably more flair. It can be used simply to latch on to an object and pull you towards it, a la Batman: Arkham Asylum. You can use the grappling hook to hijack vehicles (land and sky), a la Prototype, hang from a helicopter and shoot stuff, or yoink a person into the air, a la Spiderman: Web of Shadows. So far, so good.
The real genius of the grappling hook is that you can use it to attach one thing to another. This doesn’t sound impressive until you substitute “thing” and “another” with “soldier” and “propane tank”, “jeep that’s chasing you” and “road” or any number of combinations. Suddenly the possibilities open up and merely shooting people seems kind of passé. You can play the game as a kind of puzzler, experimenting to see what goes with what. Don’t be afraid to dial down the game difficulty if you need a little elbow room to explore the ways this feature can be used to create mayhem. The grappling hook has so many uses it has already become standard issue in the Swiss Army.
When you team them up, grapple’n’chute become a handy means of transport, which nearly renders carjacking obsolete. You can deploy a parachute mid-grapple to get extra height – good for clearing walls or floating above the treeline. Also, you can keep grappling while parachuting to websling your way across the landscape. It’s a surprisingly chilled out way to get around and a great way to bunny hop from location to location.
These two features make interacting with the world fresh and interesting. In doing so, they lift this game above its rivals in the sandbox genre.
You say you wanna revolution?
The story of Just Cause 2 is your typical videogame excuse for causing death and destruction. You play Rico Rodriguez, aka Scorpio, a Latin-American agent for The, err, Agency, and you have been sent to the Southeast-Asian-ish island dictatorship of Panau. Your overall mission is to bring about regime change by causing “Chaos”, which in turn is achieved by killing soldiers and destroying vital infrastructure, like water tanks and power generators. There are also a number of rebel factions around Panau who will give you side missions that involve more varied ways to cause Chaos.
GTAIV has better characters and story, but Just Cause 2 lets all that take a back seat. It doesn’t bother you with overly long cut scenes or mission debriefs because it is confident that you just want to get out there and start Effing Ess up. In fact the script and voice acting in Just Cause 2 is generally woeful, but in a low-budget, Steven Seagal, so-bad-it’s-almost-good way. The game has more bad accents than the first day of Hollywood auditions for the upcoming musical Steve Irwin and Tony Greig go to New Zealand.
Beyond serving as a commentary on global politics, Chaos is your progress meter. You have to get a certain amount of Chaos to unlock the next main story mission, so you do side missions and whatnot to unlock main missions, like in Saints Row 2. Although Chaos unlocks weapons and vehicles, in order to upgrade them you need to collect parts, which are scattered around locations in Panau. This provides a further incentive to explore.
I see trees of green … red roses too
Panau is a vast* and pretty world. You get the full gamut of terrain, from azure oceans, golden beaches, snow-topped mountains and tropical forests (minus the flesh eating insects). It also has some lovely sunsets. The scenery is lush and even the browns on Panau are nicer than the usual next-gen pooey shade we so often get in games these days. In fact, now that Panau’s evil dictator has been [SPOILER ALERT] deposed, I might even take a holiday there, once they have restored their water supply and power generators.
Moving around the spacious** islands of Panau is a joy. Being on foot is not the buzzkill it usually is because of the aforementioned grapple’n’chute. For once I was able to shoot accurately while flying planes and choppers; it seems you need an actual pilot’s license to pull this off in other games. There’s more options when driving cars too, like being able to jump out onto the roof and grapple to another car, Pursuit Force style (it’s on the PSP) (the PSP is Sony’s handheld gaming device. Like Spinäl Tap, it’s big in Japan and no one takes it seriously).
Getting around in GTAIV makes you feel like an arthritic elephant by comparison. I started up The Ballad of Gay Tony after finishing Just Cause 2 and the character moved as if he was in a bad dream – you know the one, that dream where you are trying to run away from some baddies (in my case, werewolves with cockroach heads) and your legs move like palm leaves waving through wet cement.
Just Cause 2 has some other touches that make exploring easier, meaning you will stay longer in the sandbox instead of noticing that you are getting grains in your jocks. The on-screen radar tells you when you are getting closer to a collectible, and when you are close enough, you get an on-screen arrow pointing you to it. I wish Assassin’s Creed 2 had included a similar mechanic for those damned feathers. Your checkpoint marker also appears on-screen and if you get into a car, guiding arrows will appear on the road, so can enjoy the view instead of staring at a mini-map in the corner of your screen.
Please sir, I want some more
The main missions are hit and miss, which is a problem when there are only 7 of them. In a game like this the missions should do 1 of 2 things. The first is to school you in various ways to use the tools at your disposal, to inspire you to get more creative in your random carnage outside missions. The other is to provide set-piece OMG moments. As to the first, the missions didn’t require you to do enough use a wide enough range of the grapple, parachute and vehicle maneuvres. As to the set-pieces, some of them delivered a hefty dose of OMG, such as chasing rockets in a jet plane or the sudden appearance of ninjas. However, the good missions are so good that when the game resorts to the sandbox spack filla of “drive there shoot this”, it sticks out like a goth at the Grand Prix.
This criticism may seem odd when you can do outrageous stuff in the game in your own time, but it would have been nice if the game nudged you in that direction a little more. As for what the game missions could have included, check out these stunt videos.
If nothing else, the vids should give you some ideas. There is an easy to use in-game video capture feature if you want to film yourself doing stunts and upload it to an Interweb.
Another minor gripe is that, with such a big world,*** it would have been nice to have some radio stations – besides easing my commute, it just adds a nice flavour to a game.
Felix’s final thoughts and the all-important numerical assessment
Just Cause 2 is my new favourite sandbox to kick around in. It’s not buggy and empty like Mercenaries 2, nor is it painstaking or tedious like Red Faction. It’s not self-important or bloated like GTAIV, nor is it cluttered or so desperately “exxxtreme” like Saints Row 2. It contains some great features but knows its limitations, and it is an effective palette-cleanser after the linear feast of God of War 3.
It’s also given me a strong desire to go paragliding.
* 25 times bigger than Cyrodil in Oblivion!
** 13 times as big as Africa in Far Cry 2!!
*** Twice as big as Paradise City in Burnout Paradise!!