Reviews

Just Cause 2

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Developer: Avalanche Studios / Eidos Interactive

Publisher: Square Enix

Release Date: March 26th

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During my life I’ve pondered many a thought-provoking query, but one thing has nagged at me all this time: what’s it like to tether a south-east Asian peasant to the back of a speed boat then crash said boat into port populated with numerous other peasants only to swoop gracefully away muttering and chuckling at my own evil genius? Well I can thank my lucky stars, because Just Cause 2 lets me do that, and indeed, all manner of maniacal experimentation. The sequel to 2006’s ambitious, but technically flawed Just Cause released last month and can be described as a sandbox game in the same way that you can describe the current situation in Greece as a tad unsettled.

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If you take a glance down below, I posted an image I gleaned off of some forum which demonstrates the ludicrously large game world Just Cause 2 has to offer, and yet surprisingly the map, perhaps the most ambitious aspect of the game, doesn’t factor in on the list of Just Cause 2’s flaws. Among it’s diverse climates, the fictional nation of Panau boasts some of the most impressive mountain ranges and cliff-faces I’ve seem in a game and manages to present a remarkably detailed playground despite the graphical limitations posed when creating a world on such a scale. Of course, it’s all well and good to set out a massive environment for the player but how’s it filled? Quite generously is the answer as there are plenty of villages, cities, airfields and military bases; in fact Panau must have the highest military employed population per capita on earth, because there appeared to be more army strongholds than civilian settlements, including mountain-side fortresses worthy of your most extravagant bond villain.

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The player takes on the role of Rico Rodriguez, an American agency badass, whom the developers openly describe as a mix of all you’re favourite action heroes, from 007 to Han Solo, with a touch of Enrique Iglesias. I had to double-take while reading that sentence too, since I missed the moment where the Hispanic pop singer became worthy of such a level of suavity, but each to their own I guess.  But I digress; Rico our protagonist has a penchant for approaching any situation he’s presented with by some sort of elaborate acrobatic stunt aided by his remarkable grappling hook and infinite parachutes. You can tell from the outset that this game doesn’t take itself too seriously, and there’s nothing wrong with that, and in actuality, that’s precisely where Just Cause 2 prevails.

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After mere minutes you’ll be fully familiar with JC2’s control layout and slinging about like an over-enthusiastic Latino Spiderman, as all the actions are mapped to the logical and conventional locations for action/adventure sandbox games, at least this was the case on the Xbox 360. Where this eccentric game excels is allowing you to perform the actions and stunts that games like GTA just weren’t made for, even at their most surreal; for example surfing on the roof any vehicle you like (or dangling underneath in the case of helicopters) and being able to hijack it whenever you wish or grappling onto moving choppers in order to manoeuvre yourself onto the front and fill its scummy fascist occupants with lead. What’s even more admirable is that these mechanics work smoothly and therefore result in devilishly satisfying action experiences. To go along with this fast and often very jumpy gameplay, the aiming system is given a very necessary but enjoyable handicap, which means firing in the general direction of an enemy eventually does the job.

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So that’s the basics and really, it doesn’t divert too much from there, aside from some mini challenges that require you to press buttons in a certain order to disarm bombs or open doors. The actual content of the game essentially rewards you for fucking around, to be blunt. In between story missions your job is to create chaos by blowing various things up, collect upgrades for your health, vehicles and weapons, race and do the odd short-but-sweet factional mission, which unsurprisingly, also frequently involves blowing things up. The factional missions are as good as the scripted missions get and are, for the most part, a lot more fun the agency (story) missions. These little outings are brief, but often use the dramatic landscape to great effect, prompting you to hurl yourself off bridges or take up sneaky sniper spots and on the occasions they ask you to protect an NPC, which are ordinarily the bane of sandbox games or any genre, the guards mainly direct their gunfire towards you, which helps a great deal when your AI friend gets stuck on a foot-tall tree stump.

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I can’t exactly work out whether the title of the game is meant to be ironic because let alone the explosive ending of the game, all Rico seems to do is destroy Panau’s utilities infrastructure which is surely vital to the country’s inhabitants, but who am I to argue? Anyway, Rico is sent in to single-handedly expel Panau’s oppressive dictator, “Baby” Panay and investigate the whereabouts of American agent Tom Sheldon who is presumed to have gone rogue; that’s about as complex as JC 2’s narrative gets. The developers go to comical lengths to make sure you understand that Panay is really very evil, we’re talking Hitler tier: one of the in-game news reports informed me that he’d executed Panau’s sports teams for loosing, which presumably reassures you that for all the civilians you tether to oncoming traffic, it’s ok because the state is much more unnecessarily immoral.

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The main story or Agency missions, which can be taken on at your own discretion, provided you’ve caused a certain amount of chaos beforehand, involve genuinely spectacular, elaborate set pieces and one or two interesting locations which are otherwise inaccessible, that admittedly come as welcome change after hours of doing missions outdoors, destroying the quite similar military compounds. But my primary issue with the story missions lie in the boss fights that pop up at their culmination: unimaginative is the word the springs to mind because constantly rolling around in a circle to avoid their overpowered attacks, only stopping every now and then to squeeze a few shots in, doesn’t seem engaging, and you’re not even allowed to use the staples of the game such as your grappling hook. Most of all these boss fights seem very arbitrary, as though the game feels it shouldn’t let you have too much fun all the time, which is a trap games often fall into, but I expected more from one that essentially puts all its eggs in the “superficial entertainment” basket.

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Perhaps unavoidably for such a large game, Just Cause 2 has its fair share of bugs from floating rocks to missions not starting, certainly more than your average triple A title, which is a shame because you’d think a game that had already been pushed back two years would come off a tad more polished. Having said this, these bugs are unlikely to completely ruin your experience, but the voice work does a good job trying to diminish it. Some of the military’s radio alerts sound more like a cringy dub step remix on account of the frequent skipping, the lip-syncing resembles badly dubbed porn and I’m no expert on south-east Asia, but some of the main characters’ accents are too fantastically irritating to be realistic.

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But all these issues pale into insignificance when it comes to the one aspect you’d think would be fine tuned to the Nth degree, considering the development period, and that’s driving. Just Cause 2’s cars handle like planes, and the planes handle like aircraft carriers on speed, and this is a game where travelling counts for a sizable chunk of playtime. The black market system, which incidentally forces you to watch a cut scene for every single item you wish to buy, allows you to upgrade vehicles, but it only affects those that you’ve bought from the black market, despite the weapon system working to the contrary.

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I can see the attraction of the black-market system, being able to drop a monster truck at the top of the tallest mountain, get in and promptly hurl yourself off in suicidal glory, but the problem is there are no safe houses so every vehicle you buy is essentially a very expensive rental. This I find frustrating because I was keen to get the most out of the dollars I’d earned from the drug distributing, peasant exploiting crime factions Just Cause 2 ushers you into bed with.

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With great swathes of land and impressive vistas one surely imagines the proverbial icing on the cake is appropriate music, yet this seems to have been overlooked because the soundtrack is resigned to a few very short sound clips that don’t appear to be linked to specific environments in any meaningful way. I’ve always maintained that much like in film, one of the greatest mistakes is to underestimate the power of music, the atmosphere it generates and the impressions it creates, whether subconsciously or not. It comes as a real shame, because although character models, cars and buildings are nothing more than average, the terrain is brilliantly detailed, especially cliff sides, even from great distances. Remember how in Grand Theft Auto 4, if you were more than 200ft up roads full of cars would, very conspicuously turn into roads full of red blobs, well forget that because Rico can spy out an unsuspecting lorry driver to harass from 100s of meter away. Avalanche have really capitalised on the scale of their world and have even made a concerted effort to create a fair amount of interesting little locations, out the way, for you to discover.

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Just Cause 2 excels as a largely superficial experience, but that doesn’t whatsoever, make it a worthless one. You know when a friend, who enjoys a muck around on a video game every now then but doesn’t pursue the hobby further, walks in on you playing Mass Effect 2 for example, but you’re buying upgrades, an unexciting, yet important part of the game and they start quizzing you about when you get to blow things up, and usually write it off before they’ve taken second glance? That’ll never happen with our rumbustious Rico and Just Cause 2, because blowing things up and hijacking planes pretty much sums it up. My initial thoughts upon the first few hours of play went something along the lines of: Any game that allows me to fight ninjas and surf a 747 into a row of highly explosive fuel tanks gets my vote, but upon further inspection, it became glaringly obvious it does have its flaws.

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So don’t expect a deep or immersive experience, because the clichéd script, buggy voice recordings and fairly repetitive (yet addictive) gameplay deny the game of those merits, but it’s quite clear to see that the developers know this is case, and have purposefully focused more closely on the action. Thus the narrative, which is average at best, isn’t laboured, and allows you to relegate it to the backseat, as almost all cut scenes are skippable and non-essential to mission completion. It simply acts as vehicle of the over the top action and doesn’t try to rope you in with unnecessary clichés like a relative dying, which is admirable. Granted, it would have been nice to have the whole package, but if it can’t deliver on that, at least it accepts the fact.

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I’ve dwelt a great deal on Just Cause 2’s flaws because there’s very little to say about it’s merits – not because they are outweighed, but because in reality the action is simply good old fashioned, very well constructed fun, and you’ll undoubtedly sink, or should I say, invest many hours into it, as I have. It isn’t charming or clever, but crucially, it isn’t undermined by its faults. The result of Avalanche Studios and Eidos Interactive’s efforts, despite an average story, dodgy car handling and a few technical issues, is gleefully gratifying through its vast landscapes and hyperbolic action and is arguably one of the best sandbox games since GTA 4.

May 13th, 2010
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