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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News

Weekly News Round-Up 23/3/10

I’m a tad behind on the latest news since my last full article about GDC ’10, which had a record breaking 18,000 attendees, having had a recent power outage, but fear not! The gaming goodness is now here and fit for consumption!

Heavy Rain's DLC features Madison Paige

On the DL

A number of released and unreleased games are getting the DLC treatment – it seems it’s the only way forward for any half-worthy franchise. Peter Johansson, lead designer on Just Cause 2 announced forthcoming DLC, following the game’s release on March 23rd, yet he insisted the content already existent in the game is, to say the least, extensive, he qualified this, in an interview with Eurogamer, by bragging he’d completed only 60% of the game, but had racked up 55 hours. Modern Warfare 2 is getting it’s first “stimulus package” to cure sufferers of Mapathy on March 30th for Xbox Live, at a whopping 1200MS – unfortunately healthcare insurance doesn’t cover this one. The map pack includes Crash and Overgrown from CoD4 so you can relive the glory days/nights! And to top it off, a double XP system will be put in place the following weekend April 2nd – 5th. Dragon Age: Origins has a new expansion out titled Awakening and Bioware teased, that in theory, they could release infinite DLC packs like this. Finally, Quantic Dream’s interactive depression title, Heavy Rain, is receiving its first DLC, named The Taxidermist. The content revolves around Madison Paige, and acts as a short prequel story for the character.

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Gaming Blues

Unfortunately the recession is still rearing its ugly head and indeed, backhand, as the recent weeks have seen a number of layoffs – our thoughts go out to them. Rebellion, perhaps most famous for its recent Alien Vs Predator, handed pink slips to around 20 of its staff in Oxford, UK and IGN has reportedly also, been forced to let a number of its junior members ago, despite recent financial success for the media company. However there is one man we’re not sorry to see the back of , Australian Attorney-General Michael Atkinson, famous in the Australian gaming community for his refusal to allow a R18+ game certificate, and vehement battle against video games. Fortunately the over-sensitive Atkinson has stepped down.

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360 Degrees worth of Xbox-ness

Microsoft are always looking for ways to fiddle with Xbox and thereby make more cash and occasionally, genuinely improve our experience, so here are a few rumours/updates. According to a report by Joystiq, the 360 will be receiving a firmware update this spring. The document they claim to have a hold of states “USB Mass Storage Device Support on the Xbox 360” so be sure to check back here for updates on that. In addition, Microsoft are releasing a 250GB standalone 360 HDD, as advertised on the Xbox Dashboard.

Send off your 360 with dignity

A patent, filed by Microsoft back in 2008, for a streamlined DLC system for Xbox Live, has now been approved. The system apparently lets you download available content without having to leave your game lobby, so you can jump in with friends even if you don’t have the content prior to joining the lobby. Presumably this will be pushed out the doors fairly quick now the patent’s approved. Also, the Xbox Live Marketplace release schedule for the next week or so has been revealed and is here.

Finally, Daniel Ek of Spotify, the music service, reportedly told SXSW goers that he’d like to see Spotify on the 360. Granted this is not news, really, or even a rumour – but I signifies that there’s a good chance of this becoming a reality. Ek said that he wants to make music like water, and though personally I’m not keen on it being sole reason the human race and life exists on earth, but you get his meaning.

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DRM Woes

Steam UK is now without the friendly Italian assassin we know and love, as a number of Ubisoft’s main titles that use the much-maligned DRM software, including Assassin’s Creed 2, have been removed. Despite speculations that this decision was taken by Valve due to the controversial DRM, and Gabe Newell’s stance on the subject, Ubisoft told VG247 that it has “nothing to do” with the DRM issues and is simply a business decision, that only applies to the UK.

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberium Wars was released last week, and it was proudly announced it had, in fact, no DRM – fantastic you’re thinking, however it does require an Internet connection to play at all times. It’s a shame to see any franchise follow in the steps of Ubisoft, as this software is damaging to the market; pirating is a problem, but other large companies like Valve manage to get along alright – in fact if every company could be something like Valve we’d live in a better, albeit quirky world.

We do have one partial victory though – in Battlefield: Bad Company 2’s most recent patch, all DRM was dropped from Steam-purchased copies, in DICE’s ever increasing effort to impress the cool kids (and it’s working).

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Bad Company Fights Back

So speaking of Bad Company 2, although it’s nothing like Modern Warfare 2, it seems to have pitted itself against it. The first person shooter, having sold 2.3 million units, and topped March sales records in Europe and North America, released a public service announcement video the other day:

In case you missed it, the video pokes fun at Modern Warfare 2’s original video F.A.G.S. PSA, which was pulled after complaints over the obvious. On top of this, DICE plan to release a playlist update for all original owners of the game free of charge (part of Project Ten Dollar) on March 30th in direct (and fierce) competition with Modern Warfare 2’s exorbitant map pack, and plan to release paid DLC in the near future. I thought DICE’s decision to release Bad Company 2 in March when MW2 was beginning to become a tad samey, was a savvy decision, but you’ve got to respect them for going up against the behemoth this month – courage or stupidity? Either way it’ll be interesting to see how the two battle it out.

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BioWare

My beloved BioWare are now busy at work extending Mass Effect 2’s universe and experiences with DLC and after having seen what Greg Zeschuk had to say at GDC, that, as he put it, “It’s [DLC] not like a piece of lunch meat”, but rather part of a long term vision, to extend the lifetime of the game for consumers and publisher alike, after having put so much work into the original game – I’m fairly confident we’ve got some galactic delights in store. First up is Firewalker hitting tomorrow, March 23rd, on the Cerberus Network with the new Hammerhead Tank and 5 accompanying missions, then there’s a character appearance package for Thane, Jack and Garrus on the same day but (unfortunately) for $2 and finally Kasumi’s Stolen Memory on April 6th, for a modest 560MS. Additionally, if you’re interested in some input from BioWare about how Mass Effect 3 will shape up, there are a couple of articles here and here, thanks to VG247, explaining the company’s development and teasing their approach to the final instalment.

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For Your Consideration

There are a number of high profile games in development due for release this year or early next year, and GDC brought the chance to get a better idea of how each developer is tackling their game, so here’s some updates and articles, mainly thanks to VG247, again.

–> Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor, EA’s answer to Call of Duty, despite lacking a much-needed “u” in it’s title, is under full-swing development at the moment and apparently has “cool toys” and aims to portray a number of different viewpoints in the Afghanistan war.

–> Killzone 3

Guerrilla Games, creators of Killzone, are convinced they haven’t pushed the PS3 to its limits yet, in terms of graphics, and presumably mean to implement said visuals in Killzone 3 which has been promised by Jack Tretton, though release date rumours range from April to 2011.

–> Halo: Reach

Bungie recently released some details on Halo’s swan song, Halo: Reach, in regards to matchmaking – undoubtedly fans will be obsessing over each scrap of information as we speak, such are that strange breed.

–> Fable 3

Peter Molyneux, aside from other daily activities such as proclaiming the rise of the PC again, praising Quantic Dream and promising the first thing that enters his mind, has recently tweeted that he’s worried about the first 30 minutes of Fable 3 due to a lack of combat. In other Fable 3 news there will be twitter support, episodic content and one last “big” reveal at E3 (I ask to readers, for sanity’s sake to take “big” with a large handful of salt, due to source material).

–> Rockstar

Rockstar co-president Dan Houser, in the most recent issue of GamesTM, stated that developing Red Dead: Redemption has been “challenging”, despite the company’s vast experience. Additionally, speaking to Edge, Rockstar has said that LA Noire is taking a different approach to the usual Rockstar open-world game, relying less on action and more on interaction other subtleties. It’s fantastic to see Rockstar pushing itself, to be original but also build off of it’s unique and unquestionably brilliant sandbox-gaming heritage.

–> Star Wars: The Old Republic

BioWare, regardless of its other strong franchises, are taking on what is clearly it’s biggest undertaking, (its first MMO) Star Wars: The Old Republic. EA aim to secure 2 million subscriptions for the game due to be release in a year’s time, though I suspect, if VG247’s early preview is anything to go by, it’ll be a lot more than that and may rival World of Warcraft. CEO Ray Muzyka, teased that TOR will have some “twists” regarding payments, but added that it will mostly follow the traditional business model of MMORPGs, and the twists will be well integrated into the story and mechanics. With things like micro-payments being a contentious issue for many hardcore MMO players, who makeup a large percentage of the market, BioWare will have to be careful about how they handle this – lets hope their passion for story and great gameplay will makeup for lack of experience in this particular genre.

–> Sega

The once great Sega are apparently announcing a Natal Project at E3. Its unkown with it will be a new IP or whether they will bring back a much-loved story from the many in the depths of their games history. And Lastly, creators of the upcoming third-person shooter, Vanquish, Platinum Games of Sega, are to make a PS3 version first, before the 360, because the Playstation 3 is untrodden territory for Sega, and thus they want to avoid a “shoddy” port.

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Odds & Sods

Every week there are a number of odd bits of news I can’t justify a whole section on nor think of a brilliantly unfunny title for. Try to read the following as TV news headlines with epic music in the background.

  • According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Microsoft is already developing a Natal 2. [This probably isn’t as surprising as it sounds, if it is true, as it’s most likely internal development that’s taking place all the time at the company’s headquarters – it’s unlikely to stay stagnant just because the Natal’s almost ready.]
  • Game Informer have yet more scoops on the Portal 2 world, now with new characters, including new loveable sentry bots.
  • The movie adaptation of Kane & Lynch is to star none other than Bruce Willis (that sounds about right) and Jamie Foxx (wait, what?), respectively.
  • GameStop will reportedly have shortages of Wiis and PS3s until the summer, according to the company’s Executive VP of merchandising, Tony Bartel.
  • Nintendo have are due to release the 3DS in March next year, to support 3D gaming, with a sharp screen and analogue sticks.
  • Vice President of Epic Games, has confirmed there will be no Gears of War this year, in order to stay out of the way of blockbuster titles and the Natal. [When questioned on the April 2011 rumour he answered, “you’re kidding right?” – take what you will from that]
  • The Playstation 3 is the heaviest console of all time.
March 23rd, 2010
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