Swedish developer Avalanche games have taken Rico away from the Caribbean island of San Esperito where he previously overthrew an evil incumbent dictator using little more than a parachute, guns and nerves of steel. His new mission brings him to the island of Panau which is even more beautiful and has yet another evil dictator to dispose of. During the turmoil of the recent regime change, Ricos' friend and colleague Tom Sheldon is feared to have gone rogue and it’s up to Rico to bring him and the new dictator Baby Panay to justice. The original Just Cause put a twist on the standard open world formula by giving the player the use of two key items, the parachute and grappling hook; enabling the user to leap off anything of height and open and close their parachute at will. Combined with the grappling hook it could be used to either parasail behind, "stunt jump" on top of and ultimately hijack any land, sea or air vehicle that might be in reach to get to a desired destination.
The series carved out its niche by allowing the player this unique type of movement which appropriately complemented the freedom and unpredictability inherent to an open world. It also bought an impressive sense of verticality and scope. However, this scope was also its undoing with the original Just Cause being criticised for numerous technical issues which left a lot of room for improvement.
Just Cause 2 is undoubtedly a beautiful game and in the right conditions can look stunning, from the top of the sky box you can fully realise Panau’s true size and variety. Snowy mountain peaks, desert flats, cities riddled with skyscrapers and a sleepy countryside have all been created and elegantly sewn together to create this sprawling playground. The draw distance is nothing short of impressive with a notable absence of the pop-up effect you might expect. Down on the ground buildings and landscapes still look good and it rarely feels like a copy and paste technique of repetition was employed; it seems as if around every bend there is a fresh piece of scenery to explore.
The scale of the map cannot be over stated. To take the fastest vehicle, a fighter jet, from one corner of the map to the other would take minutes in travel time. Likewise take a helicopter as high as you can go; leap out and it will be a while before you put feet on solid ground.
Such scope however inevitably comes with its compromises, bodies and destroyed vehicles fade away whilst still in view, examine any of the character models other than Rico up close and the open world tax begins to become even more evident. While these issues are noticeable they don’t tarnish the world in a major way and fail to detract from the overall accomplishment of the environment.
Sound design is surprisingly minimal, with timed musical swells at intense moments or the odd signature note in slower spots. Regular citizens of other open worlds might be surprised to find that when they enter a vehicle there is no in game radio which usually helps to round out the atmosphere with interjections of humour and thematic music. Similarly, although Panau island is populated with civilians, they don’t have a lot to say unless they are the target of gunfire. The silence can make the experience and the world seem quite sparse, but in some moments this becomes eerily appropriate, sky diving benefits the most with the sound of wind rushing by and clothes flapping making it evocative of the real thing.
To enjoy this game it is essential that the player be aware that the story is completely secondary to the experience, if you are looking for the thrilling tale of a republic regaining its freedom you are in the wrong place; should Just Cause 2 ever be commissioned for a movie the first director on the shortlist would inevitably be Michael Bay. The act of completing missions is nothing more than a premise to use the tools presented to explore and interact with the world. This is made abundantly clear by a plot that is tantamount to nonsense and the delivery of eye-rolling dialogue via cringe worthy voice acting. At times it can be funny yet at others it’s almost embarrassing, either way you’re not meant to take it seriously, what really matters here is what follows these breaks in proceedings.
That action has been transformed by one small change, the grappling hook which was previously reserved for latching onto vehicles can now grapple anything solid in the environment, it also has a long range which allows you to cover a fair distance with ease. When used in conjunction with the parachute it becomes the most effective form of travel available; letting the player cross everything but large distances quickly and conveniently by grappling the ground whilst in the air to create lift. A satisfying technique which, together with grappling the ground in order to safely land a fall from any height, forms the basis of the core gameplay once mastered by the player.
Combat benefits from the grappling hook opening up lots of different strategies, it can be used to suspend enemies in the air, pull them off ledges, tether them together or more sadistically to passing vehicles. There are many possibilities and this provides the opportunity for much experimentation. When reaching some of the higher heat levels, which attract tougher foes, it can be hard to remain creative and not revert to standard weapons which, although they employ some pretty forgiving auto aim, aren’t especially satisfying to use. When enemies not only seemingly appear out of thin air but also absorb large amounts of damage it turns combat into a continuous hunt for ammo before you near death, give in and grapple/parachute to safety. Thankfully in these situations the player now has far greater mobility with the option to change locations quickly and more crucially avoid fire and thus regenerate health.
Most of the standard land based vehicles handle terribly as you would expect on a small Eastern island, there are however over 100 unique vehicles to find and many of them respond far better and are great fun to use. Hovering above all of them are the helicopters which are intuitive to control and usually come with devastating firepower, giving the player a huge advantage. Learn to dodge the first few missiles of an AA strike and destroy the emplacements before the second and you are as close to invincible as you can get. The jets are similarly over powered but much harder to use effectively, being better suited to fast travel than precise combat.
However you traverse the map you will notice it is littered with destroyable gas stations, fuel depots, generators, masts and more; all colour coded red to catch the players eye, each time you destroy one it creates a stylishly satisfying explosion which rewards you with both types of currency the game trades in, both cash and chaos.
Cash goes towards buying weapons and vehicles which can be bought at will by calling in the black market dealer who will drop off your purchase to your current location via air drop; items carry a high price but are clearly meant to be more of a contingency rather than relied on consistently. Almost everything you can buy or its equivalent can be found in the game world with relative ease, but when you find yourself at the top of a remote mountain it’s handy to be able to call in a chopper to help you get where you need to go, or acquire a particular weapon before a mission to increase your chances of success. The black market dealer can also extract you to several locations around the map allowing for quick travel once you tire of long trips between waypoints.
In order to remove Baby Panay, Rico needs to cause as much chaos as possible, the theory being the more chaos you cause the more unstable and fractured the island will become making it more susceptible to CIA attack. Chaos therefore forms the currency of progression and its the player's main objective, with the total amount of chaos earned being directly proportionate to how quickly you advance, to earn it you must literally destroy almost everything you see. The more chaos you accrue the closer you come to the next mission, weapon or vehicle unlock. The stick being used to dangle the carrot here is of appropriate length with the rewards well staggered making it always feel like you are near to unlocking something new to play with. You will start out with a pistol and a motorbike before eventually trading up to a rocket launcher and helicopter gunship. Layered on top of this unlockable equipment are the upgrades for black market items. Weapons, vehicles and Rico’s armour can all be upgraded with universal parts that can be found scattered around the world. While all of these improvements increase the relevant amount of stars and corresponding statistics in the menus it never feels like you are being significantly empowered; the armour especially didn’t appear to make many situations more survivable. No doubt the starting player would feel under powered next to an end game character, but because there are so many incremental upgrades it can be hard to notice the gradual improvement.
They attempt to counter balance this by making chaos incredibly easy to come by, the best source is to undertake any of the frequently unlocked side missions. These quickly boil down to the "travel here, shoot this, quick-time-event, travel here" formula and many of them are surprisingly short and can be made even shorter by taking advantage of the game’s sandbox nature. Typically a character from one of the three clans you are helping will present you a mission through a cut-scene (which has been conveniently shot so it can be used for every one of their faction’s missions), you’ll be given an objective, some ammo and there will be an appropriate form of transport nearby. Herein lays both the games biggest strength and its greatest weakness, instead of riding the motorbike the 3.4 miles to the objective and fighting your way through the military base to get to the target, a cannier player will have come prepared. Having travelled to the mission start in their own gunship they will simply fly the short hop to the base, bypass any guards and simply destroy the target from the air. Some missions can literally be cut down to less than 60 seconds which can make them seem like nothing more than a brief distraction.
This structure is ultimately what all of the objectives on Panau are, brief distractions from your real objective, which is to create your own fun; the combination of the huge world, grapple/parachute mechanic and array of vehicles presents endless opportunities for a player with a bit of imagination. How close can you stay to the mountain side during a base jump? Can you hijack that plane after jumping from a helicopter? If you detonate all these smoke stacks at once how cool will it look? This is how Just Cause 2 wants to be played. It almost seems like Avalanche Studios have been held back by the conventional framework of the open world game, to the point where the story missions can almost be seen as prelude to the real experience.
Once you complete the main plotline the game enters “mercenary mode”, which throws you back into the world and allows you to continue with missions, collectibles and general mayhem. Each time you successfully finish another task it will update your completion percentage on the screen letting you know your overall progress. Upon entering mercenary mode after 21 hours of gameplay my completion percentage stood at a mere 28% which indicates just how much the world has to offer. Bringing every area to 100% is a completionist’s nightmare but the game softens the task by providing onscreen radar which indicates how close you are to upgrade parts. Finding that last destructible item in an area however is not so forgiving and will keep you performing low flybys in helicopters for as long as you want to keep coming back.
I'm blowing this up for a just cause!
- Huge sandbox world
- Player freedom
- Unique grappling/parachute mechanic
- Great presentation
I'm blowing this up just 'cause...
- Repetitive mission structure
- Poor quality story/voice acting
- Lacklustre gunplay
Just Cause 2 Xbox 360 Review
Whilst the unique grapple mechanic resides in arguably the biggest sandbox world yet, the repetitive mission structure lacks any depth and relies completely on the gamer to make the most of the toys provided. Inventive players will find a lot to enjoy here while those who require more direction may pass through Panau without scratching the surface of what the island has to offer. Scaling back the environment, if only a fraction, would have still allowed the developers to be proud of the sheer size of their creation but perhaps importantly given them the ability to endow the game with more direction and diversity, creating a deeper experience. Nevertheless, Avalanche Studios achieved their objective and have created an impressive playground which is a lot of fun to inhabit, however mindless it may be.
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