Review – Just Cause 2

I must begin by apologizing for the lateness of the review. The perfect storm of the Easter holiday and my three day jaunt at PAX East have conspired to reduce my otherwise absurd amount of gaming time down to that of mere mortals. With a large open world game like Just Cause 2, that’s not exactly the recipe for a quick review, so here we go, several weeks later…

Sequels to marginal games are difficult to judge. Sometimes a developer embraces the challenge of correcting the first game’s faults and listens well to criticism from the gaming community. Other times the same pitfalls appear and the sequel falls even shorter than its predecessor. For this reason, the sequel is often approached with a fair bit of apprehension and concern. It is within this mindset that I undertook reviewing Just Cause 2, the follow-up to Eidos’ original Just Cause, an open world sandbox affair that promised big time action and freedom, but delivered more on frustration and bugs. Luckily, fans of the original who circled the March 23rd release date on their calenders can breathe easy. Just Cause 2 is the game the original was supposed to be; delivering one of the most action packed open world experiences ever; even if it hasn’t smoothed out all of its minor issues.

The story follows agent Rico Rodriguez, who is sent to the island nation of Panau to find his former mentor, Tom Shelton, who has disappeared while on a mission. It’s unclear from the Agency’s point of view whether he is just in deep cover or if Shelton is up to something more sinister. Rico is tasked with finding and possibly eliminating his mentor should the worst be confirmed. Along the way he also becomes involved in the power struggle between the government and the three factions that make up Panau’s resistance, each one jockeying for their own piece of the island.

As has been remarked several times, the size of the game world is astounding. All manner of geographic region is represented. Yet, this isn’t merely a giant world devoid of life or detail. There are sprawling cities and small villages. Just traveling in any direction will lead to numerous populated areas, some dense and some sparse that Rico can wreak havoc in. Draw distance is impressive and there was virtually no pop in, which is incredible given just how much detail is involved in the geography. While some of the character models are a bit repetitive, other details like explosions are some of the best ever in a video game and send large plumes of fire and smoke, along with debris, in all directions. While the game does not offer the overall destructibility that Red Faction: Guerrilla did, buildings of all kinds look rather impressive as they crumble to the ground. The most astounding of which might be the massive cranes strewn about the world that come careening down after you snap support cables or destroy the base of the structure. Just make sure you don’t stand underneath them while admiring your work.

Some of the most memorable things about GTA IV were the missions. They were intense, story-driven affairs that many of us still remember individually. Go up to someone who played through the game and say “the bank heist” and their eyes will immediately light up. In Just Cause 2 those sorts of missions do not exist. The story itself, while not completely bland, isn’t nearly as engaging as in GTA IV and the individual main missions aren’t really noteworthy at all. Memories from this game will most likely come from unscripted moments that pop up, or the ridiculous scenarios that players will create themselves. The side missions and other quests are fun as well, even if they do get a bit repetitive. However, the game does do a nice job of ratcheting up the difficulty as you complete more of them, adding more enemies, and different weapons/vehicles to encounter to keep them just fresh enough tht you won’t be rolling your eyes too much.

Moreover, the game does not allow you to simply charge through the main storyline. While most open world games allow you to go anywhere and do as you please, they usually have each storyline mission open up after the previous one ends, giving you the option of simply following the main adventure to its conclusion before venturing forth on your own. Just Cause 2 does not allow that. Rico must accumulate certain amounts of “chaos” before the next Agency mission appears. Chaos is earned by destroying property and completing various side missions, of which there are a ton. Because of this, players are forced to explore the island and interact with the three rival factions. This is not a detriment to the game at all, but those who wish to finish the game quickly will find a few more obstacles in their way than usual.

Other issues for the game involve an inventory system that is not intuitive, a slightly unforgiving checkpoint system (though you can pause and save at anytime manually) and Rico’s frustrating inability to even climb up or grab ledges that are right above him when he’s hanging from the grappling hook. None of these shortcomings ruined the game, but with so much else to like it made it perplexing why they couldn’t have been addressed. Case in point, at any time you want you can call for a helicopter drop of items, guns, ammo, or even vehicles. No matter where in the game world that you are. A great idea that keeps the action moving and allows players to re-supply on the go. The problem is that you enter the menu once, pick an item and then after the generic cut scene of a helicopter descending plays, you are kicked out of the menu and back into the game. If you need to resupply with a bunch of weapons and a new car, for instance, you’ll have to bring up the menu three or four separate times. Again, it’s not something that had me turning the game off, but its these little frustrations that are perplexing when you look at how well the rest of the game turned out. This seems like something that should have been noticed in quality control.

Speaking of the grappling hook, Rico’s best gadget is one of the stars of the game. Not just in scaling buildings or attaching items together. It really shines in its use as a transportation device, in a technique known in the game as slingshoting. While coasting through the air via parachute, Rico can attach the grappling hook to any nearby object or terrain and be propelled forward. Doing this a few times in quick succession will build you up quite a bit of speed as well as some additional height. In some circumstances, I found this mode of travel to be faster than using any of the vehicles, and it definitely beats walking. It also serves as a great means of escape when the heat gets a little too tough.

The grappling hook controls were implemented well and in fact, for the most part, control is not an issue. Driving, flying or piloting of vehicles is pretty standard stuff, as far as button inputs are concerned. Some of the vehicles feel a little wonky but I chalk that up to the developers wanting a more arcade experience rather than making it simulation. Also, considering I can get out of a 747 and stand on the top of it, there’s probably good reason why they wanted looser and more accessible control schemes when it came to cars, planes and boats.

Many will come away from the game feeling like its all of your favorite action scenes thrown together into a video game, which isn’t really all that far off. There are some incredible set pieces that develop simply from assaulting a base or attacking a town. The A.I. is nothing revolutionary, but its not terrible with respect to both adversaries and allies. Faction allies will pilot vehicles or stand as gunners in your own, and in a firefight they can hold their own a bit, but don’t go leaving them alone for too long or they might get overwhelmed. Adversaries are adequate challenge even on the normal difficulty. They understand enough not to run at you in a straight line or bunch, usually; will try and flank you a bit from time to time. It seems that some of the simplicity of the A.I. is covered up by enemies that seem to have more hit points than your average video game goons. Yet, Rico has enough guns and explosives available to him that its not anything you can’t handle.

Just Cause 2 is entirely a single player experience. There are no multiplayer, competitive or cooperative modes to speak of. This is a bit of a shame considering that games like Crackdown and GTA have shown just how much fun open world games can be when we include other players. I can just imagine the sight of a player piloting a helicopter into enemy territory with two or three other players grappled onto it, ready to parachute in and assault the other team’s base.

One final thought I had about the game is how alive the world itself actually feels. Just traveling around you will come across factions fighting each other or the military in stand offs, cars and trucks in the normal flow of traffic that will from time to time careen into each other causing accidents. On missions if you destroy your vehicle, instead of getting an instant failure, you might come across allies who will lend you theirs (or you might not). The number of unscripted events in Just Cause 2 is what keeps the game from getting stale. Its not quite a feeling of “you never know what will happen next” its closer to “you always know something is going to happen”.

Having now sunk over 30 hours into the game I am still nowhere near 100% completion. Just Cause 2 definitely is not lacking in re-playability and its longevity should be beyond that of other sandbox games. With a ton of DLC promised as well, we could be visiting Panau for months to come. There are still towns to be raided, military bases to destroy and dozens of kilometers of island that I still have not ventured to. With Easter eggs like this floating around, there’s definitely some incentive to see all that Panau has to offer, and I’m looking forward to floating about the island, grappling and parachuting over trees and mountains trying to discover just what other secrets this game holds.