March 24, 2010

Review – Just Cause 2

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — Jamie Love @ 1:12 pm

Just Cause 2
Spending the weekend with Just Cause 2 feels like the videogame equivalent of the days when children received live ammunition as Christmas gifts, unleashed on the neighborhood to a world of seemingly limitless possibilities. Reaching for a more reasonable explanation, it was a very short ride through the fixed narrative opening before I was free to fly a jet fighter over the island of Panau, able to jump out of said plane and enter into a free fall, activating the parachute just as the buildings below slowly shifted into focus, and then proceeding to spray targets on the ground with machine gun fire. And within moments I was being attacked by a helicopter gunship, which I then grappled onto, taking out the crew and using the chopper to finish the job I’d started.

The short of it is that whatever you’re doing in Just Cause 2 has the curious ability to make the previous outrageous action seem boring in comparison. So the game is filled with opportunities for self-fulfilling over-saturated hyper-violence – and God help me I like it. The “it only does everything” nature of the game is the focus of the PR push and essentially what the back of the box conveys.

And yet it’s the little things that pulled me into taking a longer vacation in Panau. The little things are the spice of life after all, and Just Cause 2 has more than enough to prove itself a zesty game taco among the sandbox set.

Just Cause 2
The game opens up with the clichéd spy and mercenary routine I’ve come to expect, which necessitates a short walk through situations that serve as tutorial fodder before you’re left to your own devices. Essentially the game has the same setup of the typical GTA fare, most likened to Mercenaries, with Rebel factions offering missions that increase their weight on the island and allow you to cause the chaos necessary to open plot driving agency missions. While money is a necessity that allows for weapons and vehicles to aid your missions, chaos is the currency of Just Cause 2 – the more of it you cause, the closer you move toward unlocking the central agency missions and unwinding a predictable story.

And yet eight hours into the game I hadn’t completed a single agency mission, and only two faction missions, which suffer from the underwhelming nature of sandbox mission structure – namely that they all involve babysitting escort gigs or sabotage missions that simply aren’t as fun as wandering off to carve your own course through the island.

And that’s where Just Cause 2 earned more of my time, in the way it’s immensely expansive island and seemingly endless assets defy the getting old quick syndrome affecting the bulk of other sandbox games.

Just Cause 2
Obviously every sandbox game is large, but that definition simply doesn’t suit Panau, an island where setting a location on the map can result in destinations over 15km away on average.

There are cons to the size, given the tedium of traveling to locations yet undiscovered – marked locations can be quickly reached by using the extraction option however. I’ve spent an absolutely ridiculous amount of time simply flying over the island scouting locations, finding the villages, airbases, and harbors that make up the bulk of the island’s structures. And as boring as that can be at times, there’s also this strange sense of wonder that drives more searching as I check the map and feel compelled to discover new locales. There’s also a collection of oddities peppered around the typical structures, like a floating dance club where the elite party late into the night – at least until I sprayed them with machine gun bullets.

Perhaps that’s the secret ingredient that feeds my interest, the way I keep setting out to explore one point on the map, only to continually discover other sites along the way that always distract from the original intention.

It isn’t as if the locations I discover vary that greatly, with most places just offering more gas facilities, pipelines and watchtowers to destroy. But the continual discovery of more and more of them just keeps me looking in the attempt to contextualize my understanding of that space. And then even smaller distractions develop, such as discovering an airbase offering several different styles of planes, all of which need to be immediately flight tested.

Just Cause 2
It’s odd to put so much time into a game and feel like you’ve really done nothing, except that the chaos meter has a way of making up for ignoring faction missions. And so I just spend more time soaking in little things, thinking about other sandbox titles from last year that didn’t hold my interest for even a quarter of the same time.

Games like infamous and prototype offered immense power to the player by making them over powered beasts not confined by the typical rules of life in the big city. But Just Cause 2 is more a game that simply offers abilities that seem largely sensible and sadly absent from most games in the genre.

When I was low on ammo in a car chase and realized I could shoot out the tires of enemy vehicles to make them flip I was impressed. When I was cutting a path through the jungle and collided with trees to see them fall over, I was more impressed. Even the way the character seems to struggle through the snow – or jumping into the water and swimming straight down to the bottom, these are little joys that seem too often overlooked in the pursuit of operatic narrative focus.

This leaves me with a collection of small stories and “hey this was cool” references rather than fancy review speak – but as a fellow Editor recently reminded me, sometimes fun is fun, and the fun of self-discovery has made Just Cause 2 a sandbox worth investing the time I have into it.

Just Cause 2
That roller coaster ride isn’t without some bumps along the way however. While ground vehicles offer great variety and selection, they simply pale in comparison to the ability to fly with live and limitless ammunition at your disposal. There are some activities within the game made weaker in the comparison to those that put the game over the top. The detail is always present, such as having your own tires blown out and fighting to keep the vehicle on the road, but there’s a tedium to life on the ground after soaring through the skies that makes the feet feel heavy.

Gun fights prove the weakest link within the game, offering stiff and sluggish bullet battles that reverse our earlier formula and verify that at other times, boring is boring – at least when pumping bullets into a horde of guards that stand ten feet away shooting back with typical aggression but little else. Mind you, the game does allow the player to dismount turrets for personal use, so there are quicker means for cutting through the tedium.

I suppose the mediocre bullet battles have to be taken in stride given Just Cause 2’s best trick in the bag, somehow coming to the conclusion that rather than improving the tactile quality of shooting, the game should put reborn Bionic Commando dreams to good use. And somehow, beyond reason, Just Cause 2 realizes that idea and runs with it to provide an additional layer of experimentation and exploration to an already well rounded world.

Just Cause 2
If I sound surprised at this revelation, can you blame me? How in the hell should adding another layer of control to contend with work out so well? Can you count the number of times that thinking has ruined other titles?

And yet what else can I say, except that the grappling hook is the central asset that makes Just Cause 2 worthy of all the hours of experimentation I’ve given it. You can grapple onto any object in the game with the press of a button, pulling yourself to it, able to climb or run quicker, or even use it to throw objects at enemies.

Add to this the fact that you can grapple objects to other objects, and then the game becomes a science lab of possibilities, grappling a helicopter to a truck to stop it from moving, or soldiers to propane canisters, which can then be shot to launch them into the air. The possibilities for grappling combination’s becomes severely ridiculous, and only suffers in the sense that soldiers spot you immediately at all times, limiting the chances for even more stealthy grapple attacks.

I don’t really have a conclusive argument to round out this spiel. I’m surprised about the time I’ve sunk into this game, not really doing much of anything, but at the same time feeling like I’ve done so much.

And that leaves me admitting that as a narrative driven game Just Cause 2 has nothing to wax on philosophically about. But if one idea of a great game is to give players a set of tools and leave them to their own devices to solve problems or generally create their own memorable experiences, than Just Cause 2 is ahead of the curve precisely because the overblown narrative delusions of the sandbox genre take a backseat to creating spaces and assets where the player is naturally encouraged to find a greater game of their own through self-discovery.

The flip side of that is that something more expansive and explosive will always follow and leave a game like Just Cause 2 forgotten over time, but of all the game’s offering a temporary dose of explosive and time-consuming escapism and experimentation, Panau is certainly the vacation hotspot of the moment.

Just Cause 2
DeveloperAvalanche Studios
DeveloperEidos Interactive
System – PlayStation 3, PC, Xbox 360 (Xbox 360 Reviewed)
Release Date – March 23, 2010

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review

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