Review: Just Cause 2 (PC)
If the subheading quote has ever described your mindset, stop reading this right now and go buy Just Cause 2. You're welcome. As for the rest of you, I'll spare you the suspense. I'm going to recommend the same thing at the end of the review, so, spoiler alert and all that.
Just Cause 2 is what people are still sometimes calling a Grand Theft Auto clone; that is, an open world third-person action game (we really need a shorthand for it, such as "OWTPAG"...hey, that's pretty fun to say). In this particular OWTPAG, you play as Rico "Scorpio" Rodriguez, a CIA agent sent to the fictional South East Asian islands of Panau to affect the overthrow of a dictator. In the post Bush era, the idea of "regime change" is a polarizing one, conjuring images of Iraq and Afghanistan, both positive and negative. In order to have their cake and eat it too, developer Avalanche decided to keep the tone as light and absurd as the first Just Cause (no, I didn't play it very long, either) while still allowing you to do very G.I. Joe-American stuff. Sure, you are tasked with assassinating a foreign head of state, but first you have to fight through his personal army of ninjas. See what I mean?
With the backdrop of lunacy established, let's move onto the gameplay. Rico has the standard variety of action-hero guns at his disposal (revolvers, submachine guns, rocket launchers, etc.). All of the one handed guns can be duel wielded, and independently fired using the left and right mouse buttons. On top of that, you can also mix and match; how does a sawed off shotgun/grenade launcher combo strike your fancy? Fairly early on, you also get access to an on-call black marketer, who will provide you with upgradeable weapons and vehicles. However, the two features that truly set the game apart from the competition are the grappling hook and parachute.
The grappling hook/parachute combo falls under the heading "easy to learn, hard to master". The grapple has a simple interface whereby you aim at something, hit the button and off you go, whizzing towards your target. Likewise, opening the parachute in freefall and changing directions while floating is quite intuitive. However, perfecting the various grapple/parachute tricks, such as grappling a nearby tree to quickly change direction or grappling the ground to increase forward glide speed, will promote you from a standard action character to an arch-angel of murder. I became so dependent on this new travel system that I often found myself grappling the ground a few feet ahead of me, just so I didn't have to run so much. So be warned kids, only use this ridiculously awesome grapple gun in moderation. Don't be like me, briefly feeling disappointment when remember that I can't rocket over the terrain in Fallout 3.
You know how sometimes the cover art of a game shows scenes that can never happen within the game itself?
Yes that's me, and yes, I'm surfing a plane as it takes off. In the seconds that followed, I hijacked the plane, turned it around, flew it back over the airfield, leapt out and skydived straight down at the runway, pulling my parachute at the last second. And man, did it feel good. All of those maneuvers I mentioned are, with a little practice, easy to pull off and damned cinematic. Few games will give you the feeling of freedom you experience when falling from a great height is no longer something to be feared, but welcomed as a tactical advantage. If this game consisted only of skydiving, it would still blow old-school classics like the Pilotwings series out of the water.
The Fight Club quote mentions beauty and Panau certainly delivers. In a bit of Hollywood hyper-realism, every possible climate is represented, with blown out colors to boot. Snowy mountain tops, dense jungles, arid deserts (complete with ubiquitous heat shimmer), are all amazing to behold, topped off with some sunlight and sky effects that will blow your mind. Why wake up early and go outside when you can witness sunrises this amazing on your couch? It takes a pretty high-end machine to run the game at max settings (I couldn't even begin to play it on my rig with SOAA enabled), but even at lower settings, the game looks better than most.
I wanted to inhabit this stunning world. But more than that, I wanted to blow it all to hell and Just Cause 2 doesn't disappoint here, either. The world is massive, covering approximately 415 square miles. And this isn't an Elder Scrolls: Oblivion-type world with vast swaths of empty terrain. Every inch of the map is lovingly detailed with hundreds of cities, fishing villages, army bases, airports, harbors, and remote communication outposts. "What about all the water?" you ask? A quick dive below the surface reveals a rich (and equally beautiful) seabed with reefs, tropical plants and rock formations. The bases and villages do eventually seem to blend together, but Avalanche tried very hard to give each area of the map a unique flavor and even towards the end of the game, it's possible to run across some surprising finds.
To go along with the ginormous map, you are given very detailed "completionist" information. As you destroy the government infrastructure and collect the standard open-world trinkets and upgrades, a percentage readout will tell you what you may have missed in each settlement. Needless to say, the thorough gamers out there will find this system a welcome addition. The upgrade kits you find in your adventures serve to enhance your vehicles and weapons in predictable areas such as top speed, armor, magazine capacity, and damage. One nice reward for fully upgrading your vehicles is that most get a whole new gun added, turning your humble traffic copter into a light attack platform, for example.
There are some aspects of the game that are noticeably lacking, with story being the biggest gripe. The basic flow of priorities in the game are 1) create "Chaos" by destroying everything unfortunate enough to have a government symbol on it, thereby unlocking 2) faction side missions and stronghold takeovers which lead to 3) agency (main story) missions. You are given a great deal of freedom in who you work for and how you decide to unlock more missions. The problem is that if you enjoy screwing around on your own (and this game makes it delicious to do so), you can end up bypassing the entire build-up of the story.
For the first ten hours of the game, I was having a ball blowing up random fuel stations, clearing out island airports and leveling offshore oil rigs. When I finally decided to try my first story mission (outside of the beginning tutorial), I learned that I had inadvertently accumulated so much Chaos that I could literally play the entire set of agency missions in about 2 hours (which came to about 5 missions total). That is anemic, to say the least. Thankfully, Avalanche decided to include a "Mercenary" mode after the story ends so that you can do all of those faction missions that you missed. But again, this just shows how little attention was paid to the story. I overthrew the dictator (spoiler alert...but whatever) but now I'm still going around helping criminal gangs destroy more of Panau's infrastructure? That seems downright evil of me.
A few other places came up a bit short. As if the story wasn't problematic enough, the cut scenes that bookend the missions are woefully buggy. Not only is there an immense amount of artificial film grain (does anyone enjoy this purposeful degradation of video quality in their games?), but the voices and sound effects become wildly out of sync with the animations as a scene progresses. Given how smooth and fluid the actual gameplay is, it felt like Avalanche outsourced the cut scene development to some third world country, thus adding to the perception that they just didn't care about story.
The upgrade system is a bit bland, especially in terms of weapon upgrades. The vehicles usually get a new gun turret or missile launcher at level 6 but the weapons simply add a little more stat boost with each new level. Given how many of those damn boxes you need to find in order to level up, I was hoping for more interesting and fun functionality each time. Lastly, there are some general bugs and glitches that can serve to annoy. Mouse thumb buttons are inexplicably unbindable and sometimes you will trip over a ledge and be hit with insta-death. The former is easily bypassed and the latter is only really a problem when on a long mission (in every other situation, death has no consequences).
Amazingly, both the story/cut scene problem and the upgrade boringness don't really detract from the experience. That's probably because everyone playing understands that the only reason to play Just Cause 2 is to blow shit up and look good while doing so. It's hard to knock the game for having a short story when you have such a gigantic world to explore and pillage. I finished the story with exactly 33.34% completed, amazed that the non-story portion of the game consisted of more than two thirds of the entire package, but yet I couldn't wait to get back out there and cause more mayhem.
I deeply disliked Grand Theft Auto IV and I think I now know why. Just Cause 2 makes GTA 4 look like the gaming equivalent of a mind-numbingly boring cubicle-bound job. After leaping from planes, tethering enemies to exploding barrels with my grapple gun, and blowing the holy hell out of an entire archipelago, it's damned hard to muster the motivation to ferry my dead-beat Russian immigrant cousin to and from the local bar. From the lushly colored vistas to the mile-a-minute action, this game delivers everything you want in an OWTPAG (still loving that acronym). If you even remotely like action games, this is a must buy. And even if you hate action games, it's worth trying the demo.
Niko Bellic wishes he was in a game this fun.
This review is based off a retail copy of the game.