We look back at the first Just Cause in an only slightly sarcastic spirit of fondness. Riding the crest of the go-where-you-want, do-what-you-want wave, it presented players with an island of unparalleled beauty: its glittering seas stretching far to the horizon, its sun-kissed beaches giving gamers a very real glimpse of open-world gaming’s promise. There was one snag though: for all its holiday snap looks, it didn’t give players very much to do. Or rather it did, but none of it was that interesting – not after the first time, and certainly not after the hundredth.
What that game needed – and practically everyone who played it for even the briefest time remains in agreement with this – was a smaller landscape and a more tightly focused and varied diet of wanton destruction for the player to feed on. Except developers Avalanche don’t agree.
See, Avalanche think differently. Kicking sand into the faces of everyone who reviewed the first game, they’ve gone landscape mental and delivered an even bigger environment to play in – and Sweet Mother of Mercy if it isn’t quite possibly the finest digital landscape ever to be splashed across a gigant-o-TV screen.
The island of Panau is absolutely stunning. Drop-dead gorgeous, awe-inspiring, Megan Fox-in-a-white-cotton-negligee (replace with dude of choice if you want) delicious – whatever words you want to throw at it, there’s no way in hell you’re ever going to do it justice. And anyone who says otherwise is an imbecile. Even if Avalanche had sprayed it with cough syrup, we’d have worked our hungry tongues all over it, from its luscious tropical peninsulas to its snowy mountain peaks.
Grapple your way through dense, low-lying jungle to Panau’s frosty, mist-caressed highlands (deftly swinging the camera around to better appraise your location as you go) and you’ll start to appreciate just what Avalanche have created for you: a massive, detailed, and – seriously – even quite humbling vista that surely knows no equal.
Hand claps all around for Avalanche then. They did a damn fine job the first time and they’ve done an even better job for the main course. But what about the other bits? What about, you know, the actual game itself? Well, it seems, in this area at least, Avalanche were listening. Panau, gameplay-wise, is a vast improvement on San Espirito (setting of the first game), benefiting from a more focused structure and greater range of missions, all based around one key concept: causing absolute chaos.
The premise is simple. You’re given the task of tracking down Agency operative Sheldon, your Hawaiian shirt-wearing ‘boss’ in the last game. It turns out the silly bugger’s gone rogue and in order to uncover the truth you need to destabilise the region by hooking up with the game’s three gang factions, sabotaging military activities, taking civilian settlements and blowing the hell out of anything remotely explosive.
Unlike the first game, where the environment was curiously unaffected by your actions, your activities on Panau have a lasting impact on your progress. For example, taking enemy strongholds for a faction will increase the gang’s influence in that area. Collect hidden vehicle and weapons parts and you’ll be able to upgrade your ever-increasing arsenal of grenades, SMGs and rides for land, sea and air travel.
Crucially, collecting these items in addition to taking settlements and destroying radio masts, fuel dumps, generators and military outposts all give you Chaos points – and these are used for anything from unlocking story missions, to opening up the black market equipment and throwing up more faction missions for you to undertake. It’s a very clever system and always gives you a sense of purpose – to keep you looking for items, to keep blowing lots of things up, and to keep the flow of the action hammering on at full breakneck pelt.
Remember the item collection aspect from the last game? What a massive waste of time that turned out to be – a sprawling, tedious goose chase that didn’t really reward you for the huge effort involved. That criticism doesn’t apply anymore. Every vehicle part contributes, every health meter-extending armour pack helps the cause – the carrot-and-stick temptation to search every nook and cranny of the island (mercifully broken up into mini treasure hunts in each settlement) can be overwhelmingly compulsive, and Just Cause 2 is all the better for it.
It seems like every conscious effort has been poured into making up for the original’s weaknesses – and it’s none more evident than in the improved missions. The first time around your patience creaked and groaned under the sheer weight of “Hey! Senor! Fetch me this car!/Find this package!/Kill this man!” missions. It was enough to drive you batshit insane – and the kind of grind that, for most people, was enough to make them stop playing. Admittedly, the game does still have its fair share of these missions (find us an open-world game that doesn’t) but the improved spaces in which they play out makes all the difference.
Panau has far more in the way of interesting buildings, villages and installations to explore. Military bases, oil refineries and rigs, ancient temples, dockyards, cities that don’t look like a bunch of cereal boxes scotch-taped to a crappy parking lot – it’s amazing what decent architecture will do to increase your enjoyment of a mission.
The result is a range of objectives that feel more deliberate in their planning: less random and throwaway than before. On a basic level you might be doing the same kinds of things, but the bigger variety in settings keeps things feeling fresh. One minute you’re storming a mountain fortress, and the next you’re speeding across sand dunes on a dirt-bike, while the next after that you’re scaling the towering gantries of Panau’s Space Centre. We think you get the picture.
As if they hadn’t done enough, Avalanche have also refined Rico’s controls – specifically his grapple hook. While certainly handy the last time around, it’s now much easier to use, and much more integral to the game. Locking on to vehicles, specifically helicopters, is now super-simple. You can attach it to any surface to zip-line towards it (allowing you to scale buildings) and the improved range makes it possible to cover distances that would otherwise be laborious on foot – a godsend, as you’ll often find yourself with plenty of ground to cover if you lose your vehicle somewhere away from civilisation.
Even better, you can now launch yourself into the air instantly by zip-lining and opening your parachute simultaneously. While this has its practical uses for travelling around, it’s also an extremely handy tactic for getting out of scrapes, allowing you to get up and over a building when you’d otherwise be soaking up bullets like a bloody sponge. It’s fun, too.
Such a range of movement options proves extremely liberating and opens up a wealth of combat strategies to the player. You can claim the high ground easily. You can escape in seconds and, hilariously, you can pull down enemies, like snipers, from their vantage points in the blink of an eye.
Which is a good job considering that our only serious gripe with Just Cause 2 turns out to be the actual gunplay itself. While by no means a deal breaker, it isn’t anywhere near as accomplished as what’s on offer in the rest of the game. The lack of a cover system, for example, is probably our biggest bugbear. As a result, combat isn’t as solid or as robust as we’ve grown accustomed to, feeling a little impersonal, and in a way less meaningful. Aiming is wishy-washy, almost slippery, lacking in weight and punchy confidence (a criticism that can easily be levelled at the car handling as well, incidentally).
Like we said, it’s no deal-breaker, but compared to how well the rest of the game has been executed it’s conspicuous by its lack of overall refinement and will often drive you to distraction in the game’s later, tougher missions – particularly when you have to contend with some rather cruel checkpointing, which forces you into repeating whole sections of a mission over… and over… and over again.
You’ll forgive it, though. That much is certain. Because Just Cause 2 always gives you something else to do – presenting ample opportunity to mess around, vent your frustration or simply calm down in between missions. Take part in some races, cruise the roads of Panau looking for settlements to take over, follow the tantalising white markers that hint at nearby items to collect, or how about our personal favourite: highjacking a military jet and simply soaring through the skies, your infinite rocket salvos obliterating anything that looks vaguely like an industrial or military target.
This is Just Cause 2’s biggest strength – in stark contrast to the first game, you’ll never be at a loss for something to be getting on with. You never feel compelled to do anything by the book and every session you play, you’ll find yourself concentrating on a new part of the game, continually getting distracted by something else along the way. Save for the combat, Just Cause 2 is everything we hoped the original was going to be – which is surely reason enough for you and Rico to get reacquainted.
Mar 23, 2010