There’s no shortage of open world sandbox titles on the market these days, and thanks to the likes of GTA and its enormous success, many developers have ventured into this non-linear avenue of gaming, with results ranging from great to garbage.
Just Cause was perhaps one of the most ambitious of the lot in its day, set in a sprawling archipelago and granting players total freedom to go anywhere they wanted, at any time. It had masses of side missions, and the protagonist, Rico Rodriguez, could perform some impressive manoeuvres thanks to his parachute and grappling hook. Well, at least on paper he could, as the end result that was Just Cause was far from the developers’ lofty goals, and while decent enough on the whole, several of the game’s features left a lot to de desired, with clunky controls and repetitive missions.
Some time after the original, we now have the sequel, and Rico is back, promising to improve upon the debut outing in every way.
The story, not that it really matters, isn’t a great start, and Rico is sent to the nation of Panau, another epic collection of islands. His mission is to track down his old mentor, now a rogue agent. Pretty clichéd stuff, yes, but it all fits into the context here, and with a game that’s clearly trying to reproduce a Hollywood blockbuster feel, it’s good enough.
Story aside, the main draw to Just Cause 2 comes from the unique features the title boasts, chief amongst them the massive, and open game world, and Rico’s truly ridiculous range of abilities, mainly geared around his grappling hook and the improved physics engine.
After the initial first couple of missions, which gently lead you into the game, explaining the basics, you’re let free into the wide world of Panau, a truly breathtaking country that spans all manner of environments, from tropical jungles, deserts, snow-capped mountains, cities to run-down shanty towns. This is a truly enormous game world, dwarfing anything offered by other sandbox titles.
You don’t fully appreciate the size of the world until you jump into a helicopter to travel a few in-game kilometres, only for the ride to take you several minutes. As you travel over sparkling, snowy mountains, and over dense jungles, you can’t help but be impressed by the scale. Avalanche Studios has done a sterling job in creating a vast, open playground.
And a playground it really is. Rico is one of the most over the top, crazy-ass heroes you’ll play, and his signature grappling hook and still-unexplained, never ending supply of parachutes help to create a do-anything-you-like game mechanic, with particular kudos going to the greatly improved grappling hook.
With this attached firmly to his wrist, Rico can use it to climb buildings, scale mountains, grapple onto moving vehicles, and even grab and throw other people, but that’s not all.
This time Rico can also use his ‘double hook’ ability. This lets him shoot a hook at one item, and then a second at another, tethering the two together. So, you can fire a hook at a helicopter, and the other end at a car, and then lift the car into the air with the chopper. Or, far more amusingly, you can fire one end to a boat, the other to a person, and take them on an impromptu (and not entirely voluntary) water skiing jaunt. For much hilarity, you can also tether an enemy to a gas canister before shooting the pressurised bottle, sending both it and the hapless foe into the air. Awesome.
It’s all fun, and combined with Rico’s ability to car-surf and perform all manner of acrobatics while attached to vehicles, there’s plenty of scope for high-speed hijackings, on ground, air and sea. Add to this his parachute, and the ability to slingshot off vehicles using the grappling hook, and you’ve got the potential for some truly spectacular gaming moments, so much so the PS3 version of the game includes a video recording mode with the option to upload your clip to YouTube. This is a game designed around fun, and sharing it with others. Oh, and you can blow things up too, which is nice.
Sadly, though, once again the developers have greatly overstepped their abilities, and although the game is a big improvement over the original, it has some elephant-sized issues holding it back.
First and foremost of these issues are the terrible vehicle controls and dated physics. The on-foot action is fine, and solid enough, but as soon as Rico gets behind the wheel of a car, things go south quickly. Car handling is as twitchy as a squirrel on speed, and if you dare to travel at any rate of high speed it’s stupidly easy to spin out and lose control. This is particularly prominent when driving faster sports cars, but is even an issue with slower vehicles.
Motorbikes are a major problem too, and if a passer-by so much as sneezes in your general direction, you’re off, and eating pavement. If you dare to take a bike off road (which, oddly, is what dirt bikes are for), you’ll been consuming floor almost constantly, hitting random rocks, bumps and trees, whilst the bike randomly spins out.
Now, this may be due to the real life difficulty of controlling a bike in such environments, but this is far from a realistic game, and all this spinning and crashing does is damage the game’s appeal, and highlights the shoddy vehicle controls and physics. This is all the more annoying as this is not only an open-world sandbox game that, as you’d expect, greatly depends on vehicles, but is one of the biggest sandbox environments I’ve seen, and so it relies on vehicles even more than usual.
The controls for air and sea vehicles are much better, but still feel dated and just don’t feel quite right, partly due to a weird camera. This is compounded by some very poor collision physics. If you’ve played GTA4, and have suffered a head-on collision at speed, you’ll know just how realistic that game tried to make things feel, and although still not perfect, the feeling in Rockstar’s title is meaty and hard hitting, as cars crumple, shocks kick in and tilt forward and, in some situations, drivers fly through windscreens. It’s horrific, but impressive.
Just Cause 2, on the other hand, is the other end of the scale. Cars bounce off each other and spin around as if on ice, reacting like solid rocks, and the whole thing feels more like bumper cars, or conkers.
Even more disturbing is the apparent lack of consistency. As I said, when on a bike the player is thrown off by hitting even a small bump or clipping a car. Your foes, contrastingly, are not so troubled by these trifling forces of gravity. This was demonstrated perhaps most elegantly in an early mission in which you have to steal an armoured car. Now, this thing is a fully armoured, caterpillar-track tank that must weigh around 10 tons. Travelling at around 60-70mph on a highway, I was well away with my prize when, all of a sudden, I was attacked by a lone biker. Of course, my initial response was to ram him and his puny bike into next month with my beast of a machine. Surely this would send him flying, especially given how easy it is for me to eat high-speed dirt, but no… Even with a huge jolt from my armoured car, the bike rider merely bounced off my vehicle and carried on attacking. Meh!
This brings me to the other big sticking point, and as well as vehicle controls, another issue returning from the original game is the enemy AI. Just Cause 2 has some of the most bullish and overbearing enemy AI systems around. The game uses a ‘heat’ meter, and if you attack the army or blow stuff up, amongst other anti-social acts, this meter rises and the army attack. Ok, fine, pretty normal. What isn’t normal, however, is the severity of the attacks.
Even at the lowest heat level, you’ll attract the attention of endless bikers and jeep riding troops sporting shotguns and SMGs, and a chopper or two may even attack you. In one instance I simply drove past an army vehicle, doing nothing wrong (I had no heat or suspicion level), and the next thing I know, all hell is raining down. If I’d just demolished an enemy facility, or spilled someone’s pint, then fine, but just driving past in a car? That’s one harsh regime. No wonder Rico is trying to overthrow it.
Granted, I was playing on the harder level, but this same problem applied on lower difficulties too, and once you attract attention, you can only lose the heat by killing your pursuers, or evading them.
Killing them may seem like a good idea, but this only raises the heat level more, creating a catch-22 situation. You can hide in some rare instances, but often you’ll be running away while under extreme fire. The whole thing just isn’t really balanced properly, and this means you’re almost always under hectic fire, even for the smallest misdemeanour.
This high level of combat isn’t all bad, though. This is an action game, after all, but the controls also suffer under hectic situations.
While under fire it can be overly tricky to make good use of Rico’s grappling hook, and he’s also sometimes sluggish to respond. Often, grappling to walls will fail, leaving Rico falling to the ground, while you get hit by enemy fire. It’s frequently an issue, and really breaks the sense of enjoyment the game is so very good at creating. More development time should have been put into fine tuning the collision and detection system of the hook to make if far more fluid and robust.
These problems are all subjective, though, and I’ve no doubt some won’t find the controls all that bad, or even find fault with the OTT enemy attacks, and, to be fair, I did learn to put up with them after a few hours and began to enjoy the core game much more.
What everyone will find repulsive, however, are the many and varied bugs. JC2 has some corkers that have somehow slipped past QA. From major visual clipping and corruption issues, such as flickering buildings, characters in cut-scenes walking through and merging with vehicles, to overlapping audio, and even times when the entire world is devoid of life, this is one buggy title.
After dying during an attempt to kill one of the game’s optional assassination targets, I restarted at the last checkpoint only to have the game’s entire radio conversations up until that point play in rapid succession, and various past mission objective markers appear onscreen, obscuring my view. Not good, and a sign that the game really needed more development time.
I hope a patch is quickly released to address such issues because, despite the many and damaging problems and bugs, this is a game I just want to love. It has so much potential oozing out of the box that I can’t help but want to play it.
The things the game does get right are excellent. With Rico’s abilities and the game’s truly open world and unrestrictive rules, you can set about achieving your objectives in any way you like, no matter how crazy. Need to kill a general? Sneak in and snipe him, or grab a tank and blow the whole place up, or grab a chopper, hook a car to it, and then drop it on him from a great height. Hell, you could even attach him to a car, drive off and then jump out, leaving him to his grizzly fate.
The content on offer is huge too. With the main mission thread and a collection of faction missions, stronghold assaults, races and assassinations (most of which are unlocked via the game’s chaos meter, which increases as you cause trouble), you could easily sink 30-40 hours into this, and the replay value of tackling missions differently also adds to the repeat play appeal.
It’s also strangely addictive trying to complete settlements and bases to get a 100% rating for each. To do this you need to find all hidden resource crates and destroy all important structures in the area. With the sheer number of settlements in the game, completionists will be in for a real long haul task.
Other diversions include upgrading weapons and black market vehicles (for much needed increased handling), and locating drug cases for the local mob.
Graphically, it’s not at all bad for a sandbox title, and apart from some dubious vehicle models and sometimes iffy object pop-in, it’s an impressive treat for the eyes, with the various islands looking both impressive and realistic. Just try climbing to several thousand feet and then skydiving and you’ll see just how good this game can get visually.
Just Cause 2 is one of those games that I can’t help feel annoyed with. It should, and could, be a dead cert AAA title, but it’s battered by some horrible vehicle controls, wonky physics, dodgy AI design and ugly bugs. Still, despite all of this, I also keep coming back to it, and the moments of joy the game provide, although peppered with moments of frustration, are more than enough to warrant a look.
If you can stomach the fuzzy vehicle physics and controls, as well as clumsy, Keystone Cops AI, then JC2 is a gem of a title waiting to be discovered, but you may want to wait for the patches to roll before you book passage to Panau.
Just Cause 2 will be released on March 26 for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.