46: Just Cause 2

Just Cause 2 thrusts you into the stubbly features of Rico Rodriguez (codename: Scorpio), agent extraordinaire for the interests of the US, sent to the (basically Indonesian) island nation of Panau after the pro-American leader has been assassinated by his son. There’s no more time to explain, we gotta jump out of this helicopter before it explodes! Hya!

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The easiest way to describe it is an action movie mashup. Everything happens at speed, everyone talks in quips and absolutely everything explodes. Your first introduction to Panau is via a massive jump and within a couple of minutes you’ll have blown up fuel tankers, jumped into a helicopter and blitzed a small army with a mounted gun that you’re carrying around like it ain’t no thing. Fast forward a couple of minutes and you’ll be climbing up the wall of a skyscraper, or jumping between the tops of moving cars. Just Cause 2 doesn’t bother with buildup, it launches straight into an orgy of chases and leaps and booms, and I’m going to attempt to explain why it’s the most pure fun I’ve had in a game this year.

It’s remarkable how enjoyable, everything is, once you’ve figure out the rules of the world. This is a game where you’re having to travel large distances constantly, and where the option of fast travel is always there, yet I barely ever used it. I am a driven psychopath of a man and even I figured it’d be a better use of my time to actual journey across the world rather than be parachuted into my next objective. There’s two main reasons for this, and the first is the grappling hook/parachute combo, Rico’s specialty. Fix your sights on a distant tree, let fly with the grappling hook which will drag you towards it at speed, then release the parachute as you approach the tree to be sent soaring above the land. Further grapplechutes will help you pick up speed or gain more altitude, and it’s very much possible to travel purely like this.

At a stroke they’ve removed one of the frustrations of sandbox games like GTA, where you’re constantly relying on securing transport. You are your own transport, and once you know what you’re doing you can grapplechute as fast as most cars. But that’s just one of many ways to use that combo, and they’re all hilarious. The grapple is a damn strong and adaptable bit of equipment, you can use it to swing around like spiderman, or drag helpless goons out of cover or off walkways. You can fix onto moving objects too, allowing you to quickly hijack a car or knock somebody off their bike. You can even abseil up to a helicopter or plane, punch out the pilot and take it over yourself. I’ve had someone enthusing at me about their emergency escape plan, shooting a gas canister and riding it to safety as it speeds up into the sky.

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And, and, you can attach things to other things with it as well. See that guard? Connect him to that helicopter as it takes off and watch his little legs dangle. Those vehicles pursuing? Tie ‘em together and see which one is the stronger or if they both just plunge off a cliff. There’s dozens of statues of the island’s dictator around Panau, purely to allow you to recreate that most choreographed of American statue-topplings in dozens of different ways. There’s a gigantic amount of ways to use this tool and it is the single big thing that elevates Just Cause 2 to the pantheon of greatness, that makes me stare wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the awesomeness of what I’ve just done without having to try too hard.

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The second reason is that your journey is never going to be a boring one. You’ll constantly be passing military patrols who will drop everything to chase you with the singleminded devotion that only an AI henchman can muster. As you continue to flee, they’ll be increasing the threat rating, calling in the army, helicopters, and so on, who you lead in a dramatic chase through whatever dramatic scenery you’re passing through. You’ll be slowly losing health throughout this (it’s got a sort of hybrid regeneration going on where you only regenerate about 75% of the health lost and I like the way that this gradually tallies up forcing you to get help), and eventually you’ll have to seek out an island of calm, so just drive off a cliff and parachute into calmness. Acoustic guitars accompany your slow descent as you head down to another chase, and you notice the scenery now it isn’t moving at speed.

The island of Panau is beautiful, and beautifully made. As the traveller’s guide would doubtless say, it’s a land of contrasts, incorporating snow, swamp, sand, villages, cities, jungle and mountains in a geographically improbable way. The whole island is contained in a 20km square, and is packed with enough stuff that I believed in it as a place. You’re never too far from an airport or a harbour or a military base to go wreck up, but you’re also within touching distance of some wonderful vistas. And because your main method of transport is the grapplechute, you have the time to drink it in. There’s a lot of identikit in the game – every watchtower is the same, every gas station, there’s about six types of guard – but they are artfully arranged, like flowers in a vase except the vase explodes.

The destruction is pretty enough too, towers crumbling like the fatal jenga pull, but why are you going around blowing up the infrastructure of this country anyway? The metagame objective of Just Cause 2 is Chaos, an abstract idea of the amount of panic the country is in. Your aim is to destabilise it fully and flush out the dictator. To raise the chaos level, you explode things – the bigger or more symbolic the better, and many of your first few hours will be spent just travelling around seeing what you can get away with. Dotted around are occasional stronghold takeover missions, chances to grab a new scrap of land for a faction, reflected in the map. I really liked this visual representation of the extending tendrils of the opposition, even if it wasn’t anything that had that much of an effect.

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There’s also the slightly more structured approach of the faction missions – there’s three factions vying for control and by increasing their influence, you’ll create more chaos. These missions are pretty well-made too, and do a good job of hiding the fact that they generally involve going to a place and killing a guy or a building. This is all to do with the cladding and the commitment to making the mission memorable and interesting. I’m not going to spoil anything but there are some genuinely fantastic tasks, ones that make you sit back and just laugh at what you’ve been asked to do, then marvel that the game engine supports it. What’s more, your approach to a mission is entirely up to you, you can go around from any angle, call in any vehicle, any weapon, it enables a lot of creative approaches. You’re an action hero, champ, and you can act like one.

The excellent thing is that decision extends beyond the visual and the missions and into the physical. One of my favourite examples of this is with vehicles. Drive a car down a cliff, cartwheeling madly, hitting every single rock on the way down like that time Homer tried to skateboard over Springfield gorge, and you’ll land intact at the bottom and drive off. However, dive out of a slowly moving car and watch it trundle into a tree and there’s a reasonably good chance it will explode cinematically. Falling several kilometres onto the ground will kill you, but grappling and accelerating towards the floor as you approach it will leave you perfectly unscathed. I’m also pretty sure that as long as you’re doing a roll, you can’t be hurt by anything exploding (providing you don’t look at it, obviously). Warping physics around the player isn’t a new idea, but I’ve never seen it used so positively, to encourage you to do things which are exciting to do and to make you feel like the action hero you clearly are.

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The dialogue, plot and characters are so paper thin I wouldn’t legally be allowed to wear them as clothing, but because their performances have such enthusiasm and humour and consistency, I really warmed to them. I mean, they’re hammier than a gammon soufflé but it’s also about as frothy, so I can live with that, there’s no serious, downbeat analysis. Bolo Santosi, one of the faction leaders, delivers her lines as if she is seeking entirely new ways to pronounce syllables, the inflection is all over the place, but dammit it’s entertaining. The games knows what it is and doesn’t harbour cinematic delusions of telling a heartrending tale of woe and betrayal, it’s just quips and explosions. I lost count of the number of missions that ended with a celebratory barbecue, and the ending is fantastic while also making no sense.

As far as my complaints go, well, I found the black market trader a bit cumbersome, though I appreciated that you could get vehicles and equipment, or picked up from anywhere on the map. You point a beacon at the ground and he’ll show up with a cheerful “yee-haw” and a selection of fine goods, but it’s slightly annoying you can only buy one piece of kit each time and if you, say, wanted a bike AND a grenade launcher you have to summon the guy twice. More serious than that is that I still have this basic dislike of the sandbox structure and though Just Cause 2 comes closer than any other game to making me embrace it, it’s still not a world I would like to wander about aimlessly. Once the missions were over, once the storyline was complete, I didn’t see any point in continuing in search of shits and giggles – I needed that overarching goal of a mission to head towards or chaos to create to make me enjoy the random wandering around. Maybe that’s more an indictment of my lousy imagination, I don’t know, there’s plenty out there that played Just Cause 2 for scores of hours after the main quest was over, but I don’t like making my own fun. You’re the game, you make me the fun.

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Something I initially took against was the tone of the game – if read seriously you could very easily take it as an unabashed endorsement of American Imperialism and the danger of letting countries run themselves. Certainly in the first cutscene I was a bit rolly-eyed, however it became apparent that this was tongue-in-cheek as time went on and I think they use those stereotypes of the corrupt leader, the ruthless agent, the rootin’ tootin’ Texan, the homicidal revolutionary, to good effect without being offensive. Overall, though? Just Cause 2 is good honest fun, a perfectly presented world with a wonderful bundle of tools that it actually lets you use.

5 stars, 26 hours (campaign, normal)

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