Just Cause 2 (2010)
The following review is based on the PlayStation 3 version of the game.
Sandbox games (or more accurately open world games) are a mixed bag for me. I can certainly understand the appeal; as games, graphics and programming have become more advanced, gamers have grown accustomed to the variety of options and the little things that the developers have made it possible to do. This type of game became vastly popular with the Grand Theft Auto series of games, particularly after it made the jump to 3D. Rockstar Games established themselves as the kings of the open world genre, and had further impressive showings with Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire.
These open world games have customarily garnered controversy, as they are generally pretty violent (one of my favoured Rockstar works Bully/Canis Canem Edit being an exception, but still attracting its own brand of controversy) but any game that sticks two fingers up at the soccer moms is fine by me. Here we have Just Cause 2, a game which has sold in large numbers but seems to have passed under the radar a teensy bit, at least in comparison to Rockstar games. Just Cause 2 has had all sorts of hands in it, being developed by Avalanche Studios, published by Eidos Interactive and even distributed by Square Enix (distributed? Does that mean Squeenix employees just drove truckloads of copies of the game to retailers?). What can Just Cause 2 offer that doesn’t grow tired quickly?
If you plan to get a typical open world game in the hope that it has an engaging story or strong and likeable characters (alongside hateful villains) then that’s OK, I suppose. If you want Just Cause 2 to serve up a narrative dish for your palate, then you’ve only got yourself to blame for disappointment. Actually, a look at the game’s title tells us what we need to know. It’s a neat pun; the game’s protagonist is fighting for a just cause, and you can create trouble and destruction at every turn, just ‘cause you can. It can be a little difficult to still think of the mission as being a just cause when you’re blowing away upstanding soldiers with a sawed-off shotgun, but to be fair, they are the most hard-ass and over-reactive enforcers around. Expect helicopters to give you a chasing after you’ve blown up a couple of gas pumps. Shoot-first-and-don’t-ask-any-questions is their policy.
What about that 2 at the end? It is almost irrelevant – rather like the prequel in fact. I can’t say I’ve ever played the original Just Cause, nor do I have much desire to, for I hear it is a fairly bog-standard Grand Theft Auto clone which has almost no bearing on its sequel. So call me lazy, but I’m going to pretend that Just Cause 2 is a game all on its own, and the inclusion of the number 2 in the title is a stylistic Swedish thing. I say Swedish as developers Avalanche Studios are indeed Swedish! Every day is a school day.
Gosh, maybe there is a story? I couldn’t really tell you; too busy being fired upon by an enemy chopper whilst trying to grapple onto and hijack it.
Not good enough? Alright then: you are Rico Rodriguez, a highly trained and durable agent of ‘The Agency’, sent to the fictional southeast Asian island of Panau. Panau was previously a US ally but has now become a dictatorship run by a new leader, the oppressive “Baby” Panay, who cuts off all ties to the US. Unacceptable. You must take the dictator out, and also fellow Agency agent Tom Sheldon, who apparently has gone rogue (spoilers, the game throws this out pretty quickly and it turns out Tom is a good guy after all).
The story, like all the best action movies, is wafer-thin, and the acting (in this case voice-acting) is affectionately dreadful. It’s not going for seriousness, so the poor acting and story matters not, and if it intends to be a dig at the way America does international relations then it probably falls well short of satire. All you need in Just Cause 2 is weaponry, transportation and people to eliminate.
I can never fathom those who’d try to beat every iota of an open world game 100%. They are just so vast, and to me most of the games just become a little samey, with many of the missions usually blending into a usual effort of a quickly constructed set-up, before you assassinate some no-mark, or steal some vehicle, or retrieve some item or rescue an ally from the enemy. The PlayStation 2 iterations of Grand Theft Auto could be pretty bad for this level of repetition. Thus it’s left to the story and characterisation to entice the player to keep going. This serves for some, but me? I’d hardly put on an open world game to become immersed into its world, story and zeitgeist.
No, I want to do all kinds of crazy stuff. I want to be a one man force of destructive terror, a highly mobile demolition man. I don’t want ridiculous game-type limitations on me, I don’t want to empathise with other characters. I want to take dozens of bullets, potentially infinite, and even several explosions without dying if I play well enough. I want a sprawling world, with not just an inner city or a boarding school or a wasteland to explore but all kinds of differing landscapes. Ideally I would be able to acquire several different varieties of vehicles. Slow cars, muscle cars, jeeps, boats, perhaps jets and helicopters, even commercial airliners.
Gravity? Don’t talk to me about gravity, I want to be able to zip about the place. I want Spiderman, maybe even Superman, put to shame. If I fall off a height that isn’t too extreme, I don’t want the game to be autocratic and kill me straightaway – especially if I am granted the ability to swallow multiple high calibre bullets and still come up smiling. Lastly I want powerful weaponry and quick vehicles on tap, instantaneously if possible, and I want to be able to make use of any enemy firearm or vehicle I can get my hands on after dispatching them. Does Just Cause 2 provide all of this? You’ve probably got a fair idea by now.
To complete the game, you must do the 7 relatively short and straightforward Agency missions. There are also three rebellious factions whom you can help in their efforts to subvert the government and gain territory. These 3 factions can all benefit from Rico’s assistance – none of the help you give to one faction will be to the detriment of the other, which allows you to complete all 49 faction missions freely.
These missions can fall into that trap of becoming a bit samey but the game makes no bones about this: each mission starts with the faction leader donating a big box of weapons to you. You then head off to the target destination, and cause the requisite destruction en route to usually either assassinating some political figure or razing some structure. I can’t pretend that the missions aren’t the usual malarkey, the rank sameyness that I talked about earlier, but at least they can be accompanied by high-octane action, similar to the types of ridiculous movies that the game tries to emulate. You won’t mind doing some of these missions on occasion, even if the only real rewards are cash, Weapon and Vehicle parts (used to upgrade the weapons and vehicles you can buy).
Completing these missions also gives you Chaos, which can be likened to Experience Points (Squeenix’s influence?). Accumulating Chaos points unlocks new Agency missions, faction missions, stronghold takeovers and Black Market items for you to purchase. Speaking of the Black Market, it’s simply a service which can be called upon at any time to deliver guns and vehicles right in front of you, wherever you are in Panau. Isn’t that just ideal? Your contact does this from a helicopter, meaning he can deliver larger helicopters or armoured cars to you instantly, with no help at all…
The prices he charges are a bit steep, although money does cease to be an issue after a point in the game, unless you have a terrific knack for destroying expensive vehicles. One of the other niggling issues, which may represent torture for other players, is that to buy an item requires a slight loading time, a short cutscene to be skipped as soon as humanly possible, actually buying the desired item and then being presented with another cutscene to skip. It happens almost every time you wish to avail of the Black Market, but it isn’t as bad as I’ve seen some online make out. The loading time required for him to extract you to locations (any location you’ve discovered on the map, which is incredibly handy) is also a little labourious, but the game is actually otherwise excellent with regards to loading times, a marvel even; every area is fully loaded by the time you get there, and the draw distance is incredible.
Planesurfing hadn’t been an active pastime in Panau until Rico Rodriguez showed up. I imagine the revolvers and shotgun are used for balance.
To help the game’s three factions acquire land, you must partake in stronghold takeovers, which entail escorting some technician through a viciously armoured military base so that he can do some tricks on a computer, which somehow captures the base and boots out all Panauan authority. Now these missions are absolutely repetitive, and usually contain the same old story about having to take out a sniper, or a mounted gunner, before proceeding. Still, they are not really necessary and do go on to provide new spawn points. A bit more effort might have gone into them, though.
Also there is a wealth of Races in the game, which are hardly races at all: they simply see Rico using different vehicles to pass through a loathsome number of checkpoints over a great distance, to pick up what is a relatively paltry $20,000. There are no other competitors, it’s just you going through the motions. The Races are so lazily done that it’s best to just forget about them.
The Agency missions, and to a lesser extent the faction missions and stronghold takeovers, are the only real structure that the game has. The rest is up to the player’s imagination, especially when they accumulate enough Chaos to have everything in reach unlocked, which doesn’t take too long when you’re storming base after base. But what can the player do freely as they meander around the humungous 400 square mile world?
Firstly, we look at the methods of transportation. Rico is equipped with a grappling hook which will hear nothing of the conventional laws of physics. He can fire it over a great distance and rappel himself onto even thin trees and lampposts. And even when attached to the sides of buildings or steep mountains, he can kick away and shoot the grappling hook further up, making the hook an astonishingly easy way to climb sheer heights. The hook can also cause mayhem as a weapon; by latching it onto anyone, enemy or citizen, Rico can pull them over, Scorpion-from-Mortal-Kombat style (a possible explanation for Rico’s scorpion motif? I shouldn’t wonder), which when done right will allow Rico to pull enemies over cliff-faces and high bridges to fall to their deaths. He can even use the hook as a tow cable, enabling Rico to drive along in his own vehicle while dragging other vehicles or even human beings along in his wake. It’s a tremendously fun tool, doubly so for the real sadists.
This is possibly gratuitous French for “Find some commie assholes and blast them away”. Possibly.
Not only that, but Rico has an infinite stock of parachutes at his disposal, produced seemingly straight from out his backside. They’ll come in very handy is Rico is falling from a great height, such as when you’ve been extracted to a new location, or if you’ve had to abandon your damaged helicopter to drop it as a weapon of cataclysmic destruction. Rico’s aerial mobility therefore is fearsome, and you’ll have terrific fun using the grappling hook and parachute combo to fly through the air towards your next objective – so long as it’s roughly a kilometre away.
For longer distances you’ll want to use one of the game’s 104 vehicles. You’ll find yourself in fast cars and hijacked enemy helicopters much of the time, and you’ll probably crack up laughing at yourself as you try out a jet plane for the first time and almost instantly crash to your death. The driving physics are a little more realistic (game-istic, rather) here, but only a little, and the controls can be pretty tough. Try getting into a sports car and keeping the bugger straight – even a slight ramp can send you on your sides. Massive crashes are amazing fun though, especially when driving at full speed off the side of a mountain. Most vehicles can take a lot of punishment before telltale flames engulf the car, prompting Rico to parachute out and leave the car to crash into government property or wildlife and explode violently.
Unfortunately, a fair few of the common vehicles are pretty dire in terms of speed and/or durability – far too many Tuk-Tuk taxis, and the similarly common Mosca 2000 moped is almost impossibly slow. Faster vehicles, like the Rowlinson K22 helicopter and the Garret Traver-Z supercar (both buyable from the Black Market) are a blast to play with once unlocked, even if the action in this game usually turns so frantic that you’ll find you’ve ended up kilometres away from the vehicle you’d planned to make your grand escape in. Even if you plan out the caper with a bit more tact and detail, you’ll generally find yourself under so much flak that you’ll end up desperately parachuting away from the murderous base, low on ammo and on death’s door, with predatory helicopters overheard still trying to take you out. Such is simply the nature of storming military bases. Rico never seems surprised to eat several thousand rounds of ammunition throughout the game. He must know it goes with the territory.
If all of this wasn’t enough, there are 369 settlements to fight your way through. Some are fortified military bases, or communications stations, or docks, or airbases. Others are commercial areas and oil refineries. They each have their own list of Panauan items to destroy, like water towers and the unspeakably evil SAM Sites, which all give Chaos when destroyed and contribute to 100% completion of that area. Full completion of 369 full areas is crazy, insane, bonkers. The game is mercifully self-aware on this – only a low-sounding 75% completion is necessary to get the highest Trophy/Achievement, and that figure can include other things, like amount of faction items or Weapon Upgrades picked up.
It is a wonderful game, delivering action-packed but sometimes strategic gameplay against an infinite (but not too infinite, as contradictory as that sounds) army of minions. It doesn’t escape minor flaws however, although they don’t stack up high enough to really bring down the game. Firstly we have the Heat levels. These are used to measure how actively the Panauan military are seeking to destroy you, comparable to the stars system of Grand Theft Auto, except Heat is divided into levels and also represented by a meter which builds whenever you’re being naughty. This meter only slowly goes down after you’ve escaped detection for a sizeable period of time, which is fair, but it becomes pretty difficult to shake the fuzz when they send infinite jeeps and motorbikes at you from all directions (and later helicopters if you’ve really been at some destructive whoppers).
What is also irritating is that as you progress in the game and gain high levels of Chaos you will unlock higher Heat levels, to a total of five. Although you’ll be causing massive amounts of trouble and violence in this game, the Heat levels go up just a bit too quickly. For example, if you’re at a settlement and destroy a Panau government item, like a Gas Pump, this builds heat. You will then be fired upon immediately by any soldiers in the area. And they’re pretty accurate, and running away is wimpy. So you’ll return fire and blast them away with your upgraded weaponry, which causes more soldiers to come rushing in and fire at you from all angles. The AI of the enemies is very good as well, and there are higher levels of soldiers, dubbed elite soldiers, which take some punishment before giving up the ghost. There’s no chance of you eliminating them all and making a stealthy exit before reinforcements can arrive – there’s always some units around waiting to fire at you, and they’ll just be chipping away at your health all the time, especially the elite soldiers.
I know that sounds perfectly natural and befitting of a frantic, explosive game, and of course gunning down government troops will make you a wanted man, but it gets to the stage where engaging the enemy can become pretty ill-advised. To give a possibly worthless anecdote, I was once driving at breakneck speed through the countryside (the authorities don’t mind reckless driving at all) and drove through the crossfire of a battle between the Panau government and some of my faction allies, which you often see happening. En route, I barely nicked one of the military jeeps and immediately acquired a Heat level of 4. The soldiers then threw everything but the kitchen sink at me and shot up my expensively purchased car, causing me to flee in terror as I was bombarded by enemy fire. I suppose it does indicate that Rico is becoming a massive threat to Baby Panay’s dictatorship; after all, more destruction equals more Chaos, bringing higher Heat levels. But the line has to be drawn eventually, rather than having the player undergo constant battles which can grow a little tiresome. As for my car’s fate, it survived the Heat but I could no longer drive at all straight, which turned out to be a tragedy for all concerned.
So the game is hugely entertaining when causing massive amounts of noisy devastation, and forgive my cruelty in saying that sniping headshots from afar with two handguns is almost addicting. The frenzied and frankly ridiculous action is engrossing, and you’ll have fun anytime you play. I would have liked it more if there were extra things to do, rather than blow stuff up all the time. Mini-games, gambling games, even a more in-depth affection system with the factions, there’s none of that, which does hamper the game a bit I feel. You won’t find yourself in any of the buildings and general character interaction is scarce, which isn’t too bad but leaves the game trailing behind the likes of Bully and the Fallout series in terms of variety.
Oh, lush. This terrific view of the sunset is likely lost on that uncultured plebeian swinging from the jet by Rico’s grappling hook, visible there to Rico’s 10 o’clock high.
As an aside, and to determine how long-lasting the game can be, let’s crunch some numbers (accountant speak for ‘look at some numbers’). The game contains 7 main missions, 49 faction missions, 9 stronghold takeovers, 75 races, 23 weapons, 104 vehicles, 300 faction items to collect, 369 settlements, 400 square miles of land, 400 health upgrades, 450 cash stashes, 900 Vehicle Upgrade parts, 950 Weapon Upgrade parts, and I don’t even know how many government buildings to destroy. The variety of this game and the work behind it is astounding, absolutely worthy of the highest praise.
Just Cause 2 is a joy to look at, and this is no mean feat considering how huge the game world is. Every single part of the islands is landscaped with great detail. There are not many bare patches, even in the desert and snowy mountaintops (arid deserts and snow in close proximity, geography enthusiasts watch out). There is a sizeable chunk of sea but even the water looks impressive, especially when flying low over it, or when the water washes up along the beaches.
Better still, there is a day and night system in this game which is visually stunning: one real-time hour is a 24 hour day in-game. It isn’t simply a blue to dark blue job however: the sunsets and dawns look beautiful, especially if again you’re in an aircraft flying above the city or countryside into the sunset. There are excellent weather effects as well, like more intense sunshine, or deep cloud cover, even thunderstorms. Rarely are two days alike, and it helps immeasurably in convincing the player of the world that Avalanche Studios has tried to create.
The textures and shading are of high quality, and each vehicle looks the part. Explosions in particular are rendered very well. The characters and military all look and move realistically, although unimportant NPC citizens look a little under-detailed by comparison. No matter though, a game with a huge and wide-ranging world like this with top-notch graphics behind it is a remarkable thing.
MUSIC AND SOUND
The music is rare, and the theme you’ll hear most often is a quieter, tense number that plays when you’re in Heat. For much of the time, Rico will be running around in silence, as is often the case in open world games. This isn’t a weakness in the game really, but it’s something to be aware of. You might be well advised to play some of your own music. Crucially, the option to do this from the console itself is not present in Just Cause 2, at least in the PS3 version of the game. That is a misstep, which should be noted. Otherwise the scarce music is decent. Many like the tune of the Mile High Club, though I think it gets very old very fast.
Sound effects are where the game shines once again. The vehicles sound wonderful to drive and the explosions and weapons are done very well, with the Sawed-Off Shotgun weapon providing a distinctive and fearsome bark that you’d best get used to hearing. To top it off, you’ll never grow tired of the Panauan soldiers shouting all manner of derogatory things at you as they spot you and try to take you out. Their accents are comical and their voice acting, which as mentioned is less than impressive among the native English speakers, does convey well their passion and desperate desire to bring about your death. The soldiers are great fun and their voiceovers only sell it further, which is super.
PLUSES AND MINUSES
+ It can take quite a while to gather enough Weapon and Vehicle Upgrade parts, as the costs of upgrading are pretty pricey, but I do love being able to augment your own artillery. Some of the vehicles, like the aforementioned Rowlinson K22 helicopter and the Garret Traver-Z sports car gain machine guns when upgraded to their highest level. Travelling either in vehicles or by foot is a good laugh thanks to the ferocious weaponry Rico can make use of.
+ This is one of those games where even if you’re losing, it’s still great fun. You’ll enjoy having Rico blown sky-high by a thrown grenade, ragdoll physics and all. You’ll laugh when you crash jet planes into the sea or if your helicopter is blown up by an onslaught of SAM Site homing missiles. You’ll die many times with a wry smile on your face as an entire platoon of soldiers brings about your demise. Death is just a slap on the wrist in this game, and constantly coming across things to destroy means progress is always being made.
+ Although the areas of the game can roughly be divided into rural woodlands, snow-covered mountains, hilly deserts and built up city, no two areas look conspicuously alike. This is a game with a boatload of work gone into it, and that always stands to a game. You could play for fifty hours and still have dozens or over a hundred undiscovered settlements on the map. Not many games can take all those hours from your life and still have that many completely new locales that you’ve never even seen before, each containing their own little quirks like hidden vehicles and different enemy emplacements.
– Camera work can be a bit bush-league at times, particularly when the shootouts are becoming crazy. You’ll inevitably find yourself alarmingly low on health no matter how good you are, and if you can’t make a quick escape then you’ll end up having to grapple and parachute all over the place. Oftentimes the camera will fly all about the place as bullets rain on your skull, causing a death that could be avoided. It’s never too scandalous but it can strike you at inopportune times, which is frustrating.
– Unless restarting from checkpoints during a mission, when Rico dies you typically restart from one of the faction strongholds. There is no option for you to restart at the base or nearer to it. This problem becomes slightly worsened by the fact that the easiest way to lose Heat fast and start on other missions is to die. Perhaps the developers chose to do this knowing that it would be cheap to constantly die and restart. But as you have the option to be extracted back there immediately after death anyway, it’s an inconvenience that Avalanche Studios didn’t have to create.
This game is just what the open world genre needed, I feel. If not that, then at least it was a breath of fresh air to me. I recognise the strengths of the Grand Theft Auto series and the Saints Row series and always have great fun when I play them, but I’ve never found them engaging enough for me to put serious effort into them. Just Cause 2 is different in that the level of brainless destruction is appealing to casual gamers looking for a quick bout of excitement, and hardcore gamers who want to keep going up against the innumerable, intelligent enemy soldiers and come up with new, increasingly more tactical ways of storming military bases and fortresses.
The game can become a little bit stale after extended play, although the same can be said for most games, and even after putting dozens of hours into it I can still pop it in after a rest period and have great fun. Small annoyances and setbacks are chips rather than hammer-blows to the game. It’s certainly not perfect, but the gameplay is so exciting and hysterical that I think almost everyone can enjoy it, so long as they’re not fully against gratuitous violence in games.
When such a large amount of work has gone into the game, akin to the obvious amount that has gone into Just Cause 2, I sometimes wonder would the developers even be able to stomach working on a sequel. Wikipedia tells me that “distributor Square Enix have reserved various domains for Just Cause 3 and Just Cause 4” and also refers to a possible film, which sounds great. If Just Cause 3 or even 4 does come out, then it’ll want to be one crazy hell of a blazing destructo-fest to trump this Goliath.