So here I am, finally able to write for my blog again and having also fixed the issues with transfer to my new Gmail address. Of course, for now the blog looks near the same as before and nothing much will have changed but… hey, we’re back! And we are back with just cause, too. Or should I say Just Cause 2… yeah ok I won’t pull too many of those jokes, I promise. They have been done to death already so let me just get into the meat of things. I have a huge backlog so this calls for some speed blogging.
So, Just Cause 2… let me just say first of all that this is a game I had resolved not to play initially. Pre-release I saw trailers and gameplay review podcasts about Just Cause 2 showing some of the gameplay features and, while clearly looking awesome on many levels I found some of the gameplay mechanics to be a little off. Namely the infinite parachute and grapple hook combo. Maybe I was too hard on the game and pre-judging it without giving it a chance? I often thought this but was content to let the game slide by anyway. Then Steam comes along with their awesome summer sale deals and put up the usual publisher packs, set fire to my credit card and dumped a load of games into my library before running off into the night. This is a process I like to call the Game Glomp, and no one does it better than Steam.
So I bought the Square Enix Eidos package purely because of my desires to still play Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and I did not notice initially that Just Cause 2 had grapple-hooked its way into my library list too, determined to have me give it a fair trial. Well, it has had its day in court and I will quickly render my verdict before moving on. Just Cause 2 is a very good game. There, I said it, pies made of great quantities of humble have been eaten and I recommend Just Cause 2.
Oh, there is more, though. It does not get a recommendation without suffering my customary disection. Because my blog is not simply about scores and ratings. I stopped sticking little gold stars on things when I was in primary school. If you are new to my blog with this review I encourage you to read back a few entries and see that I have tried to maintain a theme of describing how the game plays. In general I deliver to you the gaming experience as a player rather than a bunch of numbers designed to tell you how the game plays. And Just Cause 2 is going to be no exception.
So we start with the setting first before looking at the core of the gameplay, then I will come back to the story overall at the end. Just Cause 2 is an open world sandbox shooter with a semi-non-linear mission system and ultimate free roaming potential. Developed by the Swedish company, Avalanche Studios, and published by Square Enix Eidos, Just Cause 2 places you in the shoes of CIA (?) agent Rico Rodriguez. I put a question mark there because I am not entirely sure if he is CIA or not. He is clearly working with them, though, as he is dropped into a fictional island nation called Panau in South East Asia. His job: to blow up as many government-owned water towers as possible as he seeks to find his old mentor who as, reportedly, turned traitor in the middle of a coup. Or something like that, to be honest I was kind of able to keep track of the story but it has a few quirks in how it progresses that made me lose a little it somewhat. But more on the story later. The essence of it is you have to turn the nation of Panau back to a favourable position with Uncle Sam by bringing down the new hard-line government and helping install a new regime more amenable to the USA. It all sounds pretty serious and political but it is done with a great deal of tongue lodged firmly in cheek.
Wait… water towers? Well, ok they are part of what you are going to be about in Panau. The game progresses based on a chaos rating on the island. The higher your chaos score climbs the more missions are unlocked. So you cannot just race through the missions back to back since the game encourages you to have a lot of fun between. And lets face it, you will need something to break up the travel time between mission locations because the game map is one of the largest open worlds yet. So having completed your initial mission to rescue a drunken Scot from a Casino, you need to shake a few trees to find your old mentor with the ambition of re-decorating his face with some hot lead. Your chaos score will increase with pretty much anything you do that involves explosions and shootings in the face.
You will need to blow up statues of the new leader of the country, destroy government propaganda stalls blaring out patriotic drivel, shoot down army helicopters, destroy fuel tanks, sabotage oil pipelines (one of my favourite explosions), hack and blow up bio-gas reactors and many other things. Basically, if it has the government logo on it you should break it. Doing so increases the accumulated chaos score that enables the next missions in the tree to be unlocked. Simple enough to remember, right? Still, it does feel a little too simple for my tastes and despite the supposes ‘chaos’ I am creating while playing I see little evidence of change in the overall lives of the people. Gun battles do not rage through the streets as the government hold on the country diminishes, soldiers do not roll out in larger numbers with bigger guns and everyone still turns a blind eye to the crazy CIA agent attaching random passing cars to lamp posts with his grapple hook before swooping off into the distance after farting out yet another parachute. In short I felt very unrewarded beyond being permitted to advance tot he next story chapter.
As for the missions themselves, they are fun and somewhat varied. With the exception of the ‘stronghold’ missions, which I will detail soon. You have your main missions for the agency to take care of, but you also have missions for the three gangs on Panau who are seeking to control the country and do not like the new government any more than they liked the last. They are painted as being potentially useful to you in your quest to bring the country to its knees. This might sound a little more uplifting, though at the time I did not need lifting up. Initially the progress method seemed like it would be a lot of fun anyway and not just the drudgery it becomes. But rival gangs all wanting my help and furthering their dirty agendas to bring further misery does seem to up the levels of complexity on the surface. Work for one gang and piss off another, right? Maybe each one brings something different to the table that varies the storyline progress… well, unfortunately the answer to this is a resounding ‘no’.
All it becomes is another chaos meter, of sorts, just without a score number. Not only do you need a specific chaos score to open the next main agency mission, you also need to have done a specific number of side missions for the three gangs. And no matter who you work for you can always go to another gang any time and work for them, too. Their objectives do not even rub up against each other in any serious way as to change the face of the game. This lack of change of any kind is a constant throughout the whole game right to the end and feels like maybe the developers missed a step here. Especially in the stronghold missions. These are missions where you are asked to over run a military base or other form of central infrastructure like a port or power plant, and capture it for the gang. It gives you a base where you will respawn if you die, and that is all. These missions are all the same and make little attempt at diversity when it comes to objectives. You meet a few gang members, one of them will always be a scientist, and you will always have to escort him to a terminal which he needs to hack while you continue to fight off a counter-attack. Even the script the read off when you arrive is exactly the same. It is another minor disappointment in the form of the game.
So where is the feeling of achievement beyond simply working your way through and completing the game? Well, good news for those of us who like completion ratios. There is a great emphasis in the game itself on getting 100% completion by having done everything. Not just the missions, but having also blown up all the government infrastructure, watch towers, SAM sites, radar dishes, fuel tanks and so on. And yes, even those pesky water towers.
Other forms of completion are fulfilled by overthrowing every area of the map. Every small village, large town district, military base and remote tourist trap have markers on the map and require you to have removed all traces of the government infrastructure, as well as any senior officers needing killing, to be ‘completed’. Of course this brings me back to my original complaint that there is no real feeling of progress. Having captured my twelfth settlement/military base I began to realise that not much was changing other than the marker on the map. So don’t expect to have any dynamic impact on the face of Panau still. In face, the only thing I could see was taking over air bases and air ports meant no planes would take off from them any more, and this was kind of a bad thing since my favourite form of fun is tethering them to the runway as they speed down it to take of. But more on that later…
Also, bonus! You have to find hidden packages of sorts. Not just one kind but three kinds. One for each gang. There are drugs, black boxes and sacred skulls dotted around large chunks of the map. What more could you ask for? Well, how does having driven one of everything to have 100% completion sound to you? Yes, I thought you might say that. In short, this is a rather specific niche of the gaming community being target here.
So, lets move away from the mission structure and talk about the controls, the open world setting, vehicles and so on. Think of the last open world free-roamer you played and answer me this. Did you have access to everything and everywhere on the map from the moment you are set loose? Not many games do this, with the exception of games such as Skyrim if you don’t count dungeons that are story-based and locked etc. But these are different classes of games anyway. I am taking more along the lines of games like Grand Theft Auto, Batman: AC and so on. Initially some areas of the map will be locked out, like in Red Dead Redemption where you cannot cross the river until a specific point of the story has been reached. This is not the case in Just Cause 2 as everything is there. Well… ok not everything. There is a black market you can buy some unique agency equipment from, and not all of it is unlocked until you increase your chaos score. Also the generic weapon choice is pretty poor on the ground, with one kind of pistol, one kind of SMG and one kind of assault rifle. Also a sniper rifle and heavy machine gun exist out there as well as a grenade and rocket launcher. Everything else is bought from the black market, and some of it you have to buy a DLC for. But the whole map is yours for the taking from day one. You can go from the start location on a totally fresh game, head into the mountains, steal a tank if you can find one and crash it into a bio-gas reactor owned by the government before hijacking the attack helicopter that came to tell you off for being a menace and blowing up an air plane trying take off at the local airport. All because the mood might have taken you. And lets face it, haven we all woken up feeling that way at some point?
How does the tank drive? Or any vehicle for that matter. They are all very well done, actually. This is a rare game where the physics of driving, flying, boating (that’s a word, right?) and so on are fun and well done. Of course, to get your hands on occupied vehicles you have the usual quick time events where you punch, kick, bite and throw out the pilots before stealing his jet fighter. Yes.. jet fighter. In the air. Well, actually what you need to do is grapple onto it as it is on the runway ready to take off, but you can just leave it there if you like. Ride that jet up into the sky standing on the back before making your move if you wish. Of course, you could be thrown off eventually if the pilot turns. Still, it is a lot of fun to do this. Even more fun is once you have any vehicle you can exit it into ‘stunt mode’ where you get out of the driver/pilot seat and stand on the roof while it is still moving and shoot people. Maybe one of my favourite assassination mission methods, if I am honest, is taking a jet plane and flying it on a collision course at the Colonel who needs to be made dead, shooting my guns all the way down while riding on the roof and opening the chute at the last second to glide down safely with a good view of the mayhem ahead.
My only criticism is how quickly helicopters change direction and altitude. They are very slow and cumbersome and often I find I don’t bother with them anymore unless I have to. But this is a small critique on an otherwise solid gameplay element.
So how else can you create carnage? I keep mentioning the grapple hook and this will become a favourite way of dealing with a lot of situations. Of course it is a primary movement tool, getting up into the guard towers or on the roofs of buildings and such. Even using it to hijack a car or aircraft. You can also hook it to an enemy, or anyone actually, and yank them forwards, pulling them out of high places to a crunchy landing on the unforgiving floor. If that is not your thing, if you keep hold of the grapple button you attach one end to your target, then you can aim at something else and attach the other end of the line to something else. So… do I need to spell it out for you? Man – passing car… a good giggle. Man – the car you’re driving… much more giggle. Man – air plane taking off behind him… hysterical laughter. There is a down side to this too, since they unhook themselves after a few seconds which is kind of realistic I guess. And you can only have one attached line at a time. If you fire another, even just to grapple and winch yourself to a ledge or something, the line you placed earlier vanishes and your victim is free. Which does not help them if you hooked them tot he side of an oil rig high above the ocean… Also what if you hook a rope between two trees along a road as someone drives past on a bike? Well… nothing. The rope does not clip, meaning you can walk right through it unhindered. A shame, really because this could have amped up the fun factor greatly.
So what if I want to drive around town with eight soldiers hooked to the back of my car like tin-cans on the back of a newly-wed’s car leaving the church? I have some good news for some of you, some bad news for others. The bad news is for the console gamers since you cannot do anything about this. The good news is for PC gamers since you can. Just download a mod, of course! There is a mod pack you can download called the BOLO patch which runs in the background letting you manipulate a few things. OK.. it is a cheat pack in some respects but a configurable one so you can limit your cheaty-ness. You can have infinite health and ammo if you wish, or turn it off. You can give yourself lots of cash to buy from the black market or leave it alone. I am more interested in the options for the grapple. One of them is multiple grapples, the other is unbreakable grapples. The other thing I have not mentioned about the grapple when used to attach things to other things is the force tolerance. They do break pretty easy, so attaching two moving vehicles to each other means if they move away from each other the cable snaps pretty quick and all that happens at normal speeds are the cars just jump a little before moving on. Same with aircraft when taking off, though they are sent for quite a spin and could hit the ground if you are lucky. But if not then they right themselves and just carry on which slowly becomes not much fun at all. Unless you use the BOLO patch which means they are suddenly yanked to the ground again and explode. Or that army jeep you just attached to the departing plane is taken for a fantastic journey to far away lands.
And how does all this look on your screen? Having played the PC port I can report that the graphics are very high grade. The scenery is awesome and the landscape of this truly massive map is top notch. The graphics engine is called the Avalanche engine, as per the developer studio name, made entirely by them and is every bit as impressive as Source and Unreal. The engine also includes weather effects that are localised on the map based on random cloud cover generation, so rain does not mean rain everywhere. You can leave an area soaking with rain, then turn back and go get wet again. Well, that is, if you want to. One thing that lets it down is the copy-paste approach to many of the buildings, with a trip through a small village quickly showing you the total of like six different small house designs at most before you see them all again. However the larger cities on the islands are much more diverse looking from the ground. Sure the sky scrapers generally follow the same design but the street layouts and overpasses winding their way between the buildings does a good job of breaking it all up. Detail wise, the characters are animated very well and the textures are current generation grade resolution. I am not too sure how it looks on the XBox 360 and PS3 but I hear people say the PS3 graphics are better as well as the frame rates for this game.
Control wise, the keyboard and mouse works pretty well though I will admit it falls down a little in the driving sections of the game. Some cars a not very drivable given the minimum input in steering from a single, quick key press so getting your car to behave and recover from a skid can be tricky. But you can always leap out, onto the roof of another car, steal it and try that instead. Gun play is satisfying feeling, especially when using Rico’s Signature Gun bought from the black market dealer.
Everything said, you have a solid game in Just Cause 2 that plays well, looks amazing, has no noticeable bugs and will entertain you for a long while. So how does the story hold up? After all you will be subjected to it while playing so you may wish to know how it goes.
As I said, you play a trouble shooter sent in tom look for your old mentor and CIA agent, Tom Sheldon, who has apparently gone native and stolen some agency money during the middle of a coup. The new ruler of Panau, Padak Panay, is taking the ‘foreigners are bad’ route and seeking to arrest and deport all foreign people as well as distancing himself from the USA. Something that only gets worse when Rico shows up and begins pulling down water towers and statues of Panay. Yes, you can actually pull them down with the grapple hook, if you hook it to a powerful car and slowly take up the slack. Another reason to love this one feature in the game above all others. Especially when you get the BOLO patch… Anyway I digress. There are, as mentioned above, three gangs looking to control the islands instead of Panay. There is a marxist rebel group called The Reapers, a criminal gang called The Roaches who deal drugs, and the good honest tribal-like people of Panau called the Ular Boys. Oh and they seem to deal guns or something like that. Each has their own leader who’s characters are pretty well written. Maybe a little too well.
The leader of The Roaches, who I affectionately nicknamed ‘Jabba’, was particularly unpleasant to deal with. Not because he was an unsettling bad man with a heart of pure black evil, but more… well, let me say that he congratulated my success on one of his missions by telling me he had not felt that good since his last colonic irrigation. He is a horrible toad who says some of the creepiest and most disgusting things I have heard in video game writing. Ever. And all the characters generally suffer from this, with the exception of Rico himself who generally gets on with it and keeps his trap shut unless he needs to talk to people. Every character is embellished and abnormal in some way that makes them a little too unreal. However you have to accept this as a theme of the game so don’t expect a realism in the story or the people in it.
Another character who I will, for the purpose of avoiding spoilers, call ‘Tex’ is another who suffers from a little too much stereotype in his character. Several time you arrive to speak with him and here he is, like a good ol’ boy, grilling hot dogs and burgers outside his camper van while enjoying a cold beer. The American way! I should state that I am obviously not from the United States but even I cringe at the flagrant type-casting of this magnitude. Even more so in the explosive finale of the game where you land back on the ground, using your infi-chute, with half the islands blowing up behind you signalling mission complete. And there he is, fresh from his support role barking instructions over the radio still grilling and sipping beer. Corny does not begin to describe the scene. As long as you don’t take the story too seriously you can forgive it. After all, who said every game needs to be serious?
Not me. That is for sure…
*Reads back over his old blog posts to ensure he did not ever say that*
OK. I think I’m good. So the writing is cheesy and the characters larger than life, the missions flow from one to the next in some sense though despite the story telling you a difference is being made and the country is being stirred up you see very little evidence of it on the surface, which is a major shame. However the most unforgivable manifestation of this is in the final mission where you are given a choice of which of the three factions you have been helping you should pick to aid you in storming the castle, so to speak. And being given the impression before that your choice will have consequence on who will be running the country afterwards. So choose wisely…
I am here to tell you that whatever you choose the only difference it will make is what colour uniform the AI troops assisting you are wearing. Soon they are left behind and you are back to completing the final objectives yourself anyway. And in true open world fashion you are allowed back in once the final mission is done to continue free-roaming and blowing up stuff. Which leads me to wonder where the consequences of who runs the country are after the final scenes are done. Because the army is still shooting at you if you cause trouble, the rebels and criminals are still confined to their own areas you have helped them win through earlier missions, and life seems to be going on as normal. Minus a few water towers dotted around town, that is. In short it feels like a lot of work for nothing and by this point in the game I was not entirely surprised, but still disappointed.
Am I disappointed enough to not recommend the game? No, but I would not recommend full retail price for it either. If you see it on sale, grab it. If not then wait for it to come down some.