Just Cause 2 (Xbox 360) review
"I donít entirely know what Just Cause 2 is about. I know it concerns some islanders with very silly accents grouping up against a corrupt government, but I couldnít delve into further details, nor even confirm the very presence of details at all. Come to think of it, Iím not even sure what the main characterís name is; I always called him Tuco, because he sounds exactly like Eli Wallach from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But never mind. Whatís important about him is that heís go..."
I donít entirely know what Just Cause 2 is about. I know it concerns some islanders with very silly accents grouping up against a corrupt government, but I couldnít delve into further details, nor even confirm the very presence of details at all. Come to think of it, Iím not even sure what the main characterís name is; I always called him Tuco, because he sounds exactly like Eli Wallach from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But never mind. Whatís important about him is that heís got a parachute pack and a grappling hook with absurd reach, and that the two in tandem work wonders of platforming magic. Itís never explained how at least a hundred yards of hefty retractable cable can be stored inside of a tiny arm-mounted device, nor why Tuco, still hamstrung by ammo limitations, never runs out of parachutes, yet this all contributes to the gameís inherent silliness. You get the feeling any explanation would just detract from the fun.
Just Cause 2 is a sandbox game, and it is as gargantuan a sandbox game as Iíve ever played. And I know sandboxes are always ďhuge,Ē but this one, set on the island of Panau, really is huge. Thereís an enormous mainland with a snowy mountain range at its center, and itís surrounded by vast stretches of tropical woodland, dotted with dozens of tiny little rural settlements and laced with networks of highways and dirt roads. Pristine beaches draw a perimeter around Panau, and off the coast youíll see large clusters of smaller islands speckling the ocean. One such archipelago on the northwest end of the map houses Panauís capital city, and itís a richly detailed metropolis that would make most other sandbox environments whimper, yet itís merely a miniscule portion of whatís available to you here. The official site claims Just Cause 2ís world spans 400 square miles Ė thatís roughly twenty times the size of Bermuda Ė and I believe it. Words canít do justice to what Avalanche have pulled off here; itís extraordinarily big.
Itís extraordinarily beautiful, too, and rather consistently so, which is alarming given the sheer vastness of Panau. When youíre piloting an airplane or helicopter Ė which youíll do quite often, since itís faster than ground travel Ė youíll find yourself drooling over the genuine authenticity of it all: how the landscape morphs seamlessly from rocky terrain to grassy acreage, how the color tones shift in correlation with the angle of the sun. Leave your aircraft to plummet into the side of the mountain while you parachute into any one of Panauís many lush jungles and youíll realize theyíve been crafted with more exquisite care than a game this open-ended warrants. The trees, the flora, the bounding contour of the groundÖ it all feels real. And there is more to Panau than you will ever see, but even what can pessimistically be called dead space needed to be there, to paint the illusion of an environment that is actually feasible, that could realistically exist in our world. As a sandbox game, Just Cause 2 couldnít be more convincing.
Yet thatís only half the battle. See, the sandbox genre is a tricky one. Give the player too much freedom and the design becomes aimless, with little to no reward. Restrict the player too much with mandatory plot-centric material and you run the risk of negating the existence of an open world to begin with. I could name plenty of well-intentioned sandbox games that fell on one side or the other; the challenge of creating a title like this is in justifying the free-roaming environment without undermining the game within.
Just Cause 2 negates nothing. It knows its audience. It knows that we need to be given something to do, and offers plenty of story missions for us to sink our teeth into: Steal this armored vehicle from this well-fortified base, jump across these rooftops and disarm these bombs, hijack this limousine and kidnap this political figure, and so on and so forth. Where breadth, substance, actual content is concerned, it delivers. But it also knows that the lionís share of people who play games like this would happily spend just as much of their time slinging themselves across the landscape with a grappling hook whilst making their way from one big, pretty explosion to the next.
With the bulk of the game centering around rebel factions, Avalanche have come up with an excellent compromise: Missions can only be unlocked by wreaking havoc and blowing stuff up. How do you do that? Well, look around. There are literally hundreds of civilian establishments spread out across Panau, and government presence seeps from every single one of them. Jack a helicopter, fly to a location you havenít yet been to, dive to ground level and youíre bound to find conflict in close range. Steal a boat, make your way to the oil rig just off shore, and plug your ears. Buy some explosives and demolish a gas station. Making tasks like these mandatory opens up Just Cause 2ís world while simultaneously indulging in the sort of entertainment that this sub-genre was built upon in the first place.
I note with just a tinge of regret that the actual combat is relatively standard shooter fare, minus the cover system thatís practically become industry standard by now. Weíre at the point where any shooter that doesnít employ a cover system feels a bit dated, and the run-and-gun bits are the least remarkable aspect of Just Cause 2. Iím also disappointed that the combat makes so little use of the grappling hook, especially after Bionic Commando did such a good job of that. All you can really do here is pull enemies off the sides of buildings and tether objects to one another, and while the latter can lead to some fantastic moments for the inventive player (such as when a military vehicle is in hot pursuit and you attach it to the ground), I would have liked to see our heroís capabilities in battle explored a bit more.
But, as I say again, never mind. Just Cause 2 is more focused on what youíre doing and less focused on how you go about doing it. Thereís a staggering amount of content here Ė places to go, ways to get there, things to do once you arrive Ė and anyone who complains that there are a few too many races, or that the ďstorm and secure this enemy fortressĒ scenario is repeated one too many times, isnít looking hard enough for ways to enjoy the gameÖ or perhaps they werenít the intended audience, anyway. Just Cause 2ís box art features a image of the main character jumping off the roof of a skyscraper just before it explodes Ė mimicking John McClane, albeit without a fire hose wrapped around his waist Ė and the gameís ďintended audienceĒ will pray that thereís a sequence in which you do precisely that. (Spoiler alert: There is.)
So forget the term ďsandbox.Ē It doesnít do the game justice. Imagine the developers took every sandbox, playground, jungle gym and McDonaldís PlayPlace across the world and slapped them all together, and came out of the project with one big breeding ground for mayhem and murder the size of an actual country. It delicately and perfectly balances freedom with structure, size with accessibility; in an overstuffed genre, Just Cause 2 hits all the right notes. So perhaps itís time for the industry to pack up. Itís been fun, and you all get an A for effort, but Iím afraid this contest is over. Just Cause 2 wins the sandbox race. Itís hard to imagine another such title being so rich, so fulfilling, so ridiculously enjoyable.
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