I love a good sandbox game. From the engrossing tales and urban mayhem of Grand Theft Auto to the wildly destructible Red Faction: Guerrilla, their ability to provide unrestricted anarchy has kept us thoroughly entertained over the past decade.
Keen to reap the success of the rising genre, the original Just Cause was an ambitious beast for its time, but its efforts backfired as it proved to be too ambitious for its own good, leading to it ultimately being forgotten over time. Four long years have now passed, so is Just Cause 2 a high-flying success or does it once again attempt to free-fall without a parachute?
Right from the outset, it’s hard not to be duly impressed with Just Cause 2’s serene scenery. Situated in the fictional island of Panau in South East Asia, the environment deserves to be a future sandbox staple in sheer scale – it’s almost dauntingly colossal.
Allegedly spanning 400 square kilometres, the island is split into several diverse regions, encompassing areas such as town centres, wide open deserts and snowy mountain backdrops. It always looks nothing short of spectacular, with vibrant visuals bringing everything to life and features the best draw distance I’ve seen in any game bar none – even when you are soaring at ridiculous altitudes, Just Cause 2’s performance never relents no matter how far you push it.
Remember when you first climbed to the top of Mount Chiliad in San Andreas and gasped in awe at the latitude before you? That same sense of staggering scale and freedom is as profound as it was back then. The island of Panau is therefore one of the better sandbox environments in recent times, and I could easily spend the entirety of this review praising this wonderful game world.
While exploration is key, the scale can be inevitably arduous when you need to travel to a specific destination. Fortunately there is a wide range of vehicles to utilise, including cars, bikes, boats, planes and helicopters, or alternatively you can call your local Black Market Dealer for a free helicopter trip. Extraction points will only work on designated faction points or settlements you have previously discovered however, so curious exploration is still a central component. The Black Market also gives access to your tools of destruction by promptly dropping off weapons or vehicles to your exact location upon purchase.
Traversing around the expansive environment is a breeze thanks to one integral gadget – the ever reliable grappling hook. Now a permanent asset to your inventory, it’s fair to say that Just Cause 2 would almost be nothing without it as it allows you to effortlessly cling onto any tangible object in the game. As you swoop majestically from structures and moving vehicles with ease, you will feel like a swish Spider-Man impersonator – simply aim at a distant building, and a tap of the shoulder button will reel you in within seconds.
Along with being convenient, the grappling hook also offers a plethora of gameplay possibilities. Ingeniously, you can tether objects together, and this includes hapless foes that can be attached to just about anything, be it a moving vehicle or an explosive gas canister. The opportunities are endless.
One of my most cherished moments occurred when I hooked an enemy to the back of a vehicle. As I sped down the road with him in tow screaming mercilessly, they suddenly collided into an oncoming Tuk-Tuk with devastating force. When left to your own devices, these moments of hilarity can be had in rapid succession which is where Just Cause 2 shines supremely.
When played as a standard shooter, however, Just Cause 2 isn’t quite as much of an enjoyable blast. The various guns don’t feel as wieldy as they perhaps could, weapon selection is too fiddly and the general gun-play isn’t very robust, amounting to simplistic running and gunning against hordes of brainless enemies. You are often placed in scenarios with far too many spawning enemies that take too much punishment and ammo is often scarce, meaning you have to repeatedly waste time trailing through corpses to steal extra supplies. Vehicle handling can also be too erratic.
In conjunction with the grappling hook, you can also deploy your trusty parachute on demand which is surprisingly effective for getting around, and is of course a vital accessory when it comes to skydiving sessions. This is a game that has no qualms with you hijacking a plane in mid-air and jumping out into an extended free fall, only for you to deploy your parachute just in time and grapple hook onto a passing speedboat. All that’s missing is a James Bond theme parody, but both the grappling hook and parachute serve as some of the most memorable and enthralling gaming gadgets in a long time.
To say the least, these action elements of Just Cause 2 are utterly preposterous – the sight of your fearless character standing atop of a flying plane with picture-perfect balance is just one scenario that’s unshakably obscene, but that’s what makes the game so fun. It prides itself on such tomfoolery to an extent that it even has a video capture facility for PS3 owners that will instantly import your recorded video straight to Youtube. To demonstrate this, I thought it would be a spiffing idea to unleash a Tuk-Tuk car bomb for your viewing pleasure:
Wreaking havoc will not only result in some delightful explosions but it will also earn you Chaos points, the game’s main form of currency that in turn unlocks further weapons, vehicles and story missions. Military bases and other target settlements are all dotted around the map for you to dismember, which is achieved by blowing up every vehicle, tower or fuel depot in sight. If you hadn’t grasped yet, you spend a considerable amount of time performing ludicrous acrobatic stunts and blowing stuff up, often just for the sheer hell of it. Sadly, you can only experience such joy on your lonesome as the game is devoid of any local or online multiplayer.
With fun free roaming chaos at your disposal, it’s easy to forget there is actually a purpose to it all and that you are a man on a mission. There is a plot of some sort, but it’s so poorly woven together you will struggle to get the incentive to follow it. You play as Rico Rodriquez from the first game, a red-blooded CIA operative on a mission to overthrow a dictator whilst undertaking additional missions from rival criminal factions. One thing’s for sure: this game’s plot will not win any awards for being original or thought provoking.
While it may not take itself too seriously, there’s no excuse for the truly woeful voice acting on display here. The dialogue is so corny, it’s hard to tell whether or not it’s meant to be a self-parody – skipping the cut scenes is therefore mandatory. When recounting a list of the most memorable sandbox heroes, Rico simply won’t be there.
Missions are only unlocked by amassing Chaos points but, while wanton destruction can be undeniably fun, destroying similar looking military bases can become a tad tedious, particularly if you want to press on with the story. And then when you finally do, the resulting mission is rarely worth the enduring trip, with uninspiring objectives shaping the wafer-thin plot.
Still, to say that this game is action-packed would be a grave understatement. At its best, Just Cause 2 plays like a typical ham-fisted action movie where big, gratuitous explosions take priority over substance. But then it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than exactly that, and plays to its strengths very well providing you have the foresight to experiment with the mechanics.
As a result, Just Cause 2 can be tremendous fun to lark about with and is thankfully much more polished than the original. It’s a shame, then, that it feels like such a chore to play through when ploughing through objectives as the developers intended.
Stunning locales rich in variety and clarity make for a very pretty palette. And then there’s the draw distance: just wow.
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The action in Just Cause 2 is consistently absurd, but that's what makes it so thrilling, and why it will draw a smile on your face.
Weapon and vehicle sounds deliver what you would expect from a game of this caliber, but nothing really stands out in the sound department.
There's plenty to see and do in the island of Panau, but the mileage you will gain ultimately depends on your ingenuity with the game's many tools.
Just Cause 2 succeeds in its primary aim of dropping you into a ludicrously over the top action movie. The missions may not be very involving, but there's no denying that with the right tools there is a lot of destructive, albeit mindless, fun to be had in this picturesque playground.