Review by ParadigmXL9

"Don't dismiss this as another typical sandbox game!"

Sandbox-type games seem to be popping up all over the place nowadays. The Grand Theft Auto series solidified the genre's place in mainstream gaming, and since then there have been many, many imitators -- some more successful than others. The genre relies on one simple philosophy: giving the player a large environment and setting them loose to do as they please. Naturally, this usually ends up with lots of explosions, and many NPCs running for their lives away from the player.

Realizing this, some developers have taken the genre into a whole new direction. No longer are you just an average Joe existing alongside every other in-game citizen. Players want to do something they can't do (legally) in real life: cause widespread destruction. And so you have games like Prototype, INfamous, and Crackdown, where you're more or less a one man army. Games like this forgo realistic stories and situations and focus more on the fun of causing chaos in a virtual world. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Just Cause 2 makes it work.

The game opens up and you're briefly introduced to the game world -- the fictional island of Panau, "Southeast Asia's best kept secret". Your character, Rico Rodriguez (aka "Scorpio") is a battle-hardened mercenary who has been brought to the island nation to track down another agent who is feared to have gone rogue. After a couple of simple tutorial missions, you're set loose on the island and the game proper begins.

That's essentially the entire story. It's little more than an excuse to blow things up and cause havoc, but it works. If you're looking for a dramatic story championing the idea of revolting against an oppressive dictatorship, you may want to look elsewhere. If you're fine with being told "Here's some guns. Go blow some stuff up", then this is the game for you.

Right away you'll notice that Panau is absolutely gorgeous. An incredible amount of time and effort went into creating a realistic game world, and it shows. Tiny fishing villages, sprawling military bases, isolated communications outposts and developed metropolitan areas litter the nation. Even the wilderness areas are richly detailed, and there's plenty of beautiful vistas to see. It's particularly impressive given how large the world is. At 400 square miles, Panau ranks as one of the largest in-game environments ever. Even while flying a jet, it takes a considerable amount of time to get from one corner of the world to the other.

Best of all, The Avalanche Engine renders all of this in stunning detail. Trees in the game each cast their own shadows, and can be blasted apart by gunfire or knocked over with a vehicle. Rays of sunshine filter realistically through trees and smoke. Little details like this go a long way in making any game world more immersive, and it pays off extraordinarily well here. The island really feels "alive", and even with the maddening amount of detail, the game maintains a very respectable framerate at all times. One minor complaint I have is the very noticeable vertical screen tearing. It's minor and honestly not even worth mentioning, but It's honestly the only bad thing I can say about the game's graphics.

Like other recent sandbox games, Just Cause 2 centers around a couple of "gimmicks" that makes Scorpio stand out against everyone else. First off is the grappling hook mounted on his left arm. If you've played Bionic Commando, you already have a pretty good idea how this is used. Scorpio can latch onto objects and pull himself towards them at high speeds, much like Spiderman. Latching onto smaller objects or people allows Scorpio to pull them towards him, allowing you to rip enemies out of turrets, or pull a pile of explosive gas canisters off of a roof to rain hellfire onto a group of unsuspecting enemies below. The other function of the grappling hook allows you to shoot both ends at different objects, effectively tethering two objects together. There are a vast number of uses for this, for instance, Scorpion can tether an enemy to a vehicle and drag them to their death. You're allowed (and encouraged) to get creative with this feature.

The second of Scorpio's gimmicks lies in his apparently unlimited supply of parachutes. No matter how many times you cut free from it, there's always another waiting in Rico's backpack. It sounds ridiculous and it really is; no attempt to explain or justify this exists at all (and in fact, the game even acknowledges how ridiculous it is). It exists to be useful and fun, which, if you haven't noticed by now, is really this game's entire philosophy. The parachute is used pretty much exactly what they're traditionally used for (avoiding a bone-shattering death from hitting the ground), but it also serves another useful purpose: using the grappling hook to latch onto things while your chute is deployed allows Rico to "slingshot" his way around the islands. It's an effective way to travel large distances without the use of a car, or for getting somewhere a ground vehicle simply can't get to.

Other than that, Scorpio has a few other minor tricks, such as the ability to stand and move around on vehicles driven by NPCs, hanging from airborne helicopters using his grappling hook, and even performing midair hijackings. These really give the game a distinct action movie feel, and although the novelty soon wears off as you perform these tactics over and over, they work extremely well and are executed nearly perfectly. One thing I am disappointed with is Rico's inability to fire a gun while driving anything other than a motorbike. It's an odd gameplay decision, but it doesn't really detract from the experience.

The audio aspect of this game is a mixed bag. For the most part, the sound effects are excellent. The weapons and vehicles all sound reasonably realistic (and I must say, this game has one of the best-sounding shotguns). Distant explosions produce a low, bassy rumble, while far-off gunfire has a distinct "pop" to it. The music, while very sparsely used, is repetitive (especially the "danger" theme that plays whenever you have enemies after you), and rather generic, but most of the time no music plays at all. Some may be upset by this, but I think it works well.

Unfortunately, this is where I stop saying good things about the game's audio. The voice acting is, in a word, embarrassing. Although Panau is apparently in Southeast Asia, everyone in the game has a different, laughably terrible accent. The bad guys all speak in stereotypical (and borderline racist) Chinese english, while other characters seem to have picked their accent out of a hat. The game also has a rather strange audio stuttering issue that pops up rather frequently. Again, it's not gamebreaking, but it's certainly distracting.

As far as the actual gameplay goes, this is where the game shines the most. It's simply fun, there's no other way to put it. This is a completionist's dream (or nightmare), as there are thousands of collectables to locate, and hundreds of different settlements to conquer. Even exploring the island is fun, as there are many interesting and unique locations to find. The game is also kind enough to keep track of all of your stats, from the number of miles driven to the number of times you've killed an enemy by dragging them behind a vehicle.

Combat is action-packed and rather hectic as the game progresses. The enemies are absolutely ruthless in later parts of the games, as they'll send more and more competent troops driving increasingly-lethal vehicles to hunt you down. In fact, the game can't seem to make up it's mind in regards to enemy difficulty. On one hand the game strives to portray Rico as a literal one-man army. On the other hand, the enemies, while not particularly intelligent, are surprisingly lethal. If you're not quick on your feet, even a small number of troops can chip away at your health surprisingly fast. It's a welcome challenge, but at the same time some of the enemy tactics feel a bit cheap and artificial. Throughout the game you have allies from the three rebel factions assisting you in combat from time to time, but later on they're no match for the superior Panauan military forces. It's really a shame, as they end up existing only to soak up some of the soldiers' ammo for a couple seconds before dying.

Lastly, I'll touch on some of the multiplayer features the game has. Namely, that it has none. Nope, nothing. This is perhaps the biggest shame. With such a large game world,and so much to accomplish, this game screams for some kind of co-op mode. It practically demands it as the game does start to hike up the difficulty later on. This game is singleplayer only, which is perhaps par for the course as far as the sandbox genre is concerned. I'm glad that Avalanche focused on creating such a fun SP experience, but every time I'm driving a vehicle with an empty turret seat in the back, I can't help but wonder what could have been.

Ultimately, this game is what happens when a developer strives to make a fun game rather than an engaging one. The game isn't perfect (far from it, in fact), but my personal opinion is that what the game does well more than makes up for it's shortcomings. The game is called "Just Cause", and that is obviously the attitude you're supposed to adopt when playing it.

Pros
-Lush, gorgeous visuals
-Huge game world environment
-Rewarding gameplay.
-Simply fun. No other way to put it.

Cons
-Awful voice acting and dialogue
-Audio stuttering
-Weak, cliched story overall
-Total lack of any multiplayer


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 04/05/10

Game Release: Just Cause 2 (US, 03/23/10)


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