Friday, 9 July 2010

Hard Surface: Just Cause 2

Remember Hard Surface or any other of those expectation raising trailers for Just Cause 2? Like many, I had my doubts over the validity of the depicted action. It just seemed too much fun, with very little actual game. And in a way, that perfectly describes Just Cause 2.

Outfitted with a gravity defying grappling hook and a self-replenishing parachute, Rico Rodriguez could rival Bruce Wayne's taste in extreme sports. That is, if he were an extreme sportsman. Our man Rico works for the Agency though, overthrowing governments like they're camping tables and freeing the people from oppressive dictators like they're... oppressed. By dictators. Anyway. Just Cause 2. Great game.

It's hard for me to state how much fun I had with JC2 and the activities it allows. Did I pilot an airliner? Did I crash it into a mountainside? Did I ride on top of cars? Slingshot myself through the landscape with aforementioned grappling hook and parachute? Tethered enemies together? Tethered them to hard surfaces? Explosives? Vehicles speeding by? BASE jumped from a roof? Mountain? Airship? Speedboated in hostile waters? Yes to all of them and many, many more.

But that's just pastime activities. The seven story missions are as varied as they get, making great use of the 1074km² huge Island State of Panau. Casually mowing down trees as well as enemies with a Gatling Gun in the jungle or infiltrating a power plant next to a frozen sea in the mountains while being chased by Ninjas, the focus has clearly been on quality over quantity. The same can't be said about anything else in Just Cause 2, really. Well the weapons maybe, being clearly identifiable as "Handgun", "Shotgun", "Sniper Rifle" etc. instead of assaulting you with three dozen unique pistols and rifles to choose from.

The rest of the game spells superlative. Hundreds of villages and military installations as well as 2000 collectible supply crates used for upgrading weapons, vehicles and health are casually scattered across the island formation. There's more than a hundred vehicles too, from the lovingly hilarious Tuk Tuk to speedboats and nigh invincible tanks. It's so huge that one could get easily lost in it, and at first does, but as orienting and moving about gradually becomes ingrained into the player's brain, the game opens itself anew. First time it's the vastness of the playground; second time it's how you traverse it fluently.

One really has to appreciate the work Avalanche put into creating the game world. To get a glimpse of Panau's beauty I recommend Phill Cameron's guest piece on RPS here, called Postcards From Panau. In my view, Just Cause 2 sets a new standard for open game worlds. Being so immense without feeling empty is an achievement in itself.

So how does the game part hold up then? Here lies the problem: it doesn't. Not in a way that's expected, at least. While you can always take the easy route and go in all guns blazing, it's simply not fun to do. One could take that as a discouragement of the mundane, or simply as lazy design. I tend to go with the former, but it's hard not to feel like it's the latter. As soon as you introduce the grappling hook with it's many uses, explosives, or the fact that cars enthusiastically explode on contact if you vacate them above walking speed via parachute - it becomes a completely mental action romp.

However many, many times I was quietly wishing for it to drop all gamey pretensions and just accept the fact that it's an outstanding open world mayhem simulator that could very well stand on its own. Especially in the later stages one can't help but feel the sudden force on the designers as it dawned on them that there's too much fun and little game in here. What during missions becomes a natural flow of parkour and combat is often broken up by sudden onslaughts of enemies and ammo drought where you're suddenly expected to engage the enemy on his terms. It is frustrating when you're forced to pick up their mundane weapons or when your grappling hook is nothing more than a ladder replacement. Those moments don't happen too often, but it is a clear sign of the game getting in the way of my fun - and therefore somewhat sabotaging itself.

Altogether there's 49 faction missions and nine fortress infiltrations to keep the action fan busy, there's a lot of variety. Escorting, kidnapping, assassination, destruction, retrieval, it's all there. Many missions are also worth it for the little overacted snippets of the script, which can best be summed up as a continuation of the cheesy, sarcastic, so-bad-it's-good stuff only action movies during the 80's dared to show. It's not "Let off some steam, Bennett."-material, or "I eat Green Berets for breakfast.", or "Clean up your act.", just enough to make you groan or smile. At times the game seems deeply aware of its absurd nature, but it seems not particularly concerned about it.

And then there's Bolo Santosi. Sweet, sweet Bolo Santosi. She's become somewhat of a cult figure around the internets, and I can totally understand why. I dare say she alone is worth the price of admission.

And after more than 30 hours with Just Cause 2, I can safely say I got my money's worth. Explodey action romp with humorous touches and a sophisticated open world, totally free to explore and traverse as you wish? You could pick worse.

While we're at it, use of the BOLOPatch is highly recommended. Infinite Ammo and Strong Rope especially. Just don't tick that Infinite Health box. It ruins the game somewhat.

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