Review: Just Cause 2 (Xbox 360)

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There’s nothing wrong with having as much stuff to do as there is in Just Cause 2. As a sequel, Avalanche Studios have trumped the first game in nearly every way by a factor of a hundred. Flying from one end of the map to the next in a fast jet can still take several minutes in real life to do so and every inch of this exploding third-person garden of action has been stuffed with juicy targets and activities for causing Michael Bay-sized plumes of fiery chaos.

Because that’s what it’s all about. Chaos! Destabilization! Regime change in an island nation led by its “beloved” leader, Baby Panay, with you returning as super Agency agent, Rico Rodriguez. The fictional nation of Panau had been an ally of the United States until its previous president, and Baby Panay’s dad, had been assassinated…by Baby Panay. Throw in Rico’s friend and Agency contact from the first game, Sheldon, who may or may not have gone rogue, and the Agency’s tether-equipped go-to guy has got his hands full.

There are only seven key missions that actually advance the story, but in order to unlock them, chaos is needed. It’s measured with a score and the one way to wreak that much havoc is to get in bed with the three major criminal factions that work behind Baby Panay’s back. Or in going out and finding things that also do the same thing in smaller slices, such as tearing down a few of Baby Panay’s statues or exploding a few propaganda trailers belching his voice over the airwaves.

The good news is that the repetitive missions that made the first game a struggle to play through have been done away with a much better variety of mayhem ranging from taking on fortified enemy bases to sending out a pirate broadcast by aligning satellite dishes atop a skyscraper’s four towers. No more boring liberation missions. It’s all about how much damage you want to do, especially if you just want to roam to where the action is.

If you have the need to attack a military base, do it. Do you want to free a village from military influence? Nothing’s stopping you. Need a jet? Steal one. As soon as I got out from the intro missions, ignoring the main storyline was as easy as running out and doing things out in Panau on my own. Not only does causing chaos open up new Agency missions, but it can also occasionally award you with loose change that can be burned at the Black Market.

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Rico can pick up, drive, or fly most anything that he can get to in the game. It’s what he does. Even in being able to wield only one two-handed gun (like an assault rifle), he can equip two sidearms and dual wield those. He still has the same tricks from the first game though the controls can be a little sticky when it comes to tethering tricks such as linking objects together or in pulling to a wall only to have him fall off of it. Even with these little annoyances, it’s still a lot of fun in pulling enemies down from towers, dragging them behind cars, hijacking helicopters above his head, and falling from the sky without a scratch thanks to his tether and an infinite supply of parachutes.

With enough chaos, his Black Market options also begin improving by offering up even better things for instant delivery such as new guns and cars. Nothing is free and the cost never changes, even if Rico’s carrying the same gun and only needs an ammo refill which charges him the same price. $70K for more ammo? But the Black Market will deliver the goods anywhere you want as long as you have the dollars, even when everyone is trying to kill you. Now that’s service.

You can always take Rico out to steal what he needs instead of paying premiums which is what I usually did. Weapon and vehicle upgrades are also done through the Black Market by trading in generic upgrade collectables found scattered all over Panau. There are literally a few thousand collectables that Rico can find out there and most contribute in some way to what he can upgrade. Except his health. The improvements for that are sliced so thin that you might not even notice that it has actually gone up when you do collect the five required “health upgrades” for one update.

Just Cause 2 has tweaked Rico’s superhuman ability to regenerate damage from the first game into something that flirts with reality despite its none-too-serious take on over-the-top action. He’ll regenerate some of his most immediate damage, but if he takes just a bit too much during a firefight, not all of it will come back. To make up the difference, it’s time to hunt for health pack lockers which are not as numerous as the bullets.

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He’ll also have to take care of “Heat” which is a measure of just how much the Panauan military wants to kill him, replacing the “Wanted” levels from the first game. The more trouble caused, such as wandering into a base and shooting it up, the more Heat will be generated. The higher his Heat, the worse off he’ll be as the military starts to call in tougher elite soldiers not to mention the helicopter support that will occasionally drop in with lead rain anyway. The problem is that there still is no easy way to get rid of Heat once you’ve earned some. That makes realistic sense, but it can also drag the game’s pacing down.

Hiding out of sight or running away is really the only thing that the player can do when the Heat is on. Just as in the last game, there’s no easy “paint job”, “confessional”, or corner toilet that he can duck into in order to escape and get on with what he needs to do. It wasn’t so much of a problem then because of Rico’s near immortality thanks to his regenerating health leading him right back into the fight if he was lucky enough to catch a safe breather.

It’s not quite as simple in jumping back into the action after getting a thrashing in Just Cause 2. It’s a lot more challenging and at the same time, the sacrifices the pacing I might have had as a one-man army. Pandemic’s Mercenaries, and more recently, Saboteur, balanced these elements particularly well by giving the player options that interfered little with the actual pacing. Here, it doesn’t come off quite as hardcore when Rico has to hide underneath a set of stairs and wait a few real-time minutes just so the Heat can die down.

Getting killed yourself usually results in returning to a previous checkpoint and depending on how forgiving they are in any particular mission, it can either mean starting from a nice spot outside your target or in forcing you to travel all the way back to where you died. When on certain missions, such as in attacking a stronghold, you can’t simply run too far without risking its failure by stepping out of bounds or in getting the guy that you’re supposed to protect killed.

Dying during free roaming is slightly better since you’ll spawn at the nearest allied stronghold. It can often take you far from where you’d rather be, but the good news is that your progress is saved such as how much chaos you had caused or damage left behind. On a few missions, however, be ready to repeat at least some of what you had done before dying, even if it might involve some time-wasting travel plans.

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The Black Market’s “Extraction” option can take you to any named location on the map, such as a town or village that you had discovered, to alleviate some of the pain. Rico can even be air delivered above an enemy base and pick up where he had left off during his free roaming rampage. However, while the Heat is on, this option won’t be available which makes sense. What doesn’t make as much sense is when certain icons disappear from the map when you want to Extract, such as map markers or side-mission indicators. Even if you can’t directly drop in on top of them (unless you fly to them yourself which isn’t as fast), knowing where they were on the map would have gone a long way to making it more useful in picking a spot as close to these mission start points as possible. And there’s no hiding the fact that until he visits enough places on the map to make Extraction somewhat more useful, Rico will be doing a lot of forced sightseeing.

The good news is that there is a lot to see and Avalanche’s engine has been dramatically improved since its debut in the first game making it an sandbox of Everest proportions. Panau is massive. The impression that each location had been designed by hand is also hard to shake.

Treetops still have that eerie effect of turning to face you if you’re up in the air flying by, but Rico’s holiday in Panau easily includes trips into snowy mountains, deserts, or even a mysterious island with a few easter eggs from the popular television series, Lost. Airports with concrete runways stretching towards the horizon, towering skyscrapers covered in glittering glass, deep valleys, and ramshackle villages crowd alongside wide canyon bridges, cliffs, endless jungles, and hidden military bases. Panau comes off as a katamari of places collected together for the player to explore and devastate with childish impunity.

There are also the faction missions that award Rico with chaos, cash, and parts for weapons and vehicles. Challenges such as racing or base jumping events will also open up on Panau with enough chaos or faction influence. While it’s nice that there is a lot to do on the island, outside of the main story or in doing the faction stronghold missions, not many of these actually have an effect on the world at large.

Finishing the main game may take only ten or fifteen hours depending on how much you work with the other factions as opposed to causing chaos on your own. At the end, “Mercenary Mode” allows Rico to keep adventuring in Panau with whatever he’s earned. Getting through every activity and finding every hidden item in the game can easily take many more hours. As for how exciting that sounds, it really depends on how much you love collecting things that really don’t seem to do much else especially after the main mission is done and over with.

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After unlocking everything in the Black Market, there really wasn’t that much drive to do much more than what was needed to finish the game or earn cash. Since everything is incredibly expensive on the Black Market, roaming around and finding caches of ammo or liberating vehicles for my own personal use was a better compromise than in calling in help every time I needed something. Destroying things like military communication stations did little to affect the game’s annoying tendency to spawn soldiers from thin air wherever the camera wasn’t looking. Reaching 100% completion in a town, village, or base frees it from military control, but doesn’t seem to affect their strength in the region.

Nothing you do outside of the story seems to have any investment in the world at large outside of achievements or simple points and with the amount of stuff that can be done, it quickly comes off as a series of wasted opportunities within its vast sandbox of factions, implied civil strife, and revolution. Just Cause 2 feels like it deserves more than that, but that’s not what it ultimately delivers.

For example, in Volition’s Saints Row series, pushing back the gangland elements had an effect that was tangible to the player (as well as allowing the player to replay missions). In Rockstar’s GTA: San Andreas, there was an element of ownership over your character as well as the world. After awhile, collecting things in the game got boring when I stuck to only a few select weapons and knew where to find the best vehicles. Sure, it’s easy to jump in and blow some stuff up for a few minutes, but after awhile, I wanted more out of the experience. Why do I want to waste my time upgrading a quad runner when I can fly a gunship?

And Avalanche obviously wants you to explore Panau in trying to find its thousands of collectables to do just that. In fact, some of the rewards are so lackluster and sliced so thinly that most of what you can do in the game comes off as being aimed at players that love collecting things for no apparent reason than to collect them. Think of the doves in GTA IV, only multiply that by twenty or so. In Realtime Worlds’ Crackdown, at least the collectables were all the more enticing because they affected your character in a direct, and effectively cumulative, way.

Wiping out endless Panauan soldiers that gleefully run like lemmings into Rico’s river of lead made me wish around the fifth hour that there were someone else to fight other than slightly tweaked versions of the same foot soldier that I had pulled off of a building a few seconds ago.

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It seemed, at one point in the story, as if that would be the case when the real faces behind the conspiracy gripping Panau were revealed, but it was only to introduce even more of the awful voice acting. At another point in the game as I huddled inside a hangar waiting for Heat to subside, I felt as if I were stuck in some kind of time loop that kept forcing me to repeat the same fight over and over again as soldiers came around a corner off of an unseen assembly line, the bodies of their comrades (and the piles of dropped weapons) false warning for the reaper that awaited them on the other side of that corrugated wall of metal.

The game also uses a large number of QTEs, but it’s very forgiving when it comes to fudging the sequences. After hijacking so many choppers via QTE, opening gates, or blowing up pipelines, though, it quickly got old. If thinking about QTEs raises your blood pressure and puts you in a cold sweat, Just Cause 2 is not for you.

Even at the end when so much was made of “choosing the right faction” to aid in your fight against Baby Panay, nothing really comes of it aside from a few dialogue changes. If Ronald McDonald had been one of the candidates, I suppose it would have been funny for that mission to see the Clown Prince of Fast Food in the communication screen knowing that it really didn’t matter.

It’s a buffet of destruction laid out for anyone that wants to burn a few minutes here and there wrecking things on the way to the next village with thousands of things to collect. Finishing the main story and in trying out a few of the challenges was fun for awhile, but offered little else to keep me interested after its incredible climax. After gorging on this feast of fiery explosions and upgrades sliced thin enough to encourage endless exploration, it’s hard to shake that bloated feeling that comes afterward. Not of satisfaction, but regret at having done so much in Panau for so little.

Just Cause 2
Square-Enix / Avalanche Studios
PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Rated M for Mature