When Grand Theft Auto 3 came out in 2001, I would walk 4 blocks to my buddy’s apartment in Brooklyn just to play it. Living in the city that inspired the game was part of the charm, I guess, but once we unlocked most of the weapons, we forgot about the story missions altogether. Instead, we made our own game of trying to wreak as much havoc, kill as many people, and blow up as many cars as we could before being arrested or assassinated by the copters and tanks that would inevitably be chasing us. The player would then pass off the controller to the next guy and watch him try his hand at causing chaos.
Just Cause 2 takes that nugget of fun, and makes it the focus of its sandbox. Story missions are only unlocked once you have caused enough chaos, and you earn Chaos Points through any number of activities such as blowing up government property like fuel depots, killing military colonels dotted on the map, completing race challenges, finding all of the collectibles in a location, and running missions for one of three factions on the fictional island nation of Panau.
The story in Just Cause 2 isn’t as complex or original as it could be. You are Rico Rodriguez (a nice departure from the typical WASP hero) and you work for the “Agency.” The American government sends you to Panau because its president was recently overthrown, and the Agency has lost contact with its one, um, agent there, Tom Sheldon, your mentor. Aside from an introductory mission, your only mandate is to find the three faction leaders and get on their good side so that they can help you track down Sheldon. There follows the cliché introductions (Hello, I’m So and So and I’m the leader of the Blah Blah Blahs) and somewhat meaningless missions.
Like too many games these days, you start by skydiving but the game does very little to explain the physics. I died the first 10 times I jumped because I couldn’t figure out how to pilot parachuting Rico onto the landing spot on top of a mountain. This was incredibly frustrating, which is not the emotion you want to give your player during the first minute of the game.
My frustration grew with the incredibly long death sequence. When you die, everything goes black and white and your body is rag-dolled around for a few seconds. Then you are brought to a menu which asks you whether you want to reload. Even after you choose the “reload from checkpoint” option, you are sent to a loading screen which cycles the same 30 “tips” for another 10-20 seconds. Then you are almost invariably sent back to a checkpoint which is far earlier in the mission than it should be.
Open letter to the designers of Just Cause 2: Thank you for making me drive 2 kilometers each time I die. It really makes me appreciate your big open world.
The run and gun play of Just Cause is fun; I certainly appreciated that you could dual-wield any one handed weapon. Tossing down with a pistol in one hand and a submachine gun in another can make you feel like an action star. But the aiming reticle is finicky, and it takes far too many shots to kill random mooks.
The biggest gameplay innovation is the grappling hook (a.k.a. hookshot), which, when paired with your always available parachute, allows you to get around quickly as well as scale buildings and walls. Hooking onto a car from long distance, and then hijacking it, is cool; it’s even cooler when you hook onto a helicopter and throw its pilot out. I found myself muttering, “Get out,” more than once.
Then there are the mechanics that just feel broken. Early on, you unlock the ability to call your black market contact. I was told to equip my beacon and then press Y to make the call, but every time I tried this I got an error reticule. With no help other than the vague “tip” to make sure that I was calling in a drop at a suitable location (there was no indication as to what that meant), I finally realized that I had to aim the beacon at the ground and that I had to press Y exactly once in less than two seconds after equipping the beacon. Once you finally get the black market open, you can only purchase one item at a time. What if I wanted to spend all my dough and buy all of the weapons I could? Well, then I had to make a lot of calls.
The save system felt just as awkward. Just Cause 2 let’s you save anywhere and at any time, but that’s misleading because, when you load those games, you are always taken to the closest stronghold or mission start. I only discovered this from the long drive in the mission I mentioned before, I thought I could create a save point closer to the objective to save myself some driving. No dice, loading that save game put me back at the start of the mission.
This actually ruined the feeling of exploration that could really make Just Cause 2 great. Driving around the island is a lot of fun, and there are lots of collectibles and mini objectives to complete which are not tied to a mission. But if you die while, say, attempting to take out a pesky colonel at a military base you discovered after driving on the other side of the island, you then respawn back at the nearest stronghold. Want to get revenge on the colonel that killed you? I hope you put gas in the tank.
It’s worth mentioning that you can “extract” via the black market to any point on the map that you’ve discovered, but my problems with calling them didn’t really encourage me to take advantage of that mechanic.
There are morsels of fun to be had in Just Cause 2. It’s a noble attempt at delivering a truly open world where you are rewarded for doing pretty much anything you want to do and blowing up stuff. Using timed explosives to blow up a gas tank while Rico coldly walks away, and then getting a big flashing display of how many chaos points that earned you, is a satisfying feeling. It’s just that the moments where everything works like it should are scarce.
Bottom Line: An experiment in sandbox mechanics that rewards you for what you end up doing anyway: blowing stuff up and killing cops. But not all of the systems are refined enough for a AAA game.
Recommendation: Buy if you love causing chaos in huge open worlds, otherwise rent it for some cheap thrills over a weekend.
Greg Tito would like to apologize to all of the innocent citizens of Panau for jumping onto their cars and tossing them out.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.