Standing in an increasingly crowded field that includes games other sandbox-of-destruction titles like Mercenaries 2 and Red Faction: Guerilla, Just Cause 2 has a lot to live up to, though not by any virtue of its predecessor. The original game in the series was interesting and creative but somewhat limp in the gameplay department, something the sequel tries to remedy by cranking the knob to 11 and tearing it off. Borrowing elements of the aforementioned games while building on the basic framework of the first one, Just Cause 2 soars high on violence, action, and destruction and in the process becomes more entertaining than any of the titles in its DNA.
Plot is a thin veneer on which hangs the crazy-go-nuts rollicking freight train of action that forms the thick meat of the game. But for those that really care, the excuse of having Rico tearing up fictional island living is the idea that a brutal dictator, Baby Panau, has taken over, much to the consternation of Ricoís employers. In order to help make life difficult for Baby, itís up to Rico to disrupt the lives of everyday citizens as much as possible by simply causing chaos on an increasingly large scale Ė basically, by just blowing the hell out of infrastructure such as generators, oil pipelines and water towers, as well as military amenities such as AA guns and transmission towers. In so doing, Rico paves the way for the progression of what few story missions there are, though these are typically quite extensive and involve some of the most high-powered, high-flying action you could imagine, whether itís disabling a series of missiles or hopping between skyscraper-style hotel towers to take out murderous generals before they take you out.
The reality of Just Cause 2 is that the real heart of the thing is in roaming wildly across the Panauan countryside, blowing stuff up. And there is absolutely no shortage of that: after some 40 hours of play, Iíd taken over maybe a third of the villages, military bases, airstrips and communication outposts scattered liberally across the many environments. There are plenty of other corollary distractions, if simply zapping between areas isnít your thing. There are races on boats, planes and cars, as well as side missions on offer from three of the gameís mostly criminal anti-government factions, which in turn are essentially miniature, smaller-scale versions of the story missions, but no less satisfying. If thatís not enough, each faction also has 100 collectables scattered across the land. These are similar to the countless vehicle and weapon parts you can pick up in your takeover efforts, which allow you to upgrade the handful of vehicles and weapons on offer via airlift from a Mysterious Friend. This provides additional encouragement to push forward through your chaos-spreading journey, as it not only allows you to beef up the grenades, assault rifles and machine guns you can purchase, but it also enhances the proverbial menu with bigger and better things. Other pickups allow you to enhance your health bar, even if just by a smidge, though this too proves crucial over time.
If that wasnít enough variety, thereís also the issue of transportation, which in itself is nothing short of jaw-dropping. There are some 104 unique vehicles available to carry you from the arid desert to the snowy mountaintops, and each one has very specific and particular characteristics, making each a very distinctive experience. While a sports car will help you tear across the highways with no small amount of speed, you may find a dunebuggy more apt for slightly rocky terrain. Similarly, lighter choppers are great for precision movement, while fighter jets are great for flying fast and blowing things the hell up. Only boats are less useful in their variety, as there are plenty of slow clunkers, whereas only the speedboats are of any real significance in terms of getting you from Point A to Point B.
And then thereís the greatest transportation option of them all: the grapple-and-parachute combo. By using his grappling arm to latch onto a distant point and then activating his infinite-reuse parachute, Rico can bring himself up to rocket speeds before deploying his pack and soaring loftily on the winds. Combined with the ability to grapple the ground while still parachuting, Rico can continuously travel in the air, practically forever, even up mountaintops. Itís decidedly slower than some flight options but significantly faster than most vehicles as it allows you to bypass the height and rockiness of the terrain by simply soaring from above Ė never mind that you can still spray distant baddies with gunfire while youíre doing it. Itís tremendously liberating and makes transportation a cinch and a joy, something that could have very easily made or broken the Just Cause 2 experience, as moving from place to place without stress or struggle is integral to the fun. With the grapple-and-chute combo, the game pulls it off beautifully, and makes one wonder why more developers canít lock down the concept of this ease of mobility. In fact, itís because of this mechanic that the gameís chaotic spirit can be amped up beyond your wildest dreams. Itís very possible and common to use a gatling gun to blow up half a military base, then use your grappling arm to latch onto and hijack a defending attack chopper, then use the chopper to blow up some pursuing enemies, then dive from your exploding ride and parachute your way down only to land on top of a passing pedestrian vehicle, at which point you ride off to your next bit of destruction. Simply glorious.
Speaking of the grappling arm, it should be noted specifically as one of the most entertaining additions to the game. Not only does it allow for rapid movement, either to a distant roof, vehicle or gun emplacement, but it also allows for some truly great mischief. Rico can actually hook the opposite end of the hook onto other objects, meaning he can plunk one end into an enemy, and the other onto a roof to allow you to beat him like a piŮata. Alternatively, you can plunk the other end into a moving car and watch your foe get dragged off into the distance. Or you can plunk the other end into an explosive barrel and watch him get airborne. The opportunities arenít quite endless, but they do allow for considerable imagination, something which is both intensely fun and appropriate to the gameís sandbox-on-steroids nature.
Just Cause 2ís visuals are worth mentioning as well, as theyíre often both wondrous and breathtaking. While the character models are nothing to write home about, thereís something truly spectacular in taking in the distant mountains and faint blinking lights of far-off villages as you soar above the jungle canopy, and the sun setting over the ocean. There is no shortage of great sights, which are often only enhanced by the weather and day/night cycle, allowing you to experience rainy nighttime village raids, or boat races at dusk. Special mention should also be made of the explosions: theyíre simply fantastic. For a game that pursues violence and pure destruction as its hallmark, the simple act of blowing something up continues to be a real joy over and over and over again, even after dozens upon dozens of hours, due in large part to how great the explosions look, sound and feel.
Just Cause 2 is just one of many sandbox-of-destruction games in a growing line, but it manages to set itself apart and provide a decidedly visceral and satisfying experience by embracing its belief in giving the player never-ending options to blow stuff the hell up. The plot ainít anything worth writing home about, but then youíre not playing for story here; the action is the heart of this thing, and it beats a million times a minute. While the proceedings can become somewhat repetitive, it could be argued that Just Cause 2 is best enjoyed in half-hour bursts, though this is no knock on its quality. Itís clearly designed for long-term play, and with its sheer variety of missions, collectables and races, itís an OCD gamerís dream. With its wonderfully chaotic, non-stop action, crazy transportation options and creative use of grappling hooks, itís more than able to sustain oneís interest over many, many hours. Just Cause 2 is a great game, and one of the best of its kind.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)