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TVG base-jumps to the island of Panau to get a first look at Avalanche's big sequel...
The scene opens with Rico, our hero, freefalling towards the horizon while the sun rises over the island of Panau. As he hurtles towards the ground, and the desert looms closer, a small settlement becomes just visible in the distance. Landing short of it, Rico jogs to the nearest suitable point for a base jump. Before long Rico is gliding through the air again and with one hand guiding the parachute, and the other steadying a rocket launcher, he takes aim to make sure his arrival is noticed.
This is not the opening to the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but the first snippet of gameplay shown to us by Avalanche Studios of Just Cause 2. Peter Johansson, the lead developer, was visibly proud as he took us through our first look of the game, and he had good reason to be. This game looks to have achieved the cinematic quality that its predecessor had in doses, but never fully realised.
There Will Be Blood
After Rico's dramatic entry, we were shown just what Rico can really do. A jeep rushes up to him and several guards stream out and take cover. At this point Rico could just shoot them, like a normal game character, but no, that's not good enough. Instead, to punish them for their evil ways, Rico shoots a guard with his grappling hook, tethers the other end to a nearby car and then drives the around until the guard has stopped moving.
Unsatisfied with this opening level of brutality, we were then shown how Rico can tether enemies to any object in the environment to differing effects. Attaching enemies to a static object, such as a brick wall, will cause a bungee effect where they will fly back into the wall at breakneck speeds. Or better yet, tie two enemies to another to see them fly into each other. The pièce de résistance though, is the tantalising promise that Rico will be able to tether a car to a helicopter to create a DIY wrecking ball that Wile-E-Coyote would have been proud of.
Next to this, the more routine combat gameplay looks fairly dry. A lock-on system that can target individual body parts should also prove fun, but next to GTA IV's slick cover system it could end up feeling a little shallow. With these new combat moves Avalanche has tried to make the grapple hook a much more integral gameplay element than in the last game. It's now attached to Rico's arm and with no need to constantly equip and unequip, it now seems to play a much more fluid part of moving around in Panau's massive landscape.
With forest, arctic and desert regions, Panau provides a setting unlike any sandbox game before. With the exception of the arctic areas, which at this point seemed to only have one type of tree (picky, we know), the island is stunning. It has to look great because you will be spending a huge amount of your time gliding above it. Panau is huge, 2482 football pitches huge apparently, and with massive areas that contain no towns or roads, driving isn't always an option. The process of hooking onto a distant point, reeling it in at huge speed and then releasing the hook, opening the parachute to glide to your destination looks like it will become second nature to players. From what we were shown it doesn't look like a bad way to get around either.
At the same time as Rico has been wreaking havoc in the small settlement, a pair of gauges have been filling in the corners of the HUD. One is a heat gauge - nothing new - and the other is a chaos gauge. Herein lies the essence of Just Cause 2. As you carry out your mindless destruction of small villages you're actually filling a quota of chaos. As you get closer to 100% by destroying extra targets such as vital pipelines or propaganda, you start to unlock items and upgrades for your character. In this way, whenever you're creating chaos, big or small, you're completing the game.
As night draws in on the burning wreckage of the settlement, lights start blinking on the horizons of Panau and it's time for a mission. Getting there, Johansson demonstrates the different methods of transport available in Just Cause 2. By comparison to the grappling hook/parachute mechanic, the cars looked slow and boring, until they are driven off the edge of a highway in a cinematic flourish. By leaping out and opening the parachute we glide to the next destination: an airbase to pick up a fighter jet.
Arriving at the mission in style (there doesn't seem to be any other way in Just Cause 2), we're told to cause as much chaos as possible to force our target out of hiding. Flying around the base, it's apparent that there are several ways to approach this. By plane it's possible to take out the radar to stop anti-aircraft rockets and by ground the missile platforms look like ripe targets. Eventually, when the enemy colonels do emerge, minions of the evil dictator appear to make life difficult and, next to the riotous fun of the fighter jet, the core gameplay looks a little staid.
The newly developed Avalanche 2 game engine should ensure that the bugs of the first game won't come back to haunt Just Cause 2. Small finishing touches such as the gathering snow or sand on Rico's clothes suggest a level of finish that wasn't present in the original. As long as this level of polish isn't superficial, Just Cause 2 could be one of the great games of the year.
The original Just Cause suffered from buggy gameplay that felt shallow once the stunts were taken away. That said, it was an impressive first game from Avalanche Studios that looked to take on the creators and giants of the sandbox genre: Rockstar. The first game drew inevitable comparisons with Grand Theft Auto that were impossible to meet. However, with the focus on blisteringly fast, the adrenaline-drenched gameplay in Just Cause 2 is carving out a niche of its own. We are eagerly awaiting its release in Autumn 2009.