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Rico Rodriguez is back, causing carnage and out to track down his former mentor...
The initial mission facing us during the first hands-on demo of Just Cause 2 seemed plainly simple: hi-jack the leading vehicle of the convoy and deliver the passenger to a militant faction vying for power of the luscious tropical landscape of Panau. In true Just Cause tradition, the way in which it happens, however, is far from a routine affair.
Rico Rodriguez's comeback is finally looming on the sun drenched horizon, returning in the long-delayed sequel to Avalanche Studios surprisingly enjoyable debut title. Demonstrating a comprehensive technical prowess, which seems to be a consistent trait amongst Nordic developers, the outlandish exploits of Rico Rodriguez in 2006's Just Cause proved to be enjoyably extreme enough to leave a footprint in the crowded sandbox genre. Developing a sandbox title is no easy task; neither is the decision to create the technology behind it. Choosing to do both of these for their first game seemed overambitious at best, lunacy at worst, but somehow Avalanche just about managed to pull it off. Just Cause had its problems, but it managed to differentiate itself and sell enough copies to justify a sequel.
In hindsight the decision to bridge two generations was a poor one, with the superior Xbox 360 version plagued by bugs and glitches in an engine that was a little too much for the PS2 and hampered by it. Fortunately, this time around the upgraded Avalanche Engine 2.0 has been designed with the current generation in mind. Originally scheduled for a 2008 release, the global financial meltdown and subsequent paranoia hit Avalanche Studios hard with a sizeable reduction in the workforce earlier in the year. Fortunately, from our brief playtest it seems the studio's pinpoint focus on delivering a gameplay experience to match the visuals has only been sharpened by the events.
Certainly the fact that Avalanche Studios haven't been hindered with development on the last generation this time around is immediately noticeable. The result from our brief playtest is that the bugs that plagued the original seem to have been well and truly ironed out, with solid gameplay and a more creative approach to the overall design of the game emerging as a result.
Just Cause 2 takes place on the fictional series of islands known as Panau. Bringing a range of landscapes beyond its predecessor's luscious tropical scenery, the gargantuan 400 square miles cover everything between desert plains and snowy tipped mountains, which highlight the vastly increased altitude limit of the game world. Set against a backdrop that finds Rico in search of his former boss and mentor Tom Sheldon, who for reasons currently unknown has gone rogue, Panau is home to three factions vying for power and each needing his assistance.
Fortunately, it seems as though Avalanche hasn't only got a good understanding of what was wrong with the original, but also what was right. Hopping along plane wings, clutching hold of a car bumper while shooting the occupants, and dangling from helicopters into dramatic freefalls before launching the parachute at the last opportunity are the ordinary dealings in a day in the life of Rico Rodriguez. Without a cover system the combat appears to be a routinely run-and-gun affair, although the high tempo and chance to dual wield any combination of single-arm weapons and juggle bodies in the air under a barrage of SMG bullets gives an indication of where Just Cause 2 is heading. It's all mindless action, but it's still pretty fun.
The potential to rise above such mindless action lies with the upgraded Grapple system at Rico's disposal. Expanding upon its limited use in the first game the grapple unleashes a wealth of options as to how you go about combat in Just Cause 2. A tap of the left shoulder button hooks onto objects in the reticule, pulling anything that's lighter towards Rico and pulling him towards anything that's heavier. Holding onto the button tethers two objects together; the resulting technique opening up a range of possibilities only limited by your own imagination. Faced by a jeep in fast pursuit, Rico can jump onto to the roof of his own vehicle and tether the pursuing jeep to a nearby tree with devastating results, two opponents can be tied together to comedic effect, while a journey up the heights of Panau's largest skyscrapers is always more scenic from outside.
There's a satisfying degree of skill required to the grapple as it requires a very specific aim, but the opportunity to perform more creative mechanisms of death such as tethering an opponent to a gas canister and turning it into a makeshift rocket should provide the depth that it initially seems to lack. The grapple can also be employed outside of combat, such as towing two vehicles or providing the propulsion needed to maintain speed with the parachute.
The physics behind the vehicles, particular the land-based variety at high speeds, still contain an element of the improbable and flip over with any undulation of the terrain. It seems as though the physics are a little off, but it could be argued that this perfectly suits the exaggerated style of Just Cause. Our demonstration also provided the opportunity to try out helicopters and small planes, both of which offer the variety in transport needed by such a vast game world. With such a large environment the ability to call in for weapons drops, vehicles and extraction (quick travel) is a much needed necessity and we're very thankful for it.
The little we saw left us confident that the core mechanics are shaping up to be solid and enjoyable, although whether Avalanche Studios has managed to address another, slightly more significant, issue of the original is harder to judge from the limited playtest. Just Cause had a beautiful landscape and fun gameplay, but there was very little substance beyond the main missions. The sequel employs a Chaos system, which charts the amount of carnage created and unlocks additional missions, side missions and more accordingly. It's the gel that unites the various parts, and hopefully the means to provide a compellingly varied yet cohesive experience.
Our playtest only offered a sample of the missions available from the factions, which work alongside the main storyline missions and traditional side missions such as races. Parachuting down to a convoy of jeeps to secure the occupant of the leading vehicle was a good demonstration of how the tethering and excessive gameplay combine to good effect. Catapulting a pursuing jeep is a gratuitous pleasure that never tires. Shortly after delivering the VIP, a mission towards the north of the map became available and highlighted just how important the grapple is. Part of the challenge in the mission involved scaling towering skyscrapers and setting off explosives at the top. Of course this provides plenty of scope for amusing ways to dispatch the guards that patrol the area, such as using the grapple system to dangle a poor opponent by his feet from the edge of the tower or pulling them towards their doom over the towering abyss below. It all finished with a truly blockbuster finale as Rico jumps off the towers and sets off the explosions behind him.
Like the original, Just Cause 2 looks to leave its mark on the sandbox genre with an approach that is nothing short of the extreme and exaggerated. Many of the elements that made the original stand out make a return and have been polished to good effect. More importantly, it seems that the sequel will provide the fun outside of the main missions that the original was sorely lacking.
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