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As Just Cause 2 parachutes into sight, TVG sits down for one final hands on with Avalanche Studios' open-worlder...
Sandbox games have arguably missed more than they've hit on current-gen consoles - aside from GTA IV, most other open-world games have failed to leave a lasting impression on the PS3 and Xbox 360. Put another way, the most emergent new genre of the last generation has become something of a slouch on current-gen machines. While titles such as inFamous and Prototype have shown promise but ultimately fallen short of the "Sandbox 2.0" that TVG's editor, Chris Leyton is patiently awaiting, other games such as The Saboteur and Mercs 2 from the now defunct Pandemic have been truly woeful.
New ideas are clearly needed for a young genre that's found itself in stagnation at a worryingly early stage. Judging from what we've seen of Just Cause 2, its game features may not be quite as revolutionary as the plot themes underpinning them, but at least it's starting to deliver on the potential of the previous-gen, 2006 original. If the first Just Cause provided gamers with a vast island to explore and a nifty parachuting protagonist to explore it with, but ultimately left this open-world frustratingly barren with repetitive missions on the ground, then Avalanche is clearly making sure that its bases are covered in this regard for Just Cause 2.
Judging by the in-game map of Panau, which we've been able to take an extended look at, the sheer number of missions across this truly vast landscape are formidable to say the least. A few hours with the build allowed us to unlock all of the initial missions, which detailed the various factions in the game and how to unlock missions from them using 'Chaos', but there were still literally hundreds of locked primary and side-missions littered across Panau just begging to be uncovered. Make no mistake, a full playthrough of Just Cause 2 including all the secondary objectives will rest on the upper-echelons of game length for a sandbox title.
It's the amount of variation in these missions that will be the key to its long-term appeal though. Given just a few hours of hands on time with the game, we were already flying a light plane through a time trialled air race, slinging between cable cars to scale a ravine, scaling a skyscraper to rescue an alcoholic informant from armoured gunships, and blowing up a heavily defended gas depot to convince one of the game's factions that we were worthy of their cause. So, in a word, yes: there seems to be enough variation on hand in the missions, and that's without even considering the novel gameplay features that Avalanche has provided to aid the over-the-top sandbox antics.
Utilities such as Rico Rodriguez's parachute and grappling hook make for one of the better toolsets in any sandbox world, rivalled only by the likes of Spider-Man's web-slinging abilities in his many open-world appearances. Avalanche has certainly honed its craft in this sequel as well, with a range of fine touches that open up exponential amounts of 'Chaos' opportunities and varied approaches to a mission. Whether Rico is using the grappling hook to tether a pursuing vehicle to the ground (making it somersault into the air and down the side of a cliff as a result), or to attach an enemy to a nearby gas canister before shooting it to make the poor guy hurtle off haphazardly into space, there's rarely a dull moment in Just Cause 2. On the contrary, it almost leaves you spoilt for choice during its many set-pieces.
Making 'Chaos' the name of the game also appears to be a shrewd move that encourages gamers to dial-up the destruction with explosive moments that would make Michael Bay jealous. Put simply, the more carnage Rico manages to unleash, the more he's rewarded with 'Chaos' points, which can then be used to unlock more missions and new weapon drops for Rico to take advantage of. It's a bit like Kudos in Project Gotham Racing, only with napalm and C4 explosives rather than a Lamborghini Gallardo and burnt rubber.
Traversing the game's 1000 square kilometres of game world is hardly a chore either. Sure, cars and bikes are always an option, but why bother when you can simply do a bit of car surfing, paraglide from the rear-bumper of another driver's car, and then take a aerial detour by latching onto the ground with Rico's grappling hook and pulling him along just above a forest canopy or snow-covered mountain top? Speaking of which, the environments are both far-reaching and widely varied in Just Cause 2, exhibiting the impressive capabilities of the Avalanche 2.0 engine. Sticky, humid jungles blend effortlessly into humble townships or areas of heavy industry, before rising up into rocky mountains caked in powdery snow.
The view of this from the ground is impressive, but pales in comparison to the simply stunning vistas on show when parachuting Rico down onto Panau from a high altitude. As is now the Just Cause convention, like going on a rampage in GTA, we took a plane up to the game's roof (a good few thousand feet at least) before jumping out and descending to the ground below. Seen from here, the landscapes looked like something out of a National Geographic cover story, while the night lights of the island's capital city left us blinking in disbelief... we've had less serene descents into actual cities from real planes - truly.
During these escapades, the physics on show weren't quite as realistic as the views. Being able to open up a parachute at terminal velocity mere feet away from the ground was a little dubious, but Just Cause 2 is a game after all and the physics were well dealt with elsewhere. One car crash that left our vehicle plummeting down a mountainside into a cascade of flips and rolls was particularly lifelike and knocked on the door of GTA IV levels of credibility, putting the flimsy physics of most other sandbox games to shame.
Just Cause 2 certainly appears to have filled all the gaps left in the original, offering players plenty to do, a range of factions to interact with, and innumerable gameplay opportunities to stretch Avalanche's open-world to its limits. The visuals are top-notch for the genre as well, making Just Cause 2 a strong nominee for best-of-the-rest in the sandbox gaming stakes.