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Avalanche Studios ticks all of the boxes where the first game failed...
With radiant sunsets, snow peaked mountains and crystal clear oceans Panau provides the idyllic holiday destination... provided you can overlook the corrupt dictatorship and violent gangs vying for power and control. It's a setting best observed not from the comfort of first class, or even slumming it up in economy, but strapped to the nose of a jumbo jet momentarily taking in the view before plunging towards the ground and pulling out the parachute at the last opportunity.
Rico Rodriguez is back in the sequel to Avalanche's surprisingly entertaining sandbox romp from 2006. Entertaining is perhaps the best way to surmise the original title, as it certainly had its fair share of problems. Released when one generation was transitioning into the next, Avalanche's attempt to bring the original to the Xbox 360 alongside the Xbox and PS2, was nothing less than ambitious but ultimately foolish. The result, a bug-ridden experience that could have quite easily put a final nail in Rico's coffin before he even had a chance to shine. Fortunately, Just Cause made enough of a splash (hurtling from a hundred or so feet, it would be hard not to) and so Avalanche has the opportunity to bring us the sequel, which builds upon the promise of the original and delivers where Rico's first outing was often found lacking.
This time around, Rico's up against his former mentor and most trusted ally, Tom Sheldon. It still feels little more than cartoon characters wavering over a paper-thin plot to give some context to the action of the game, which is a little odd considering the game has been slapped with an 18+ rating. It's the type of game that you'd imagine teenage boys would enjoy, and not necessarily the edgy, gritty setting that such a rating typically entails. But plot and characters aren't exactly the reason to play a game like Just Cause 2.
Just before the anguished screams of, 'not another sandbox game' ring out, it's worth noting that Avalanche demonstrates an understanding of the genre despite the studio's relative infancy. Sandbox games are a tough undertaking to get right and require a considerable amount of time, effort, and money, so it's no surprise that Just Cause 2 has slipped from its intended 2008 release quite considerably. But it's been worth the wait and there can be little doubt that Avalanche is showing an increasing capacity to handle the genre and leave its mark. After all, a sandbox is only as fun as the toys inside it and this one is stuffed full of carnage, insane possibilities, and plenty of things to blow up.
Learning from their previous mistakes, this time around the Swedish studio has made sure Panau's quite literally stuffed full of material worth taking the time to explore and discover. Yes it's a sandbox game and yes there's three factions vying for power, each of which provide a handful of missions for Rico to undertake as he attempts to track down Sheldon and bring the ruthless dictator Baby Panay to his knees. This certainly isn't the game to push the genre forwards, but it does at least grasp the potential hinted at by the original and deliver an experience that's hard not to find enjoyable.
The thing that Avalanche absolutely nails with Just Cause 2 is in making the trip between A and B, or between missions, much more entertaining than most other attempts in the sandbox genre. Panau's a vast game world, so ensuring travelling across it is as fun as possible is a necessity. It's a sandbox game that, like the best examples, is often more entertaining just to deviate away from the missions and do your own thing.
With missions varying from assassinations, taking hostages, to waging full-on warfare, Just Cause 2 mixes it up to a entertaining degree across the magnitude of challenges on offer. The touch of creativity and the feature that brings the facets together is the Chaos system, which underpins the entire experience. The main storyline is advanced through Agency missions, which are unlocked by completing faction missions, secondary challenges, and general destruction to Baby Panay's buildings and installations. It's a setup that lends a sense of progress no matter what you're doing and encourages exploration and variety beyond the main story arc. However, it does mean the pacing can seem a little erratic at times; the Agency missions are often few and far between and the faction missions can become a little samey after awhile. But ultimately the pace is left to the player, those wanting to rush through the game's main story arc can do so in a little over 12 hours; however there's much more longevity for those that seek out all of that Just Cause 2 has to offer.
Beyond the significant improvement to the game's structure, Avalanche has also taken the key gameplay components back to the drawing board. Fans of the original will know that just as much time is spent in the air as it is on the ground. To this extent, Rico's parachuting and grappling hook antics make a comeback in a big way.
The grappling hook is the key to gaining the most fun from Just Cause 2. It's a sandbox game that encourages you to experiment with this feature and its new found dual hook ability. Pull a guard from his feet towards you, hook two guards together for comedic effect, or tie one to the tail of a plane and quickly take him into orbit... the possibilities are virtually endless. It's also got more functional uses such as towing vehicles or pulling statues of Baby Panay crashing to the ground in scenes reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's downfall. At its most outlandish the hook can be used to tether chasing vehicles to stationary objects and send them catapulting into the air, or hooking a guard to a gas canister, putting a few bullets into the outer casing and watch it propel the unsuspecting victim into the air or hurtle clumsily along the ground. It's a dynamic that never grows tired and makes the most out of areas in the game that would otherwise be somewhat lacking.
Used in conjunction with the parachute, Avalanche has created a means of transport that actually works this time around. Hooking onto vehicles and attempting to parasail never really worked in the original and has thankfully been replaced with a system of slingshotting. It's thoroughly unbelievable but nevertheless an efficient way of getting around the islands, providing a satisfying mechanic akin to web-slinging in the Spider-Man games. The controls still take a little time to get used to, but ultimately are up to the many actions at Rico's disposal.
It's the grapple system that also makes the otherwise largely unremarkable combat more entertaining then it should be. Unfortunately the concept of a game that takes so much pleasure in action and destruction ultimately feels a tad dated. Beyond some entertaining dual weapon combinations, the run-and-gun gameplay has remained largely unchanged from the original. It suits the exaggerated nature of the game, but left us yearning for advancements we now take for granted. It could be argued that Just Cause 2 isn't a game that should be based around a cover mechanic, but we beg to differ. All too often Rico finds himself in a blaze of bullets and it's often difficult to distinguish where it's all coming from. Equally, the manual requirement of pressing a thumbstick to pull the camera closer is a little arduous; we'd rather have seen a system that pulls the camera over the shoulder automatically when aiming down the scopes. Combat isn't helped by the perfunctory enemy AI. Guards will take cover and generally not look too idiotic, but it never elevates the game beyond the arcadey, run-and-gun nature. The aged gunplay and combat is also demonstrated in the staged nature of the destruction throughout Just Cause 2. In an age when destructible environments are taken for granted the selection of canned explosions and destruction falls a little flat, although those that are scripted to blow up do collapse in pretty satisfying ways.
Being finicky, we'd also suggest there's an issue over the lack of anything worthy to spend the hard earned cash that Rico accumulates. Being able to purchase and upgrade weapons and vehicles from a Black Market operator seems like a good idea, but the fact that you're constantly running out of ammo or forgetting where you left the vehicle leaves it largely redundant. It's also not helped by a setup that requires you to purchase each item individually and watch the same cut-scene and loading section over and over again. Ultimately it's easier and cheaper just to use whatever you come across.