Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Just Cause 2 (2010)

Why is it that most gamers determine whether a game is casual or hardcore by either its price tag or the “maturity” of its subject matter? Just Cause 2 is a perfect example of a full price (well, at launch, at least) game that has “highly mature” subject matter but is in every sense of the word a casual game. And that’s something more games should aspire to be.

So the story goes… Actually, to be quite honest, I don’t know how the story goes. There’s an evil dictatorship and a bunch of different factions want dominance for their respective revolutions or what have you. You are a more or less superpowered mercenary who does missions for said factions. That’s about as much as I know for sure. I’m going to be completely honest and say that I skipped all but the first few cutscenes. This is in no way a story-driven game and I felt no need to partake in the game’s narrative. Judging from the first few seconds of each cutscene (as I wait for the skip button to work), the in-game dialogue and the few cutscenes I did see, the story is completely one dimensional and the acting is unfathomably laughable. I played this game while listening to podcasts because that’s the sort of game it is. It’s a mindless secondary activity that requires close to zero attention and as a result I decided to skip the story. It’s kind of hard to listen to a podcast and also listen to people speaking in-game.  Now, if somebody tells me that the story is actually good and I’m really missing out on something special, I sincerely apologise and I will make the effort to watch all the cutscenes.

The game is set in the fictional South-East Asian country of Panau. How this place is in SEA is completely beyond me, as it has what is probably the most environmentally diverse land in all of existence. Jungles, rainforests, deserts, snowy mountains, tropical islands, mangroves, cliffs, grassy hills, valleys and metropolitan and rural areas all somehow found a way to live together in this supposedly tropical cluster of islands. I’m not going to complain about the absurdity of this. I simply want to identify it. I don’t care if it doesn’t make any sense; it doesn’t need to and it makes the game’s sandbox far less repetitive than if they were to stick to one environmental style.

The size of the game-world should also be praised. It’s 644 km2, which is pretty fucking commendable, if you ask me. It also doesn’t try to pull any dodgy smoke and mirrors stuff to makes the environment look bigger than it is. Skyrim’s mountains, for instance, aren’t nearly as large as they appear to be, and in comparison to real-world mountains, they’re just hills. In Just Cause 2, however, they just went and built the biggest mountains in any videogame I’ve ever played. Oh, and they’re all entirely traversable, of course.  

The visuals are up and down. Sometimes the game takes some lazy shortcuts (2D sprites for tree foliage), but it usually looks just fine. The damage models for vehicles look extremely good and make collisions and vehicle-oriented combat feel fantastically satisfying. Unfortunately, they’re super repetitive as they all look pretty much identical for each and every vehicle in the game. There are some surprising instances of detail scattered throughout the game, though. If you have a door open while you’re driving a car and you veer too far to either side, the bottom of the door will make contact with the ground and sparks/snow/dust (or whatever’s appropriate) will be sent flying behind you.

Alright, let’s finally get to the fun part of the game. The grappling hook. Oh, the glorious grappling hook. Sure, there are over 100 vehicles that were put in the game with transport being the developers’ main intent. Sure, there are a bunch of different weapons that all do a great job of killing everything. But nobody cares. Every open-world game has that. The grappling hook makes transport a cinch as you use a combination of it and your infinite parachutes (god bless them) to go literally anywhere you want without any hindrances, often faster than with most vehicles. The grappling hook allows for great creativity during combat too. You can attach an enemy car to a plane, fly the plane into an enemy helicopter and jump out at the last second, and while you’re falling through the sky, connect two cars that are speeding in opposite directions and watch them flip into the air and fall into a group of troops, murdering them instantly. If you tried hard enough, you could probably play through the entire game without ever shooting anybody.

Outside of the endlessly wonderful grappling hook and parachutes, all the vehicles and weapons feel useful, unique and enjoyable. The guns, while mainly being your fairly standard modern combat weapons, are fun enough. The SMG feels especially satisfying when duel-wielded. The planes are also exhilarating as shit (as planes are generally wont to be), especially the ones with machine guns and missiles.

Another mechanic I find noteworthy is the black market. At almost any point in the point in the game, you can call in a dude who’ll sell you weapons and vehicles or fast-travel you to any discovered location. The money you spend to get these items or fast-travel is found throughout the game and is also rewarded for completing missions as well as just destroying stuff. What’s so great about this is that it’s essentially a legitimised, contextualised in-game justification for using cheats, and it makes for some great experiences. For example, I was tasked with obliterating an oil rig and had crashed the jet I used to get there into the rig, which blew up the weaponised helicopter it had. As it would have been much easier to blow up everything with an air vehicle, I spawned a small jet on the helipad, drove it off the edge and gained enough speed to fly before I hit the water.

Just Cause 2 is a perfect example of a game that tried to be nothing more than simply entertaining. Its heavy focus on the magnificently successful grappling hook mechanic makes it feel unique from the countless other open world games out there. You’ll feel exhaustingly sluggish and unacrobatic when playing other games of the same ilk for quite some time. The story may not be particularly existent, but that’s totally okay, as the missions are simply there to give you ideas on how to best use the game’s mechanics. I strongly recommend to anybody that’s looking for a brainless fun game to pick up Just Cause 2, as it’s probably in the bargain bins and costs close to nothing (I got it and all the DLC for it for just under $7 AUS on Steam during the Summer Sales). So, if you like fun, buy it. That’s all there is to it. 

Don't forget to check out my friend's podcast that I co-host here.

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