Monday, March 29, 2010

Just Cause 2 Review

Just Cause 2, developed by Avalanche Studios and published by Square Enix.
The Good: Grappling hook and parachute produce very unique stunt-based gameplay with over-the-top action, extensive sandbox world to explore and subsequently destroy, large library of upgradable weapons and vehicles
The Not So Good: Repetitive outside of missions, atrocious voice acting, no multiplayer
What say you? An exhilarating action movie come to life: 7/8

First person shooters have been in a realistic mode of late, entrenching themselves in Modern Warfare Battlefields of Bad Company. There’s only so much room for titles like ArmA II and its extreme attachment to reality. Sometimes, you just want to run around and blow crap up. That’s Just Cause 2 in a nutshell: you are recruited to overthrow an evil government by laying waste to fuel tanks and cranes. Makes sense to me! Just Cause 2 comes with two “killer apps”: a grappling hook that can be attached to anything (or between any two objects) and a parachute that can be deployed at any time. That sounds like physics-filled fun and mayhem; does Just Cause 2 provide enough longevity to make tethering a jeep to a helicopter fun each and every time?

The graphics of Just Cause 2 are generally quite good. First off is the setting: the island of Panau, being a completely fictitious setting, exhibits a dramatic range of climates, from desert to jungle to glaciated. Each of these biomes is littered with tons of detail, from small hamlets to large cities and military bases, all complete with lots of (albeit repetitive) buildings and things to blow up. Explosions are nice fireballs, and vehicles show some amount of gradual damage before they burst into flames (darn those flammable windshields!). Character models are well done, with some nice detail on the protagonist that you will be staring at for most of the game, as Just Cause 2 is played from a third person perspective. The most impressive aspect of Just Cause 2’s graphics is the draw distance: you can see the terrain from one end of the archipelago to another, and travel to anything in between. There is no fog on the horizon here, just some concessions on surface object detail based on the power of your machine. Things also look nice as you transition into nighttime, complete with scenic sunsets. I experienced good performance and little lag when accessing a new part of the map: pretty impressive. The sound design is less impressive, however: while the weapons sound convincing enough, the voice acting (if you can call it that) is truly terrible, and not in an amusing way. From mispronunciations to stereotyping, listening to people speak in Just Cause 2 is a painful experience all around. You can skip most (but not all) of the cut scenes that will burn a hole in your soul. Still, Just Cause 2 delivers solid graphical results, so that’s certainly something.

You are Rico “Stereotype” Rodriguez, hired to shoot some guy in the face in the Asian island nation of Panau. Your first choice is difficulty, without actually knowing how challenging Just Cause 2 is; I just went with the “normal” option and it seems to be well balanced. The tutorial, which lasts the first two missions before you are let loose, actually lets you do fun stuff instead of inane target practice that is so common in combat-focused games. Just Cause 2 allows you to save your progress at any point, but if you exit the game, you’ll always start again at the nearest stronghold, though anything you’ve collected and destroyed will stay intact (well, not intact, I suppose). If you die during a mission, you thankfully don’t have to do the whole thing over, as the frequent automatic checkpoints are liberally distributed. The biggest (and really only) missing feature is multiplayer: you cannot enjoy Just Cause 2 with others. It’s actually probably a good thing that Just Cause 2 doesn’t contain competitive multiplayer. Think about it: imagine thirty-two people running around with grappling hooks and parachutes. You’d never be able to hit anybody; it would be idiotic chaos. Now, cooperative multiplayer with two people would be fun, but I do not think it’s a must-have inclusion. The world of Just Cause 2 is vibrant enough to make single-player-only features sufficient.

Just Cause 2 features a more complicated control scheme than your typical shooter. It takes a little while to become accustomed to the correct commands, but the constant on-screen hints help the process. I do prefer having more keys for the various actions rather than recycling the game buttons, though, so at least Just Cause 2 takes advantage of the keyboard’s increased range of options. Before too long, you’ll be evading and grappling with ease. Just Cause 2 does feature quick time events using the number keys; I always prefer having a skill-based affair rather than coordinated button mashing, but at least the decrypting sequences make contextual sense. Just Cause 2 features an impressively large and detailed game world, spanning a thousand square kilometers over several islands. There are over three hundred points of interest set in many different climates that provide a variety of places to kill some enemies, from towns to military bases and offshore oil rigs. Just Cause 2 features a good waypoint system: just middle-click on any place on the map and arrows superimposed on the roads show you the way.

Most of your time in Just Cause 2 will be spent blowing up government structures, clearly marked with red and white stars. These range from gas pumps to SAM facilities to radio towers to propaganda trailers. “Clearing” villages by destroying all of the red buildings and collecting all power-ups is the fastest way of unlocking new missions and items. It can take some trial and error finding everything hidden away: there is a radar in the upper left corner of the screen that blinks if you are close to objects, but the game does not indicate where destroyable objects might be lurking. I have several towns that are 90% complete and I can’t seem to find the last pesky item to destroy: kind of annoying. Earning chaos by destroying things unlocks missions from the agency and three criminal factions, new strongholds to storm, and additional black market items. The missions are somewhat repetitive, usually involving escorting a unit, killing a key enemy, or destroying a specific item, but there is some variety in the enemies you’ll encounter and the friendly units that will assist you. It’s certainly more interesting than mindlessly blowing stuff up. Taking a stronghold for a faction will unlock new missions in that area and give you a base to respawn at when you die. Enemy units will engage you when you start destroying their shiny things, but interest dies down quickly enough so you aren't constantly harassed by enemies. The racing challenges, however, are completely out of place.

Time to talk about what makes Just Cause 2 unique. First is the grappling hook, which can be attached to any object for movement purposes or between any two objects for even more fun and excitement. The possibilities here are endless and you’re always trying to think of new ways to use it. The game has some suggestions through the achievements you can earn: pulling enemies off ledges, dragging enemies behind cars, hanging enemies from a ceiling, dangling a car beneath a helicopter and using it as a wrecking ball, attaching enemies to a gas canister and shooting it so it flies away. This is stuff that simply can’t be done in other games, and that’s the appeal of Just Cause 2. This is coupled with the liberal use of the parachute, which can be deployed at any time. Need to get out of a car before it hits a fuel tank? Deploy parachute! You can also move around vehicles easily while they are on the move, jumping from hood to hood and using the grill as cover. Action sequences such as driving a vehicle head on into an enemy jeep, parachuting out at the last second, grappling to a helicopter, throwing the pilot out, blowing up an enemy silo with rockets, jumping out and grappling to a sniper tower, dragging an enemy off another tower, grappling an enemy jeep to the ground causing it to flip, and detaching a turret for increased firepower are common-place in Just Cause 2. And that’s why it’s awesome.

What’s an action game without guns? Lots of guns. Rico can carry two one-handed weapons (pistols, submachine guns, sawed-off shotguns), one for each holster, and one two-handed weapon (assault rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher), secured to his back. Makes sense, and you can see your character take them out in third person, which is kind of cool. Add in grenades and triggered explosives and you have a walking force of nature. You can dual wield two one-handed weapons simultaneously (personal favorite combination: sawed off shotgun and submachine gun), though that obviously limits your ability to throw grenades. Just Cause 2 features limited ammunition, which means you’ll be picking up new weapons from fallen enemies often, kind of annoying since guns are expensive to purchase. You’ll also have access to a variety of vehicles: motorcycles, jeeps, tanks, helicopters, jets, cars, and boats. There are a variety of ways to get around the islands. You can use the vehicles to knock down trees, or attach a car to a helicopter and crush some enemies. Vehicles suffer damage over time and you can actually blow out tires to slow down pursuers. Just Cause 2 features plenty of unnecessary explosions. If you can’t find interesting weapons and vehicles, the black market dealer can provide them for a price. New items are unlocked over time and can be upgraded with collectable upgrades for weapons, vehicles, and armor. The black market dealer can also provide speedy transportation to any previously visited location around the islands for free. He’s so nice!

Just Cause 2 obviously features unbalanced battles, where you are up against superior numbers in almost every confrontation. The enemy AI does show some intelligent behavior, taking cover behind vehicles or other objects. They don’t run to those objects, though, so if you start shooting at them in the middle of the road, they are as good as dead. You certainly need to cleverly utilize your grappling hook in order to dispose of the enemies efficiently, though. Picking your battles is important and retreating when you are outnumbered, waiting for the heat to die down, is a good strategy. Teammates are almost useful: they will man guns on equipped vehicles and at least give you ten seconds of fire support before they get shot (or you drive into a ditch, flipping them out of the turret…oopsy!). This behavior occurs outside of scripted missions, too, increasing the immersion of a living world. There is no auto-aiming on the PC to compensate for an inferior control mechanism (mouse and keyboard FTW!), but the grappling hook indicator does preferentially select enemy units for easier grabbing and pulling. You commonly look for unconventional and exotic ways to dispose of the enemies; simply shooting them one at a time will not suffice, since they are always several of them and only one of you. There is no severe penalty for death: you simply respawn at the nearest base (or reload the last checkpoint if you are on a mission) with all of the progress saved. Because of this, even the most heavily guarded bases can be cleared eventually, since you get an infinite number of retries (although ammunition is continually used up). You are intrinsically motivated to clear everything, and Just Cause 2 gives you enough tools to make the adventure action-packed. The action does get a bit repetitive, since most villages are comprised of the same features (water tower, trailer, statue). But then you find a tank, and all is right with the world.

Just Cause 2 is one of those games you tell stories about, like the time I tethered a motorcycle to the back of my jeep and used it as a nunchuck, whipping enemies off their feet. Good times. The game successfully executes its unique combination of outrageous stunts involving stunts, the parachute, and the grappling hook. You can attach yourself to anything, or attach anything to anything else: this amount of freedom is fantastic and allows you to pull off some amazing stunts and truly inventive ways of disposing pesky enemies (melee kill a dangling enemy, for example). Add in vehicle stunts (riding on the hood and moving around the grill) and we have completely unrealistic but completely fun mechanics. The AI isn’t a total push-over, as they will use nearby cover (walls, vehicles) to make for a more difficult opponent, but expert use of your grappling hook will dispose of them quickly enough. The extensive control scheme takes some time to learn, but the game helpfully provides constant hints on how to pull off various actions. The island nation of Panau is amazingly large and exquisitely detailed, with over 300 villages and bases to explore and/or destroy. It is also a vibrant setting, as normal citizens go about their normal activities while you blow stuff up around them. And blow up you will, as destroying government structures is required to advance along the main story line and unlock new missions and items to buy from the black market dealer. There is a wide selection of upgradable weapons and vehicles to purchase and/or steal. The missions serve up the same general objectives (kill somebody or collect something), but the varied elements you’ll encounter along the way make for some distinctive jobs. Yeah, cooperative multiplayer could have been really cool and the sandbox nature of the game does get a bit repetitive after a while, but Just Cause 2 sure is a fun ride.