Just Cause 2 is a game that shares plenty with the platoon of middling sandbox games vying for time in between Grand Theft Auto’s, but it has one trick up its sleeve none of those games have: the grappling hook. The grapple is used for everything from stealing vehicles, fighting and transport to more eccentric activities: tying a civilian to a plane and taking off, attaching a car to a helicopter and using it as a wrecking ball, pulling a soldier out of a tower. Literally anything.
And it’s only really once you play something else that you truly appreciate it and how much it saves Just Cause 2 from the pits of mediocrity.
Because Just Cause 2 is a game with one idea: make shit explode. That’s all you do. You’re given an absolute behemoth of a map, possibly the biggest map I’ve ever played on that isn’t called Azeroth, and a shed-load of tools designed to help you achieve that goal.
As far as the map goes, if you were to uproot all the points of interest and put them together into a makeshift Atlantis City the points that do bear some relevance probably wouldn’t take up much more room than an island and a half of GTA:IV. And of the several-hundred settlements only a handful offer anything to distinguish themselves from their neighbours. The civilian airport is a barrel of laughs, as are the military bases, but for the most part they all stock the same supply of helicopters, tanks and jet fighters. Not that these aren’t all a riot to drive. Vehicles control smoothly and there’s nothing quite like causing death from above but there’s no escaping the fact that there’s precious little of interest inside this outrageously huge map. Scaling the heights and free falling is fun for five minutes, but in a way it feels as though Panau is only so big to show off the tech that allows for perhaps the best draw distances ever.
Each settlement has its own bank of hidden items and buildings to demolish. Military bases tend to be better defended and you’ll find yourself in a helicopter – if not out of choice out of necessity because the police turn up in them quickly and it’s easier to hijack than destroy – sooner rather than later. Civilian settlements are less well defended but have fewer items to compensate.
Weapon and vehicles parts all combine toward upgrading the many weapons and purchasable vehicles in the game, making them faster or more powerful while health crates are, obviously, used to increase your health meter. But there are so many of them that the tiny increases to your health are totally irrelevant. The upgrades to weapons and vehicles are more useful but you’ll soon find a combination of guns that suits you so that trawling through the settlements becomes a fruitless affair.
It doesn’t help that the vehicles were all built to take part in a summer Hollywood blockbuster because they explode at the sight of a pothole.
Such is their nature that the vehicles become single use items. You can land planes but they’ll disappear as soon as you turn your back and it’s easier to leap out of a helicopter and find a new one than try to land it and come back after you’ve destroyed another garden center.
The campaign is made up of just seven missions but there’s no real narrative and the goals of these missions are all the same: make stuff go boom. Supposedly, Panau used to be a peaceful community protected by the US but then an evildoer turned up, erected statues in his image all over town, brought with him an infinite supply of soldiers and helicopters and declared marshal law. Then the Japanese came to claim a piece of Panau Pie and the US got carte blanche to kill everyone. So in comes our hero Scorpio to nuke their water supplies, cut off their electricity and tie their women to airplanes before piloting them it into a nearby mountain. Hoo-fucking-ray.
Even better, the characters all have names like Razor. They say things like, “the thought of him choking on his own blood makes me quiver with joy.” And all the bosses have facial disfigurements because everyone in Panau is that hardcore.
The story lasts all of a couple of hours, thankfully, but sneakily you can’t play straight through the game without straying from the barely visible path because the missions only unlock after you’ve caused a certain amount of chaos. Chaos is, effectively, the game’s currency. Blow up a car: you earn chaos. Air strike a water tower: have some chaos. Nuke a nursery: chaos. Anything Scorpio does that that involves killing, exploding, maiming or wrecking elicits chaos, which is accumulated and, when you’ve ruined the lives of enough innocuous natives, you unlock a story mission where you get to do that some more.
But there are only seven of those so the main bulk of missions come instead in the form of faction quests, stronghold takeovers and little missions received from pay phones, GTA style. But as per the story-quests these all involve making something – usually a lot of things – go, you guessed it, ka-boom.
It’s one conceit used again and again and again. And again.
Sometimes you blow shit up with other people; usually you blow shit up alone. Sometimes you blow shit up in a plane. Sometimes you do it in a tank, but more often than not you’ll be doing it on foot. Sometimes you blow up.
One mission has you rescuing one of Scorpio’s buddies from a torture chamber. How, you ask, do you go about such a feat? Well, Sam Fisher, don’t bother packing your bags because instead of stealthily infiltrating, swapping out bazookas for throwing knives and helicopters for one of those dingy things for some midnight stealth you just cruise right over the base in broad daylight, in a military helicopter and glass everything within a four mile radius. Then all the guards come sprinting out into a hail of metal, firing their pistols up at you as you rearrange their innards with a flurry of never-ending missiles.
The Panau Police are like so many gnats on a warm night. The kind of cretins who will happily jog toward a tank firing a pistol in the vein home that there was a manufacturing defect in the precise position they are firing. When you’re raining down fire from a helicopter it’s just funny. When you’re trying to take over a base they become a cancer. Avalanche showing no consideration to just how annoying pouring wave after wave of the same reprobates into the fray while you’re trying to blow stuff up can be.
But even then there dying isn’t really a concern unless you’re in the middle of a mission; you just pick up destroying shit somewhere else. It’s all the same, an OCD freaks nightmare. There’s a reason the “Perfectionist” achievement is awarded at the 75% completion mark and it’s not because the developer has an issue with basic maths. I think.
Other issues arrive in the form of quick-time events, vehicles disappear whenever you turn your back on them (even the ones you buy) and the voice acting is abominable. The idiot who airdrops your vehicles has a habit of dropping planes so that they’re facing a wall and the AI driver’s career into your $100,000 investment like it’s a piñata filled with one-way tickets out of Panau. It even does that annoying thing where the PDA opens automatically every time you do something to inform you that you’ve done it. And when all you’re doing is causing fiery destruction there’s really no need to get in the way.
But it’s precisely the kind of game you can drift in and out of over the course of months. Contrary to the amount of explosions found within, Just Cause 2 won’t be setting the world on fire but it’s a solid enough sandbox clusterfuck that you’ll find yourself revisiting Panau from time to time just to cause a ruckus.
Indeed, it’s quite the endorsement that, five months after first putting it in the Xbox, I’m still causing the kind of chaos that would transcend the wildest dreams of a fifteen-year old summer holiday arsonist. For all its flaws there are precious few games I can say that about.