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Thursday, 8 April 2010

Review- Just Cause 2 [Xbox 360]

Publisher Square Enix
Developer Avalanche Studios
Released: 26th March 2010

Released late 2006 for the original Xbox and the recently released Xbox 360, Just Cause was an ambitious and deeply enjoyable open-world experience with swathes of fun attached for those willing to play it first time around. Just Cause 2 is again willing to give and give on its open-world promise, a superior experience in pretty much every aspect to that of the prequel.

For starters, upon completing the opening tutorial, players will witness the sheer scope and size of the Southeast Asian open world with which Avalanche Studios has kindly provided- the island of Panau. The world is absolutely huge, spanning across various inter-connected islands. It really is incredible to behold the level of detail that has been poured heart and soul into the game from the Swedish developers, meaning it feels instantly more gratifying and accomplished than the original. We can only be grateful for the insurmountable number of man-hours it must have taken to even try to fill the world, and thus the team can be congratulated on their achievement but ultimately as an envisioned game world it still fails in that vast areas are, obviously, sparse and unfulfilled (even with the 1000s of collectibles scattered over the map). Yes, there are significant disadvantages to the size of the island! Travelling to and from missions is often tedious and an unnecessary slog for the disappointment in the mission you are greeted with (more on that later) and thus, the vehicles that are provided goes some way to redeeming some of the negatives associated with travelling from one side of the island to the other. A swathe of content is available within the game, which can be found anywhere at any time somewhere on the island but also, through progression, can also be accessed through mobile drops. From military helicopters, to speedboats and Boeing 737s and weapons which include triggered explosives, RPGS and assault rifles (all also upgradeable). The amount of work it must have taken to create even the basic foundation of the game is monumental and hugely impressive.

Moving onto the game itself, the experience is built around the mechanic of 'Chaos'. Ultimately a cumulative destruction meter, 'chaos' measures the amount of destruction that has been caused throughout the game, whether it be through destroying military signal towers or laying waste to fuel depots. The impressive physics engine comes into its own within these instances, providing real-time destruction visuals with the dexterity and intensity of explosions and eruptions from the sound mixing. The 'chaos' system also means that the sense of progression is always right beside you since the amount of 'chaos' accumulated throughout the game leads to story missions, faction missions and 'black market' items to be unlocked- these the weapons and vehicles that can be called in at any time through a quick press down on the D-pad and the 'Y' button for a measly sum of money. This mechanic means that whether through basic meandering along the shores of the island or taking part in the over-arching storyline- the game is always being led towards its severely sub-standard climax.

This is but one of the sections in the game where Just Cause 2 really falls down from being a truly great game into an accomplished but ultimately flawed game. Of what little 'story' there is trickled through (involving Agent Rodriguez teaming up with the various criminal factions through the various missions scattered across the island to get to his ultimate goal of tracking a rogue and uncovering further governmental conspiracies, phew!), it really is done in the worst possible fashion. The voice acting is horrible, with blank expressions on the faces of Just Cause 2's NPCs accompanied with un-inspired dialogue and dodgy accents. The second barrier to greatness is ultimately where its greatest asset also lies- the grappling hook. The publisher has not been shy of showing off this neat little device in the run up to release, allowing players to play with the toys in its playground of Panau. This is where the game shines brightest, the endless hours of fun that can be experienced in playing with the hook and the physics engine is sandbox gaming at its best. With the dual hook ability enabled, attaching a helicopter to a car mid-flight for instance, is a breeze. The grappling hook also means vast leaps over the battlefield can be accomplished with little more than a push of the left bumper. The forgiving physics engine meaning the game very rarely fails to excite in the adrenaline-fuelled quarters of game play. However, as much fun that can be had here, the combat is seemingly an afterthought to the main heft. The guns feel severely underpowered and inaccurate, even with the help of the aim assist. And where most shooters are often harshly criticised for their over reliance on cover mechanic game design, Just Cause 2 could so have done with it, if little more than to give pockets of respite to the non-stop action. Pair this with the strange design choice of using a non-regenerating health bar and an extreme lack of ammunition and it is easy to see where the game fails to truly deliver.

So, to summarise, Just Cause 2 is by no means an outstanding game, whereas it is neither disappointing. To call it average would be somewhat insulting also, it is a game of unfulfilled promises. A game where a sequel is very much needed to unlock its true potential. Avalanche Studios has an opportunity now to expand onto what they have already achieved- a more narrative-driven storyline? Co-op? We'll only have to wait and see but the foundations have thankfully already been set, now time can be taken to make that good game, spectacular. For now at least, we can stick to diving out of helicopters at several thousand feet in the air, as the island comes ever closer, trees growing larger and larger, only to greet the wistful silence of the chute opening once again with a smirk that only comes from truly experiencing the game in its most giving.

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