It’s puzzled me for a while that these days, if you want to play a GTA game, the last thing you actually want to do is play a GTA game. The GTA franchise has become bloated with its own self-importance, with the developers preferring to tell tedious gangland stories in the not-so-charming delusion that they are auteur filmmakers while the vehicle-based mayhem the series made such an impact with all those years ago has been firmly relegated to the back seat. It’s telling that this gap in the market is now being filled by a whole raft of pretenders to the GTA throne, which try to sell themselves on the open-world sandbox gameplay rather than plot. Mercenaries was the most effective one (with the apt subtitle Playground of Destruction), and then Saints Row 2 (never played it), and now there is Just Cause 2.
Lets get a few things out of the way first. Just Cause 2 has the following:
- The best scenery in videogames.
- The best clouds in videogames1.
- The best car chases in videogames.
- The best car crashes in videogames.
- The best explosions in videogames.
That last one is particularly important, since every other object in the game - and this includes buildings that wouldn’t initially strike you as particularly flammable, such as water towers – will explode in a huge ball of fire if shot with bullets. It’s something that’s emblematic of the game’s ludicrously over-the-top nature; the protagonist is super-tough, heavily armed, has a grapple hook with unlimited uses, a parachute with unlimited uses, and can hijack every single vehicle in the game while on foot if the driver is unwise enough to venture to within a couple of hundred metres. This is a design philosophy that I broadly endorse; the developers have grasped the fact that when I play this sort of game I want to blow stuff up in a very cool way rather than, say, spending half my time fending off texts from my “friends” because they want me to come hang out with them, and so they’ve made it as easy as possible for me to do that without actually making the protagonist invincible and giving him the ability to fly.
(Note: I have no idea what the protagonist’s real name is because I don’t think it was ever mentioned. All the other characters in the game call him Scorpion, so we’ll go with that.)
As a result Just Cause 2 is the best GTA-alike I’ve played since, oooh, Mercenaries. It may even be slightly better in certain areas, which is really saying something since I have huge rose-tinted glasses for Mercenaries. That being said, there’s a big list of stuff it doesn’t do quite so well as Mercenaries. Characters, for one. Everyone who played Mercenaries picked the insane Swede as their character (why would you ever pick bland-o-man or token woman) and so they were treated to Peter Stormare’s wry commentary throughout the game. By contrast Scorpion is an unlikeable dick, and not in a good way. Just Cause 2 also falls down on factions and the black market feature; with the former, it’s a case of all three factions being EXACTLY THE SAME – the only difference is that one has yellow cars, one has red cars, and one has blue cars – while the latter suffers from being far too limited. You get a choice of about seven vehicles, most of which are locked until the endgame. It’s far easier to just steal an attack helicopter from the nearest military base.
There are also times when I wonder if the developers haven’t been a little too accommodating to the player. The character of a sandbox game suffers by necessity since everything has to be rather generic, but Just Cause sidesteps this problem to a degree with the wide variety of biomes present on the island. In particular it’s got some very detailed cityscapes for the player to clamber around, but Scorpion’s hyper-mobility means that they lose a lot of this detail in the eye of the player; the grapple hook means that a painstakingly modelled skyscraper becomes just an annoyingly tall piece of level geometry.
Last but not least, there’s the usual bugbear with PC ports of GTA-style games: the controls. To Avalanche’s credit the basic control schemes actually work, although they take a little bit of time to get used to2. Flying helicopters in particular is very easy and can be done with enough finesse that urban combat in them eventually becomes a thing of beauty, which is more than a certain triple-A title managed last year. Planes carry the only significant question mark; they’re fine to use in missions but the mouse/keyboard controls are lacking in the sort of precision required to do the race challenges.
So, let’s apply a final litmus test to Just Cause 2: would I have been happy to pay £30 for it on release? Perhaps not. It’s a fine sandbox but I like my full-price experiences to be a little more meaty in substance. Fortunate, then, that it makes a regular appearance during Steam weekend/holiday sales at £5. For that much money you could do a lot, lot worse.