"Just Cause 2 is bigger and better than Just Cause 1 in pretty much every way possible," says lead designer Peter Johansson, beginning our E3 demo of the game. No offence, Peter, but they all say that. Besides, Just Cause 1 was pretty big anyway - though as Kristan pointed out in his review, it wasn't the best game it could have been.
In fact, he described it as "a poor man's Mercenaries, ludicrously padded out with hundreds of entirely worthless side missions that sprawl over uninteresting terrain". Boom. But wait: "With many truly positive elements about the game to look back on, there's every chance Avalanche will be given more time to make a classic next time around." So will they manage it?
Avalanche certainly appears to have taken criticisms of the first game on board. There's no more auto-targeting, for starters; you're now free to aim at will, and come up with new and creative ways of shooting anyone and everything. Plus you get a new, improved grappling hook to play with. It's hooked up to Rico's left arm and is operated with the left trigger.
"The grapple hook attaches to anything with collision now - buildings, trees and even people," says Johansson. "There are no grapple points whatsoever, so you're really free to work on your own tactical style."
Rico's new favourite toy can also be used to tether things together. To demonstrate this, Johansson uses it to attach an enemy to a telephone pole and hoist him off the ground. Then he starts machinegunning away. The man shrieks as his body jiggles about in the air, like a puppet on a string. An electrically charged string. Made of pain.
Other inventive ways to commit murder with the grapple include tethering a man to an oil barrel, then dragging the two towards each other before blowing up the barrel and by association the man. "My personal favourite use of the grapple? You can lift a jeep under a helicopter and use it as a wrecking ball," says Johansson. We don't get to see this in action, unfortunately.
The grapple isn't just there for the nasty things in life, like hooking a man up to a blocked drain and shooting him in the legs till they look like ketchup-covered dog food. It's also handy for getting around the South-East Asian island of Panau, where Just Cause 2 is set.
At around 400 square miles the island is massive, but that's not necessarily a good thing. One of the biggest complaints about the first Just Cause was the amount of traipsing around you had to do, covering large tracts of dull terrain between missions. The gameworld in Just Cause 2 is still huge, but now there's a lot more work to be getting on with.
"To give you an idea of just how big the world is and how much there is to do, this is the entire map of Panau," says Johansson. A top-down view of the island appears on the screen. "This area here," he continues, pointing to a tiny dot in the bottom left hand corner, "Is the harbour area where you just saw me play through that entire mission." There are gasps from the demo audience. Listening back to the dictaphone recording later you can hear one person go, "Wow."
The map is peppered with hundreds of tiny icons. "All the different items you see here are activities for you to do," says Johansson. ("What?" says someone, presumably the person who said "Wow"). "Key missions, faction missions, stronghold takeovers, challenges and over 300 different settlements - every single one of them packed with gameplay and activities."
Rico's main objective is to hunt down and kill Tom Sheldon - his former boss, friend and mentor, now mental. But there's an awful lot on his to-do list to get through before that, such as - in the mission Johansson is demoing for us - rescuing an alcoholic informant called Karl Blaine. Having barricaded himself into the skywalk between two soaring casino towers, Blaine finds himself under attack from both sides with nothing but a bottle of gin for protection.
But here comes Rico to the rescue, swooping in using a stolen attack helicopter. He fires a hail of bullets into the glass panels of the skyway to create an opening, then attaches his grapple to the base of the copter and swings down to Blaine's side. Rico realises they're outnumbered so, flinging a few grenades as he goes for good measure, he grabs Blaine, leaps off the skyway and parachutes over the waterfall below.
Yes, the parachute is back, but it's been updated so it's more fun to control and easier to use for stunts. You can also use it in conjunction with the grappling hook to navigate quickly across terrain. Or you can choose from more than 100 vehicles in the game, including cars, trucks, boats, planes and helicopters. The next part of the mission we're seeing involves Blaine's car, which he's drunkenly run off into a ditch - so Rico uses the grapple and a handy nearby tractor to pull it back onto the road.
Blaine gets behind the wheel and advises Rico to go up top. "Nice Just Cause 2 logic - get up on my roof, you'll fight better from there," says Johansson with a smile. The car starts speeding along and Rico starts shooting away, as they're inevitably followed by a load of enemies in jeeps.
"You're completely free to move around and develop your own style and tactics for dealing with these pursuers," says Johansson. He blows the tyres out of one jeep to send it spinning and flipping across the tarmac, then leaps onto the other. Rico clings to the back of the vehicle, using the tailgate for cover and popping out to fire at enemies. With enough of them dispatched he leaps up, pops a bit of C4 on the roof, opens his parachute and sails clear before shooting at the explosives. The car blows up with a nice big boom.
Back on the roof of Blaine's vehicle, Johansson can't resist showing off that grapple once again. He attaches an enemy to the tailgate so he's dragged along as the car speeds down the road. Just for good measure Rico starts shooting him too, and the man splutters, screams and convulses for much longer than anyone in real life would.
But that's the whole point about Just Cause - no one's ever pretended this is the series to go for if you want a gritty, authentic simulation of real-world military combat. Just Cause is about big guns and silly stunts and cartoon kills and huge explosions. It's about cruising in a super-fast speedboat across a beautiful tropical sea, then zooming up a beach and off a ramp and parachuting into the azure sky, as the speedboat heads straight into a giant oil tank and explodes in a cloud of fire and thunder.
Avalanche hasn't lost sight of this, thankfully, and it's clear they're working hard to fix the problems with the first game. Just Cause 2 certainly looks prettier than its predecessor, and judging by the map it's bigger. But perhaps the key to making it better is really to focus on what this series is all about - and make it stupider. So far, so good.
Just Cause 2 is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 later this year.