Whether or not Just Cause 2 protagonist Rico Rodriguez succeeds in tearing down the political machine of Pandak "Baby" Panay, who rules the fictional island nation of Panau with a clunking fist and silly name, he will at least succeed in one regard. The most conspicuous CIA agent since the agency's short-lived and ill-fated spell under the control of Ronald McDonald and the Hamburglar, Rico will have built an anecdote machine to rival any other.
In Just Cause 2, Rico needs to cause "chaos" to unlock story missions, but that's about the extent of his and your commitment to the individual icons strewn across the enormous world-map, so in theory everything is avoidable. In practice though, playing through the first five hours of a final build of the game, everything is unavoidable. And everything is full of stories.
For example, you may be flying Rico to a carefully selected waypoint, expertly piloting a chopper over the windswept trees that carpet the summery peaks of one of Panau's whopping mountains, when out of the corner of your eye you spot a perfect replica of the terrorist installation hidden under a Cuban lake at the end of GoldenEye. It really is uncanny: a massive concrete basin with satellite equipment suspended above the centre point by enormous steel cables.
Naturally you land to investigate. Guards emerge and you begin shooting them. Whatever the installation is for isn't readily advertised, however, so having killed everyone, climbed all over the machinery and fired a few inquisitive bullets at the locked metal hatch in the centre of the bowl, you decide to get back on with your mission. Presumably you'll find out more about GoldenEye later.
You call up the island's resident black marketeer, who drops a jet-powered aeroplane next to you. But the jet won't reverse, and is pointing in an unhelpful direction, so you end up wedging it against some rocks. That jet cost $30,000, so it would be a shame to discard it. Fortunately there's a flatbed truck nearby, so you grab that and use your excellent and much-hyped double-ended grappling hook to tie the plane to the truck. You then pull the plane clear of the rocks and leap back into it. Victory.
Then you forget you're still tied to the truck, and instead of taking off and flying into the sunset you slingshot yourself into a nearby tree and explode.
This sort of thing doesn't just happen occasionally in Just Cause 2 - it happens all the time, and sometimes it's brilliant. When you're first asked to take out a rocket tower part-buried in a deep shaft, you discover that the shaft is crisscrossed all the way down by head-splitting metal gantries that may preclude the use of your trusty parachute. A couple of failed base jumps later, you impatiently accelerate your motorbike - provided at the start of the mission - a bit further than intended, and end up flying it down the shaft at just the right angle to avoid the obstacles.
Not only that, but in a mad panic you abandon the bike at just the right time to land on your feet, while the bike itself crashes into some barrels, which explode and kill everyone in the area. Do you remember the bit in Die Another Day when James Bond surfs a disintegrating glacier in an invisible car? It turns out they were low-balling it. At times, and almost completely by accident, Just Cause 2 is the story that those men would have gone on to tell, had Ian Fleming not audibly hit spin cycle in his grave long enough for someone to commission a franchise reboot.
The chaos is more satisfying when it's completely on purpose, of course, as it is when you're frequently tasked with protecting freedom fighters as they assault government installations. They run around shooting people, but are regularly pinned down by mounted guns and concrete gates, at which point you spring into action - well, grapple into action - flanking defences until you can snake a sniper bullet into a convenient barrel or cranium, or - for irony's sake - use your hook to tie a gunner to the helicopter that has been dispatched to prevent you completing your mission.
The list of things you discover you can do - often with only the gentlest provocation - would be enough to sustain us for several more pages. Hijacking helicopters may be nothing new (thanks, Prototype) but hijacking aeroplanes is fairly novel, as is flying them upside down into fuel containers and bailing just in time to grapple a nearby Humvee and ride around on its roof while the driver panics. The game's interpretation of "chaos" is pleasingly broad, and also encompasses naked insurrection, as you may discover should you use a fire engine to pull down a statue of Baby Panay and then drive it around town.
Developer Avalanche's claims of improved AI are hard to pin down - and to be fair, it must be difficult to judge how henchmen would react to a CIA agent merrily surfing a 4x4 over a hill and into their radio tower. But there's plenty of evidence of our old friend Havok physics, as car-jacked locals are thrown out of the driver-side door and bounce along the road into the path of a passing lorry, or when your attempts to save time by going off-road are sent spinning violently through the air by a sceptical boulder.
But if chaos is the game's calling card, then the speed you can build up in the game's vehicles, the distances you can cover by land or air, and the expanse of Panau that you can see at any given time - and without any noticeable decline in performance, as enthusiastically recorded by Digital Foundry at the weekend - may become the game's legend.
Haul up the map and apart from admiring the topographical changes as you move your cursor (which make it easy to understand relative heights), you can enjoy the sense of scale. A vast playground isn't always a delight - as Avalanche itself knows only too well after the muted response to the first Just Cause - but the ability to experience so much of it at once, at high speed, without your console crying itself to sleep afterwards, probably should be.
Mind you, that core "chaos" can be a double-edged sword, and it's one that Just Cause 2 runs the risk of impaling itself upon if it's not too careful. Approach the game in the wrong mood and the inching, cumulative impact of a dozen unsuccessful attempts to simply go to a waypoint is enough to wear you down by itself.
The grappling hook is wonderful, it turns out, but climbing tall buildings with it is not. The black marketeer, meanwhile, may be able to deliver things wherever you are, but he will only deliver you to a small range of waypoints. And the control scheme may have a vocabulary wide enough to drive a Baby Panay statue through, but it's a fiddly language to learn, full of buttons doubling up and counter-intuition.
Still, while it may sound like a strange observation, perhaps the most encouraging thing at this stage is that the game's cut-scenes are as devoid of logic and conviction as the accents of the protagonists are devoid of sense. Baby Panay lies at the end of a long narrative road, and you travel down that road by supporting rival factions and connecting with local operatives along the way. Whether it's a snatched conversation with an alcoholic gambler in a regally carpeted skyway, or a serious discussion with a heavy-duty resistance kingpin in a dingy weapons cache, the dialogue and delivery - particularly Rico's - is reliably dreadful.
It's encouraging because the one thing Just Cause 2 really needs, and on a regular basis, is a bit of downtime for the player. A chance to restore balance and establish a new starting point. Ignorable cut-scenes are just that. Check your email, or text your mother, because as soon as everyone shuts up, it's back to the chaos.
Thanks to Rico's varied toolbox, Just Cause 2 may be chaos, but it plays out with a personality that you feel responsible for defining, and instead of being precious about its limitations it's sufficiently self-aware to exploit them. It may be an anecdote machine starring the world's most conspicuous secret agent, but hopefully upon quiet reflection it will be the game's unsung composure, rather than its random brilliance, that everyone is left to remember once the shooting ends. We'll find out in a fortnight.
Just Cause 2 is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 26th March.