Building an openworld game around the concept of chaos is a super-smart idea. Chaos is the reason a lot of people play these sorts of things in the first place, but at best, games often make you hunt for your precious moments of anarchy within rigid mission templates, or, at worst, you're actually punished for going bonkers with a rocket launcher. It's a bit like turning up at Disneyland and being told that the rides are all brilliant, but they're being kept underwater at the bottom of a poisoned lake, and if you want to try them out you'll have to fight an orang-utan first.
In Just Cause 2, however, chaos is your raison d'etre (pretentious, I know, but in English it's 'reason for being' which is even worse), and the game never misses an opportunity to remind you that it's your god-given right to blow the whole world to pieces.
Parachuted into the chirpy totalitarian hell-hole of Panau, it's Rico Rodriguez's job to take down the local dictator Baby Panay by any means necessary and, given the hilariously unstable tools which are put at his disposal (the standout is Rico's double-ended grappling hook, which can be used, as a single example, to tether unfortunate test subjects to passing jumbo jets), "any means" may well translate to putting a tanker truck through Baby's head.
A promising arsenal is worth nothing, however, if it's too fiddly to get to grips with. Tacking people to moving cars won't carry you if the grapple's a pain to use and the targeting's broken. Happily, however, within seconds of finally getting to pick up the controller, it's clear that Avalanche has put the effort in where it counts: Just Cause 2 makes the tricky business of elaborate havoc feel enduringly simple.
The grappler is Just Cause 2's Gravity Gun, a tool at once playful and fierce, a weapon with so many obvious uses, but just as many more lurking in the shadows and revealing themselves slowly over time. With more conventional weapons handled by the triggers, the grappler lives on the left bumper. Tap once to fire it off and then reel it in - if it hits a light object like an oil carton, it will draw it towards you, if it sticks into something more substantial like a tree or building, you'll zip through the air towards that - or press and hold to tether one end to a target, before releasing the button to tether the other end to something else.
Once two objects are tied together, firing the grapple again will break any existing lines - a useful limitation that ensures you won't be constantly tripping over your own webbing, and a design decision with tactical ramifications, too, as you can dangle an enemy upside down over a cliff, and then cut them loose with little fuss.
It's an absolute pleasure to use, a simple spinning reticule telling you whether your target is in range or not, and, over an hour and a half of playing through the latest build, it truly proves to be the gift that keeps on giving, allowing you to grapple-boost your way up the side of a skyscraper, tether nearby ground to loft yourself into the air high enough to fire off Rico's magical infinite parachute, and tie people to fuel canisters before sending them spinning off into the sky where, presumably, bad things happen to them.
The most astonishing thing, however, is what the grapple does to the pace of the game itself: Just Cause 2 is dangerously, brilliantly close to being a openworld title where you don't have to walk anywhere - you can simply zip yourself effortlessly from rooftop to rooftop, from palm-tree to passing helicopter, and from boat to speeding car, before dropping down on top of your enemy and sticking some C4 to their head.
Just messing about in Avalanche's sandbox is wonderful, and on top of that, your mindless rampage will actually help drive the game forward. In each of Panau's dozens of settlements - someone may have told me how many there actually are, but I was driving a bike through a laundrette at the time - there are a handful of targets which, if destroyed, will help destabilise Baby Panay, progressing the plot by expanding your area of influence.
The targets are generally political or economical - heroic statues, propaganda buses, gas stations and fuel dumps - and they're highlighted not with glowing artificial markers on the HUD, but by the dictator's red and white logo that will be stamped all over them. The more of these you blow up, the more you undermine Panay's rule, and the greater number of missions you'll have access to afterward.
The missions themselves seem as cheerily berserk as your own arsenal. Avalanche has previously shown us a fight through a high-rise casino in the company of an alcoholic fellow agent, and a raid on a frosty military installation, climaxing with the arrival of a nuclear submarine and a brace of ninjas. On this visit to Square-Enix's London HQ, I got to try out a few new ones for myself.
The first is a simple enough affair: Rico's tasked with ascending a vast government skyscraper to realign some TV transmitters on the roof, so that a slightly irritating local faction can broadcast an explosive propaganda tape to the population.
It's a chance to try out the game's more traditional combat for the most part - Just Cause 2 retains auto-targeting, which seems to be fairly sharp at picking out the right people, but has additional options allowing you to zoom in slightly closer and handle aiming yourself - with the additional incentive of a little bit of lofty spectacle, and an opportunity to enjoy the art team's spot-on skewering of the flimsy, Vegas-style architecture beloved of Asian mega corps.
The second mission, with Rico tracking down and then kidnapping a target who might be about to spill some vital guerrilla secrets to Panay's regime - I'll admit, I'm hazy on exactly why I was after this person, as the screen was erupting into noisy flames as it was all being explained - is a more elaborate outing, crossing a decent chunk of the map and shuffling objectives in and out at a brisk pace.
There's a military base to infiltrate (I recommend crash-landing a jet into the main gate) a keycard to liberate from a guard, and the target's GPS to download from the mainframe via an inoffensive mini-game. After that's done, all that's left is to grapple onto the bottom of an obliging Chopper and head off to nab the target from the three-Hummer convoy he's trundling towards an enemy stronghold in.
This is the point where, for me at least, everything went completely wrong, and, rather than grappling onto the lead Hummer and stylishly despatching any meddlesome guards, I ended up, two minutes and one helicopter after I set out, tooling across the sands in the world's crappiest family hatchback, while the convoy disappeared into the distance. Then, I accidentally drove the car over a cliff. (In my defence, I initially thought it was a small hill.)