If people like your game's basic mechanics, you might be onto a winner; if people like your game's bugs, you can't fail. Avalanche Studios should know: its first title, Just Cause, had some of the most likable glitches of all time, from an error which reduced the game's protagonist to a pair of invulnerable disembodied trousers, to supply drops which, when called in, would land directly on top of you.
Some bugs were annoying, of course (unless you were unfortunate enough to play it on the PS2, in which case they were actually fatal), but Just Cause still managed to get almost as much from the moments where its gears ground against one another as some games get out of the occasions when they mesh, and many of its unravellings could be forgiven because they were in-keeping with the overall tone, enhancing the joyous insanity that already characterised the adventures of Rico Rodriguez. They're not guaranteeing better bugs this time around, but it's promising to see Avalanche approaching the sequel by playing to the first game's strengths: conjuring up another source of extravagant destruction encumbered by only the merest flaming tatters of a plot.
Although his matinee looks and unforgiveable haircut suggest that Rico's destiny lies in the candle-lit bar of a Holiday Inn belting out Careless Whisper, he actually works in the heady world of geopolitics, destabilising states and taking out dictators through a mix of stunt-driving, parachuting, and, as previously discussed, occasionally assuming the accidental form of a pair of 38-inch slacks with an ironed-in crease. If the first Just Cause was a guilty pleasure, the sequel suggests a game that could be coming into its own. The setting has shifted - we're now on the South East Asian island of Panau, tackling a whole different manner of racial stereotypes - but the focus remains the same: blow everything up, shoot everybody you see, and never miss a chance to leap off a cliff and fling open your magic parachute.
At a recent developer playthrough, Avalanche was leaning heavily on the stats: Just Cause 2 features over 100 vehicles, ranging from cars through to jumbo jets, which you can use to explore any of 261 settlements, including one massive megacity, on an island that covers 1000 square kilometres. That's the same size as 252,840 football pitches, apparently - with the design team busy coming up with facts like that, it's not hard to see why they never got round to polishing the little details on the original game, like ensuring mission-critical garage-door checkpoints would always open as required. Equally, as anyone who's ever plodded through the surreal world of Boiling Point (another sandbox title that pitched itself on just how much space it covered) will tell you, big maps don't always mean big fun.
Happily, from what we've been shown, Just Cause 2 should have little trouble giving you something to do. Not only do detailed textures and stylish weather effects suggest this is shaping up to be a pretty game with a lot of visual variety (its island is carved into an implausibly varied ecosystem covering deserts, jungles, and frozen wastes), but it's centred on an environment populated by gun-crazed lunatics - a slapstick world in which you've been given a uniquely simple agenda.
While many sandbox games have struggled to balance freedom and narrative, giving you the tools to do almost anything before lining up missions that require rigid obedience, Just Cause 2 claims to revel in the collision, driving its story forward not just through specific objectives but by the Chaos System, which asks you to generally screw around causing trouble any way you can. The more you destabilise Panau, the more you progress the story, and Avalanche is suggesting that, should you want to, you'll likely be able to ignore most of faction missions and proceed through the main campaign just by trashing stuff.
In order to see this appealing agenda in action, the developer parachutes Rico into a small community sprinkled along a desert crossroads. With the wind whipping at his new haircut and a large rocket launcher dangling by his side, triggering that familiar physics-mangling parachute a meter or so above the ground is more than enough to bring him down safely. Almost immediately, he's in the middle of a gunfight, as armed militiamen pop out and start blasting.
The rocket launcher does itself proud, of course, flipping cars through the sky and setting large chunks of the populace on fire, but the real star is strapped to Rico's arm rather than slung over his shoulder. Like the parachute, the grapple makes a welcome return, but it's been hilariously upgraded. At the simplest level, you can fire it at the ground in front of you, and use it to tug Rico into the air. Next, you'll discover it can be used to zip quickly between buildings or vehicles, entirely changing the pace at which the game moves, turning a traversal system that depends on running and driving into something that borders on teleportation.
That's just the start. Use the grapple in combat, and you can pull people down off ledges or out from cover, as well as trigger it whenever you need to make a fast getaway, but things really get exciting when you realise you can fire off both ends of the wire. That might not sound like a big deal, but it opens up an entire world of mischief. Suddenly you can attach enemies to cars, which then drive away. You can attach enemies to planes, which then take off. You can attach enemies to telegraph poles and leave them dangling, piņata-style. You can knock enemies out of moving vehicles and tether them to the back, where they whip about in the wind like an old plastic bag, while you stand on the bonnet and riddle them with bullets. Or, you can forget enemies entirely and attach cars to helicopters, in order to use them as wrecking balls, and yet another vista of comedic opportunity opens up.
At the very least, this promises a ridiculous physics playground to explore - a LittleBigPlanet seen through the lens of Jackass rather than Take Hart. And while it's often said that the promise of meaty narratives, moral consequences and characters so real you could kiss them will one day take game design to a higher level, where are all those things when you want to harpoon someone to the side of a truck, like they're part of some grisly charm bracelet, before lofting the entire thing, attached to the underneath of a passing Jumbo, into the fiery arms of a nuclear processing plant?
With these kinds of options at your disposal, the action heats up very quickly. This tiny village, like all the others in the game, has a handful of clear objectives in place - destroying a propaganda bus, say, or taking out a water tower - but it's also a place to stage endless gunfights as the reinforcements flood in, and a distant gas station explodes. AI, never a strong point the first time round, has apparently been improved, but few enemies live long enough for us to judge if they really are better at flanking and taking cover. Who cares, anyway? You can tether a car to a helicopter!
If you need a bit more structure in-between the main story missions, you can always undertake work for the game's three factions. Either way, Panau's busy map is a riot of completion meters, side quests, unlockables and upgradeables, and you're encouraged to dip in and out: once you've discovered a location, you can fast-travel there or be immediately extracted, only to skydive in somewhere else for more nonsense.
And even when you get to the game's central campaign, you won't have left the world of chaos behind: missions give you a central objective, and then mix scripted checkpoints with a freedom of approach. As an example, we're shown a story mission with the simplest of agendas: rescue a sexy agent from a wintry stronghold. Given such a basic task, Rico's subsequent moves look less like the chess-like strategising of a master tactician, and more like a half-legible diary entry of a delusional schizophrenic on heavy medication. Rather than taking a bus into the mountains, Rico opts to grapple onto a passing van, jack it, and drive it over a flyover, before parachuting out the door to land in a nearby air base.
Touching down on a jet as it taxies towards the runway, he takes out a few stragglers with his handguns before - only once the jet's in the air - deciding to hop inside and pilot it over to the stronghold in question. And then, why land when you can crash? Parachuting down to a lofty rooftop, it's obviously time for a fight with ninjas - ninjas who can warp around in a puff of smoke, meaning Rico has to put aside the grapple and rely on his guns again. Then, naturally, Half Past Ninja means it's time for that atomic submarine to bust through the frozen lake behind Rico, and fire off a few homing missiles, while Rico's target is bundled on board. Luckily, by this point, there are Hummers streaking away across the ice, and Rico's grapple can just about reach one of them...
There, amidst ninjas and atomic submarines, surrounded by a gentle fall of snow and the insistent chug of military engines, is probably where we should leave Rico and his game for the time being. It's hard to know how any of this madness truly stacks up until the controller's in the hands of someone other than a designer, of course, when we'll hopefully find out whether or not Just Cause 2 spent longer in Quality Assurance than its predecessor did. And even then, the history of sandbox games is littered with games that were great fun for an hour, but then struggled to entertain over the long haul. What we've been shown so far, however, is unexpectedly thrilling, and even if it is ultimately beyond Avalanche's reach to bring all these promising pieces together to create a great game, given the sheer exuberance of what's already in place, at the very least, Just Cause 2 is going to be a brilliant demo.