Version tested: Xbox 360
Sometimes things just promise to be awful lot better than they turn out. Take Lost, for example. It has all the ingredients to become the best TV show ever made, and certainly starts off that way. With a great premise and solid cast, it has hints of greatness throughout, yet somehow the writers keep conspiring to screw it up by endlessly padding things out, changing their minds and stringing us along into believing that something mind blowing is going to happen any time soon - just tune in next week to find out. Or not. Whether it's blind optimism or the lack of anything better to watch that keeps you going whenever the show enters its periodic phases of losing the plot, it's hard to say. But by the end of season two, you'll wonder where your life went, and how long they can keep this drip feed water torture farce going before we all find something better to watch.
You go through similar peaks and troughs playing Just Cause. It starts off like it's going to be the be one of the most insanely brilliant action games ever made, as if the spirit of James Bond had been injected into an awesomely ambitious openworld adventure. But somewhere down the line developers Avalanche either ran out of time, or just ran out of inspiration to make the whole thing click the way it should have. Either way, you're subjected to some truly brilliant ideas that quickly become drowned out by some of the most pointless padding in a videogame ever seen. By the end of the 59th identical side quest, you'll question your own sanity.
Nevertheless, with ambition aplenty, Just Cause grabs hold of you immediately; it's a joyous manic pop thrill videogame with the bare-faced audacity to start the game by chucking you out of a moving aircraft and leaving you to get on with it. You first act in the game is to decide whether to pull the ripcord and casually parachute to safety, or plummet amusingly to your doom. If the former is your chosen course of action, you can either sail merrily to safety, or come to the realisation that shortly before impact that you can actually 'surf' on the top of any passing vehicle, pull out the driver and commandeer it. Excellent start.
It's Rico time
And when we say 'vehicle' we mean you can actually parachute into any vehicle in the entire game, be it a car, van, motorbike, industrial digger, chopper, or passenger airline. It really doesn't discriminate, for you are Rico, casual stuntman-cum-all-round gun-toting Latino action hero - a man who rather makes every other videogame hero look a bit lame by comparison. And being the Most Ridiculous Game Character Ever, you have the wondrous ability to subsequently abandon your vehicle in a couple of different ways. The first is the typical 'leap of doom' GTA-style, while the other is rather more spectacular, and involves going into what's known as 'stunt' mode. With the press of a button, you can go from tearing along at speed to standing on the top of a moving car, or hanging on the back-end of a chopper. From there, you then have the chance to effectively leap from one nearby vehicle to another, roof to roof - again, able to then kick out the driver and carry on in one swift motion. It's great fun to begin with, just gooning about doing insane things that no other videogame has attempted before.
Moving through the 21 story missions requires a fair bit of gratuitous craziness too, often involving tailing some guy, stunt-jumping into his own car, throwing him onto the road at high speed and proceeding to run him over in reverse. Repeatedly. It sounds fun, but the novelty value soon wears off by virtue of being way too easy to pull off - by the time you've done similar things a half dozen times, it just becomes the norm. A few missions in you even gain the hilarious ability to grapple any moving vehicle (including helicopters if you can aim) and then paraglide behind them. Entirely ridiculous, but good fun for a while. But to its detriment, the game peaks too soon, throwing all the high-octane fun at you in one concentrated dose then repeating the formula.
Being a sandbox adventure set in a politically unstable Caribbean island environment, you can probably guess that you end up working for some corrupt souls that want to take various drug cartels down a peg or two, and eventually raise their sights to the Government itself. But being Rico, literally no job is too big, and you'll quickly take the slaughter of entire armies in your stride - and in fact the side missions effectively task you with doing just that if you can be bothered.
Forgive me, for I have sinned
Gunrunning is one thing you expect from the beginning, but it's also one of the game's weaknesses. Although you rather expect the early missions (like busting someone out of prison) to be a little on the unchallenging side, much of the perfunctory nature of the combat persists right to the very end - largely thanks to a ridiculously forgiving auto-target system and the general weakness of every enemy in the game, along with a recharging health system that makes dying a lot harder than you'd imagine.
As a result, all you have to do to succeed in most missions is to vaguely wave your cursor near an enemy, wait for the autoaim to kick in, fire less than a handful of bullets while zigzagging around and repeat to fade. Frankly, anyone even vaguely skilled in videogaming will be laughing out loud at how completely basic the whole affair is from top to bottom. With enemies that seem completely devoid of any AI to speak of, and barely any hit points to keep them on the screen for more than a few seconds, you're just a lead-spitting killing machine who's practically invulnerable to everything - including, believe it or not, carpet bombing from passing aircraft.
Admittedly, it's not always easy going in some of the latter missions. One (roughly halfway through the game) tasks you with planting devices on rooftops, but makes it almost impossible to fly there thanks to some unerring air defences. If anything ever holds you up in Just Cause, it's the simple contrary fact that once you're detected flying into enemy territory, their response is incredibly swift, and deadly to the point of instant death. Overcoming such trifling matters involves traversing long distances on foot, where almost no amount of enemy destruction will be able to stop you thanks to the ludicrous recharging health system. Even when two choppers are on your tail and firing relentlessly over several kilometres, they won't ever be able to take you down so long as you're running. Get into a vehicle of any description (including tanks), and you'll almost certainly be blown up in seconds - not to mention rammed off the road by a posse of kamikaze lunatics - but run along defenceless and you'll be fine because you are the recharging man of steel. How very odd. It's like Avalanche didn't have time to work out the game balancing, so instead of fixing the over-arching problem, just threw the inexplicable infinite health fudge and got the game out.
Just ice me
And the more time you spend with Just Cause, the more these inexplicable design decisions come to the fore. After the incredibly brief story missions are over with (just 21 - meaning about 7 hours or so is enough to polish it off), it seems like you may have only scratched the surface of what you can do. After all, look at how many side missions there are - there are 112 basic side quests (usually drive to point A, kill B, drive to drop-off point C), 13 collect missions (where you must trawl around to where the blue dots are on the minimap to pick up X of Y), nine checkpoint 'race' missions, and various other missions that see you liberating a territory from the clutches of the government or a rival gang. Although most of these are standard sandbox-style extras, the thing that grates is how little variety there is between them, and after ten or fifteen of them, you'll well and truly have had enough of doing the same thing over and over. The two different types of Liberation missions, for example, are almost always exactly the same every single time. Kill one wave of enemies, destroy their blockade, kill the next wave, destroy the second blockade, and so on until the end of the third wave when it deigns to let you capture their flag. As mildly diverting as this is the first few times, you might find it a little dull after the sixth, never mind the 135th.
If you do carry out the various non-story missions, you do get handsomely rewarded in theory - that being the theory of the design document. By effectively gaining respect with the Guerrillas and the Rioja drug cartel for liberating the individual territories that constitute all 34 provinces within San Esperito, you eventually get rewarded with promotion through the ranks. In turn, you end up with a better selection of vehicles and weaponry to access at the game's various safe houses, which often come in extremely useful elsewhere - or at least in theory they do. In truth, we got through the entire story campaign without gaining a single upgrade this way, instead battling through with whatever the 'agency' threw our way. Only after we finished the story did we go back and plough another 10 or so hours into the extra stuff, but after doing the same thing about 100 times, we'd lost any incentive to carry on at all, beyond scraping a few more hard-earned gamerscore points for the 'achievement' of having completed all the collect missions, or something ludicrous like 50 side missions. So although, yes, you gain easier access to things like big meaty choppers that can fire missiles - as soon as you realise that they're just as susceptible to anti-air defences, it brings you back down to Earth in more ways than one. In simple terms, the upgrades are a waste of time.
Just as completely inexplicable is how vast Just Cause is, for absolutely no discernible reason other than they could. Measuring somewhat larger than even San Andreas, this vast expanse is certainly a fine technical achievement, but proves to be nothing more than an empty boast once you start exploring and realise there's nothing remotely worth finding. Everything you need to locate is documented on the map already (even the secrets), and getting there is pretty straightforward as soon as you've earned the little helicopter. In what proves to be an excellent design decision, you can call for a heavy vehicle drop whenever you're not being attacked - meaning that if ever you find yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere, you can simply request either a boat, car, jeep or mini chopper and be on your way. Better still, if you're tired of travelling by conventional means, you can call for extraction and be piloted direct to the start of a mission or to any of the unlocked safe houses in the game. Such an idea definitely scores Just Cause extra marks, but it's entirely necessary too, because otherwise you'd spend absolutely hours making completely pointless journeys across San Esperito.
Thankfully, Avalanche didn't see fit to waste any more time trying to shoehorn in some kind of pointless multiplayer mode just out of obligation. Frankly, like so many games, it definitely doesn't need one, and we're grateful for its absence to be honest.
And yet after such a topsy-turvy review, there's actually a lot of good stuff to say about Just Cause. Technically it's often stunning, with absolutely marvellous vegetation, zero pop-up, rock solid frame rate, nice explosions and a decent engine underpinning the whole thing. But then it occasionally lets itself down too, with horrible graphical glitches appearing more often than is strictly acceptable, bugs that cause certain missions not to cue properly - things that are serious enough to require restarting the entire game. Less of an issue, and more down to personal preference is the slightly uninspired art style, some unfinished animation transitions (where, for example, Rico reacts inappropriately when knocked back, or when falling, and so on) slightly iffy handling, and some plainly odd interactions with the world - such as the ability to run like the Bionic Man through dense vegetation like it's not even there, or the super athletic ability to run up near-vertical inclines at the same speed as flat land. It's stuff that's evidently designed to make the game feel more fun and you can see why they did it, but at the same time it feels like yet another corner-cutting fudge.
One area where Just Cause could have redeemed itself would have been to come up with a meaningful, involving or even satirical storyline to carry the rest of the game. But as it is, what little narrative that does make it into the game (and there isn't much, in truth) is uninspired, uninvolving, lacking in depth or explanation as to who Rico is or why he's doing all this mad stuff, and just not very interesting. When it comes down to it, you're just killing some guy because someone told you to, but at no stage do you remotely care why. It's not enough, really.
Just do it
Even the audio smacks of being rushed through to meet a deadline. At times there are some absolutely cracking tunes that really help drive the action, but they constantly reappear to the point that you'll pine for some sort of variety. That's the thing about sandbox games - you need the radio station approach to get over the amount of time you're expected to play them, and Just Cause doesn't even make a cursory attempt to mimic this idea. And while we're yakking on about audio, the whole Latino thing gets very tiresome very quickly. Just as Saints Row gets irritating with its macho gangster bullshit, it's a similar deal in Just Cause, only less varied and less of a potty-mouthed attitude.
If you did an edited showreel of Just Cause, you could easily make it look like one of the most essential games of the year, when the truth is some distance from that. It's got some great ideas that make it an easy sell, but despite the promise of this vast world with tons to do, the sad fact is that it feels like a rushed project that had a long way to go. With brainless autoaim combat, forgettable missions and little in the way of challenge, the flash stunts and crazy moves can't hide Just Cause's flaws, and ultimately, rather than being some sort of GTA-beater, it's more of a poor man's Mercenaries, ludicrously padded out with hundreds of entirely worthless side missions that sprawl over uninteresting terrain. That said, 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.
6 / 10