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.