The Double-A Team: How Just Cause elevated chaos to a beautiful art
The Double-A Team is a feature series honouring the unpretentious, mid-budget, gimmicky commercial action games that no-one seems to make any more.
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During Square-Enix's E3 2015 press conference, its US CEO Phil Rogers said he considered Just Cause a major franchise that can stand "side by side" with other "iconic" Square-Enix franchises.
The very fact he said this immediately suggests it isn't, especially to anyone who played Just Cause 4, and it certainly wasn't at launch. The first Just Cause, which landed back in 2006, is a clunky mash-up of open-world shooting, scenery-chewing performances from the days before mo-cap, and the sort of low-poly vehicles Elon Musk will probably be trying to sell you soon. But that doesn't mean it's not wonderful.
It's a game that could be associated with that most filthy of words: politics. Operation Just Cause was, after all, a self-defence (ahem) action by the USA in 1989/1990 that deposed the president of Panama, Manuel Noriega. He'd been working with the CIA, but had been up to other kinds of no good on the side. So is our protagonist Rico Rodriguez a prism through which to examine complex themes of American neocolonialism and the terrorist/freedom fighter dichotomy? Is he hell. He exists purely to blow things up in a playground designed to facilitate the blowing up of such things. It's a template that fits and works, as it's stuck all the way to Just Cause 4.
Before he became a walking wink to the camera, before he uttered the words 'freelance dictator removal specialist', Rico was a CIA man and a Double-A man. There's no controller support in the PC version of Just Cause, so he fires with the left mouse button but aims with the right in defiance of every sensible mouse and keyboard control scheme ever. He constantly loops his dialogue, telling you he has a self-control problem and fetishising his weapons as "just so powerful" in a way that might have been amusing as a throwaway quip but quickly begins to grate. Not that the rest of the script is much better. "Sweet freedom. Soon all of my people will drink from this cup," intones a rebel leader with every appearance of actually meaning it.
But, and I can't deny it's a big but, all this is totally game-appropriate. Just Cause is a series that tasks you with causing chaos. Its NPC soldiers are the fondest of their explosive barrels I've ever seen, choosing to stack them lovingly around their outposts and roadblocks with predictable results.
For an open-world game with vehicles, the AI drivers behave with all the self-awareness of a modern BMW owner. Queues build up when a vehicle is on the wrong side of the road. Jeeps chasing you drive into trees. And the former occupants of cars you jack spew all sorts of threats, claiming you've picked the wrong day to mess with them before leaping toward their car, missing, and falling face-down in the road before nonchalantly walking off. Released the same year as Bethesda's Cotswolds simulator, Oblivion, Avalanche went for shimmering water, bombastic sunsets and the occasional brightly coloured parrot instead of crossing Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean with potatoes and setting them on clockwork radiant quests. Running in, unleashing hell, hijacking a car, driving to the top of the nearest mountain and parachuting off the top to escape the small army on your tail sounds like the kind of story that comes from GTA, but on one Caribbean island, Just Cause made it happen again and again and again.
As a final thought, it's worth pointing out that the original name for the real-life Operation Just Cause was Operation Blue Spoon. Some humour vacuum at the Pentagon changed it, but we'd definitely all play that game.