Just Cause 2 was a breath of fresh air in open-world games. In a genre dominated by Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto monolith, the idea of an inherently outlandish and semi-satirical world and story flew in the face of convention. Even the aforementioned Grand Theft Auto series has steadily moved away from perceivably immature to gritty realism, at the sad cost of potential lunacy.
It’s hard not to compare Just Cause 2 with something like Grand Theft Auto IV, given they carry similar mechanics and feature a vast open-world to explore. The problem with Grand Theft Auto IV boils down to it just not being much fun. It’s insistence on ‘being taken seriously’ have ground it so much more in reality than Just Cause 2, making the open-world aspect of the game somewhat muted in comparison.
Just Cause 2’s world is truly remarkable, and can be summed up thusly: if you can see it, you can go to it. Not a single bit of scenery, infrastructure or landmark is inaccessible. If the player feels like scaling the tallest building in the game, then they may do so at any opportunity. If, like me, the player wishes to airlift a large vehicle to the highest mountain in Panau, the game’s fictitious island setting, and then proceed to drive off that mountain (with the Superman theme music playing in the background for atmosphere), then they are welcome to do so. This is a world where the contrasts of being one person in a giant world, and feeling completely empowered in that world, are deftly intertwined with panache to spare.
The game’s true claim to fame, however, lies in the extensive mechanics it features. Unlike Grand Theft Auto IV, these mechanics do not sit within specific sections, nor are they consigned to be used in a set way. The game promotes experimentation with its core mechanics, resulting in a far more palpable sense of accomplishment, particularly when operations such as the aforementioned trip off the mountain are conceived as ludicrous ideas that are then completely welcomed by the game’s mechanics. Just Cause 2’s grappling hook is an utter joy to use and experiment with allowing even the most outlandish ideas to flourish beyond its use as a navigation item.
One of Just Cause 2’s failings was its omission of some form of multiplayer, an aspect that was covered in Grand Theft Auto IV. However, the enterprising efforts of a group of modders has resulted in the birth of one of the most unrestrained, ridiculous multiplayer experiences that I have ever played. The sight of full-size jumbo jets making incredibly low passes into an airport, followed by a barrage of gun fire from an army of maniacal tank-helming players creates a chaotic ballet of sheer joy. Furthermore, the ability to play the game with a small group of people increases the mechanical experimentation exponentially: it is a level of freedom that is yet to be matched.
If Just Cause 2 has a failing, it’s that its world is, at times, too large and too cookie-cutter in the design of its cities and establishments. While surely the result of the seeming impossibility of designing and detail such a vast area, the repetition is somewhat disconcerting at times, particularly when towns begin blending into each other. The lack of unique landmarks belittles a world that could be more memorable than it is, particularly when compared to the beauty of Rockstar’s pseudo-New York City, Liberty City.
With Just Cause 3 (potentially) around the corner, it’s wonderful to see a game willing to truly promote its mechanics over a prosaic, ‘gritty’ story. Just Cause 2 is what it is: an utterly entertaining way for players to do what they want, whenever they want.
When I play a game, I usually want two things: an interesting story, and mental stimulation. These two things are what make a game interesting to me, and unfortunately Just Cause 2 is lacking in both areas. Let me elaborate:
An interesting story is an important feature in many games I enjoy – Heavy Rain, Ace Attorney, The Walking Dead (by Telltale), many RPGs, and visual novels such as Virtue’s Last Reward are some examples. Note that I say "interesting story" rather than "good story" – I’m pretty forgiving when it comes to that. An interesting story is the reason I could enjoy Bioshock Infinite even though the gameplay was dull at best and the ending was written by somebody who doesn’t understand the Many-worlds interpretation very well.
Mental stimulation is the other important trait for me. This is why I enjoy turn-based strategy games such as Advance Wars and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Rhythm games like Rhythm Heaven, Elite Beat Agents, and Theatrhythm Final Fantasy also fall into this category as well. Challenging platformers like Super Meat Boy and Trials 2: Second Edition are another example.
There are plenty of games with both of these traits – games like Deus Ex, System Shock 2, most JRPGs, strategy games, and many others have both an interesting story as well as mentally stimulating gameplay. However there are also plenty of examples of games that have neither.
Most modern shooters are easy targets – almost all of them are lacking in both the story and stimulation. Call of Duty isn’t the only target, if you’ll play almost any boring old shooter released today and you’ll get the same deal. Crysis 3, Syndicate, Aliens: Colonial Marines, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct (not by Telltale), Battlefield 3, and of course Call of Duty: Black Ops II are just a few recent examples of shooters lacking the important attributes.
Most mulitplayer games aren’t much better – it’s difficult to inject a story into a multiplayer game, and any challenge is usually based on twitch-reflexes and the randomness of other human players. I very much prefer co-op style multiplayer where you can have at least a little bit of story or some strategic elements to it.
Which brings us back to the topic at hand. Just Cause 2 is a great technical achievement – it has a very large game world which lets you seamlessly explore with no loading screens, it has a wide range of vehicles, a robust physics implementation, and shiny graphics. It has all the technical elements of a good game, however for me, it falls flat on the two things that really matter.
JC2 is a sandbox game, and it’s a sandbox game in a reasonably pure form. It only has enough of a plot to string missions together, and most of the gameplay takes the form of: dick around with physics, guns and explosions until you’ve destroyed everything that moves. This is made even clearer in the multiplayer mod, which has no missions at all – it is just a free-for-all with no objectives.
I’m sure my sinister friend will disagree, but Just Cause 2 has little-to-no redeeming features to it in my book. Spending a few hours exploding things with no purpose is not my idea of fun. Some might argue that you’re supposed to "create your own story", but I’m far too literal for that. I’d much rather read a book, or play a story-driven game.
I don’t really want this type of game to disappear – as long as there’s a market for them and people enjoy playing them, they should continue to exist. However, I don’t think that I’ll be among that audience any time soon.