Developer: Avalanche Studios
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Wake me when there’s nothing left to explode
There are moments when Just Cause 2 pretends to be something that it isn’t. This is not a political thriller, nor is it the tale of Rico Rodriguez, the gruff superspy with a deep-down heart of gold. Like dutiful students in a freshman screenwriting course, the developers make occasional half-hearted stabs at that kind of storytelling. But you can tell they’re not feeling it, because Just Cause 2 isn’t designed to accommodate a traditional narrative arc. Rather, the game is one long, glorious lucid dream of destruction.
Most of the time, Just Cause 2 embraces that surreality. As C.I.A. operative Rodriguez, you have free rein to create mayhem in the Southeast Asian country of Panau. The island is a geographical hodgepodge: Snowcaps tower within 10 kilometers of scorched desert and humble tropical-forest villages stand in the shadow of sparkling skyscrapers. Tucked into these gorgeous landscapes are hundreds of military outposts, whose glittering gas tanks and radio towers practically beg you to blow them up. You spend the entire game making their wishes come true.
There’s a reason you’re supposed to destroy everything—some business about an evil dictator and oil and Russo-Sino-Japanese relations—but it gets short shrift. Logic would only spoil the playground vibe. The real reason to wreak havoc is, put simply, just ’cause. You have a grappling hook, an always-on-call parachute, and a huge supply of heavy weaponry—plus access to every land, sea, and air vehicle imaginable. What else are you going to do?
Open-world games like Red Faction: Guerrilla have pursued the destruction angle before. Just Cause 2 is distinguished from the rest by a floaty, hallucinatory sensation. The key to that feel is the grappler, which is also the most difficult mechanic to master.
Films and games typically envision a grappling hook as a fancy way to get from point A to point B. We all know the drill: Batman needs to reach that ledge, so he shoots the Bathook and zips up there, voila. (Somehow his arm doesn’t get ripped out of the socket). While Rodriguez’s hook can work that way, it’s more impressive when used as an impromptu slingshot. Shoot the grappler at a distant building, start retracting the line, and let go at the last second to deploy your parachute. You’re flung into the sky, drifting with a feeling of weightlessness. Repeat the trick in mid-air and suddenly, for all intents and purpose, you can fly. If you’re trying to get anywhere in Just Cause 2 on foot, you’re doing it wrong.
It takes a couple hours to get comfortable with the grappling maneuvers, but once you have them under your belt, they open up the loopiest tricks in the game’s deep playbook. Say the enemy army scrambles a helicopter to gun you down. Just grapple on, clamber up the windshield, and kick out the pilot to take the controls yourself. (There’s a punchline: When the bad guys figure out what you’ve done, their solution is inevitably to send another helicopter. Guess what you do next.)
In a more serious setting like Splinter Cell or Metal Gear, all the outsized espionage would seem pretty stupid. It works here because the developers maintain a campy sense of humor about the whole affair. The ethnically diverse cast of characters is drawn with all the sophistication of a Clutch Cargo cartoon, and your Panuan foes are hapless louts. They’d almost be lovable if they didn’t keep screaming the same handful of lines—“He’s bleeding like a peeg!”—every time you ran into them.
Most games try to convince you that everything you do really matters; Just Cause 2 takes the opposite approach. Its commitment to unrealism deflates any notion of consequences. The takeaway: Why not go nuts?
That’s how you find yourself attaching a moped to the back of your truck to swing it around as an impromptu wrecking ball, or leaping off the nose of a jetliner to reach an aerial sex club held in place by two blimps. You could say that the events of Just Cause 2 make no sense, but that’s not quite right. Like any vivid dream, everything makes perfect sense in the moment; it’s only when you wake up that it seems insane. And with an enormous world that could take more than 100 hours to explore, Just Cause 2 makes it dangerously easy to hit the snooze button.