Big trouble on massive Island
There are a few caveats I'm going to make right before I get down to the review. Just Cause is the first game from the Swedish Developer Avalanche, Just Cause is ambitious and Just Cause isn't pitched as a realistic spy/secret agent thriller with island hopping.
It's a game that requires you to suspend disbelief and ignore some of the more pushy laws of physics.
If you bear these in mind and you can do the above, then you'll probably really like it.
San Espirito is a big island chain, it has a problem with its local Dictator, El Presidente, he's a real mean guy and responsible for countless crimes against his people. Enter the Agency, fronted by two operatives who claim they're on a tour of the island to see the local sights.
Add into this mix one bad ass black wearing Rico Rodriguez and you have the perfect recipe for disaster and all sorts of chaos. Rico has a history of extreme violence, blatant disregard for the rules and does what it takes to get the job done. He reminds me so much of Antonio Banderas in Once upon a time in Mexico it's truly scary.
It's Rico's job to team up with the Agency, the Guerrillas and a local drug cartel to restore balance to the island.
Right off the bat Just Cause is going to draw certain similarities to games like: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas but for me it reminds me of a couple of games that I had pre-PC in the old days of the C-64 and ZX-Spectrum.
I'm talking about Hunter and Midwinter here, for those of you that remember them. They were sandbox games of their time with a go-anywhere, drive anything, do anything to get the job done kind of attitude.
After the first cut scene the game kicks off and:
As the game opens you leap out of the back of a plane and freefall to the island, the view is breathtaking and the island is absolutely incredible to look at on the 360. The feel from this moment of gameplay is captured only in movies like the Bond series.
You can at any time pop Rico's specialised memory-chute and it will open, allowing you to glide down towards the island marker. Of course you can stow the chute again and freefall to your hearts content, even hitting the water and swimming to shore. It's up to you, because right from the start Just Cause is all about player choices.
Just Cause is a sandbox game in that respect, with freedom of movement through the gigantic island chain. You can drive/fly/steal just about any vehicle and use it as you attempt to bring peace to the island through force of arms and an OTT kill count.
The sky, the ground and the sea (as well as under it) are your entire playground and there's a lot of that playground to cover. Just Cause is around 250,000 acres in size and if you want to explore the whole island chain then you'll be at it for quite a while.
But despite its staggering size, that could probably fit both Elder Scrolls: III and IV in it with room to spare, there's not all that much to do. Let me clarify this.
The story mode in Just Cause is fairly short and most of the missions are over quickly, they're interesting enough and there's a good variety of things that Rico has to do that range from hi-jacking someone's identity and taking their place, to killing an important member of the regime, to make a point.
The game developers pad this with take over (Liberation) missions, these see Rico having to lead assaults on both government controlled and enemy cartel controlled settlements and villas. Success in the Guerrilla missions means that the province you're in becomes one step closer to Guerrilla rule.
Completing missions for the 3 factions earns Rico various rewards.
Agency: unlocks new safe-houses and equipment/vehicles, destabilises the region allowing Rico to help take it over.
Cartel: unlocks new safe-houses and equipment/vehicles, helicopters become available at all controlled villas.
Guerrilla: unlocks new safe-houses and equipment/vehicles, brings the region closer to Guerrilla control.
Rico earns points as he performs missions for the revolution and the cartel, these elevate him in rank and eventually when he ranks up he gets a new title and a new safe-house. These safe-houses are packed with equipment and some interesting specialised vehicles.
The cartel for example has a very cool car armed with machine guns.
The safe-houses also have ammo stockpiles; weapons and a health restore station. They also have a save point that allows you to save your progress (you can't save like this mid-mission though) unless you're in a mission, and then the game uses checkpoints.
The Agency missions also unlock several special vehicles for emergency heavy drops, these come in useful if you don't feel like jacking anyone's ride to get to where you want to go.
The drops and extraction (a trip to a safe-house of your choice) are available through the in-game PDA that allows Rico to see all sorts of information, view the map and see how he's getting on with the other factions.
The game plays out very much like this: take an Agency mission, get the job done. Spend time taking over government and enemy cartel controlled settlements and villas, build rep and rinse/repeat until the province is under control. It might seem like it's a bit of a chore, but the developers have given you utter freedom in how you do it.
For a first time game, Just Cause is an ambitious project that for me, works. I don't see what a lot of people have against the game. Sure it's over the top and it has a clichéd story etc. It's fun and that's the important thing.
There are side missions, which are short and are random. These are simple and they usually involve stealing something, blowing someone or something up or making a deal with someone for both the cartel and the revolution. Again, you're given complete freedom in how you accomplish these missions.
There are race and collect missions, the collect missions are a good way of getting extra points for the two factions and they are simple enough to do since they appear on the map and mini-map, again, you have complete freedom when you do these missions.
Whilst I am on the subject of freedom it's time I think to mention the stunts system, the game is packed with death defying and over the top stunts - stunts that would make the laws of physics curl up into a ball and start crying over the fact that they've been mistreated.
The only problem I have is that the buttons are context sensitive and you need to keep an eye on the display, or else you might find you're diving out of the vehicle compared to leaping gracefully from car to car.
The stunt system is fun and satisfying when it works, a quick tap of the button will allow Rico to go into stunt mode. He climbs out of the vehicle and leaps atop it, in the case of a car - from here he can leap to another vehicle or climb back in. Rather than explain the stunt system like this, I will illustrate it from a moment of gameplay.
Rico had just been given his coolest piece of equipment yet, the grapple gun, so I was aching to try this one out. I decided that the best way would be to take one of the side missions and see what happened.
I found one of the many side missions for the Guerrillas and it randomly picked an assassination. There was a target on the map I had to kill and it seemed simple enough. It was a fair distance off so I borrowed a car, this happened to be a bit of a mistake since I picked the enemy syndicate's vehicle to jack.
That gave me a wanted level, so I was forced to shoot the people shooting me. The wanted level went up, the police arrived and I shot them, gaining a wanted level with them as well. I had a wanted level of 2 with the enemy cartel and a wanted level of 3 with the cops.
Rico seemed to be happy about this.
I floored the cartel's vehicle and shot across the road, taking an off-road direction with cars swarming all around me. The cops kept on coming; I swerved and noticed that the target was actually on a beach over the edge of a cliff. In any other game I wouldn't have been able to do what I did then.
I hit the stunt position button; the game went into a third person camera as the car shot off the edge of the cliff in slow motion. Rico surfing the bonnet as the other cars followed and plummeted to their doom below.
I popped Rico's chute and he sailed effortlessly away from the doomed car, both pistols in hand I was able to lock onto the target just as a police helicopter came droning into view - it couldn't quite get a bead on me. I killed the target with Rico's twin handguns and whipped out the grapple gun.
The grapple struck home and Rico went sailing towards the chopper as I held down the right trigger, he grabbed onto the tail fin and I took control of the vehicle (yeah, the whole diving through whirling chopper blades made the laws of reality take a hike, but I didn't care. I was having too much fun).
I checked the mini-map; the mission objective marker had moved and was no longer set on my contact. The further you go into the side missions the further away the return point becomes, sometimes it's not even the same guy.
A rocket shoots past the chopper and I get things moving, the contact is on the other side of a large mountain range known as Eagle's Nest. This proves to be harder than I expected since I now have a wanted level of 4 and the cops are bringing out the big guns, four choppers want Rico's blood and there's a deadly game of cat and mouse that would make James Bond proud.
I get close to Eagle's Nest and the chopper takes a bad hit to the rear, it starts to smoke, another hit starts a fire and I bail. Rico freefalls towards the top of the mountain and hits the deck rolling, I keep him running and he makes towards the nearest edge.
A short run down the mountain and Rico rolls a few more times. Machine gun fire rips through the air and Rico's blasted off his feet by a rocket. He's hurled up and off the side of the mountain. Most game characters would be dead now. Not Rico, he's gone into freefall and I manage to guide him down the side of the mountain zipping past the rock and trees.
A few feet from the ground I hit the chute and he soars back into the sky, still under fire from the cops.
This chase goes on for over ten minutes and I have been knocked off course by having to avoid the heat from the cops, then I spot the marker again and drop into freefall. Rico gets close to the ground and the jump to vehicle command pops up. I take control of a small pickup truck and drive it madly towards my destination.
Finally Rico makes it and I sit back with a big smile on my face, adrenaline game moment gold.
It's stunts like this that elevate a game like Just Cause to a good game, I can suspend my disbelief and enjoy it, because I am having fun and that's important to me.
The gun combat is simplistic with a generous auto-aim and target system; you can even shoot grenades in mid air and blow them up (yours or the enemies) - a quick tap of the right shoulder button and you switch targets. Some of the vehicles and vessels have inbuilt weapons and the d-pad cycles between them.
You can also click the right stick in for a shoulder-cam view to aim your weapons.
Just Cause is a great looking game, it has a nice bloom effect on the characters and soft lighting/shadows bring the world to life. It's a tropical island paradise that makes the one in Far Cry look a little dated. It has a dynamic day/night cycle and the use of lighting effects and shaders really produce some spectacular scenery.
The view distance is spectacular and the engine delivers without a loss of frame rates (or any loading thanks to the procedural technology), even when things get pretty intense. There's a little bit of popping now and then but it's only to be expected since the game is actually creating a complete island chain, as mentioned before of some 250,000 acres in size with breathtaking draw distances and amazing atmospheric effects.
Sunlight burns through the clouds, the water looks gorgeous and the actual weather in the game is created via the use of weather forecast systems and complex weather algorithms that create a virtual water table, and weather effect. Most weather is just an effect in a game, clouds are a texture pasted onto a canvas of the sky and the script tells it when to rain.
Just Cause actually creates clouds in real time, weather is calculated in real time and if it rains - it's because the atmospheric conditions are prevalent enough to cause rain. The only downside is that the storms and the rain effects are pretty bland, where they should have been absolutely amazing - they feel a little tacked on and it's a shame considering the trouble Avalanche went to create the weather in the first place.
The colour palette is vibrant and dynamic; it lends a certain pastel feel to the island thanks to the lighting and bloom effects.
Explosions and special effects are likewise of a high quality and give the game an almost graphic novel feel.
The models in Just Cause, from the enemies to the cars and various vehicles are all of good quality. I especially like the look of Rico, his clothing and his details are excellent. He has a definite personality that has been defined by the graphic artists and it comes through nicely.
The same can be said of the weapons and the in-world items/equipment; it's all been made to a high standard.
The animations in Just Cause vary from good to a little bland, there could have been more done with the whole stunt system in that respect. Getting in and out of helicopters is another gripe, Rico seems to pass through closed doors and they really should open, cockpits need to slide back and so on.
The idle animations for Rico are however great, he crosses himself, he plays with his handguns and changes his posture in a dynamic way.
Over all I liked the animations and they're not at all bad for the most part.
The AI in Just Cause is a mixed bag of bolts. There's some good AI going on that simulates the world, but the people are often dumb as rocks, they throw themselves under your car or get in the way in a firefight. Rather than running away from a grenade, your revolutionary buddies will charge right at the enemy and usually end up blown sky high.
I have also witnessed some comedy moments where the police fly their copters into solid walls or obstacles. All in all though, it's passable, just not anything ground breaking.
I will say that the AI that governs the world itself however, through the engine, is phenomenal - the AI that drives the weather system is truly a great innovation and a fantastic feature.
The physics in the game are just as over the top as the stunts: the engine delivers ragdoll and object interactive physics without breaking a sweat. Bodies fly in a truly Hollywood style and the explosive effects from rockets/missiles are great fun to watch.
There could have been more made of the vehicle crash physics and the fact that grenades do very little damage to them, is a mind boggler to be honest. Especially after playing something like Saint's Row where vehicular explosions are truly excellent.
They still do a good job, so no real gripes here.
I have to say that the sound engineers have done a marvellous job in Just Cause. The ambient atmospheric sounds, the vehicle sounds, especially the way the rotors on a chopper change in pitch as the collective is applied and the bird moves through the air are excellently done.
When Rico freefalls and you can hear the wind rushing through his clothes, around him and over him, it is that moment that you know the audio for the game is spot on. The island itself comes to life with noises from the jungles and the higher you climb up the side of a mountain or feature; you can really hear the wind begin to howl around you.
Gunfire, rockets, shouts and screams permeate the quiet island the closer a province gets to a revolt. Most especially as the AI goes about trying to pacify the revolutionaries and dangerous citizens.
The music in the game matches the island atmosphere very well; it is context sensitive depending on your action, if you're on foot or in a vehicle and what mission you're on. It is a little repetitious and does grate on the nerves after a while, but that's what custom sound tracks are for.
I recommend Die Another Day whilst playing the game if you really don't like the music.
It's not stunning voice acting by far and it's not famous voice actors, it's got a decent script and dialogue as well as some good performances. Rico is very like Antonio Banderas and has some nice one liners that he cracks out from time to time, this keeps things interesting, especially in an intense gun battle or when just exploring San Espirito (especially by parachute)
It's not revolutionary and it's gloriously over the top in places. It's got a few graphic glitches and some cases of popping, sloppy controls now and then. But it's a fun game and it's what matters to me. There are side missions and a whopping big island chain to explore, there's not much in the way of life compared to other games of this type and the level of destruction isn't as impressive as Mercenaries but Just Cause wins bonus points for:
A fun inventive stunt system, totally mad physics and a secret agent theme that allows us to be a sky-diving, gun toting, lady-killing guy with a penchant for wearing black and sounding like El'Mariachi.
More vehicles than you can shake a stick at.
Atmospheric real-time created weather and gorgeous graphical effects.
If you can suspend your disbelief and get into the theme and groove of the game then you'll probably like Just Cause, the developers have done a good job for their first game and despite the dodgy animations at times, some of the clipping bugs and the lack of a climb function it delivers a fun and great experience.
Even if it does have a short story mode there's lots of side missions and other things to do, if you like exploring you can find some impressive views and places to go in the island chain.
I certainly won't stop until the whole of San Espirito is pacified, and then we're told the game allows you to continue playing in the sandbox. I don't think I could get bored of stunting from vehicle to vehicle to get from A-B not with action this fun.
Give it a blast.