Sandbox games are made for mischief. Part of the allure of Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, and even a strategy game like SimCity 2000 was the possibility that you could cause complete chaos in an otherwise peaceful setting. Just Cause 2, developed by Eidos Interactive and available through the OnLive gaming service, understands this human impulse for chaos and so gives you a beautifully crafted world to play around in (a huge chain of islands in a fictional Asian country), the toys you want to play with (attack helicopters, jet fighters, and guns) and then the incentive to blow pretty much everything up. While this third-person open world game can be a bit rough around the edges, the sheer size of this backyard makes you want to come back to play again and again.
You play as Rico Rodriguez, a spy with The Agency who is sent to the fictional country of Panau to investigate a “rogue” agent and help overthrow an authoritative dictatorship run by Baby Panay. In addition to performing Agency missions that advance the plot, you can take on missions by three criminal organizations scattered throughout the island. Unlike many open-world games, these factional missions aren’t just side missions—you only can unlock new agency missions after causing enough chaos. Chaos is earned by completing faction missions or by performing destroying government property.
The bad news is that you can’t just speed through the game. Even after ten hours of playing, you’ll only likely complete a small percentage of the game’s missions. The good news is that thanks to the chaos system, your impulse to just blow stuff up will be rewarded. Deciding to steal a car, shoot at some guards, and blow up a gas station will actually help advance you in the game, rather than just satisfy your own sadistic fantasies.
Rico is capable of carrying three weapons on him at all times (one large weapon like an assault rifle plus two one-handed weapons) plus a variety of grenades. He also has a parachute that can be deployed, detached, and redeployed throughout any fall. What this means is that you can jump out of a plane or off a building and always land safely. It’s a ridiculously fun and spy-like tool, even if far removed from realism.
Lastly, you have a grappling hook that is even more useful than the Hook-shot from Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Rico can grapple up virtually any surface, pull enemies towards him, or even tie an enemy to a vehicle or a vehicle to something else. Simply put: Just Cause 2 gives you a ridiculously great series of tools to play around with and makes the controls intuitive enough that you have no problem using them.
Still, getting around the many islands and mountain ranges of Panau takes time. The world you can play around is absolutely gorgeous and vast. There are offshore oil rigs, rivers and bays to swim in, airports, military bases, cities, towns, deserts, ports, mountain ranges and virtually everything else you’d expect in a country. On foot, it would take hours of game time to get across the world. To help save time, you can call in your black market contact to drop you (via parachute) to any previously visited area of the world. Alternatively, you can always steal a motorcycle, boat, car, plane, or helicopter and go exploring yourself.
Even if you’ve just started the game, you can stumble upon one of the many military installations in the game and steal a machine of war like a strike craft or attack helicopter. Though you’ll earn “heat” which indicates how much enemies want to pursue you, you can sneak into a military base, steal an attack helicopter, and then cause a whole lot of chaos by blowing up the oil tanks, generators, and gas stations that litter the landscape.
I’d spend hours sneaking into enemy bases, taking their hardware for a test drive, and then when I’d attracted enough heat, I’d bail on the chopper (which would crash and cause more chaos) and then grapple onto an enemy chopper, kill the crew, and steal it. Rinse repeat.
This eventually gets old, like much of the game’s charms. So you’ll find yourself hiking out to the many faction mission hubs and taking on assignments. This is where you’ll get several hilariously scripted mission briefs by communist, religious, and economic freedom fighters that are vying for power. The voice acting and writing is abysmal and the game shows its roughest edges when the mannequin-like characters talk. Poor Rico’s lines rarely sync up with the drivel that’s coming out of his mouth. The press materials boast that he’s the ultimate spy: a cross between James Bond, Indiana Jones, etc. But truly original characters don’t attempt to be imitations, and Rico’s accent is pretty much the only characteristic that sets him apart from the legions of generic videogame heroes.
Each mission begins the same way: your contact will give you a gun (and sometimes a vehicle) and tell you where to go and what to do. There are some missions that are real gems (like assassinating a colonel with a sniper rifle or taking out an offshore oil rig with a helicopter) but others can be complete pains (a limo driving mission, a “defuse-the-bombs-across-town” mission). Unfortunately, very few of them give you genuinely cool moments that you won’t experience just by exploring on your own time. The “plot” isn’t strong enough to want you to keep coming back to the mission hubs, and the equipment you’re given isn’t superior to the stuff you can buy on the black market or steal.
That’s ultimately the game’s Achilles heal—there is very incentive to keep playing through the linear story. Since it’s so much fun to just cause chaos and fly around, there’s very little keeping players coming back to the the narrow framework of set missions. If I couldn’t beat a mission in a try or two, I’d opt for another mission or just go back to blowing up enemy installations on my own time.
There are some other, smaller quibbles that have likely kept this game off of everyone’s “best of 2010” list. In addition to the lackluster story, boilerplate characters, and horrid voice work, there are some noticeable bugs, the occasional camera angle miscue (especially when flying planes), and an aiming/firing system that is clunky at best. What I found most frustrating, however, was trying to locate the numerous boxes hidden within every settlement that you had to find in order to liberate any area. There’s a small sensor at the top of your screen that tells how close you are to them, but honestly, they could have just given us a treasure map.
Macworld’s buying advice
Some sandbox games keep you playing because of the intricate plot and compelling characters. Just Cause 2 is not one of these games. Instead, you’re a one man wrecking machine and are given the tools to wreck havoc on an entire nation. The more over-the-top, the more explosions, the better. Just Cause 2 gives you the liberty to indulge your most destructive impulses—perhaps too much so.
[Chris Holt is a Macworld associate editor.]