Just Cause Review
Just Cause is able to justify its relative brevity and disrespect for physical law with some extremely visceral and often satisfying action.
It's lucky for Just Cause that it's able to differentiate itself from other, similar games with these ridiculous abilities, since some of the other facets of the gameplay aren't nearly as inspired. In all of the console versions of Just Cause, there's a liberal autotargeting system that only asks that you be pointing in the general direction of an enemy, which makes the gunplay a bit too easy. By comparison, the PC version defaults to a mouse-and-keyboard setup, though even then the gunplay is pretty forgiving and not especially satisfying. The most unique aspect of the gunplay is the ability to detonate grenades early by shooting them in the air, though it's about as hard to do as it sounds and rarely figures too prominently into the action. Save for a few specific planes, the vehicles control well enough, but the enemy artificial intelligence can be frustratingly tenacious, with a knack for spinning out your car and stopping you dead in your tracks.
The main mission of taking down Salvador Mendoza is relatively short, and if you're focused, you can burn through it in well under five hours. Missions are usually heavy with checkpoints, which means that if you die in the middle of a mission, you'll automatically start from the most recent checkpoint rather than from scratch. As long as you're not in the middle of a mission, you can be extracted to the starting point of your next mission at the touch of a button. The nature of the missions is predictable. The crazy parachute and grappling-gun mechanics can make the how of these missions much more interesting, but save for a few rather spectacular moments during the endgame, it's a lot of assassinate this guy, steal this item, blow up this building--there are rarely any big twists or turns.
Just Cause has the open-world GTA structure, but there's not a wealth of activities to take on outside of the completely linear main story. There are dozens and dozens of side missions you can take on for the guerillas and the Riojas drug cartel, which can net you new safe houses, weapons, and vehicles, but they're rarely more inventive than what's on offer in the primary missions. Theoretically, you'll do these side missions concurrently with the main missions, with the extra hardware from the side missions making the main missions easier, but the main missions are easy enough on their own that it's a moot point.
But then, you can have a good deal of fun with Just Cause simply goofing around with taking in the sights of San Esperito, which really does look and feel like a choice vacation spot with its beautiful greenery, white sand beaches, and clear blue waters. The Xbox 360 version gives you additional incentive to explore San Esperito with achievement points. You'll get a fair number by playing through the different missions, but there are also achievements for killing a number of enemies, performing a number of different types of stunts, or pulling off daring feats like base jumping for 1,000 meters. There are a lot of different unique achievements, and you could soak up a lot of time trying to earn every last one.
The use of achievements is just one of the reasons that the Xbox 360 version of Just Cause is the best version. Though the game's use of motion blur and light bloom can be a little overwhelming at times, the 360 version has the most stable frame rate, the clearest textures, and the cleanest overall look. The PC and Xbox versions are close in terms of fidelity, though we couldn't get the PC version to run in a wide-screen aspect ratio, and the Xbox version ran at a noticeably lower resolution with a more erratic frame rate. Additionally, we found no apparent way to opt for gamepad controls in the PC version. While the Xbox, PC, and Xbox 360 versions are comparable, the PlayStation 2 version feels compromised. The draw distance is much closer, there's a distracting amount of pop-in, textures look comparatively flat and grainy, and the frame rate regularly chugs. Though there's not much perceptible difference in terms of the actual content of the different versions of Just Cause, the PS2 version's technical shortcomings make it much harder to recommend.
Complementing the game's equatorial vibe is a fantastic soundtrack that meshes classical Spanish guitars with electronic beats, blaring trumpets, and surf and wah-wah guitars. Though there are only a handful of different tunes in the game, it uses them effectively, kicking in right before a firefight or a high-speed chase, imbuing all the action with a good deal of extra enthusiasm. It's unfortunate that the rest of the sound design isn't as good as the music. Rico's footsteps stand out as sounding especially flat on a lot of surfaces, and some of the weapon fire comes across as weak. The voice acting is also somewhat inconsistent. Your character is perhaps a little too dry for his own good, and some of the San Esperitians you'll encounter sound like lame caricatures, though the voice of Sheldon is right on, which is good since he talks more than any other character in the game.
Just Cause will evoke strong love-it-or-hate-it reactions from people for a lot of reasons. The game's amoral stance on the complicated issues surrounding US-sponsored regime changes in third-world countries will rub some people the wrong way, while others will be annoyed by its fast-and-loose approach to basic physics. Even though it doesn't get some of the particulars right, Just Cause can still be engaging simply because of the risks it's willing to take.