Just Cause 2 is ridiculous in the best possible way. In the space of a few moments, you can grapple to a hovering helicopter; beat up the pilot and hijack the chopper; blow up a cluster of fuel tanks; put the chopper on a collision course with an enormous antenna; jump out at the last moment; and watch the resulting explosion as you parachute down to the saddle of a moving motorcycle below. But in the life of Rico Rodriguez, such events are just another day at the office, though in this case, the office is the gigantic island nation of Panau, where three gangs vie to wrest control from a corrupt government. This is a big game that gives you a lot to do and a lot of crazy ways to do it. When Just Cause 2 gives you the freedom to do the things you want in the way you want, it shines in all its preposterousness and good humor. When missions and challenges shoehorn you into specific actions, however, the same loose mechanics that make the open-world exploration such a joy become a frustrating burden. Nevertheless, this sandbox action game surmounts its few issues with liberal doses of ludicrousness; well, that, and the ability to attach disreputable cops to a buggy with your grappling hook and drag them around.
There's a story tying all of the craziness together, but it's about as believable as the crazy stunts you pull. As in the original Just Cause, you play as Rico, a member of a US agency called, appropriately enough, The Agency. The story is all silly fluff, standing out more for its so-excruciating-it's-almost-good voice acting and broad ethnic caricatures than for any intricate plot developments. (Don't bother looking: There aren't any.) You'll probably have more fun trying to figure out where different characters are from based on their insane accents than you will working out what exactly is going on or why you should care, but the tale still works well in light of the game's screwy attitude. Contradictory updates from the government-run news agency will have you giggling precisely because they're so crazy; Rico offhandedly dismisses the insane, supernatural events that occur after an eventful flight into a Bermuda Triangle-type region. Most importantly, the tale provides oh-so-implausible excuses to blow up gas stations, radar installations, and offshore oil platforms.
And blowing stuff up is what Just Cause 2 does best. Causing explosions leads to chaos, which functions as a type of currency in Just Cause 2. To unlock new story missions and other goodies, you need to wreak as much havoc as you can, and you get lots of different, preposterous ways to do it. If you see a grouping of fuel tanks, you could just run in and shoot them with a machine gun, but that is one of the less dramatic ways to do it and will use up ammo besides. (And early on, the game is a bit too stingy with ammo, given the focus on making things go boom.) But why approach things in such a pedestrian manner? Instead, you could hijack a passenger jet, put it on a destructive path, and jump out at the last minute. Or you could steal a hulking tank, drive it to a central location, and start blasting everything that looks like it might erupt in a ball of flames. The dramatic approach can take a bit more time, but it usually leads to a good deal of entertainment. Yet, even if you do things the easy way and use a dinky pistol, the explosions are perfectly loud, big, bright, and obnoxious.
Of course, such noisy endeavors will get the attention of the local authorities. It's amazing just how quickly swarms of militants will descend on you. (You might actually see soldiers fade into view directly in front of you.) The most obvious way of handling them is to fill them with lead, and when you're surrounded by enemies, Just Cause 2's loose shooting mechanics work just fine. The ultraforgiving autotargeting makes it easy to run about spraying fire, though you can zoom in if you need a bit more precision, like if you are taking out a military colonel and need to land a headshot. If you use a controller, you might run into troubles with that same autotargeting; You can aim and shoot directly at a guy's head as he leans out a car door but not land any hits. But if you're using a mouse and keyboard, you aren't likely to encounter this issue, and you're getting a more fluid experience to boot.
When you're surrounded by a dozen armed baddies and bombarded by a hovering helicopter, however, making a quick getaway may be the best option. Rico's grappling hook is a real life saver in these circumstances. You might attach it to a nearby building and fling yourself onto a roof or grapple the ground and pull yourself out of harm's way. Better yet, you can pull off a sort of inverted Spider-Man routine by grappling the ground, hurling yourself into the air, and opening your handy parachute before you hit the ground. Once airborne, you can repeat the move over and over, flinging yourself around using the grapple hook like Spidey would use his webbing. From the air, you can perform some satisfyingly silly stunts. For example, if you'd rather travel around in a motorized rickshaw, you can grapple on to one, pull yourself onto its roof, and evict the driver, who will undoubtedly be vocal about his or her displeasure. Or perhaps that chopper is still dogging you. In that case, grapple onto it, chuck the pilot out, and take it for your own. But it's plenty satisfying just to travel using your hook and parachute. It takes a little time to get used to the rhythm of taking off, but once you're accustomed to it, there's nothing like soaring above Panau's snow-capped mountains or taking in a beautiful sunset while floating slowly toward the beach.
There's more to traveling around this gargantuan isle than just parachutes and rickshaws, however. There are more than 100 different vehicles to drive and pilot, from sedans and double-decker buses to commuter aircraft and speedboats. The physics are loose and wild, which lets you pull off some crazy stunt jumps off of ramps and cliffs. It's always fun, too, to get some good speed in a motorcycle and parachute away and then watch the bike zoom off without a driver. Often, it will even explode for no apparent reason other than the obvious thrill of it all, as if you're supposed to believe you ejected just in time. The loose handling of most of these vehicles suits the chaotic nature of the game rather well, and assuming you're not trying to do anything too specific, random wipeouts are to be expected and are even rather enjoyable when they occur. (You might get a chance to perform a daring and unplanned escape as you go careening over a cliff, after all.) If you're taking part in one of Just Cause 2's racing challenges, however, the lively physics don't always work to your benefit. A race in a speedboat, for example, might send you over a thin stretch of land. This could lead to a superfun sequence of tumbles and spins before you zoom away on the other side. But it could also lead to a frustrating sequence of tumbles and spins that deposits you directly on the beach and keeps you from completing the challenge. Aircraft challenges can also be exasperating because you don't have the ability to yaw (that is, move from side to side), and the relaxed controls make it easy to overshoot the ring you're meant to fly through.
Panau is an incredibly impressive place to explore. Tall snow-covered mountains cradle ski resorts and military bases between them. Beachside shacks dot the ocean shores, where gorgeous lighting gleams on the ocean waves. The capital city shows off a beautiful nighttime skyline. Should you plummet below the ocean, you'll admire the striking underwater views, which feature tropical fish and colorful coral reefs. Just Cause 2 is a stunning game and provides a marvelous variety of vistas to gawk at, and the draw distance lets you take in a lot at once. We ran into a few occasions in which ground textures displayed a faint grid overlay, but a few setting adjustments seemed to fix that up. You should note, however, that you'll need to be running either Windows Vista or Windows 7 to play Just Cause 2: The game does not support Windows XP. The audio doesn't meet the same lofty standard, but it does what it needs to do, with lots of energy if not much nuance. An American friend speaks with a big yee-haw accent and gang leaders deliver their banal lines in a weird, halting manner and with unidentifiable inflections. Explosions look big and sound loud. It's all about broad strokes, and while not every aspect of the audio makes a good impression, the overall effect is fitting given Just Cause 2's over-the-top inclinations.
The game gives you plenty of reasons to visit all of these varied locations. The many villages dotting the geography harbor rewards like gas tanks to blow up and weapon and vehicle parts to collect. Those parts can be used to enhance the effectiveness of your guns and rides--you just need to call up the black market dealer and choose how you want to apply them. You can also call the dealer if you want him to drop off a weapon or vehicle or to quickly travel to a location you've already visited. The implementation of this mechanic could have used some tweaking. For example, you can't order up more than one item at a time (if you want both a shotgun and a chopper, you need to make two calls). But considering how easy it is to find weapons and how much fun it is to parachute around, you won't need the black market contact all that frequently. Even if you aren't inclined to collect the scattered treasures, there's intrinsic joy in seeking out and blowing up propaganda stations and demolishing the statues of island dictator Baby Panay. Maybe that's because you can grapple one of those statues to a fire truck, hop behind the wheel, and pull the false idol down.
Amid all this free-form gameplay are loads of faction missions to perform for the three gangs you work with, as well as some longer agency missions that progress the story. Some of these missions are fun and varied, such as one in which you must defuse a series of bombs by stunt jumping from one vehicle to another. Most of them combine Just Cause 2's various mechanics in interesting ways, having you fly an aircraft, infiltrate guarded fortresses, and destroy specific objects in the course of a single assignment. But even when flaunting this kind of variety, some missions aren't very enjoyable because they magnify the small issues that barely register during your free-form travels. For example, the waypoint arrow gets confused by different altitudes, which is rarely an issue when you are just traveling to your chosen destination, but it's a bigger annoyance when a time limit is pushing you to find an exact spot. Heavily scripted escort missions saddle you with AI companions who think nothing of wandering into fire. And stronghold takeovers get monotonous because they play out more or less the same way every time. The game's loose mechanics make for freewheeling fun when you choose your own actions, but they can sometimes lead to irritations when the game pushes you down a specific path.
These aren't game-breaking flaws, however; certainly not in light of the huge and attractive world Just Cause 2 places at your fingertips. There's a lot to do, a lot of sights to take in, and a lot of secrets to uncover if you look hard enough--and the game is so much fun that you'll have a blast doing it. After all, you can grapple to a gas canister, shoot it, and fly into the air like a rocket. And if that sounds like fun to you, it's time for a vacation to the island paradise of Panau.