Large explosions, addictive gameplay and nearly limitless potential for fun make Just Cause 2 the ultimate sandbox game.

User Rating: 8 | Just Cause 2 X360
Sanbox games, as they are often called, are a dime a dozen in the modern gaming hobby. With so many developers desperate to emulate the success of Grand Theft Auto you'd have to scour the bargain bins if you wanted to find an action game that didn't, in some small way at least, resemble Rockstar's flagship series. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, in the video game world it's often considered a death trap and usually results in reviewers using insults such as "cheap clone" and "uninspired rip off". The key to preventing this is not to imitate the games whose style you wish to adopt, but to actually surpass them in some way. After all, if you can improve on an already established formula then you are one step ahead of your competitors.

Though I never played the first Just Cause, I've been told several times that it was a less-than-stellar game. Knowing this, you can imagine my surprise when after playing the demo I went online and pre-ordered the game just a half an hour after discovering the sequel's existence.

Swedish developer Avalanche Studios' Just Cause 2 appears to be, at least on the surface, nothing more than a simple sandbox action game. What you learn upon playing it for a few hours is that you can do a lot more damage in this game than you can in any other of this type. Sure, you still survive by hijacking vehicles and stockpiling weapons...but with an obscene amount of destructible placeables and a fairly impressive level of challenge you can justifiably compare this to other successful sandbox games such as inFamous or the GTA series and not feel like a blathering fanboy.

In Just Cause 2, you play the role of a US agent and "black ops" professional named Rico Rodriguez who has been tasked with deposing a dictator from a small south pacific island nation called Panau. To draw the paranoid dictator out of hiding you are encouraged to cause as much "chaos" as possible, as well as aiding the three opposing factions in their quest to reclaim the land they believe is theirs to rule. What this means is simple: blow everything up with extreme prejudice and leave no soldier unaccosted. Like any other sandbox game you have a huge area to explore and an unlimited amount of time to play around within the world's borders. Blow up oil rigs, sabotage gas lines, set factories ablaze, conquer military installations or even search for hidden collectibles on the map...the Island of Panau is your personal limitless playground.

However, unlike so many other sanbox games Just Cause 2 has added a couple new features that make all of this wanton destruction a little more enjoyable than it usually is.

These two additions are the new and improved grappling hook weapon and an unlimited use parachute.

First off, the grappling hook is without a doubt the most amazing piece of weaponry I've ever used within a game. While it does take some time to get used to it and learn all of its abilities, it quickly becomes your most used accessory and your easiest way into and out of a firefight. It can grapple enemies, yank tower-dwelling foes to their death, tether objects to one another, grapple onto vehicles and send you flying across terrain as you hop from building to building spider-man style. You can even hijack helicopters and planes in mid-flight by grappling onto them and fighting the driver for control of the cockpit. Its options are nearly limitless, and when you finally discover the joy of attaching an exploding gas canister to a nearby soldier you'll see why I've wasted so much of your time by babbling about it. Not since the original NES Bionic Commando have I seen such a clever device given to the player.

All of this destruction is as beautiful looking as it is fun, since the engine Avalanche Studios is using manages to keep a steady frame rate regardless of the amount of damage you cause. While the graphics aren't mind blowing, they still managed to impress me. Especially when I noticed that the distant textures, most notably the snow capped mountains you observe while flying over the island, actually look just as detailed when far away as they do when you're close up. Look back to a game like Oblivion from just a few years ago and see how far we've come. Back then, distant textures were washed out and fuzzy, creating a disgusting looking smear effect on far-away objects such as mountains or trees. In Just Cause 2's new "Avalanche Engine 2.0" no such hindrance exists. Even the consoles, which I always assumed were held back by a huge RAM bottleneck, are able to pull off this effect without frame loss. As with most things in this game, I was impressed.

Though the graphics, gameplay, and huge landmass you are given are all massive positives, there are a few negatives that I believe should have been addressed before this game made it to the shelf.

First of all, it tends to be rather glitchy. There were quite a few times where I fell through streets and bridges, sometimes even falling straight into the world geometry and finding myself staring up at the "bottom" of the ground. While it sounds funny and possibly a good way to avoid enemies, I was a bit disappointed to find that I could still be shot through the polygons. Though it was annoying when I encountered these "holes" in the world geometry, I laughed the time I drove a motorcycle over a bridge and fell straight through an invisible gap, landing front tire first on the ground. If I had died from the fall I might have been angry, but thankfully I had a tiny sliver of life left and was able to heal at a nearby medkit in town. Regardless, the frequency of these invisible "gaps" made me feel the game was unfinished, or at least poorly play tested. Throw in the occasional graphical corruption (Particularly on the parachute, which sometimes turns into a blocky, N64-like polygonal mess) and you have to wonder if this thing was really ready to be released. As of this writing, I still have yet to see a patch on Xbox live.

Secondly, the price of ammo from the black market dealer is outrageously high. I could see if you were buying a weapon that you don't currently have equipped and wish to "upgrade", but when all you want is another 70 rounds of ammo to "top off" your reserves, it seems silly to have to pay several tens of thousands of dollars just to get that little smattering of ammo. The vehicles are even worse, since they vanish when you load the game and are rarely useful for more than one trip due to the insane damage model the game uses. Though you can avoid vehicles entirely by simply using the heavily exploitable slingshot maneuver with your parachute, it still bears mentioning.

Thirdly, and slightly related to the previous gripe is the lack of any stable "home base" to store ammo or vehicles. Unlike GTA, you don't have a base of operations where you can store a vehicle or two and/or refill some of your weapon's ammo. Instead, you are merely re-spawned at the nearest faction base and have to take whatever is lying around. Usually, this is a weak dune buggy driven by an unusually aggressive faction soldier that gets you in trouble with the police by shooting at anything even remotely removed from their own faction. Naturally, this isn't much of help and means you either have to hijack something decent on a nearby road or pay a hundred-thousand for a black market vehicle that will disappear when you re-load.

While these gripes are probably just due to my own crankiness and obsessive nature when it comes to "collecting" things I buy in games, they aren't big enough to become deal breakers. Just Cause 2 is a solid game that will last the average player at least 30 hours, and the obsessive "100%'er" about twice that. Even after completing the short list of story missions (There aren't even ten of them) you'll be lucky if you've hit a completion rate of 35% in your user statistics. As of this writing, I've spent a little north of 45 hours in the game and only have 38% of the game completed. With the promise of future DLC being added at a fairly speedy rate it isn't a stretch to assume you'll get your money's worth from Just Cause 2.

...and if that doesn't make you want to visit Panua, I don't know what will.