Just Cause might be beautiful, but it's one of the most formulaic and derivative games around.
The story, what little there is of it, is simple enough. Rico Rodriquez, defier of the laws of motion and owner of the infinite parachute, is air-dropped into San Esperito by The Agency, a shadowy American government organisation which for all intent and purposes is the CIA. His job is to destabilise the power of Mendoza, a former General turned despotic President who has recently been ruling over San Esperito with an iron fist. With the help of José Caramicas, leader of the local rebel forces trying to overthrow Mendoza, you control Rico as he engages in a number of guerrilla activities ranging from sabotaging power stations to assassinating military commanders. From there onward, it is simply a matter of wash, rinse, repeat until you reclaim the entire archipelago. The plot of Just Cause isn't going to win any awards for scriptwriting, and is extremely formulaic in nature; the main missions themselves simply act as a series of cut-and-paste jumping blocks which propels you into liberating the next district of the country. Rico himself doesn't give a damn about the Esperitans so long as he is paid, and his bosses at The Agency simply seem to be using the operation as an excuse to have a long holiday. Nevertheless, up until the extremely chaotic finale, it is enjoyable enough to drive you forward at a reasonable pace, although you will be repeating yourself many times along the way.
In terms of gameplay Just Cause is Grand Theft Auto in spirit but not in nature. You can hijack cars, boats and helicopters from around the country and drive across the jungle-filled interior to your hearts content. You can also perform a number of pretty cool stunts which completely defy the laws of physics, such as leaping out of a cockpit and onto the bonnet of a flying aeroplane, only to skydive off and pull your parachute chord a foot from the ground, completely breaking your fall and landing safely. There is also much fun to be had from using Rico's grappling hook to attach yourself to vehicles and glide across the landscape behind them. These devices occasionally become useful in police chases where you can jump out when moving and requisition a vehicle from a police officer, but usually the controls are far too finicky to get a handle on correctly. Whilst all of this is well and good, the core gameplay of Just Cause is derivative in the extreme. Aside from the main 21-part storyline, most of your time will be spent doing some of the 300 liberation missions or tasks for the local gangs. The gang tasks are all highly simple fetch quests with zero variety between them, meaning that you will regularly complete a task only to be sent out to do the exact same thing again. Even worse are the settlement liberation missions, which are so formulaic that they quickly become incredibly mundane. Every time it's the same deal: Kill soldiers, destroy barricade A, then B, then C, before changing the flags at the town square and liberating the populace. The only reward you ever get is respect from the Esperitan gangs, which unlocks new safehouses and weapons for your hideout. Due to this, it will take minimal time before your interest in freeing San Esperito has completely waned, and from then on you will simply play out the remainder of the game on autopilot.
Controls are reasonably tight in the PC version. Aiming is easy, and there is a good variety of weaponry at your disposal, although most of the weapons feel rather underpowered and have a tendency to spray bullets rather than be super-accurate. When driving the camera does seem to weave around rather a bit too much like a drunkard, but most of the time it keeps the action in view. There are problems when it comes to the AI though. The game likes to throw wave after wave of infinitely respawning enemies at you, many of whom can appear out of nowhere right behind you. The number of opponents ramps up significantly towards the end of the game, making the finale almost impossible due to the deluge of troops, since it was designed with auto-aim in mind. Due to this, although Rico has quite a bit of health, he will often simply be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of bad guys coming at him. Despite their numbers, individually they possess the brainpower of a currant bun, and will often run straight at you, with no sign of any advanced tactics. Therefore, whilst it remains very simple taking down a small to medium-sized group of enemies, Just Cause shows that it is still not viable for one man to take down an entire army.
It's a shame that the gameplay of Just Cause is so lacklustre, because from a graphical point of view, the islands of San Esperito are certainly very beautiful. The archipelago is literally huge, reportedly over 1,000km square. If you thought San Andreas was big, it was nothing compared to San Esperito, where if you were to get into a car and attempt to drive from one side of the map to the other, it is possible to imagine that it would easily take half an hour of real time. There are lush tropical beaches, forbidding mountains, winding rivers and acre after acre of unspoilt rainforest. The trouble is, if anything there is just too much space. Huge swathes of the country are featureless jungle or mountainous terrain, with nothing to do except drive across it. All of the side-missions take place at numerous carbon copy locations spaced amongst this wilderness, all of which look remarkably similar to each other, despite the varying landscape around them. It is really the lack of any proper secondary content to entertain you which means that the location of San Esperito is highly under-utilised, and basically introduces a lengthy and uneventful journey between each mission.
Sound is also a major area where Just Cause is rather a letdown. There are one or two quite nice incidental pieces of folk guitar music which play whilst you wander around the countryside on foot, but whenever you get into a vehicle and start driving, the music changes to this very irritating chase-themed beat, which never stops for as long as you are driving. Aside from this, there is really hardly any music at all. It was primarily for this reason that I turned off the music after not too long. It can also be said that voice acting is very poor. The accents across the board are also woefully unrealistic, and the main characters sound lacklustre and almost bored, as if their heart isn't really in it and they're simply waiting for the next pay-check. The worst though comes from the highly repetitive phrases shouted by the Esperitan Police, whose constant cries of "Alto! This is the Police!", "Policia! Stop!" or "Stop right there!" become highly grating after only a short while. The civilians, rebels and gang members are likewise just as repetitive in their vocal delivery, but at least they don't shout at you all the time, making their voices at least bearable.
Just Cause is a beautiful game to look at, but it is an ugly game to actually play. It gives you a terrifyingly huge world to explore, but almost entirely fails to fill that world with exciting things to do. Instead, you are sent to do the same half a dozen boring missions ad infinitum, and whilst this is alright for a time, the novelty wears off quickly. The best fun to be had hear is to be found through larking about by jumping out of helicopters hundreds of feet in the air, before landing on a car bonnet and throwing the driver out before jumping in yourself. Or maybe to drive a motorcycle off a cliff before deploying your parachute to be whisked up into the air away from harm's way. It really goes to show that when a game demands that you make your own fun because it cannot offer you any itself, the results aren't always great. Just Cause is certainly fun for a while, but it will not allow you to liberate yourself like it truly should.