[Unfinished Business is a feature where I take an unplayed game or unwatched DVD that has been languishing on my shelf and chronicle my experiences with it.]
If The Void, last week's entry in my Steam backlog playthrough, represented gaming at its most artistic, this week's title is unabashedly ridiculous and trashy. Just Cause 2's sole aim is to indulge its players' every destructive whim, stripping away every one of the medium's pretensions to storytelling merit or depth in favour of a constant flow of gargantuan explosions in colourful environments.
Though hardly subtle in its aims, the game is powered by the kind of experimental streak so lacking in many of its peers. The third and first person shooting genres have mostly settled into a COD-inspired groove of reducing the player's interactivity with their surroundings to almost nothing, with their sole responsibility being to hold the analogue stick forward and press the firing trigger occasionally. Just Cause 2 is not a great game, but lays the right foundations for one to be created in the series' future.
Playing Just Cause 2 at times feels like returning to that classic era when a game would throw you into its world with only the bare minimum of instruction and leave it to you to work out the rest. There's a tutorial mission of sorts, teaching the fundamentals of using your grappling hook to pull enemies over balconies and where to find the right button to shoot people in the face, but once thrown into the open world of Panau, a fictional dictatorship in Southeast Asia, getting to the real meat of the game is up to you. The grappling hook, for example, is not just for convenient navigation and sometime combat use: it's also for mounting cars, for attaching enemies to cars, for attaching cars to planes, and bombs to planes, and whatever other ridiculous combination you can dream of for your amusement.
The game lays out all the ingredients, but stops short of providing a recipe. Shoot an explosive cannister and it will soar into the air like a punctured balloon. Grapple it to a target and you can guide its trajectory for maximum damage. Grapple it to a guard for maximum fun. The thrill of discovery is a huge part of Just Cause 2's appeal, a reminder of the potency of a game willing to let you experiment freely inside its world and have fun without a guiding hand telling you how, or a voice bubble telling you why.
There's a rudimentary story structure, but the game makes it clear that your real goals should be causing destruction, exploring for new areas in which to cause destruction, and seeking out crates containing tools for more destruction still. Officially, you're destabilising the Panau dictatorship. Really, you're blowing lots and lots of stuff up in as many cool ways as possible. It's easy to jump in a helicopter gunship and lay waste to ground installations. Far more entertaining to send the helicopter diving towards your target, jumping clear before the explosive crash, and making your escape by grappling onto the roof of a jeep as you parachute to ground.
There's no incentive or push to keep going with the story, because almost everything you need to mastermind your campaign of havoc is available once the brief introductory assignments are out of the way. Many of the barriers games put in the way of its players gaining too much equipment without sufficient progress in the main quest have been removed. This is no Zelda: new equipment is not doled out as rewards for progress, but exploration. (If anything, this is the game's way of encouraging players to spend time away from the missions it lays out). Whilst reaching story landmarks yields rewards, few are anything greater than can be found in an equivalent time tearing through new areas of Panau. Crates of cash and tools are dotted liberally across the landscape, particularly in residential or military spaces. Collecting these allows weapons and vehicles to be unlocked and dropped at your location, eliminating the need to waste time foraging for ammo for the next assault or a plane to soar to some distant, unexplored island. The limitation of only being able to call in one item at a time is frustrating once your arsenal grows, but a churlish complaint considering how many hurdles have been removed from the usual process of item procurement.
Where the game struggles is that the glee of destruction and discovery can only last so long. Destruction is among the oldest and noblest gaming mechanics, but is not a goal in itself. The size of the game world ensures no matter how many enemy bases are blown up and no matter how inventive your methods, any sense of progress is agonisingly slow. The extensive distances between targets also makes travel frustratingly slow in anything but the most high-powered jets, which are difficult to come by until late in the game. Ground vehicles are also horribly twitchy to control at any sort of speed, on PC at least, putting a greater reliance on the slower but more stable grappling hook.
The story missions should provide the guidance and variety to reduce these frustrations, but are pitifully uninventive in their demands, many of which involve either the same kind of assaults on military bases which form the bulk of the player's activity in free play (only with reduced scope for experimentation) or vehicle missions whose only merit is their merciful simplicity in view of the imprecise controls. There's some joy in seeing the map's more elaborately built constructions put to dedicated use, but a shame the developers' imagination could not stretch even a fraction as far as they encourage in their players.
The lack of worthwhile goals means the game's durability only stretches so far as players can entertain themselves. It's a credit to the developers' achievements in creating a world so full of possibilities for player-driven action that such pleasures last as long as they do. Crucially, the game also serves as counterpoint to the popular argument in game design that bigger is better: a smaller, tighter map would have given a greater sense of purpose and progress to the players' feats of destruction, while reducing the tiresomely lengthy time required in traveling between opposite corners of the map. If the Call Of Duty titles represent a trend towards games reducing player interactivity ever further, Just Cause 2 represents a brave push in the other direction which goes just a little too far.
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