Reviewed: October 30, 2006
Released: September 27, 2006
Call me jaded, but it’s getting harder and harder for these so-called “sandbox” games to really dazzle me, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. I’ll admit to being mightily impressed the first time I sampled Grand Theft Auto 3’s open-ended format. The expansive cityscapes were yours to explore, no load screens required, and free-roaming style of play was fresh and fun and it offered a freedom of movement that was oddly seductive.
But that was a long time ago, and GTA’s “go anywhere, do anything” formula has been mimicked so many times by so many games it’s become a genre in and of itself. Consider just in the last couple years the numerous GTA sequels, “Spider-Man 2”, “Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction” and “Gun” to rattle off a few. How do you keep it from going stale? How can the aging PS2 expand on such a popular style of gaming without descending into mere copycatting?
I’d like to believe the creators of Just Cause thought long and hard on these questions before writing their first lines of code…but I’m not so sure. As yet another addition to the do-as-you-please 3D action/shooter, this title tries very hard to match and exceed its predecessors in scope, story and action. Think GTA south of the border. Sorta...
Your playground in “Just Cause” is the Caribbean island of San Esperito, a palm-treed paradise recently seized by military dictator/all-around whack-a-loon General Mendoza. You are Rico Rodriguez, a black-clad CIA specialist sent in to aid the guerilla revolt against Mendoza and break his iron hold on the island. Supporting your efforts and providing your mission briefings is oafish loudmouth Tom Sheldon and his alluring partner Maria Kane who pop in periodically in a Winnebago rigged with state-of-the-art satellite uplink equipment. Ah, the magic of American tax dollars.
You bring about the regime change by methodically moving from one government-controlled province to another, completing missions designed to destabilize the region and allow the local freedom fighters to do their stuff. Once the provinces have been plunged into chaos you can choose to fight alongside the guerillas to liberate a particular region and change the political map from hellish red to sunshine-and-lollipops green. Do this for every province on the island and you’ve pretty much won the game.
The problem, if you haven’t figured it out already, is that this gets old fast. The content of the story missions might change a little but they almost all involve killing off prominent Mendoza cronies or rescuing guerilla leaders and their allies. Whatever it is, the result is the same: another small piece of San Esperito is freed and you move on to the next. Can you say repetitive?
Aiding the revolutionaries is the same exact scenario every time as well: you shoot at some soldiers, blow up three roadblocks, and capture the enemy flag – yes, I’m not joking, you CAPTURE THEIR FLAG – and suddenly it’s siesta time. This is fun once or twice, but the 25-30 times you’re expected to do it is tedious. There are only a few infrequent attempts to inject some thrill into the story mode, such as when you’re forced to fight your way up the side of a volcano to get to one of Mendoza’s goons, but this is the exception, not the rule.
Your only incentive for completing this rather dull laundry list is the earning of “Prestige Points”, which will unlock new vehicles, weapons and safe houses from which to conduct your war. Sure, unlocking new stuff is fun, but the lack of variety leaves you wondering if it’s really worth the effort.
Fortunately these world-in-a-bottle games always include abundant side quests, which this title has in spades. In addition to courier, escort and bounty-hunter missions there are numerous treasure hunts to pass the time, searching the towns and jungles for lost cargo and such. One set of collectibles for which you can search is crates of cocaine dropped by a local cartel, a quest titled “White Sands”. Fun! There are also races to compete in on land, sea and air. These are amusing for a speedy change of pace and they’re actually moderately challenging.
True to GTA form, you have your pick of any vehicle you can find, from dirt bikes to fishing trawlers to attack helicopters – if you can touch it, you can steal it. Even when you’re in the middle of nowhere the CIA has your back – you can radio for an extraction to a friendly spot, or call in a “Heavy Drop” that will land a cool boat or car right in your lap. Not literally. Of course stealing is naughtier and more fun. Naturally you have to be conservative with your carjackings and other crimes, as Mendoza’s police will mobilize to try to take you down.
Not that police, or the army, or a battalion of tanks for that matter, could actually pose a threat to Rico. The enemy AI is sluggish at best and inane at worst, allowing you to plunge headlong into hordes of armed foes with little fear that you won’t win every time. Combat is borderline yawn-inducing, in part because no consideration was given to things like weapons. You have an impressive arsenal to choose from, but virtually every gun has the same range, the same stopping power, the same desired effect. Whether you have an assault rifle or a shotgun or Rico’s trademark twin “Pitbull” pistols – conveniently stocked with infinite ammo – chances are it’ll get the job done. A targeting system worthy of Robocop ensures you’ll nail your opponent every time – even if you can’t see him – while the opponents themselves could give Imperial stormtroopers tips on how not to hit you.
“Just Cause” has a couple of neat tricks that keep it from being totally sub-par. One cool addition is Rico’s parachute, which he wears constantly and can deploy at any time, allowing you to do things like jump off a cliff or tall building without splattering yourself all over the barrio. You also have a magnetic grappling gun that can snag passing vehicles from a considerable distance, perfect for a hasty escape. The gun and the chute are potent tools for your appropriately named “Stunt Moves” that let you show off in flashy cinematic style.
Once in a car, for example, you can climb on the roof and leap onto another car, or simply bail out and glide to nearby cover. You can even swoop over the roads and wait for a car to pass under you and then freefall onto it. It makes for a merry chase when the San Esperito vice are on your tail. Unfortunately the stunt system is not without its flaws, namely that once in a while you’ll perform a stunt that defies every law of physics. I once leapt from a burning truck and, when prompted, pressed “X” to perform a stunt move. Imagine my surprise when Rico leapt 80 feet straight up in the air and snagged the tail rotor of a passing chopper. Man, we need more guys like him in the CIA!
Bottom line: there’s very little here that will quicken your pulse (and your pulse will slow often thanks to the looooooong load times). Everything, be it story missions or side quests, feels like something between a guided tour and a to-do list. A fair effort is made to ratchet up the challenge in the later stages by making the missions longer and more complex, and stacking the odds against you to a ridiculous degree, but by the time you finally break a sweat – if you ever do – you’ve already realized what a one-trick pony the gameplay is, and it becomes awfully hard to keep caring.
San Esperito has a lot more room to stretch your legs than GTA ever gave you. The island is HUGE (250,000 virtual acres, or so they say) and it is often quite pleasant to look at, festooned with sandy beaches, brightly-colored neighborhoods, thick jungles, teeming rivers, and even a shining city. It’s especially beautiful in a helicopter or plane when you can ascend to impressive heights and take in miles of terrain all at once. The lack of dense urban areas gives a much greater sense of a truly open, airy playing field, and your ability to swim and fly as well as run and drive gives you maximum mobility without fear of running into one of those “Truman Show”-esque dead ends.
The downside of this massive environment, as in all other free-roaming games to date, is the compromised quality of the graphics overall. Since the images are drawn around your character in 360 degrees without anything pre-rendered the frame rates are noticeably slower and settings are very generic, offering precious little variety in terms of buildings, cars, and character models. Riding through San Esperito is not unlike an episode of the Flintstones: the same six houses and ten people whip by over and over. It’s a bit bland despite the lush color palate. I also noted some processor lag when traveling at high speeds or when I was in a more dense urbanized area.
Camera control continues to be the bane of free-for-all 3D games. Corners, interiors, and hallways can become pixilated nightmares if you jerk the camera around too much, something you’re apt to do in a firefight. Swimming is particularly annoying. It seems the designers cut corners on framing and textures, too. Rico can run straight up all but the steepest slopes to the point where he’s practically scaling them vertically, while other times he can pass through trees and fences like a swarthy, well-dressed ghost. It’s no worse than most other games of this style, but it’s no less distracting or annoying either.
It won’t surprise anyone that music is the highlight in this category. The soundtrack is generously spiked with Latin flavor, lots of trumpets, acoustic guitars, and yes, castanets. Faster tracks are reserved for action scenes and stunts, including a very “Miami Vice” number that plays when you’re in your – what else? – speedboat. It’s fun and sexy and even soothing, just like the Caribbean, and it works just fine.
The voice acting is competent but nothing special. Rico is a man of few words but numerous clichés and he sounds a little like Antonio Banderas trying to do an impression of himself. Blowhard Tom Sheldon is fun to listen to simply because everything he says sounds like a dirty joke. Besides them you have a handful of heavily accented, vaguely stereotyped comments from passerbys who shy from Rico’s path.
I wish the designers had done some more with the effects. Seems the folks at Avalanche were working with an awfully small soundboard, tossing in some pretty dull gunfire, explosions, engines, and virtually no panicked townspeople screaming for their lives. Rats! It pales next to the GTA series, where it always seems like everyone is having a lot of fun in the recording booth.
250,000 acres. 303 missions. 89 vehicles. 32 stunts. I won’t deny there is a lot to do in “Just Cause”. If the story mode doesn’t keep you busy then the miles and miles of San Esperito roads and waterways should distract you for a while. Type A gamers could spend hours hunting for all the collectibles, while the races are actually fun enough to do twice. It’s also amusing to see how many different vehicles you can steal – many are common but some are rare and worth the extra effort, like combat helicopters and even a giant purple monster truck.
But this comes with a big asterisk next to it. Despite the quantity this title offers, there is little in the way of quality. If you’re familiar at all with sandbox games, this is just business as usual; no innovation, not enough variety. While you won’t find a terrible game here, you also won’t find anything new. “Just Cause” could amuse you for weeks simply for the novelty of exploring the vastness of quaint, cute San Esperito, but getting around isn’t as fun in this game as it is in some other open-enders like “Hulk” or “Spider-Man”. Once you’ve had your look you may want to leave and never go back.
I worry sometimes that I’m becoming cynical as a gamer and in the interest of journalistic integrity I sincerely hope I’m not. But a few hours into “Just Cause” I got the sinking feeling I had already seen most everything the game had to offer, not because it’s totally transparent (it’s not) but because it was absolutely no different from any other the other do-as-you-please 3D titles already out there. Regardless, I played on, lest I miss out on something special. But no.
What we have here is a game that has simply cloned the gold standard of the GTA series and added a little Latin flair and a change of scenery. It’s not enough. Where’s the new stuff, the fresh challenges, the innovation? What incentive do I have to play this game instead of yet another round of “Vice City”? Fans who adore this style of gaming would probably find plenty to like about this title, kind of like how fans of horror movies continue to flock to theaters to see every crummy splatter flick.
But why try the rest when you already have the best? “Just Cause” is competently done, but it fails to put anything truly new on the table, making San Esperito a nice place to visit, but not to live.