Reviewed: October 29, 2006
Released: September 27, 2006
I don’t know where I was off to – probably zoned out somewhere trying to build myself a few Xbox 360 achievement points or something – but in this summer’s gaming lull, the hype surrounding Just Cause passed me by.
Then about a month or so ago, a series of ads stated popping up on the back covers of all the big gaming magazines depicting Che Guevara-ish imagery, and citing an impressive sounding E3 award for Best Action Game.
The ad also contained a list of features impressive enough to make even the most hardened gamer salivate; 250,000 acres of streaming landscape, 89 vehicles to drive and fly, and over 200 missions to complete.
Needless to say, Just Cause quickly jumped to the top of my wish list – and when a copy of the Xbox version hit the Game Chronicles office, I pounced on it like a tiger.
Huge. Absolutely, positively, undeniably HUGE.
That’s the first, and most important thing I can say about JC. The locale of San Esperito is one of the most impressive load-free environments I have ever had the pleasure of exploring on my Xbox, and all but puts GTA: San Andreas to shame in terms of sheer size and visual quality.
Touting a record 250,000+ acres, which roughly converts to 400 square miles, understanding the massive area that JC encompasses might be a bit difficult for some gamers to comprehend. To put it in simpler terms, the fact that it takes nearly twenty minutes to navigate from one end to the other by helicopter – a feat which would easily consume an hour or more by car – should tell you something. Considering that the same could be done in San Andreas in a third of the time – San Esperito is a big, big place.
But I am getting ahead of myself – first let’s talk about the plot of JC.
The game follows the exploits of one Rico Rodriguez, undercover agent for the CIA who has been called in to help liberate the people of San Esperito from the evil clutches of “El Presidente”. To be honest, it’s not that the US Government seems to care all that much about the citizens of San Esperito, it’s more that they really, really dislike the dictator and want to see him dead.
No surprise, the game follows the ever-popular GTA-brand of sandbox gameplay – with a single, central storyline, and a sheer metric ton of side missions to complete. In fact, only 21 out of the boasted 200+ missions actually follow the storyline, while the 190-plus others are some form of side mission.
Every now and then, one of these side missions will take the form of a checkpoint vehicle race or escort mission, but more often than not they take on a very similar form to San Andreas’ “gang wars”, and task Rico with helping smaller revolutionary factions wage a local attack against their governmental oppressors.
While these side missions can get seriously repetitive after the twentieth or so go-around, the main storyline is actually quite exciting and varied. Over the course of the game, Rico will face up against two warring drug lords, tons of roving gangs, a zillion homicidal federales, and one crazy-ass dictator. It is quite obvious that developer, Avalanche Studios, modeled our Latino hero Rico after Antonio Banderas’ El Mariachi character from the Robert Rodriguez films. With his slick looks and suave persona, Rico is quite the ladies’ man – but his real talent is his handiwork with firearms, and his unique ability to perform physics-defying stunts.
Gunplay is governed by a very robust – and often overly easy – auto-targeting system and a quick pull of the right trigger. Targets can be switched on the fly using the white button, and it generally only takes one or two bullets to drop an opponent. A quick click of the right analog stick will bring up a zoomed reticule-based targeting view, but in the heat of the battle the view becomes cumbersome and sloppy.
Throughout the course of the game, Rico will have access to a dozen or more weapons – including various pistols, machine guns, rocket launchers, and sniper rifles – but he can only hold a half dozen or so in his inventory at any given time. Still, finding new weapons or ammunitions refills is never an issue, as each and every downed enemy will leave a nice little care-package of ammo, and oftentimes health.
What this means is that in 90% of the firefights, Rico is seldom in danger of dying – as there’s always an ample supply of health and ammo refills strewn about the landscape. In fact, it’s only really until the last five missions that the game shows any real signs of difficulty. I literally walked through the first dozen or so missions in two short evening sessions, and in that time I probably had to restart a level less than five times. The last five missions we so difficult, I bet that I spent more time looking at loading screens than I did playing the game.
Thankfully, unlike GTA: San Andreas, JC does feature mid-mission check points, so if Rico Suave does ever bite the bullet, you don’t have to start back from square one. This definitely helps keep the flow of the game moving along, but it also makes the game seem shorter in the end. Still, I’d rather have the checkpoints than not.
The game touts over 85 different vehicles to procure – but I would like to see an actual list of vehicles from the developers to verify this, because during my time in San Esperito I could only account for about a half that number. Maybe the developers are including each and every color or body modification within the models, but it sure didn’t seem like 85 vehicles crossed my path.
Still, even at only a half – 40+ vehicles is nothing sneeze at – and when they run the gamut of motorcycles, quads, jet-skis, cars, jeeps, trucks, helicopters, and even fighter jets – there really is a ton of variety to be had.
Each vehicle has it’s own unique handling and physics based on the wheel base, weight and power – making it worthwhile to switch up vehicles (GTA style) as you move from pavement to gravel, or flatlands to mountain trails. But there are a few cases where the handling doesn’t make much sense – like where the Jeeps (humorously called “GP” – sound it out…) are way too squirrelly on curvy mountain two tracks, yet the big bulky 50’s style cruiser hug the very same curves as if Schumacher was behind the wheel.
Given the sheer size of the levels, gamers will become accustomed to all modes of transportation, including the game’s coolest, er… vehicle – the parachute. Which, when coupled with the game’s coolest gadget, the grappling gun, gives Rico the ability to parasail behind cars and boats, and even hitch a ride on passing choppers and airplanes.
This parachute can be deployed at pretty much any moment, as long as Rico has either enough speed or enough height for the game to deem it necessary. Likewise, Rico can ditch the chute at any point and go into freefall mode – and then simply re-deploy it moments later.
Gamers will quickly learn to use the parachute to their advantage by coupling it with other neat features – like Rico’s propensity for vehicle-surfing, in which he hops onto a “stunt” position on a moving vehicle, pops the chute, and is suddenly sailing hundreds of feet in the air at a respectable clip. Better yet, Rico can whip out his SMG in air and take out enemies from a bird’s eye view.
If there are any real knocks on the core storyline of the game, it’s that it is over all too quickly. Puffing up a game with a couple hundred side missions, and only six or seven hours worth of actual story is a bummer compared to the 40+ hours of a GTA game.
There are a few other bummers – like the corny characters and situations that make some portions just seem silly. Or, there’s the relentless AI in the form of choppers that are constantly appearing, hammering away at your vehicle with showers of bullets. While they aren’t all that lethal, the constant sound of gunfire and the effect the bullets have on your car are incredibly annoying.
Although Just Cause’s gameplay leaves a bit to be desired overall, the technical feats achieved with the graphics are out of this world.
This massive world of San Esperito covers a variety of land and sea terrains, including breathtaking mountain peaks, deep jungles, urban cityscapes, large lakes, even a fairly intricate river system. Even more impressive is the fact that each of these environs is detailed enough to include realistic features like high-altitude tree lines, thick jungle undergrowth, and even beautifully rendered seaweed lying just below the reasonably reflective surface of the water.
In fact, I have friends with careers in 3D animation, and they get pleasure in throwing around terms like “instancing” and “bump mapping” to downplay or explain away the visual splendor of games like Ghost Recon 2 and Ninja Gaiden. Sufficed to say, even with their extensive behind-the-scenes knowledge, my pals were picking their jaws up off the floor when they saw the painstakingly rendered detail streaming hitch-free in JC.
There is almost no fogging used, and yet the game still has only a minimal amount of draw-in. Trucks throw up a fair amount of dust as they plow off road, and there are even realistic weather effects in play. Surprisingly, the only real texture popping happens when parachuting too quickly onto an area, and the only slowdown comes when the onscreen action gets overwhelming and only during the hardest downpours.
That’s not to say that all is perfect with Just Cause’s visuals – as mentioned earlier, there were a few areas where the coding was incomplete, and like in the particular example mentioned regarding the Bank mission, the graphical issues definitely had an impact for the worse.
There were a few instances where equipment drops and objects were mysteriously floating in the air, making it nearly impossible to refill ammunition or procure weapons. I found that if you ran Rico away from the objects, swinging the camera around enough to get the objects out of view for a few moments, they would sometimes drop to the ground where they would be accessible.
The cutscenes are well done – although any attempts at making the female characters have sex appeal (low cut blouses, cleavage, miniskirts, etc…) are lost to the strangely freakish nature of the women’s faces. I don’t know if this is the Swedish developer Avalanche Studios’ view of Latina women – but these ladies, with their huge lips and chiseled faces, looked like a transvestite Angelina Jolee impersonator who OD’d on collagen and Botox injections. Thankfully, the men looked superb. Well…you know what I mean…
All in JC looks like a million bucks, and the visuals are the one triumph of the game. Avalanche Studios definitely deserves kudos for this massive undertaking.
On the audio front, the game is just cheesy enough to be campy, but not campy enough to really be cool.
The sounds and effects are all pretty darn good – especially the Latin-flavored soundtrack playing in the background. The AI characters yelp and shout to each other realistically, and I even thought I heard them call out Rico’s position on a couple of instances.
But when it comes to the over-the top character voice acting, it both makes – and breaks – the atmosphere of the game.
While the game successfully nails the differences between Latino and American accents and dialects, some of the things that come out of the characters mouths are outright embarrassing.
The captain, who does out most of the missions – is the typical good ‘ole boy who is always mispronouncing his Spanish in a purposely derogatory manner. He comes across as a self-serving jerk, and you wonder why Rico would ever put up with the jerk.
Then there is the ever-present sexual tension between our Rico Suave and pretty much every female character in the game, with every conversation devolving into a succession of extremely cheesy double entendre and flirting.
Looking at the large area of San Esperito and the multitude of mission icons scattered about the map, the natural initial impression would naturally be that JC must be a 40+ hour game like it’s GTA counterparts. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, considering the fact that the game is quite easy, and it’s nearly impossible to actually die in Just Cause (you can usually eek out another health pickup at the last moment) the main storyline of the game can be knocked out in just under a respectable six or seven hours.
In fact, the only thing that will slow you down in finishing the game will be one of three things;: Travel time (which can be overcome with extractions), Mistakes (you accidentally beach your boat while under attack and have to swim or hike), or Glitches (you can’t finish the mission and have to restart).
What really justifies the purported 40+ hours of gameplay are the series of dull side missions, which get to be more of a chore than fun. Still, seven hours isn’t bad, and other than the irritation of falling through the floor or not being able to hitch a ride on a copter, the game is a bunch of fun.
And for those looking to see one of the most impressive feats in gaming visuals – aside from Far Cry, of course – Just Cause is your meal ticket.
Just Cause might not be a killer app compared to GTA series, but it sure is an awfully fun game while it lasts. That’s not to say that it could not use some work – there are definitely areas where the game stumbles a bit – but based on the technical specs alone, this game at least deserves a look.
Overall, on the scale of sandbox games, JC falls somewhere between True Crime and GTA: Vice City. Rico Rodriguez’ San Esperito is definitely more impressive than Nick Kang’s Los Angeles, but the storyline is nowhere near the Vercetti’s Vice City.