Another day, another tinpot dictatorship whose only vulnerability is the complete and utter destruction of its fragile industrial infrastructure.
Avalanche Studios' Just Cause 2 is the latest in a line of modern-day open-world "Machiavelli by way of John McClane" simulators—which, if my calculations are correct, will be numerous enough to reach from Earth to the Sun a dozen times by 2013. The good people at Avalanche knew that they were getting into a dangerously oversaturated field (having perpetuated said over-saturation via JC2's humdrum predecessor), and they understood that they would need something special to make Just Cause 2 stand out.
Something that appeals to the best in each of us. Something pure. Something like… a grappling hook.
Wait, where are you going? Don't leave already! This is a really kick-ass grappling hook we're talking about. I am not even kidding here—this thing figuratively and literally drags Just Cause 2 right out of mediocrity and into genuine enjoyability.
Just Cause 2 is explosion porn with a zipline, a Michael Bay wet dream that pours out of your TV screen with all the subtlety and nuance of a pyroclastic flow bearing down on an unsuspecting mountainside village. From the first second of protagonist Rico Rodriguez' predictable hard landing on Panau, JC2's fictional Southeast Asian island, to… well, he sows chaos on behalf of some clandestine American spy outfit, and I think there are rebel factions involved, and they had something in there about a rogue agent or something….
Okay, you know what? You don't care about the plot, I don't care about the plot, and after putting a decent about of time into Just Cause 2, I'm pretty sure that Avalanche didn't care about the plot, so we're just going to skip ahead to my six steps to making Just Cause 2 the best thing ever:
1) Find a military installation, a hidden airstrip, a public airport—anything with a runway will do. Panau is 60 percent military bases, so they're practically everywhere.
2) Grapple your way to a hangar and steal an airplane. Not a helicopter, an airplane. (You'll spend enough time carpet-bombing Panau in helicopters later.)
3) Escape from the inevitable counterattack. This will be easy, as Panau's Air Force might as well be a guy in a lawn-chair balloon.
4) Point your stolen aircraft at a nearby enemy structure. Hit the throttle until your speed is a respectable fraction of Mach 1.
5) Tap whatever button causes your character to jump out of the cockpit and stand atop it like a trick rider. (Yes, there is a button for this.) Squint, but don't blink—badasses don't blink.
6) At the last second, trigger your parachute and watch the fireworks. Spout a one-liner. Extra points if you can land on a nearby motorcycle and zip away. (And yes, there's a button for this, too.)
See? Just like a good action movie, the plot only gets in the way.
This kind of thing happens all the time, and it's all facilitated by that wonderful piece of technology strapped to Rodriguez' arm. It slices! It dices! It lashes statues to nearby fire trucks for easy toppling! Use it to string together a pair of oncoming Jeeps to clothesline an entire lane of oncoming traffic! Combine it with your favorite supply of infinite parachutes for a lovely (if physics-bending) evening of parasailing across Panau's strategic vistas!
(I really can't emphasize that last example enough. Destabilizing a fictional island government is one thing, but when I find myself actively ignoring missions in favor of impromptu quests like "Hey, I wonder what's up that mountain," or "Can I get to the beach from here without touching the ground," that's some fine quality escapism.)
Employed poorly, it would be a cheap gimmick built on top of a beautiful but otherwise unimpressive backdrop. As it stands, that silly little gadget opens up a new dimension in gameplay. This is what that abysmal Bionic Commando remake should have been, a lighthearted, heavily-armed romp through a vaguely exotic locale starring a blank slate designed to function as a receptacle for his audience's collective powertrip who employs a mode of transportation more entertaining than some mere mortal vehicle.
Beyond all that, I'm a little concerned about speaking my mind about Just Cause 2. Advocating a game that glamorizes anti-establishment violence against an unrealistic backdrop is one thing (see also: Red Faction 2), but when I start heaping praise on a game that brings that theme much closer to real-world events (see also: Thailand), how long will it be before I find myself on a government watchlist?
Hopefully, the Powers That Be will notice that the establishment in question is both ambiguously "not us" and conveniently fictional, or that Just Cause 2 plays fast and loose enough with physics to keep it safely away from realism, or that I've got too much on my plate right now to try any of JC2's tricks at home.
Because when it comes down to it, I think I may owe U.S. foreign policy an apology. Had I known that meddling in the affairs of belligerent nations could be so much fun, I would have signed up years ago.