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Way back in 2001, the GRAND THEFT AUTO franchise laid the framework for what became an obsession for game developers with sandbox-style open environments. While building upon itself and creating one of the more standout and critically acclaimed franchises, the GTA series spawned a slew of bastard-child knockoffs, making the term “GTA clone” a popular piece in the game-review lexicon—and consequently a major turn-off for gamers, as titles bearing this moniker rarely held up to their progenitors’ quality.
For JUST CAUSE 2 (Eidos Interactive/Avalanche Studios), the term indicates both its tragic downfall and a shining accomplishment. The play and environment of this brutal and blood-drenched adventure set a new bar for interactivity, but the story, characters and certain minor elements fall into the trap of being just another GTA clone.
JUST CAUSE 2 (available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC) reunites players with Rico Rodriguez, that conglomeration of antihero archetypes derived from an exhaustive history of comic books and action movies. In the new story, Rico finds himself on Panau, another fictional island (this time in Southeast Asia), chasing down his former mentor and battling the regime of a newly empowered dictator. Along the way, Rico encounters a vast array of characters teetering on the line between hero and villain, who offer him some form of assistance in exchange for his hand in their dirty work. Much as in the previous GTA clone MERCENARIES, the story follows Rico has he works between three warring factions and the controlling military, completing various side missions to further complete the overall objective.
This premise is where the game takes a dive into the darker side of the sandbox genre. The narrative, at times hard to follow and somewhat boring, becomes an afterthought to the beautifully accessible environment. The secondary characters all seem to have graduated from Action Movie University, with several majoring in Bad Foreign Accent Studies. The dialogue could have been written by an eighth-grade drama class, fueled by the one kid whose parents have Cinemax and no clue how to restrict the TiVO. The jerky vehicle controls leave a lot to be desired as well, with most of the ground-transportation handling really rough and clunky, and anything riding on two wheels turns about as well as a shopping cart.
That aside, JUST CAUSE 2 does offer a stellar accomplishment in its gorgeously rendered and vastly unrestricted environment. Aside from being able to drive, fly, boat, swim, ride or walk to any point on the map, Rico constantly carries a grappling hook and a magically reappearing parachute. This should set a new standard mandatory for any character in an open-sandbox environment. There is a point where you can literally stand atop the highest peak of a mountain and parachute your way to the island’s lowest point, all the while soaking in the stunning visuals Panau has to offer. On top of having no boundaries, the architecture supplies an endless playground of demolition, as players will find it hard to resist setting every fuel reserve, silo, satellite dish and other staple military-base adornments ablaze with an always-ready weapons-on-demand supply of grenades, missiles, turret-mounted vehicles and any gun imaginable.
Battling as Rico himself employs great third-person-shooter features, being that he can wield dual weapons and utilize a free-aiming system, letting players pinpoint targets such as enemies’ limbs. When done properly, this is a great feature of the Havoc engine, as you can spend hours doling out torture and pain by shooting various body parts and watching the target squirm, buckle and fall into a pool of blood. The pinpoint accuracy demonstrates its rewards where the grappling hook is involved, as Rico can dual-hook a player to a vehicle (or any object to any other object) for endless variations on death scenes and destruction sequences. So if the idea of attaching a hook to an enemy’s face and the other end to a moving truck has any appeal (as it should), then Rico’s your guy.
JUST CAUSE 2 isn’t going to turn the genre on its ear or become a household name for never-before-seen gameplay, but it’s certainly not a title on which to pass, especially for fans of open-sandbox environments. Between the seemingly endless supply of vehicles, the obligatory grappling hook and parachute combo and the boundless, unlimited access within the map, players can (and probably will) buck the storyline entirely and spend countless hours exploring the world of Panau. So dust off your passport, brush up on your flight and aiming controls and take a trip with Rico Rodriguez to a fictional Pacific destination for some base-jumping, plane-abandoning, building-destroying fun. Just forgive him if he seems a little…cliché.
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