On the surface, SquareEnix’s Just Cause 2 is a lot like any other sandbox game. There’s a big, open world (in this case, the fictional island of Panau) with a lot of vehicles, locations, weapons, and collectible items. Various factions will assign you the usual mix of missions. But the more linearly you play, the more frustrating the game will be. So Just Cause 2 is a bit like a Chinese finger trap. If you try to force your way through it, the game will mock you for your efforts. But if you relax and approach it on its own terms, the game rewards you with a renewed sense of freedom and discovery. To get the most out of Just Cause, you’ll have to learn to ignore your natural gamer instincts.
With 400 square miles of territory, there’s ample opportunity for procrastination. There are hundreds of locations to visit and thousands of things to destroy, as well as the incentive and equipment to get through it all. The most innovative inclusion is the grappling hook that allows you to zip around like a cross between Spiderman and James Bond. Improbable physics and a parachute let you skydive your way across the beautiful Panauan landscape one village at a time. But it’s only once you start using the hook to fling enemies off of rooftops and hijack helicopters that you’ll realize that Just Cause 2 all about whimsy, mayhem, and the juvenile thrill of destruction.
The plot is nonsense, but in a silly sort of way that never takes itself too seriously. You play as Rico, an American man with a Russian accent who works for a department known only as the Agency. You’ve been sent in to cause problems for the new Panauan dictator for reasons that are never entirely clear. By the time the ninjas appeared, I had stopped asking questions. The story is nothing more than an excuse to cause chaos and it serves admirably in that regard.
Running around discovering the enormous potential for anarchy is the best part of the game. The game rewards you for chaos and there are plenty of ways to run up your score. You can pull down statues with cars, base jump off of hotels, and crash airplanes into gas stations. The explosions always look fantastic. Placing a remote mine and then slowly walking away while detonating the gas tank behind you is a cinematic and awesome experience every single time.
The problem is that Just Cause 2 is a bit too schizophrenic. At its best, it’s a great sandbox game with lots of cool toys. But when it’s bad, it’s really, really bad. There are some slight glitches (I got stuck in a wall on more than one occasion), but they’re minor compared to the game’s other issues.
For starters, Just Cause 2 has an unnecessarily steep learning curve. There’s a right way and a wrong way to play the game, and the difference between the two is highly unintuitive. The crushing scope actually inhibits exploration. The grappling hook and parachute is the best way to travel, but it’s also the sort of thing that many gamers would never think to try. There are no good tutorials to help new players and the first few hours are an exasperating exercise in directionless trial and error.
The vehicle controls are also beyond irredeemable. Every car handles like an octopus on roller skates, pulling you in every direction other than the one you want to go. Tapping on the brake is generally enough to make a car spin completely out of control, and you’ll spend most driving missions being mercilessly shot at while digging yourself out of a scenic variety of ditches. Considering that every other mission forces you behind the wheel, playing through the story leads to a lot of cursing and frustration.
The game ultimately doesn’t seem to understand its own strengths and weaknesses. Just Cause 2 is fun when it gives you the freedom to explore and cause havoc, but most missions force you onto a rigidly structured path that disrupts the natural flow of the game. Tasks can only be completed in absurdly specific ways and assassinations or escort quests require several attempts to figure out exactly how the game expects you to proceed. The loose controls are poorly suited for such precision. Coupled with an inconsistent AI, success becomes a function of persistence and luck rather than skill.
Even the autosave feature shuts down during missions, which is doubly cruel given that the game normally records your statistics every time you do anything. Death at the wrong point in a mission could set you back more than half an hour, and the shift from chaotic freedom to meticulous repetition makes it feel as if the game is punishing you for daring to play through the story.
Despite all of the flaws, the game still might be worth buying. Panau is absolutely massive and the silly, anarchistic logic has a certain juvenile charm. Even ignoring the missions, Just Cause 2 still has enough content to keep you entertained for upwards of 25 hours. But the game will probably become tedious long before that point. Most of the objectives are glorified scavenger hunts and the game is only enjoyable as long as you avoid the predetermined structure. Just Cause 2 is a lot of fun, but it’s too inconsistent for anything more than a tepid recommendation.