Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Release Date: September 27, 2006
On paper, Just Cause sounds excellent. Take the opening, for example: Rico Rodriguez, our Anthony Banderas-like hero, leaps out of a plane thousands of feet in the air. He lands in the middle of an intense firefight, and after killing the attackers, he must fight off enemy jeeps and helicopters in a lengthy rail-shooting sequence. It has all the makings of a memorable and pulse-pounding introduction, but it just ends up being dull, a problem that plagues all of Just Cause.
Just Cause' storyline is fairly simple stuff. Rico is brought in to the tropical island paradise of San Esperito to help aid a "regime change" by the U.S Government. With the aid of a local group of guerilla freedom fighters, he has to assassinate the "President" of San Esperito and bring the island under control. It's a simple plot, and it never deviates from the basic premise, but the plotline is really just an excuse for near-constant action movie stunts. That isn't the worst of choices, but it would have been nice to have a little more reason to move from mission to mission.
Rico himself is a fairly average one-man army. Beyond his weapons and ability to absorb countless bullets, Rico has an apparently magical parachute that takes up no space, deploys at will and instantly refolds itself. Using this parachute allows Rico to dive down on enemies from above or avoid a fatal drop, which is a welcome addition, considering the countless cliffs that dot the island. After a few missions, Rico also get a grapple gun, which allows him to latch onto vehicles, either to hijack them or to parasail using his 'chute. While these tools add a bit of spice to his otherwise dull set of abilities, they don't do too much to add to missions.
The best way one can describe Just Cause is half Grand Theft Auto and half Mercenaries. Once Rico is dropped onto San Esperito, he can begin taking mission requests from both the anti-government guerilla soldiers and the local drug lords. Missions are divided into plot-related requests, which naturally advance the story, and side-quests, which can improve your standing with the various factions that make up the island, thereby getting you access to better equipment. The main plotline is surprisingly short and can be finished in a day or so. Unfortunately, while the side-quests add to the playtime, they are so repetitive and the rewards so lackluster that there is no reason to complete them. Most boil down to "kill this person" or "find this item," and to get your faction ranking high means you'll be doing the same missions over and over, ad nauseam. The primary missions have a bit more substance, but still lack the variety that is usually found in sandbox games.
The island of San Esperito is surprisingly large, coming in at roughly 250,000 acres of land to explore. However, 80% of that land is effectively empty. The island is covered mostly by near-identical forests, with a few forgettable towns and government fortresses breaking up the endless sea of green. Traveling around the island quickly becomes tedious, with nothing serving to make the endless drives from place to place anything more then a waste of time. Thankfully, Rico can request an air lift or steal a helicopter to make travel go by quicker, but it still leaves a lot of wasted space.
Like Grand Theft Auto, the primary way you'll get around the island is in stolen vehicles. While you can request a vehicle air-drop from your agency allies, it's faster and easier to jack a car from one of the locals, which is done in a manner very similar to GTA. One major difference is Rico's ability to jump from car to car a la Pursuit Force. By pulling his ride up to another vehicle, he can leap over and steal it without pausing. Unfortunately, the button for "leap" is the same as "exit car," and the speed at which one changes from another can cause frustrating moments where Rico hops off the car instead of on to the target.
Air travel and boats can be jacked in a similar manner, with Rico using his grappling hook to latch on to the machine and pull himself up; in fact, it makes jacking powerful machines a bit too easy. Unlike the tanks and heavy artillery found in Grand Theft Auto, almost every vehicle in Just Cause is missing locks, and getting access to a heavily armed military copter is easy as pie. I found myself using a stolen military chopper for most missions, except those with heavy anti-aircraft presence.
While stealing a machine is easy, driving it is not. The vehicles in Just Cause have extremely loose and sloppy controls, which makes something as simple as driving down the road an exercise in frustration. Cars can be driven with only some difficulty, but motorcycles are rendered almost unusable by the control scheme. They jerk left and right at the slightest tap of the analog stick, and the smallest bump sends Rico flying as if he were shot from a cannon. Boats and aircraft fare a bit better, but that is mostly because there are fewer items into which they could ram.
Just Cause's biggest issue is the difficulty, or lack thereof – the game is just far too easy. While Grand Theft Auto had an issue with aiming being too frustrating, Just Cause goes in the opposite direction and holds your hand too often. Simply aiming in the general direction of an enemy causes you to hit them with perfect accuracy. There is a wide variety of weapons available, but Rico's default pistols are incredibly powerful, fire rapidly and have infinite ammo, so switching to other weapons is rarely a necessity. To make matters worse, the enemies are roughly as accurate as Stormtroopers, and even when they hit you, the damage is minimal. If you get low on health, Rico even begins to rapidly regenerate health points! Even at the maximum "wanted" level, enemy policia and soldiers provide little threat, but building up a high "wanted" level is an easy way to get powerful rocket-equipped helicopters as early as the third mission.
Beyond the difficulty, Just Cause ignores physics; it doesn't just stretch them but flat out ignores them. You can skydive from hundreds of feet up and open your parachute at the last moment without a scratch, cars react like they are made of air, and explosions sometimes send things flying, while not even disturbing a leaf at other times. While this is to preserve the action-movie atmosphere, it also means that a lot of amazing stunts come off as boring because there doesn't seem to be any sense of danger. Combined with the incredible ease of combat, Just Cause somehow manages to make a tedious activity out of jumping off a cliff and parachuting into enemy territory.
Just Cause is a fairly nice-looking title. The lush foliage and beautiful waters of San Esperito really lend a beautiful sense of atmosphere, especially when viewed from the air. The vehicles are rather dull and ugly, but in a way that makes sense for a dictator-ruled, third-world island. The character models are a bit plain, and a lot of the animations, especially some of Rico firing his weapons, look very weird. It's not enough to detract from the overall experience but is noticeable the first time you fire some of the guns. Regrettably, some of the ground textures are too notably last-generation, and the fact that Just Cause was designed to be a multi-generation port shows just a bit too often to keep it from really shining.
The musical soundtrack has a Caribbean flair to it that really suits San Esperito, providing a real sense of action that the game itself can't quite live up to, but not all of the audio is quite so good. The voice acting is sub-par at best, filled with either dull emotionless actors or offensive clichés that lack the charm of Grand Theft Auto's more humorous stereotypes. The weapon sounds are often weak and muffled, and there were a few occasions when I couldn't even tell if my weapon was firing.
One issue that needs to be addressed is Just Cause's glitches. Sandbox games are notorious for their glitches, but Just Cause takes matters above and beyond the norm. Graphical glitches are everywhere; clipping errors are so intense that it is impossible to hijack a helicopter without Rico flying, unharmed, through its spinning rotors. The AI is similarly error-filled, and I encountered more than a few occasions of an enemy helicopter shooting randomly at nothing. There are few glitches that seriously affect gameplay, and can cause everything from an important NPC killing him/herself to your helicopter mysteriously ending up underwater.
On paper, Just Cause had the makings of a perfect game – Live out an action movie in a Mercenaries-like sandbox setting. However, it doesn't come close to living up to the concept. Unexpectedly glitchy, terribly repetitive and incredibly easy, Just Cause might be fun for a rental, but even the most die-hard fans of sandbox games will want to look elsewhere for their fill.
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