The tropical island of San Esperito would have been a paradise if it were not for the small matter of all round evil dictator, Salvador Mendoza running the show. Since el presidente is rumoured to have weapons of mass destruction in his possession a shadowy group called the “Agency” has stepped in. By sending in their best operative, Rico Rodriquesz to destabilize the region, their ultimate goal is to overthrow the dictator and destroy the wmds. With more than 250,000 acres of territory to work with, this is not an easy mission.
Well, if this was based on real life it would not have been easy, but for super agent Rico it is all in a day’s work. Besides being the spitting image of Antonio Banderas in Desperado, Rico is also quite the bullet sponge and can even soak up a direct missile hit or two before he succumbs. Rico also has a magical parachute, which can be activated and re-activated at almost any time with a complete disregard for physics. Later in the game Rico even unlocks a grappling gun, which allows him to latch on to nearby vehicles so that he can parasail along or even hijack the vehicle in question. With something like eighty-nine vehicles on the island, including cars, tanks, helicopters and even jets, you can image the fun that there is to be had.
The opening moments of Just Cause are great and sees Rico making a grand aerial entrance before engaging in a shoot-out and high-speed chase. After shooting down my fifth helicopter within minutes of setting foot on the island, I was expecting great things. Unfortunately, it did not take long for the game to run out of steam and reveal how much of its potential was squandered. With only twenty-one story missions, none of which is particularly difficult, the game is a breeze to complete. There are a few flashes of brilliance, but most missions are over way too soon and the plot is not particularly engaging. With such a vast gameworld to explore you would think that there are plenty of other things to see and do, but don’t count on it.
The game boasts something like 300 side missions, but in reality, these are just the same few missions repeated over and over with minor changes. Whether you are sent to deliver a package/money to bikers/paparazzi/corrupt cops, it really does not matter in the grand scheme of things. You race to the designated spot, do the exchange and then race to the mission end point while being attacked from all sides. There are a few missions where you have to blow up a tank/helicopter or hijack a sports car/motorbike, but that is about all there is to it. Your reward is better weapons and vehicles delivered to your safe houses, but since it is entirely possible to complete the game without ever making use of these upgrades, your incentive will probably just be the achievement milestones. Even then, it will remain a grind.
Speaking of grinding, the liberation missions are even worse. Each of the islands has towns, settlements, military bases and drug cartel hideouts. Liberating these involve destroying three roadblocks and a bunch of enemies before capturing a flag or in the case of the cartel hideouts, killing the big cheese. The first few times you do the missions they are fun, but by the 30th time with no changes to the formula, you realize what a grind it is. There are also various “hidden” packages to collect for achievements, but since they are all clearly marked on the map I would hardly call them hidden. Lastly are the races which are all checkpoint based and thanks to the erratic car handling not to mention the stupid enemy AI these are not a lot of fun.
Considering the sheer size of the gameworld, these paltry few activities are hardly enough to keep things interesting. The size is also very misleading as most of the islands consist of nothing but endless trees and rocks. Traversing them by foot is not only tedious, but also pointless as there is nothing of interest to discover. According to one of the loading screens, the best way to see San Esperito is by air and I am inclined to agree. From above the gameworld looks a lot more impressive and you will be able to appreciate the vastness more. Fortunately, there are plenty of passing helicopters to hijack and you even get your own personal gyrocopter later on. I found myself sticking to air travel for most of the game as using any of the road vehicles just ended in disaster more often than not.
If you are driving around and so much as touch another vehicle the police will instantly be on your case. There is literally a millisecond gap between coming into contact with another vehicle and a police helicopter suddenly appearing and firing on you. Dare to fight back and things will only escalate. Since the vehicles handle so dodgy and the physics is completely wonky it is almost impossible not to hit anyone. The AI is also incredibly stupid, so most of the time you will have other cars crashing into you which causes your wanted level to go up. The police are really stupid however and will usually destroy themselves in their berserk attempts at killing you. Unlike the GTA games there are no arrests in this game so it’s a fight to the death. Watching a cop on a motorbike attempt to smash your tank off the road is pretty funny to watch however.
It is ironic that traversing the gameworld on foot is the slowest and least fun method of travelling as the game practically forces you to do it. With a high wanted level like during most missions it will usually be raining bullets around you, but Rico’s natural toughness and the incredibly poor aim from enemies means as long as you do not stand still you have very little chance of dying. If however, you dare to set foot inside any type of vehicle it will instantly start raining missiles with one direct hit ending your game. You will still have to be on the lookout so that you do not get run over by the erratic enemies. It is strange that this was overlooked during playstesting as travelling long distances on foot is not fun.
The game also has its fair share of bugs and glitches, which leads to it feeling very unpolished in places. In one instance, I was told to collect a package from an oilrig, but when I arrived by helicopter Rico simply fell through the whole structure. Swimming back and attempting to use the ladder just propelled Rico into the air and back through the structure making the mission impossible to complete. It is a side mission so thankfully does not affect your ability to finish the game but still. There is also a weird sound bug where you will hear the police shouting, no matter where you are. At one point, I was high up in the sky flying around with a jet when I heard the police shouting at me loud and clear to stop. It would appear that no matter where you are in the gameworld in relation to the police they will always sound like they are standing right next to Rico which can be very confusing the say the least. Non-player characters that stand around waiting for you to speak to them while the police are busy riddling them with bullets are another bizarre sight that you will see frequently. The cut-scenes are pretty bad and features some of the most plastic looking CGI characters this side of a PSone title. It is really cringe worthy to watch at times.
For all its faults, glitches, bugs and pointless padding, Just Cause can still be a lot of fun to play at times. The parachute while not very realistic is a lot of fun and coupled with the grappling gun is able to provide a lot of entertainment. The auto-targeting makes the combat a bit too easy, but it prevents things from bogging down and keeps the action flowing. The ability to call for a vehicle drop or extraction any time that Rico is not under fire is also a nice touch. The lack of realism is also a good thing as jumping across the roofs of cars before grappling on to a passing helicopter is loads of fun. I do not know of any other game that allows you to cling to the wing of a jet fighter while it is flying at full speed before leaping into the cockpit and hijacking it. There is no multi-player but I do not think it would have added much to the game in any case.
With a bit more testing, polishing and variety Just Cause could have been a great game. It is a different experience compared to the Grand Theft Auto series, but runs out of new tricks way too soon. I definitely had fun playing it, but I cannot turn a blind eye to its faults. While it kept me playing for more than 30hours it can easily be completed in fewer than ten if you do not care about achievements. The game had so much potential, but never made use of it all.
*Review originally published November 2006.