Just Cause Review
It seems like every time someone attempts a game similar to Grand Theft Auto, the final product always falls well short. Even last year's Saints Row for the Xbox 360, while a very solid game, still couldn't stand up to the likes of the legendary series. Then we heard about Just Cause, a game that was supposed to add several gameplay twists to the tried and true open-ended GTA formula. Early videos and screenshots showed the main character parasailing off the back of a jeep, leaping aboard moving vehicles and yanking out the driver, and doing a variety of amazing stunts. So could this one really deliver the goods and then some? It certainly looked like it could.
Firstly, it's well known the graphics found in the GTA franchise weren't exactly the finest of the generation. However, they worked well for the scope and size of the world, and unfortunately, the visuals in Just Cause can't even attain that level of effectiveness. The PS2 version of the game obviously can't compare graphically to the far superior Xbox 360 version, obviously, but even by PS2 standards, the graphics are severely lacking. We had expected much better, and the frequent imperfections, glaring clipping flaws, overall jagginess, and terrible draw distance negatively impacts the experience. On the good side, there is a bit more detail and color than we'd find in a GTA, so that's something, at least.
The sound is markedly better, thanks to some good voice acting, cool sound effects, and a surprisingly decent soundtrack. We don't have control over the soundtrack, though, which is in stark contrast to the likes of any GTA, Saints Row, and Scarface: The World Is Yours. We're also quite limited to the relatively exotic south-of-the-border tracks, and although that clearly fits the atmosphere, it does get tiring after a few hours. Still, the voice actors for each character deliver clean and professional performances, lending a sense of authenticity to the environment and storyline. The effects are varied and well done, ranging from the silenced pop of a pistol to the jarring explosion of a vehicle. So all in all, we're satisfied with the sound.
The game starts you off exactly the way you might hope, especially if you'd seen the preview videos. You're tossed out of plane, freefalling thousands of feet above the earth, and you've got the prompt to open the parchute. You can fall for a ways before you do so, though, and all you've got to do is a hit your landing spot. It's a serene fall, as you might expect, but when you get close to land, you realize you're dropping directly into a big ol' firefight. You've been ambushed, and the guy you're supposed to meet is outnumbered about ten to one, which of course means you need to get involved. The controls of the chute were a touch iffy, but hey, Avalanche has set us up beautifully. We're stoked.
And then we land and start to move and fire...and all that excitement quickly begins to ebb away, like a water jug with a hole poked in the bottom. Turning left to right is overly sensitive, the camera is fast but incredibly erratic, and that L2 button for locking on apparently chooses to work only if it feels like it. It's easy enough to get the hang of things, and even easier to eliminate the bad guys, because you're almost always well stocked with multiple weapons and plenty of ammunition. But when first getting acquainted with those mediocre controls, you're nothing but disappointed, and that disappointment tends to carry over into other aspects of the adventure. It's just too bad, because after all, control is kinda central to a video game's success.
You progress by accepting mission briefings and embarking on the quest, which can involve search and rescue, search and destroy, or just plain destroy. However, when you accept a mission, you can't save until it's complete, giving the experience a more structured feel. It's not necessarily a problem, but it discourages exploration and extra endeavors during the course of a mission, which can be bothersome later on. You may discover something or obtain something you'd like to keep during a mission, but when the mission fails, it's all gone. It's hardly a crippling factor, though; it's just how they made the game, and it's understandable.
Your character is Rico, and he's the epitome of Rico Suave (no, that isn't his last name; it's Rodriguez). He's a CIA operative thrown into a borderline impossible situation in the islands of San Esperito, which means there's a lot of jungle, sand, dirt roads, and water. It's a fantastic setting for your own personal playground, and Rico can take advantage of dozens of weapons, over a hundred different vehicles, and his innate ability to pull of insane stunts at a moment's notice. When you get going fast enough on a dirt bike, for example, you can launch yourself off with the parachute, making it an awfully sweet way to avoid damage due to a collision or gunfire. He can also perform that much-anticipated vehicle/parasail maneuver via the handy-dandy grappling hook, but it fails to be a useful or reliable stunt.
Another very engaging aspect of the gameplay is that you can ally with any one of the multiple factions warring against each other in San Esperito. Gamers who enjoyed Mercenaries will get a kick out of this feature, because it really opens up the game for a tremendous amount of picking and choosing. It can also change how you approach your missions, considering the differences evident when you're friendly with certain factions and hostile towards others. All of this provides the foundation for a highly addictive and ever-changing gaming experience, but the crucially flawed execution causes the player to lose interest in all those unique gameplay bonuses.
First on the chopping block: the bugs. If you started counting the number of bugs typically encountered in each mission, you'd soon run out of fingers...and toes. There's the always entertaining, "help, I'm stuck in something solid, what do I do?!" error, then you've got the mesmerizing, "hey, I didn't realize vehicles could float above ground in slow motion" bug, and finally, the classic yet tragic, "um...okay, the game didn't save what I unlocked. Great." It's like sitting in front of a low-budget movie, just waiting to see if you can spot the next technical screw-up, but at the same time, you're hoping it doesn't completely ruin the experience. We haven't seen a game this buggy in quite some time, especially considering the polish most titles sport these days.
Yeah, you can build up your Trust Points by completing missions and side-quests - of which there are plenty - and the secret vehicles are pretty bad-ass, but in the end, the most fun you'll have is likely with that grappling hook. Spearing vehicles and launching yourself into the air in order to transfer from one moving car to another is great fun, and the gunfights can also be quite entertaining. But due to the glaring problems and a storyline that just fails to capture our attention, the game lacks a certain degree of intensity, which is bad news for a production that centers its appeal on all-out action. The control is mediocre at best, and the camera is a constant problem, especially when you're trying to deal with so many graphical inconsistencies and dozens of rebels firing at you from all directions.
The driving controls are equally poor, and the entire package is as unrefined as it can possibly be while still remaining a mostly playable title. Just Cause is fun for a little while, and if you get sucked into the atmosphere and style, you just might finish it. But there are too many pitfalls that routinely impede your enjoyment, and while some of it is amusing, we have to realize we're chuckling at problems, not at parts of the game designed to be humorous. It's got a nice overall flavor to it, but the end result is a mostly unfulfilling experience highlighted by several uber-cool stuntman moves and a legitimate sense of freedom. It's just not worth the price of admission, and that holds true for all versions of the game, even the slightly better Xbox 360 and PC versions.
You might consider this one as a rental to check out the high-flying fun stuff, but otherwise, save your money for something else.
1/23/2007 Ben Dutka