Take 500gms of Mercenaries and whisk in two cups of sugared Far Cry. Add a knob of half-fat Need for Speed and mix consistently until light and frothy. Leave mixture to settle in the shadow of more original creations and then pour carefully over a vast pre-prepared Grand Theft Auto biscuit base, before placing in the development oven for approximately eighteen months. When ready, serve warm, and add a sprinkle of Derivative chocolate flakes for that welcomingly familiar yet strangely uninspired aftertaste.
As a brief (and somewhat abstract) appraisal of Just Cause, the above paragraph is perhaps a little harsh on an otherwise impressive next-generation title. From an aesthetic point of view, Just Cause often performs well above that which Xbox 360 owners have seen thus far in the console’s evolution, and its graphics are particularly noteworthy for provoking genuine moments of open-mouthed admiration. Also, the sheer scope of San Esperito’s closely clustered islands is a wonder to behold and an almost intimidating environmental gameplay prospect - especially when armed with the knowledge that it holds virtually unrestricted free-roaming opportunities along with a mind-boggling 1,025 square kilometres and countless settlements, villages, and towns. Game sound, music, and vocal performances also rank highly when judging Just Cause in a compartmentalised nature, and collectively they form a near perfect accompaniment to the obvious gut punch provided by the sprawling game world and its ambitious visuals.
Yes, Just Cause is visually stunning, but its graphical prowess emerges from plunging the bucket of inspiration into Ubisoft’s Far Cry well and then tagging on airborne moments of eye-bulging appreciation to help ram home the next-generation impact. The game’s free-roaming exploratory approach, whether on foot, in a car, on a bike, in a boat, or a plane, is a massive accomplishment that evokes considerable player immersion, but it will arrive as nothing remotely original for those already familiar with Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series. When traversing the seemingly endless flow of roads on San Esposito, players can look forward to bouts of breathtakingly fast street-racing that smacks heavily of EA’s Need for Speed, while also attempting to avoid the attentions of pursuing police and cartel members on roads and highways teeming with perilous traffic. And, during the frequent moments of foot-bound gunplay, or while manning static or vehicular gun turrets, etc., Just Cause offers up some seriously satisfying death and destruction that’s almost as much fun as the carnage first visited in LucasArts’ Mercenaries.
Just Cause screams ‘next-generation’ and is certainly far more worthy of gracing the Xbox 360 than certain other supposedly top-draw titles - generally franchise releases guilty of merely applying polishing to current-generation titles while adding nothing by way of expansion. But it’s also somewhat of a picture postcard representation of various other contributing videogames. Whether players choose to level comparisons against Just Cause (and we all do) will likely be the deciding factor on how high it rises in terms of memorable videogame experiences. However, before those gamers who hold the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry close to their hearts turn up their noses and adopt the purist’s view against the derivative undertones laced throughout Just Cause, it is worth reading on to absorb some of the game’s more outrageously themed plus points.
The narrative structure of Just Cause unfurls around Roco Rodriguez, a top secret agent whose mission is to infiltrate the tropical island country of San Esperito and successfully destabilise its corrupt government. Using explosive and deadly undercover mission techniques, Rodriguez must navigate the various regions of San Esperito and cause havoc throughout the government-controlled settlements by instigating uprisings for the People’s Revolutionary Army, and playing rival drug cartels against one another in exchanges of destruction. To help his ‘just cause’, Rodriguez is backed up by a progressive safe-house system scattered throughout the network of islands, and also a support team that issue missions and provide valuable related information. Working his way into the mind of the people by leading mini-revolutions, and sliding ever deeper into the service of the cartels, Rodriguez must gradually work his way towards the toppling of San Esperito’s ruling hand, President General Salvador Mendoza.
In order to help distinguish itself from the whole host of free-roaming (often crime-oriented) action adventures that exist in the videogame market today, Just Cause implements a death defying stunt-based aspect that allows players to quickly traverse environments that would be otherwise inaccessible. Whether skydiving off a bridge into a deep ravine, hurling himself from an aeroplane, or parasailing off the back of a motor boat or speeding car, Rodriguez is able to instantly (and repeatedly) deploy a parachute to creatively move from place to place and fire off a grapple gun to help hitch rides. Ignoring the physical banality of Rodriguez wearing a parachute that never needs re-packing (or ever arouses suspicion amid the cartels), using a grapple gun that doesn’t tear his arm from its socket, or jumping from a helicopter’s cockpit, over its savage blades and leaping into a freefall, the sheer thrill of executing these gameplay features more than allows for a willing sense of disbelief. In fact, players may even find themselves stopping mid-mission after encountering a new mountainous plateau or impressive bridge drop, just to throw Rodriguez into the void and enjoy the ensuing fall.
Just Cause opens with Rodriguez leaping spectacularly from a plane and hurtling down toward the San Esperito coastline. A swift tap of the ‘A’ button deploys the parachute and players can then revel in the absolute calming beauty of the game’s visuals before lazily landing Rodriguez on the beach to meet his contact, Tom Sheldon, who is pinned down in a gunfight. Yet, the impressive stunts and physical capabilities at the player’s disposal also contribute to one of the game’s most prominent errors. Upon starting the game, this reviewer inquisitively chose not to open the parachute when prompted, and instead allowed Rodriguez to plummet toward the onrushing ocean. You’d expect the final result to be representative of real life: an instant and messy death. Surprisingly, Rodriguez simply plunged unharmed into the waiting water, whereupon swimming instructions popped up on screen. The same happens when falling off buildings or plunging vehicles into ravines, as Rodriguez invariably walks away unharmed or with a minimal depletion of his health. Even massive gunfights (and there are many) reduce his health so incrementally that it’s barely noticeable. With the exception of slamming a helicopter or plane into the ground and being engulfed in a ball of flame, Rodriguez seems almost invincible, which does damage the game’s impact overall in terms of walking the fine line between fantasy and reality - especially as the premise of the game is distinctly realistic.
Despite the occasional glitch in the game’s physical mechanics, it’s difficult not to like Just Cause. The warm and accessible familiarity of the gameplay - regardless of the GTA parallels- is a good thing. The frenetic immediacy of the uprisings and the power of their resulting fire fights is thoroughly entertaining as well as graphically hard hitting - despite the obvious Far Cry similarities. The sense of absolute speed when behind the wheel (or controls) of some of the game’s more ‘beefy’ land and sea vehicles is always thrilling, and doesn’t fall far short of the Need for Speed blueprint. And the visceral satisfaction delivered from mowing through enemies, bringing down helicopters, blowing out car tyres and windscreens, and using timed and remote C4 to blow up barricades, cars, and structures might fall short of excess - but is still a fitting nod to Mercenaries.
While some players may bemoan the eventual dip in mission variety attached to the game’s narrative (and inherent in most games of this variety), the steady widening of geographical coverage across the islands does offer up plenty of interesting assignments and a seemingly never-ending succession of related side missions for the attainment of fresh vehicles and weaponry - although the continual forestry, jungle, dirt road surroundings may tarnish the shine somewhat. If that’s the case, then simply hijacking a helicopter, taking it to its full ceiling capacity, and then parachuting back to the islands while drinking in the absolute beauty of the surroundings soon reiterates the classy power of Just Cause and washes out any dulling of the senses.