Rico Rodriguez is falling through the air at terminal velocity. The ground is rushing up to meet him, but he's okay - in fact, he's exactly where he wants to be. The CIA black-op triggers his parachute, effortlessly gliding towards a raised section of motorway. Seconds later he fires a grappling hook at a speeding car, hauling himself in so that he winds up standing on the roof. Mr Rodriguez surfs atop his vehicle for a few seconds, then he dives inside through the passenger window. He kicks out the driver, then in a moment of recklessness he steers the car up and over the barriers at the edge of the road. There is nothing on the other side.
As his ride plummets towards the ocean, Rico bails and deploys another parachute. He leaves the passenger door open, and as the car falls beneath him a pitiful alarm bleeps in annoyance. The noise fades as gravity does its thing, eventually cutting out with a loud splash. Rodriguez glides away on the breeze, touching down on the beach a few moments later. Yes, he probably could have gotten here by bus - but where would the fun be in that?
This is Just Cause 2 - the sequel to the 2006 sandbox game best known for its hero's mad skills with a grappling hook and a stunt parachute. While few people could pick fault with the pleasure in being able to highjack pretty much any vehicle you can think of, including planes in mid-flight, the game took a bit of slack due to the fact that its island setting was a little bit dull and uninspiring. It was absolutely massive, certainly, but there really wasn't that much to do. On top of this, Just Cause was plagued with bugs... sadly not the kind that you can easily battle with a machine gun: broken missions, achievements that refused to award themselves, and numerous instances of the hero walking straight through solid objects.
Thankfully it seems that Avalanche Studios has set out to prevent these flaws from blighting their forthcoming follow-up. The developer says that the game will be "99.9 per cent" bug free, and on top of that it's already clear that there will be a lot more variety to the scenery. Just Cause 2 is set on the island of Panau, home to the maniacal dictator Baby Panay - a villain who seems reminiscent of the Team America depiction of Kim Jong-il. The climate on Panay is almost as nuts as its crackpot leader and is divided into several different zones, each with their own weather system. It's possible that you might start one mission on a beach, and then two minutes later you'll flying over a mountain during a blizzard.
Fine, so that sounds pretty unrealistic, but then this is a game where the hero hijacks helicopters in mid-air. Over-the-top action was the main draw of the original Just Cause, and for this second round it seems as if the fun-factor has been taken up a few notches. With his grappling hook launcher and an endless supply of stunt parachutes, Rico Rodriguez can scale great heights and descend back to earth in a matter of seconds. The physics behind these manoeuvres isn't particularly realistic, so expect the handling on the 'chutes to be more like a souped-up version of Pilot Wings, rather than something more sim-like. Rico can still seize command of pretty much any vehicle he sees, and when you combine this ability with fast-and-loose controls, you should be able to treat the world as one big destructive playground.
This time around you and Rico have a few new toys to play with, too. In addition to using his grappling hook to latch onto vehicles, you can tether objects together by firing out an elasticised cord. Fire one end at an enemy and the other at his friend, and both goons will be brought together at speed, knocking them out. If you're feeling a bit crueller, you could tie one of your foes to the back of a car and then drag him around in the dirt for a bit. Or you could use the rope and a helicopter to carry your favourite vehicle across the map; you could even pick up a big truck and use it as a makeshift wrecking ball.
Messing around with these options should be a pretty good laugh, especially when you throw in a hefty arsenal of machine guns and explosive weapons. You'll need them too, both to cope with the improved AI of your foes (they're now capable of flanking you and taking cover when attacked) and for the purposes of unlocking missions. In terms of game progression, chaos is the main currency in Just Cause 2. After all, you're attempting to destabilise a dictatorship - and everyone knows that the easiest way to do that is to make stuff explode. The island of Panay is littered with what the game calls "settlements": places of interest where there are people and buildings to investigate, ranging from bordellos to space centres. Show up and start trashing the joint with explosives or any combination of your dual-wield weapons, and you'll start to cause chaos - do this enough and you'll swiftly unlock new missions to take on.
Each settlement in the world has a percentage score to show how many of the activities you've completed in each area, and since there are there loads of these places, obsessive completionists will be as happy as a pig in muck. It's also worth mentioning that settlements won't show up on your map until you've actually discovered them, so careful exploration will also have a role to play. Once you've visited a spot you'll be able to travel back there instantly, since Rico's black market connections are more than happy to give him a quick airlift.
As to the missions themselves, expect a small mountain of side quests and tasks that tower above what was offered in the first game, including stunts, raids on strongholds and assignments for rogue factions. Avalanche says that you'll be given a lot of freedom in terms of the way you tackle these operations, with differing approaches throwing up their own challenges. In one story mission, Rico sets out to rescue a contact named Jade Tan who's being held by Baby Panay's forces in a mountain-top base. Our demonstrator chose to approach this destination from the air, a decision that forced him to deal with several powerful SAM launchers. Unfortunately this firepower proved to be too much, and he was shot down - but happily, this allowed us to see that approaching by foot would have forced the player to get past several nasty-looking gun emplacements.
As if any more proof were needed that Just Cause 2 is going to be completely OTT, when our demonstrator eventually reached the back entrance to the base he was confronted by a gang of teleporting ninjas. As you might expect, this revelation was met with surprise and enthusiasm by the assembled press attending last week's presentation. It feels as if Avalanche has gone out to make a playable version of the most ludicrous action film ever created - and a pretty good-looking one to boot. The original Just Cause boasted some great graphics, but this takes things further with a greater range of colourful scenery and some particularly decent particle effects. The water looks excellent too, and if Rico takes a dip you'll notice that his clothes will get wet, eventually drying out in the sun. Details like this don't make a game on their own, but it's yet another thing that this sequel seems to be doing right. If the play mechanics are as much fun as they appear, and if Avalanche manages to keep the bugs to a minimum this time, then Just Cause 2 could deliver on all the promises that the first game failed to keep.
Just Cause 2 will be released on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 later this year.