I've seen Just Cause 2 several times now, and on each occasion it's looked increasingly delectable. It's not hard to summon enthusiasm for a sandbox shooter that lets you cause utter mayhem on a beautiful South-east Asian island, but until last week, when I had my first hands-on with the game, one issue was slightly clouding my optimism. I've had plenty of opportunity to watch Rico Rogriguez, our daredevil hero, as he pulled off all manner of insane stunts - surfing on the roofs of cars, hijacking choppers mid-air, scaling skyscrapers with a grappling hook - but I was a tad concerned about how all these insane moves would handle. After all, it's one thing to watch an Avalance developer milking the best out of their own control system, and quite another to do these things for yourself.
Happily, I can now confirm that Rico's grappling hook is a piece of cake to use. Aim your targeting reticule at whatever you want to snag, and then tap the left bumper: if the object in question is lighter than Rico, he'll pull it towards him; if it's heavier, the hook's elastic cord will cause him to be dragged towards it. Whether you want to yank an enemy of his feet, haul yourself to the top of a tree or simply get to a getaway vehicle in a hurry, a single button push is all you need.
Once you've got the hang of these basic moves, you can start to attempt some of the really cool stuff. By holding the bumper down, rather than just tapping it, you'll be able to link two things together. Once you've snared the first object (or person), you simply re-align your reticule and release. This is when the fun starts: if you've attached two people together, they'll fly into each other and crumple to the floor - allowing you to finish them off with a quick grenade or burst of machine gun fire. Alternatively you might string them to a tree, attach them to the back of a moving vehicle. There's also a very satisfying trick that can be pulled off when you're standing on a high building, whereby you tether an enemy to a balcony and then cut the cord once the elastic has sent them flying; if done right, they'll sail straight over the edge, to their death.
Aside from the grappling hook, Rico's other main toy is his stunt parachute, a handy device that can be swiftly deployed by hitting the jump button whilst falling form a height. The chute itself is extremely manoeuvrable, displaying an admirable lack of respect for the forces of gravity. Like much of Just Cause 2 as a whole, it's not very realistic, but it is a lot of fun. By hauling yourself towards a tall building and then opening the chute, you can get airborne in a matter of seconds, and once you're up in the sky you can swifly pull yourself along by repeatedly firing the hook at nearby scenery items - a process known as sling-shotting.
Normally I wouldn't spend so much of a preview discussing control setups - but in this case I think it's important to assert how easy it is to pull off these stunts. Just Cause 2 is an open world game, and as such you'll be spending a lot of time moving from A to B. Thanks to the flexibility of the hook-and-shoot combo, there's always a quick way to get where you want to go. For example, one mission I tried last week required me to disable four transmitters at the top of a massive tower. I could have simply hooked my way up by zipping back and forth between walls, in a Spiderman-like manner, but instead I attached myself to the underside of an ascending lift. Fifteen minutes later, after disabling the signals and blasting my way through dozens of guards, I found myself attaching C4 to the end of a large radar at the very pinnacle of the building. As the dish exploded, I simply jumped off the top and parachuted to back to the ground.
When he's not floating through the air or clambering about a building like some form of CIA-trained monkey, Rico can often be found stealing vehicles - cars, speedboats, or even aircraft. From camp pink Tuk-Tuks to military helicopters, Rico can drive them all - and ownership is only ever a quick grapple-hook away. Naturally, some of the vehicles' owners are less than eager to give up their rides. If you're engaging hostile forces, you may be forced to engage in a moving firefight. Certain cars and trucks permit Rico to clamber around them even as their moving, using the left stick to move in and out of cover while you take potshots at the bad guys learning out the windows. If you take out the driver you'll be able to dive straight behind the wheel, but sometimes you'll have to engage in a direct hand-to-hand struggle - this appears to always happen if you're seizing control of aircraft mid-flight. A brief (and thankfully painless) QTE follow, during which Rico will batter the poor goon from hurl him from the cockpit.
The important thing to remember about all of these things is that they're happening spontaneously. Something exciting seems to happen every five minutes, but most of the time these events feel organic. Even when the game does throw something big at you, like a large attack chopper, it's up you to deal with the threat as you see fit. Do you battle the opponent head-on, or steal their ride for yourself? It's up to you, but either way it won't be long before you're back in hot water again. Missions appear to be split up into relatively small digestible chunks, and the breezy point-and-shoot controls encourage a manic approach to combat. Chaos is the main currency of Just Cause 2, the means by which you unlock story missions, so expect to be blowing something up every thirty seconds or so.
Let's not forget that there's a massive great island to explore either. I only got a chance to see a tiny corner of Panua, but the full game will have lots of different environments to navigate - from deserts to white beaches to heavy jungle. If you want a quick lift somewhere, you can summon a quick lift from your friends on the Black Market: throw out a beacon, and a friendly helicopter-cum-gun-store will show up in a flash. Here you can tool up your weapons, hitch a ride, or simply buy yourself a new vehicle. In addition to the many side missions littered all over Panau, there are also crates to find that unlock new options in the hovering "Murderz-R-Us" store.
Towards the end of my demo, once vehicle in the Black Market store caught my eye. "That's the Silverbolt," explained the Avalanche rep. "It's probably not a good idea to use it here." At the time, I was standing on a narrow path that ran alongside a steep cliff; in these surroundings, a high-speed jet plane would probably result in a swift death.... but I bought one anyway. A few seconds later, I was slowly edging my plane sideways in attempt to line it up with the track. As runways go, it left a lot to be desired, but it was too late to change my mind... so I hit the accelerator.
The plane shot down the path with bewildering speed, a rock outcrop rushing towards me. "Pull up!" yelled the rep The Silverbolt cleared the boulders with mere inches to spare, and I soared out over the sparkling waters of Panau. I did a barrel roll in celebration, and paused briefly to enjoy the view - a bright panorama with an indefinite draw distance, according to Avalance. It was a beautiful moment. Fine, so in real life I would have died in an expensive fireball - but then this is Just Cause 2. Here, anything is possible.
Just Cause 2 will be released on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2010.