Just Cause, Avalanche Studios' 2006 Xbox 360, Xbox, PS2 and PC open world action game, was like marmite - you either loved it or hated it. Some loved the way you could pretty much go anywhere on a jungle island, blow stuff up and have fun stunting around with a parachute as your plaything. Others found the whole experience rather boring, with an island too big for its boots, combat so easy you could play it blindfolded and a story that was over after just four hours.
Now, with Just Cause 2, Avalanche has listened to the fans and taken note, implementing more changes than you can shake a tropical twig at, a fact we discovered when we abseiled (not really) our way down to UK-publisher Eidos' offices in Wimbledon, home of that tennis competition Tim Henman never won, to have a gander at some gorgeous new screens and lovely gameplay footage of a game we have very high hopes for indeed.
First things first, Avalanche has sorted the combat, thank God. One of the most annoying things about Just Cause was the automatic targeting, which meant you could simply run about and press fire with nary a care until everything died or blew up. Just Cause 2 has ditched that in favour of third-person free-aiming, which enables you complete control over the targeting reticule and the ability to aim at enemy limbs. Rico Rodriguez, who returns as the main character following his daredevil exploits in the first game, will find things much tougher this time around now that he hasn't got an auto-aim and unlimited ammo to play with. It feels a bit like Capcom's Lost Planet, the guide from Eidos tells us.
The AI, too, has enjoyed a much-needed overhaul. Bad guys will now shoot out the windows of cars so they can fire some shots at you before their vehicle gets close. They will shoot you from the minute they see you, we're told. They will communicate with each other, using cover more realistically, falling back when you lay down fire, call for help when you're beating their arse and, if you're pounding them particularly hard, run away. Lovely.
Eidos is extremely confident in Just Cause 2's combat and AI, so much so that we were told it will "set the benchmark". We're not sure about that just yet (every publisher tells us their AI uses cover realistically these days - we'll let you know exactly how good it is when we get some hands-on time with the game), but the changes have to sound encouraging for anyone who played the original.
The game world has been shrunk ever so slightly for Just Cause 2. Now before you get all upset and start flaming, there's a very good reason. One of the big problems with the first game was how uneventful the jungle island was. It was huge, yes (about half the size of Jamaica apparently), but you'd find yourself traipsing about the place for ages just looking for something to do. With Just Cause 2, Avalanche has shrunk the game world and packed it more densely (with over 1000 things to do in the game we're told), meaning players shouldn't have far to travel before they start getting into trouble.
We're most impressed, however, with how the game looks. What must be remembered about the first game is that it was built for the last generation of consoles - the Xbox and the PS2. It looked good (even on 360), but nothing amazing. From the screenshots and gameplay footage we've seen of Just Cause 2, it's shaping up to be one of the most jaw-dropping games ever. And that's not hyperbole.
Admittedly, we were shown screens 5000 pixels wide and 2100 pixels tall, but we were assured they were all in-game. If this is true, if what we were shown is an accurate representation of how the game will look when it's finally released, then gamers are in for one hell of a treat. We saw snow-capped mountains in the distance, full weather and climate effects with moving, dynamic clouds, and the gameplay footage we saw showed super-realistic explosions (there were many, many explosions). In one clip we saw Rico soaring above an enemy base with his parachute out. Instead of landing a bit away, stealthing his way in and blowing everything up, or just bombing it straight in Commando style, Rico was able to chuck grenades down like acid rain on the encampment, causing havoc before landing one foot on the jungle floor. Savage.
This being the team's first true next-gen game, you'd expect graphical improvement. Indeed the added detail to Rico himself is impressive, but standard these days. However, the challenge the team faces with making everything look so crisp and detailed, even tiny areas of forest miles away in the distance, cannot be underestimated. This is no corridor shooter. This is an open world, go anywhere game in every sense of the terms. It will be very interesting to see which game comes out on top between GTAIV and Just Cause 2. Very interesting indeed.
In Just Cause you were pretty much stuck to the samey jungle environment, but in Just Cause 2 you'll be taking in much more varied locations, including big cities, deserts, swamps and, interestingly, a jungle casino. The team has completely changed the way the missions work too. The many repetitive side missions have been replaced with a more structured story mission which will be "similar to GTA". The game is now set in the South Pacific island of Panau, which is ruled by a dictator called Baby - complete with Napoleon complex. Nico comes out of retirement Rambo style to track down his old mate Tom Sheldon, who's gone rogue with millions of Agency dollars. As you'd expect, Rico ends up having to destabilise Baby's regime by playing the island's three factions off of each other. Getting friendly with one faction will gain Rico benefits, including access to new weapons and the heart-warming fact that they won't try to shoot you between the balls next time they clasp eyes on you. But they'll also help storm other faction bases too, if you have them on side. There will be side missions, but you'll have a clearer path to tread through the game's main narrative. It sounds like the team wants you to do a bit less of the old walking around aimlessly and a bit more walking around with a purpose.
Ahh stunting. For many Just Cause fans, it was the game's hugely fun stunting which made the whole thing worthwhile. You could stand on the roof of a car and jump to the roof of another, opening your parachute at will to take flight. But that wasn't the best thing. The best thing was skydiving from thousands of feet up and grappling onto a car with the parachute open. And now, with Just Cause 2, Avalanche has turned the stunting up a notch.
The grapple has been evolved so you can grapple vehicles and parasail or pull yourself right in. Like Spiderman, the grapple can now attach to anything and be used to cause destruction. So for example, you'll be able to attach it to a stone statue and then to the back of a jeep, hop in the jeep and put your foot down so that the grapple tugs and the statue crumbles. Perhaps most interestingly, you'll be able to move between the skyscrapers of a city using a combination of the grapple and the parachute. And, get this, how about jumping from plane to plane while high in the sky? Sounds sweet, we say.
While the grapple sounds great if you just fancy experimenting with Just Cause 2's game world, it'll also be useful for combat. Here, you can grapple onto a vehicle, as you could before, except this time the bad guys will shoot out their own windows, lean out and try to pick you off as you're parasailing behind them. To combat this, Rico can now clamber around an enemy vehicle, hold onto the bumper and kill the driver with well placed weapon fire. Rico can apply this method to all the vehicles in the game, including helicopters - a bit like Superman but without the spandex.
Sadly, we're told there won't be any multiplayer in the game - "there's only room for one Rico in the world - he is so egotistical!" Has Avalanche Studios missed a trick here? We'd have loved the opportunity to go online and mix it up with other parachuting superhero wannabes. Perhaps this might put off some gamers who will be looking for a viable alternative to GTAIV this year. But we're delighted to hear the developer has implemented changes the community has been crying out for. Just Cause 2 looks like it could well turn out to be one of 2008's most fun, gorgeous-looking single-player games. Next stop - hands-on.