Friday, March 21, 2014

Just Cause 2

Various recommendations and cheap price made me pick Just Cause 2 off Steam's holiday sales few months back even though it did not look that interesting to me -- not my favorite genre with the lack of swords and sorcery. I guess it turned out to be a worthwhile purchase, however, as I now have around 80 hours clocked in the game.

Just Cause 2 is a free-roam open world third person shooter/action game developed by Avalanche Studios and published by Eidos Interactive in 2010. The open world bit takes a little while to arrive; you have to do couple story missions before you are able to explore the fictional islands of Panau. But after that you are completely free to go wherever you want.

The first missions do teach you the basic mechanics of the game, though, and as a tutorial, it is probably one of the best I have seen. It does not tell you everything, however; I did not learn many of the grappling hook's uses until I started chasing the Steam achievements. One of the loading screen tips encourages you to experiment with stuff but I guess I really did not. I think I am more of a goal-oriented gamer instead of one that likes to mess around.

Nerd³ on YouTube seems to be of the latter type. Just Cause 2 is in fact his favorite game of all time, according to his videos. He calls it the "the best action movie you've ever played". That is pretty accurate, I would say. You can pull off all kinds of stunts and blow stuff up to your heart's content.

It is a a mix of realism and lack of it. On the one hand, Rico's (the protagonist) way of moving is completely out there with how the grappling hook and the re-usable parachute work. He is even able to jump his own height from the ground. And on the other hand, all the inventory weapons have finite ammo, and you need to keep gathering it from enemies and ammo boxes. And then again, vehicles' and mounted guns have no such limitations. Not even an overheat mechanic.

JC2 is slightly problematic if you are playing it with keyboard and mouse. The game was very much designed for a gamepad, and while KB/M is quite all right for most of the time, there are couple things that make you wish you had a gamepad.

The first thing is how dual-wielding in JC2 works. The wielded guns are fired from separate keys -- probably because you can DW two different kinds of one-handed guns -- and on a gamepad this is probably happens from the left and right trigger. When you are not dual-wielding, the second weapon button is where you throw frag grenades and C4.

On KB/M, this translates to left and right mouse button. But as I would rather have aim zoom on the RMB (as the standard kind of is), I rebound the second weapon to G and accepted the fact that I would never dual-wield. This was all fine and dandy until I got into a vehicle with weapons.

Even though the vehicle key bindings are in their own sub menu, vehicles still kind of use the same keys for things. Vehicle primary weapon is used from your weapon 2 button and secondary weapon from your aim button. I guess this is because Rico is able to use his own gun from open vehicles that have two weapons. But using the vehicle primary weapon from G was awkward to say the least.

The second thing where a gamepad would come handy -- or even necessary -- is when you are flying a plane. Tilting left and right with keyboard is incredibly difficult to do accurately as the button is either pressed or not. There is no degree of control as you would have with an analog stick. (I assume the game uses a stick for tilting on a gamepad.) There is also the fact how you can look around with mouse and how that can totally mess up your orientation if you make the mistake of touching it accidentally.

I almost rage quit the game permanently after around ten attempts of trying to do my first air race challenge with the provided plane. I would always either crash to the ground or be unable to hit some checkpoint ring. The challenges are of course very much optional but I was quite mad at the terrible controls. Then I finally decided to try the challenge with a helicopter I took from the nearby military base and succeeded on my first try.

You cannot do all the air challenges with a helicopter, though. Even with fully upgraded Rowlinson (which I think is the fastest helicopter), the speed is not quite enough for at least one of the challenges. However, I think that you can become reasonably adept at flying planes with a keyboard. I even managed to complete couple challenges with a plane after I had honed my skills while unlocking the Bridge Limbo achievement.

The story of Just Cause 2 has not much to write home about. Rico and the Agency is on Panau to overthrow its new tyrant president. This happens by causing chaos on your own, as well as by helping the three anti-government factions present on the island. I guess it adds flavor to have three of them, but they never even acknowledge the existence of each other. The voice-acting in the game is pretty bad, too, but after awhile I got used to it and it stopped bothering me. It kind of grew on me.

The stronghold missions are the most boring ones in the game as they all are identical; escort a faction dude through a military base and then make a last stand with a minigun against few waves of enemies and a stronghold commander. The story missions are fine, but I liked the most of the multiple faction missions you can do. They have quite a variation between them. My favorite one was probably the one where you go to save some smuggled goods from a Lost-inspired island.

Where Just Cause 2 would have needed most improving is the progression system. The very weak and linear weapon, vehicle, and maximum health upgrading via collecting the packages one by one is just boring. Some sort of perk system would have been amazing. And locations could have had unique loot to find or something.

I saw someone on some forum suggesting light pillars on destructible objects so that you would not have to run around to find that single transformer hidden between two buildings. That would have been a very cool feature on the mercenary mode (which happens after completing the story) when I was going for 75% completion to get the Perfectionist achievement. And instead of having the silly radar system, the game could simply show the upgrade packages on the minimap.

The heat system gets quite jarring after a time as well. When you have caused enough trouble for the military to send in a helicopter, you are stuck with dealing them until you die or run away. You cannot leave the helicopters unattended with their miniguns and rockets. And when you take one over, they will just send more. The QTEs when taking on a hostile vehicle's pilot feel quite out of place. They do give you a moment to to regenerate your health, though, as you are invulnerable to gun fire while wrestling with the dude.

The game also pretty much lies to you when it says things like "military morale has been lowered" when taking out a colonel or "communications have been disrupted" when destroying a communications tower. Nothing actually happens; the messages are just fluff. I wish they were not.

From a technical viewpoint the Avalanche Engine is pretty impressive. It has its limitations like it does not exactly keep the world state saved apart from is something destroyed or not. Wandering too far from your vehicle will have it despawn, you always start from a stronghold after loading, and so on. But the game looks good. There are different kind of environments from snowy mountains to lush forests and barren deserts. The world feels alive.

And the view distance is huge. I mean, you can see all of the huge map from air and large buildings are visible from miles away. I think the engine cheats somehow in that but does do it pretty damn well. Also, the soundtrack could have used maybe twice as many tracks, considering how long you can play this game.

Just Cause 2 is a fun game that could've been even better with RPG elements thrown in. But it is still pretty damn entertaining to jump in even after completing it to cause some havoc every once in a while.

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