On Screwing Around


Just Cause 2 is now a real thing people are playing. And, more gratifyingly for me, a much yakked-about Big Deal in the way the first never was. This is the sequel to a unique and majestic game that I haven’t stopped playing in the four years since it came out, but one so many people were maddeningly dismissive of. However deliriously excited I got for the sequel, I was never confident it could vault the bizarre wall of apathy some people erect around phenomenal works that come from unrecognised sources.

It’s gone down so well that – and you couldn’t say this of the first game – there may actually be people in the world who like it more than me. Not by a lot. It’s the ultimate screw-around game, and I love screwing around; I spend 80% of my gaming life doing it. I have answered the question “What are you doing?” with “Stabbing this explosive barrel to see if that makes it blow up.”


Just Cause 2 makes me realise that, in a lot of those cases, I wasn’t screwing around in a sandbox. I was blundering drunkenly onto a movie set, punching the love interest and setting off the pyrotechics. Here, though, I’m screwing around with things that were pretty much put there to be screwed with. Avalanche had a feeling I might tie a tank to a passenger jet at take-off, so they made sure I could.


It’s an amazing feeling, and no game has ever really catered to it like this. Played at its best, Just Cause 2 is raw science: curiosity, experiment, volatile result. But it is catered to. These elements were put here for me to mess up, and for that reason none of them are important. I am a destructive child whose attentive parents have given him things they can afford to lose. Toys.

I can tie a tank to a passenger jet, but it’s a tank and a passenger jet. The game has more, and they’ll spawn in seconds. I’m interested in the physical result of my tinkering, but I already know the real result: nothing. Nothing can ever happen. They can’t give me anything significant, because they know I’d tie it to a ski lift until it split in two. Missions can make a helicopter the objective, but that doesn’t make it important – it just bolts on an arbitrary failure state. Missions provide a sort of ‘serving suggestion’ for the mayhem, but they don’t spice it up.


So I’m in the playpen. On the up side: woo! Playing! On the down: I kinda want to fuck with the grown up stuff after a while. Because I’m not just a child, a scientist, and a brat. I’m a tempest of genuine malice, a power-thirsty psychopath with a crowbar of dysfunction. I want to tinker, but not just with the Mechano set. I want to break the car.

I’m not saying I need more power in Just Cause 2: I’m already a demon, and the mods make me a God. I want things to have power over. The Colonels are a start: named, unique, significant, killable. But I don’t want to “lower military morale”. Some of the stuff I’ve done in this game would scare nations. I want that popup text to read “Holy fuck. What have you done. Everything is dead.” I want to conquer whole regions when this stuff happens: not easily, not through superpowers, and not right away. But I want whatever ridiculous stuff I screw around with to have an effect I can point to.


These aren’t reasons I don’t like the game. I’ve played it seventy hours, it surpasses one of my all-time favourites in nearly every way, and it’s the most astonishing piece of technology my machine has ever crunched. This is just to paint a picture of where I’d like to see stuff like this go next. Avalanche have conquered the screw-around game to an extent it would have taken backward cinephiles like Rockstar a decade to catch up with. Now I’m interested in the fuck-it-up game: something where I’m allowed to break what they can’t easily replace, and throw a spanner in a machine so large it does something more violent and terrible than explode and respawn.


What’s Wrong With Just Cause?

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I don’t think I wrote about it here much at the time, because it wasn’t publicly out when I was really into it, but Just Cause is one of my favourite games. Open world games don’t seem to have much trouble making a great open world – most of the big ones like Oblivion, Far Cry 2, World of Warcraft and GTA IV are all wonderful places I want to spend time in. The difference with the islands of Just Cause, which are as pretty and inviting as any of those, is that you can fling yourself at them.

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I’d just finished a mission, one which left me exhausted and bleeding on a beach miles from anywhere. The next place I needed to get to was on another island entirely, and there were no boats or choppers nearby to hijack. So I called the agency to have them drop me off a motorbike.

When it came, airdropped unceremoniously in a heavy wooden crate, I ignored it and fired my grappling hook at the agency helicopter that had dropped it off. It’s one of the only things in the game you can’t hijack, but there’s no rule against hanging on to it. I reeled in and took hold of a tailfin as it thundered off – in completely the wrong direction.

It lifted me all the way over an inland mountain range, through a lashing storm, up through the cloud layer (the clouds you see in the sky can all be reached), and into a grey limbo where the island below was just a dark smudge. I let go.

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Just Cause is the only game I know with a key for “I’m not falling fast enough, make me fall faster”. The heights involved are so sickeningly vast that even freefall can take minutes to drop you. So you can make yourself more streamlined, steer with your body, and choose when to open – and when to suck back in – your parachute. Mixing them to toy with your momentum vector gives you a wonderful freedom in that massive cold space, and I had so much height to work with that I was able to steer all the way back to the coast, then over it, then to the next island, and finally to my objective.

I like to come in fast: chute open, but angled downwards to drop through the air; then pull up at the very last minute and spin 180, toes whipping the shrubs. Finally I cut the chute and land in a commando roll, stand up and punch my boss in the face. This may be why he goes AWOL in the sequel.

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And Yet…

People really didn’t take to it, not even most reviewers. EGM complained that it was ‘unrealistic’ (…), Eurogamer said the terrain was ‘uninteresting’ (!), and GameSpy claimed Saints Row 1 gave it ‘a wedgie in graphics’ (;). Other than the glitches (which seem minor on PC) and the rudimentary shooting (which would be a problem if it were a hard or large part of the game), most complaints seem to stem from the assumption that open world games are obliged to provide five to twenty times as much hand-scripted content as linear ones. Certainly some of them do, but the sense of entitlement baffles me. They don’t cost more, and they seem if anything to be more replayable rather than less.

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What Actually Is Wrong With Just Cause?

I’m writing this because I’ve stopped playing it, and I’ve stopped playing it because a mission was pissing me off. It has some sublime ones, and the last may be the greatest final mission I’ve ever played, but quite a few fall into obvious scripting pitfalls. My excitement about the sequel due next year is getting me thinking about what precisely they need to fix, because it’s not the weird quibbles its press critics decided to mewl about.

Infinite helicopters. No good can come of infinite helicopters. If I try to concentrate on the objective, I’m constantly being shot at or rocketed and thinking “Fuck, I need to stop concentrating on the objective and do something about these infinite helicopters!” If I’m concentrating on the infinite helicopters, even perfect one-shot kills with a stash of limitless ammo doesn’t let me take them down faster than new ones arrive. Worse, it cheapens the value and significance of the most sacred bit of military hardware.

Health. When fighting infantry, a trivial task for which you rarely need healing, healthpacks spew from them like medicinal pinatas. When fighting vehicles, which rip through your health mercilessly, there’s no reprieve. In multi-stage missions getting too worn down on an early objective can leave you incapable of proceeding from the checkpoint immediately afterwards. The risible regeneration system takes nearly a minute of utter tranquility to restore a useless 10% of your total health, and will never nudge it beyond that.

Get on the gun, Rico! Hardly the only game to be guilty of these sections, but seriously, they’re so easy to avoid. It’d be great fun to grab a mounted weapon and tear through a huge army of pursuers if it were an option. When it’s forced, and the pursuers triggered by stage queues to show up in a convenient place for you to shoot, it starts to feel too much like a fairground ride.

Get the truck to the waypoint in one piece! No.

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I’ll probably be back here adding to this list once I’ve got a few missions further in, but for the most part I’m having even more fun than I remember. If you’re tempted, it’s £9 on Steam and a Universal Resolution Changer lets you run it widescreen.

Just ‘Cause

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I’ve just declassified my Just Cause shots, since the game is long out. The plot of the game is that the CIA want to overthrow the government of this island nation to destabilise the area and allow them to put their ruler of choice into power. Their modus operandi for this is to drop you, from a plane. They figure you’ll take it from there. You literally do – you control that skydive, and everything from that point on, and you’re basically incredible.

I’m riding a weaponless civilian jet-ski along a winding river with three gunboats following me, three helicopter gunships slamming missiles into the water all around, and the military about to dispatch fighter jets to take me down. I have a grappling hook. And these guys are so, so screwed.

In a minute or two everything is a flaming wreck except the best helicopter, which I am flying, at an altitude of five inches, in pursuit of a police boat that’s arrived to investigate the carnage. I pull up, jump from the cockpit to the boat, and kick the cop out of it as the chopper doubles backwards and crashes upside-down, blades-first into a group of troops lining the coast to get a shot at me, and I zoom off into the open ocean. This is normal for a Tuesday.