It's almost inevitable that any game that even remotely looks like an open-ended, action-oriented free-roaming sandbox game will get compared to GTA. When you're the grand-daddy of the genre, the grand-kids have big boots to fill. But in a day and age when every game seems to, in one way or another, try to steal a piece from the GTA ilk, we have to be careful to judge each game for what it truly is and not what it reminds us of. Yes, Just Cause has an open-ended flow to it, with an action-oriented plot in a free-roaming environment, but that's really where the comparisons should stop. Much like Total Overdose released about a year ago, and also published by Eidos, Just Cause tries to go for the over-the-top, mindless good-time route, taking very little seriously (even with its supposed heavy-handed revolutionary/political plot) and prefers to offer the gamer a more visceral alternative to anything remotely based on real-world physics and human capabilities. While it does deliver on some of this in truckloads, it also suffers from too many shortcomings to keep most entertained for long.
A coup in the capital city of San Esperito has left a certain dictator, General Salvador Mendoza, in charge, the country in chaos and the US in yet another situation where it must send in the big guns to help. The answer, of course, is suave quasi-indestructible 007-wannabe Rico. Along with his US contacts Tom Sheldon and Maria Kane, he'll single-handedly win a bunch of car/boat races, help the guerilla factions and Rioja cartels take back their land, find not-so-hidden packages, complete simple side missions (that get old really fast) and complete a short main-plot to overthrow the dictatorship. If it sounds like there should be more to do, it's because there should. What is actually included in the game remains too easy (Rico can take more bullets than Rambo) and far too repetitive to keep anyone but the most jaded gamers and achievements junkies happy.
Developed by newcomers Avalanche Studios the game does offer a few new twists we haven't seen before, the first of which is the ability to skydive and parachute like there's no tomorrow. Whenever you find yourself with daylight beneath your feet, whether jumping off a cliff of from a plane, Just Cause offers one of the best skydiving experiences out there. A press of the A button and you're now parachuting. Another press and you're back to free-falling. You'll probably use this mode of transportation as often as you'll ride a car in San Esperito. The other neat feature is the ability to perform "stunts" as the game calls them, or simply to jump from vehicle to vehicle. Add to this the grappling hook which makes both parachuting and getting onto vehicles easier and you have a surefire mode of transportation. A basic trip around the island can feel like this; grapple onto crappy little truck, glide along with it until you see something a little faster, jump to that vehicle, jump in, drive it real fast off a cliff, sky-dive, parachute, find a new vehicle (even a chopper sometimes) and land/grapple onto it, repeat. The stunt mechanic is very well implemented and allows you to complete missions that would seem hard initially (generally because they are in other games) a lot easier. When you have to take out a bad guy speeding away, there's no need to shoot his car/tires, block his way, etc. Just drive up next to him, get on top of your car, jump over to his and kick him out. Then you can simply take him out at your leisure.
The third, and unfortunately last, of Just Cause's new feature is the island itself. While we've seen open-ended sandbox areas before, none have ever really felt as big or as lush as San Esperito. While there is a lot of repetition in textures and buildings and everything does seem to blend into the same thing after a while, there's absolutely no denying the beauty of Just Cause's exteriors. The vegetation is dense, the water effect really nice and even when you're careening around in a car at breakneck speeds or flying through the air in a chopper or plane, the game never needs to perform any loading whatsoever. The size of the island however, is also the first of Just Cause's issues. It's too big. If there was more purpose to exploring or more things to do within the game, the size would be justified, but as it is, it's incredibly annoying to note that you've initiated a side-mission which wants you to go pick up a car 200 meters away. Fine. Get there and you're told that you now have to drop something off, wait for it, 3000 meters away (for no apparent reason) and it gets tedious. Distance and the size of the island seem to only be a factor in making missions seem longer, not in making them more fun.
Just Cause also suffers from a slew of other little nit-picky issues that could take up pages to explain, but I'll simply state them all in the next paragraph(s). First off, most of the cars drive like they have no weight, bad wheel alignments and terrible break jobs. While each car seems to have its own "feel", none are really road-worthy. Motorcycles, believe it or not, are even worse. Planes and choppers however, drive fine. While you can drive through forests easily enough (through actual trees even), hitting a rock will always stop your vehicle. While the sky-diving/parachuting mechanics/animations look great, watching Rico run is painful. While the game does feature a manual-aim, you'll never use it since the auto-aim is there for a reason: it's impossible to tell who you're suppose to shoot and who you're not suppose to shoot except after noting the automatic indicator that appears on enemies. Basically, anyone that's not Rico looks bland and nondescript. While the exteriors look great, there are absolutely no interiors whatsoever in the entire game. The cutscenes are a little painful to watch and feature some bland voice-acting, generic character design and poor animation. The story is short and far too simplistic considering the political undertone of the game. Accessing the pause screen (your trusty PDA) needs a few seconds to load; unacceptable. The main story missions are short, boring, too easy, and over before anything truly special takes place. The random side missions (get this, deliver this, kill this guy, etc) may number in the hundreds, but they are all the same. Getting from one area to another becomes a pain early on. Liberating towns (as seen in the demo) may seem like fun initially, but once you realize that the bonuses and upgrades they provide aren't needed and that they are almost the same in every town or city (cities usually have the air vehicles and police while towns have roadblocks and an evil henchman), they get tedious. Collecting packages is an easy way to collect achievements, but you'll start to feel guilty at how easy they are to find; the maps clearly shows you where they are... and if you're there and you can't see them: find a not-se-hidden ladder and go up. The races feel tacked on and uninspired simply because they're never challenging. The vehicle to use is always there or nearby and the time given between each checkpoint is always ample. While there are many different weapons in the game, the only difference really (except for the sniper riffles) is the amount of bullets they hold. And finally, most of Rico's animations (re-loading, jumping, swimming, landing from a fall, etc) take far too long and are only fun the first time you see them; after that, they're just annoying. And okay, one more, earth physics do NOT exist in Just Cause: you can run up mountains, jump off cliffs in a car and simply keep driving it once it lands, bullets don't hurt, helicopter propellers don't kill and everyone carries grenades in San Esperito.
If you can look past all the above, there is an enjoyable time to be had in San Esperito, but in small amounts. Just Cause, much like Total Overdose was before it, is a fun, over-the-top, don't-think-too-much-about-it kinda game that offers quick flashes of surreal mayhem between moments of quiet exasperation. The main problem is simply that Just Cause doesn't offer enough diverse content to keep its incredibly large world fun. Those looking for a GTA on the 360 need to look elsewhere, but those simply looking for a fun time without too much thought, need look no further. If Avalanche Studios simply builds on what it's already created and just fleshes out the missing pieces, the eventual follow-up should prove amazing. As it is, Just Cause is a game that will clearly divide anyone who plays it into two distinct camps; those that love it for what it is and those that hate it for what it isn't. Either way, you should consider a rental before committing to a specific camp. As an aside, I'd love to see what Avalanche Studios could do with the 007 license.