An over-the-top action game marred by myraid mechanical vexations
If there was any way to best summarize Just Cause 2 it would be thusly: Thrilling, but mostly aggravating. Just Cause 2 attempts to deliver a huge playground of destruction that offers limitless entertainment, and though it mostly delivers on that premise, numerous rough edges cause it to stumble through varying degrees of annoyance. There's plenty of fun to be had, of course, which Just Cause 2 is able to deliver in spades, but the majority is overshadowed by its inconsistent quality.
It all begins with its lackluster story. Just Cause 2 follows Rico Rodriguez, an agent for the creatively named "Agency" (all the good names must have been taken) and aficionado of all things mayhem, as he works to take down a corrupt government regime in the small fictionalized island of Panau to keep relations between Panau and the United States in good standing. Sort of standard fare for these types of set-ups, but its execution is lackluster in just about every aspect. From less-than-stellar writing to bad voice acting and characters who are mostly a bunch of bad stereotypes, the whole thing just falls apart and fails to entertain even slightly. It's not even good in a it's-so-bad-it's-good sort of way: it's just horrid. Add to the fact that the protagonist isn't particularly likable either and things further fall apart. His gruff voice and tough demeanor may fulfill the requisites for your standard action game hero, but they don't add anything worthwhile to the character in the least. In fact, all he does in most cut scenes is threaten to kill whoever it is he's dealing with at that moment if they don't help him or if whatever info they have to give ends up being a dead end of sorts, making him seem like some nasty bloodthirsty goon, almost, than some sort of government agent. It's quite tiresome, frankly.
What really shines in Just Cause 2 is the traversal element. Though Just Cause 2 offers a multitude of cars, boats and aircrafts to use, the most reliable and fun one is the grappling hook and stunt parachute combo, which can get you almost anywhere on Panau. With the parachute deployed, Rico's grappling hook can be used to propel him forward by hooking onto any solid element below and pushing forward on the analog stick. Scaling a large mountain or building, or even just general travel, becomes infinitely easier with this method and is a lot more convenient, too. It's also the easiest to control, as vehicles, specifically cars, are far too unwieldy to drive with any sort of ease. Turning is highly sensitive giving each turn you make a strong chance of ending in a collision. The only comparable alternative is using the Black Market dealer's helicopter to fast-travel to a previously discovered settlement -- but unless you find all the settlements quickly, that likely won't become your most reliable choice of transportation.
Apart from the above, settlements also house numerous collectibles that are deviously hidden throughout. The types available are weapon parts, vehicle parts, armor parts, and cash drops. Parts are used to upgrade any weapons and vehicles available through the Black Market so to increase their proficiency; armor parts increase Rico's health slightly (and I do mean slightly); and cash drops, as you can imagine, award you with large sums of money to use at the Black Market. Tracking down these items is definitely a worthwhile pursuit, but as you encounter more spacious settlements the task becomes increasingly tedious. A notifier in the upper right corner of the screen where the mini-map rests alerts you when your in close range of one of the collectibles, which does make matters daunting in many cases, but tedium still quickly sets in when exploring larger settlements, as you could literally spend hours looking for a single part and never find it despite checking every nook and cranny some twenty times. The faction items -- additional optional collectibles that award you with more chaos for obtaining them -- are slightly easier to find in that they're marked on the map; however, the aforementioned mini-map indicator doesn't alert you to how close you are to its position.
Your work for such drudgery, thankfully, is well rewarded. Finding weapon, vehicle and armor parts the like all contribute to the completion rating associated with each settlement. Reaching a hundred percent rewards you with a handsome sum of cash and chaos. The latter is important, you see, because accumulating a certain amount of chaos unlocks new missions and items for sale at the Black Market. It is also earned by completing missions and destroying any sort of explosive or destructible items in the environment. It's a ridiculous progression method, no doubt, but there's a gleeful sense of gratification in getting rewarded for fiery acts of vandalism that makes it brilliant.
Even better than that, though, is the grappling hook and the many means of entertainment it provides. Traversal may be its primary function, but its got plenty more depending on how creative you get with it. For example: say you encounter a cylindrical gas canister. If you fire a bullet into it to cause a leak then grapple onto it correctly, the canister will blast off taking you with it allowing for a quick getaway when things get too hairy. Additionally, you could attach an enemy soldier onto said canister and watch as he gets flung around in typical rag-doll fashion if you're feeling a little silly. Or better yet, say your being pursued by a cavalry of military vehicles and you start heading over a bridge. While you could just "stunt jump" -- the term game uses to describe jumping between the tops of moving vehicles -- onto each of the pursuers and take out their gunners, the most efficient way to dispatch them would be to attach you grappling hook onto one of the cars and hook the other end onto the very side of the bridge thus sending them falling to their doom, which is immensely satisfying every time it's done. Tactical decisions like that are just one of many satisfying ways the grappling hook can be factored into combat.
Typically you're time in battle is spent engaging in firefights rather than pulling down soldiers from high ledges and watchtowers. Gunplay isn't particularly great but it isn't particularly horrible, either. The good is that it works reasonably enough. There's no cover system here, which makes you an easy target for enemy soldiers, but keeping yourself alive isn't too difficult a task so long as you aren't being assaulted from both the air and ground from all sides (a seldom occurring event, tragically). The bad, however, is just about everything else. Something about the gunplay always felt off in regards to aiming, despite many attempts on my part to adjust the aiming sensitivity; it's impossible to quickly back in and out of cover whilst shooting to keep yourself alive during large-scale battles, nor can you crouch whilst firing; weapons, while certainly damaging, don't ever feel like they have any punch behind them; and, of course, enemies are a bunch of bullet-sponges, always taking half a clip of ammo before falling unless shot in the head. Upgrading your weapons helps mitigate this, but never does it eliminate it entirely. That combat often becomes an exercise in frustration tragic because a large part of the game is spent being engaged in combat, making it a dreadful occurrence when not backed up by artificially controlled allies.
Whenever your not out on an explosive rampage or scavenger hunt, you'll be out taking on missions for the various factions around Panau or the Agency. The former are purely for building up chaos and expanding the factions' influence while the latter are what progress the story along, and are usually more intricate than those from the factions. Faction missions are much shorter and basic, usually tasking you with destroying oil depots, playing taxi driver for faction members of high importance, downloading sensitive information, and generally anything that disrupts the governments hold over Panau. There's plenty missions on display, and though they do sometimes grow tiresome, they're generally entertaining and provide a decent break from bouts of mindless carnage. The best of the bunch are the stronghold takers, though. Here, you and a small platoon of faction soldiers assault one of the many military bases on Panau so that army's presence is lessened. Combat in these situations pits you against quite a number of enemies, but the playing field is more nicely leveled thanks to the support your granted, lowering the usual frustration factor that stems from combat.
Visually speaking, Just Cause 2 is certainly a beaut. Panau has a surprising variety of climates ranging from the tropical vistas of the coastlines to the snowy, slippery mountaintops. Settlements are populated by a mixture of shanty structures in the most rural sections, stone-houses in the presumably scorching desert, and the usual crop of modernized cityscape material such as towering skyscrapers, flashy lights, and billboards aplenty. Character models mostly follow the same trend, if a little more basic and unnecessarily sharp looking sometimes (it's rather inconsistent in that regard).
Quantifying Just Cause 2 is difficult. For every glimmer of excellence that rises during bouts of wanton destruction and calamity there soon follows a detrimental element that bogs down the fun considerably the more you play. It's not the worst of games, nor is it the best; it's simply a fair showing, one that's likely better suited as a rental than a purchase.