Just Cause 2 makes a great argument in favor of iterative video game sequels. Armed with the mistakes learned from the first go-around and superior technology, Avalanche Studios has delivered a sublimely ridiculous open-world action game that values cheap visceral thrills over reality at nearly every possible turn. It's often more fun to just muck around in this expansive, explosive sandbox with all these wonderfully destructive toys than it is to adhere to the proper mission structure, but it's hard to complain when you're hurtling through the air, blowing up everything you see.
In proper sequel fashion, Just Cause 2 happily rehashes the setup from the first game, though the action is moved from a fictionalized corrupt island nation in the Caribbean to a fictionalized corrupt island nation in the South Pacific, again putting you in the role of swarthy Latin caricature and superhuman CIA agent Rico Rodriguez. You're initially sent there to hunt down an old comrade-in-arms who seems to have gone all Colonel Kurtz, but you quickly find yourself in league with multiple rebel factions intent on taking down the militaristic regime that's currently in power. Everything, of course, is not as it seems, though the twists and turns aren't themselves as interesting as some of the set pieces they help justify, including a grand finale that outdoes the climax of the original Just Cause on an atomic level. It's pure B-movie fodder, right down to the wide variety of broad stereotypes and consistently terrible accents most of the characters are saddled with. But then again, if you're coming to Just Cause 2 for the story, you're kind of missing the point.
What fundamentally set the first Just Cause apart from the sea of middling open-world action games was the unique toolset it provided the player. You had a grappling hook that you could use to hitch a ride on any vehicle that made the mistake of getting close enough, along with a miraculous stunt parachute that offered a quick escape from whatever fiery death you were about to plummet to. You could use the two in tandem, but only being able to grapple onto vehicles limited the freestyle fun you could have. In Just Cause 2, the stunt parachute works basically the same way, magically appearing and disappearing as needed, but the grappling hook now works on any surface that's close enough, effectively turning it into a skeleton key for fun. You can still use it to easily hijack whatever car, boat, helicopter, or plane you can get within grappling distance of, but you can now also use it to yank enemies off high emplacements and work your way up tall buildings.
One of the more important new tricks in Just Cause 2 involves using the grappling hook on the ground in front of you and deploying the stunt parachute while you're in motion, providing you with immediate lift and forward momentum. Once you're up in the air, you can basically just slingshot your way through the air, provided you stay low enough to the ground to still grapple it. It's a great way to get out of a sticky situation when you're low on health, or when you just need to cover a little ground in a hurry. While the vehicle handling is much more agreeable than it was in the original Just Cause, and most vehicles still feature the "stunt positions" originated in the first game, the new grapple-parachute dynamics provide so much more mobility that, other than when required by missions, I rarely found myself compelled to stand on top of cars. This is the power of the sequel: what was one of the most satisfying and memorable features of the first game is a second-stringer in Part Two.
Oh, but that's not all! By holding down the grapple button, you can also tether any two objects together, which is intermittently useful in a tactical sense, but almost always hilarious. The world is littered with volatile propane tanks that, when shot, will unpredictably rocket off in whatever direction they're facing--tether an enemy soldier to one of these tanks before igniting it, and they're both likely to become the stratosphere's problem. I also found that, when being pursued by enemy cars and trucks, the most effective way to get them off your tail is to quickly tether them to the side of the road, violently redirecting their forward momentum and causing them to go hurtling through the air.
But here's my favorite example of just how ridiculous the grappling hook is in Just Cause 2, and a bold indictment of the most basic laws of physics. When you fall a certain distance, you automatically move into a free-fall position that slows your fall and provides more horizontal mobility. You can fall several stories without taking any damage, but if you hit the ground in the free-fall position, you're done. It used to be that the parachute, or a conveniently placed vehicle, were the only ways to safely transition out of a free fall. Now, once you're close enough, you can just grapple the ground beneath you--which actually makes you move faster than when you're in free fall--and land without a scratch.
These are merely a few examples of the absurd applications you will find for the grappling hook, and the sheer volume of ridiculous YouTube videos that started cropping up when the demo for Just Cause 2 was released is very telling of this fact. As an open-world game, Just Cause 2 isn't free of its fair share of awkward physical interactions, but it sets such a wide gate for what kinds of behavior are acceptable that its hard to hold any of that weirdness against it. Still, the uniqueness of your skill set can take some getting used to, and pressing the wrong button at the wrong time can often prove calamitous.
So what's the point of all these silly-ass action fantasy moves? To facilitate blowing up of as much stuff as possible. The weapons you'll brandish are fairly conventional, including submachine guns, assault rifles, rocket launchers, grenades, triggered explosives, and so on. The aiming can be incredibly forgiving, which proves to be a bit of a necessity when you're trying to shoot a sniper out of a helicopter while you're clinging to the front bumper of a speeding jeep.
If you find yourself short on ammo, holding the wrong type of weapon, or simply stranded from your desired destination, you can call on a friendly black-market dealer who will airdrop guns and vehicles, or just take you where you want to go, provided you've already discovered the place you're trying to go to. It's through this dealer that you can also upgrade the weapons and vehicles you have access to, using supplies found in the world and earned through missions. Rather than providing a completely destructible environment--ala Mercs 2 or Red Faction: Guerrilla--Just Cause 2 limits the stuff you can blow up to vehicles, various explosive canisters, and specific military structures, and it smartly color-codes most destructible objects, making it easy to quickly identify any potential targets.
Missions will be provided by your CIA handlers, as well as the leaders of the various factions, but any kind of destructive mischief you get up to, in-mission or not, will earn you chaos points, the underlying currency of progress in Just Cause 2. It's by earning chaos that you unlock new agency missions, new faction missions, new black-market gear, and peripheral activities like time-trial races. It's a savagely simple system that speaks directly to the whole mission statement of Just Cause 2: the simple joy of blowing stuff up begets more opportunities to blow stuff up. Part of what makes blowing stuff up so much fun in Just Cause 2 is how terrific the explosions look and sound. Characters don't look so great up-close, and I found the smudgy skybox occasionally distracting, but this is a big, detailed world with all sorts of bizarre nooks and crannies to discover, and then blow up.
It's a good thing that blowing stuff up is so much fun, because the structure of missions themselves can get kind of repetitive, and I often felt like I was performing the same types of tasks for the three factions over and over again. What it lacks in variety, though, it makes up for with volume. I had sunk a good 20 hours into Just Cause 2 when the credits started to roll, though I had completed a mere 28% of the game, a number that I'm still eager to increase.
Not to sound too harsh, but there's nothing all that original about Just Cause 2--this is, in the purest sense, iterative game design. Many of its best ideas feel lifted from other games, including Mercenaries 2, Red Faction: Guerrilla, Bionic Commando, The Force Unleashed, Pursuit Force, among others. What makes Just Cause 2 special is the way those parts are assembled for both the minimum amount of reality, and the maximum amount of fun, the law will allow.