Now, don't misunderstand me, because you should absolutely buy Just Cause 2. It's got a lush, almost dauntingly large world to explore (and destroy); it's got a combination of grappling hook and parachute travel that lets you swoop through the world in a way that's just as, if not more thrilling than anything the Spider-Man series has ever cooked up; and it's got a lot of explosions.
But the moment you play as intended, helping CIA agent Rico Rodriguez as he attempts to eject dictator "Baby" Panay from the island of Panau, you'll discover the sad truth: The tools at Rico's disposal are a hell of a lot more fun than what he's asked to use them on.
Judged by their individual merits, the mechanical components of Just Cause 2 are almost uniformly wonderful. The best is Rico's grappling hook, which gets the 2010 Cerebry Award for weapon that should be in every game ever. Shooting an unaware dude and yanking him off his bike is fun, but shooting one end of your wire at the bike and the other at the ground, causing the hog to stop suddenly while buddy keeps right on flying through the air? Sublime.
The grappling hook also provides the occasional opportunity for non-linear thinking: Defending a contact's car from a fleet of police cruisers got a heck of a lot easier when I stopped shooting them and started hooking them to passing buildings, using their momentum to flip them through the air. We're talking about hours of wonderful, giggle-inducing experimentation here.
The hook is flawlessly implemented with vehicles too, allowing you to climb on top of them and leap effortlessly to another nearby enemy vehicle, or just shoot the hell out of them. You can even climb out and stand on top of a plane you're flying for no practical purpose other than that it's a totally awesome thing to do.
The island nation of Panau you'll be grappling and flying through is not only gorgeous and varied (with 5 unique climates), it's also drawn at a stunning distance, rendering a massive chunk of the world even when Rico is two kilometers in the air, zipping along in a stolen plane or chopper. I'd be not at all shocked to see the proprietary Avalanche 2.0 engine popping up a lot over the next couple of years.
The real stunner is just how much of the world (touted as having 400 square miles) there is to render. I remember bringing down a massive section of an oil pipeline with a combination of gunplay, grappling and explosives. I felt great about myself until the HUD informed me that it was 1 of 55 -- fifty-five! -- in the world. I guarantee: You're not going to run out of stuff to do.
You no doubt feel the reverse silver lining coming, so let's just tuck into it. As much of a pleasure as it is tooling around Panau, just blowing crap up and messing with people, when you try to actually make progress in the already pretty threadbare narrative the game becomes immensely frustrating.
More problematic is that the reward for all the travel -- missions that range from mediocre to terrible -- is rarely worth the trip.
For starters, the world's massive size is turned into a crippling weakness when you have to traverse large sections of it to get to where you need to go next. There's an extraction system that lets you be automatically transported to anywhere you've been before, but, one, your mission objectives don't appear once you've called for an extraction, so you need to memorize the general area you're going to before calling for an airlift (an infuriatingly bad design choice); and, two, your closest extraction point is often still miles away from where you're trying to get to. We're talking about pointing a jet towards a location, walking away to make a drink, coming back and still not being there.
More problematic is that the reward for all the travel -- missions that range from mediocre to terrible -- is rarely worth the trip. They're uniformly uninspired and far too many boil down to "drive this high-value person a very long distance in a very large car that controls like a bag of buttholes and apparently has a Flip Into Ravine pedal right next to the gas."
Occasionally a mission will come close to realizing the full potential of the gameplay mechanics; such as when Rico must leap between a caravan of cars defusing bombs while hanging off the vehicles' bumpers. But even then potential is scuttled by punitive design that usually shuns the kind of experimentation Just Cause 2 is so good at with a quick trip back to the last checkpoint.
You probably guessed this, but the "story" of Just Cause 2 isn't worth the frustration. It's typically propelled by dialogue between Rico and mentor Tom Sheldon -- who, I'm fairly certain, are voiced by Al Pacino's Hispanic cousin and the old prospector from Mad Dog McCree.
After 20 hours of pushing through the main story, I realized that with every passing moment of fixation on "completing" the game, I was further souring myself on the great parts of the package that I genuinely loved. I persevered to the end, but was resolute that those who would come after would not suffer my fate.
If you're going to get the most out of Just Cause 2, you're going to have to do something the designers at Avalanche couldn't: you're going to have to realize that when you've got an amazing sandbox, you don't need structure. You don't need to force yourself to do a bunch of boring crap just because that's the way it's always been done. In short, you need to be able to realize that, no matter what game achievements and completion percentages have tried to teach us in recent years, fun is still its own reward.
So, please, don't play Just Cause 2, with all the structural tyranny that word "play" has come to represent. Play with it.
Editor's note: This review is based on early review code provided by Square-Enix on Xbox 360.