Console Yourself: Just Cause
“You fool! I have seen the film Air Force One six times. And on every single occasion, the President won!” - President Salvador Mendoza
Format: Various (Xbox 360 reviewed) • Developer: Avalanche • Released: Sept 2006
As a companion to NTS's PC Gone Mad column, Console Yourself will be taking a look at matters on the other side of the fence. We won't be trying to compete with mainstream game sites, but hope to offer a slightly different perspective on releases past and present...
As you’ll have deduced from the dialogue above, Just Cause is a comedy. The US government’s “plausibly deniable” man-in-black Rico Rodriguez has been sent to the fictional republic of San Esperito, on a mission to covertly topple el Presidente’s corrupt rule. With the support of an on-the-spot covert liaison team, and an unlimited supply of weapons and vehicles waiting to be airdropped, Rico must complete a variety of missions, both attacking the Mendoza’s forces directly and aiding the resistance movement. Of course, that’s not to say he can’t have a little fun along the way…
Avalanche were rather unfortunate with the timing of their signature game. With development commencing as the Playstation 2 and Xbox were at their zenith, the game soon came up against the technical limits of these consoles, as it tried to model all one thousand square kilometres of San Esperito’s beaches, forests and cities. Although the arrival of more powerful PC architecture and the Xbox 360 alleviated many of these problems, the game’s animation and draw-in distance make it appear rather primitive compared to today’s titles developed solely for contemporary consoles. Despite the lightweight feel of much of the action, with Rico’s machine guns feeling more like peashooters, the developers succeeded in conveying the sense of scale they sought. While flying over the state in a high-altitude jet, and during the subsequent irresistible parachute descent, San Esperito feels like a real place, with the lush spectacle still one of this generation of gaming’s most breathtaking sights. When it comes to action, the game subscribes to the mantra of “start big, go bigger”. Initial missions are about on a par with Grand Theft Auto's more hectic heists, as Rico seeks to rescue the rebel leader or liberate a village from the government’s militia. These tasks soon give way to more ambitious endeavours, such as breaking into an arms fair and using the ordinance to assassinate the president’s psychotic son, or launching your own air-strike on a train carrying San Esperito’s chemical warfare arsenal.
The game’s design is as uneven as its technical aspects. There’s a considerable difference in quality between the story missions, book-ended by pre-rendered cut scenes, and the side quests where Rico gives aid to either the guerrilla resistance or one of the country’s warring drugs cartels. The former are superb, with Avalanche’s tongue in cheek humour showing through in Rico’s self-aware asides and the titles of the missions, which contain some excellent puns. In an approach subtly different to the sharply judged satire of Grand Theft Auto, Just Cause’s cast are rendered with warmth, even when undertaking the most morally questionable actions. Never less than interesting, and frequently catching the player off-guard, the plot missions are enormously enjoyable. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the optional tasks, which consist of generic and repetitive requests to steal vehicle X and deliver the car/boat/whatever to location Y before you and it are blown up by San Esperito’s incensed military. Once a story mission has “politically destabilised” one of the country’s fifty or so provinces, the player has the option of completely removing the government’s hold on it by “liberating” towns and army bases. Although just as repetitive and under-designed as the side-missions, this goal still manages to offer a reasonable degree of satisfaction as the political map of the republic, accessed through the pause menu, gradually shows your regime change in progress.
Just Cause manages to be an immensely likeable piece of software, in spite of some considerable flaws. Grand Theft Auto players, used to finding enjoyment in every alley and spending hours playing with the game’s quirks, will quickly find cause for complaint. Much of San Esperito is a barren and uninteresting wasteland, despite its green appearance. Outside of the story missions, there’s little fun to be had, with Rico’s opportunities for interaction with the people extremely limited. The many scavenger hunts for hidden items quickly regress into dull map-trawls, and it’s only the Xbox 360 version’s achievements that give any point to the exercise. However, the game achieves a sense of scale and carefree fun that few other titles can match. The patchy implementation of the concept belies the fact that few games even attempt to create something as distinctive as what’s on offer here. Disenchantment with the rough-and ready nature of the combat dissolves the first time you get Rico to leap between three helicopters and free-fall to the ground, opening your parachute just in time to hijack the tank below. The anytime equipment drops point to the game’s real focus - the fun lies in travelling around the map, not what you do on reaching any particular location. With Gears of War providing the artistic inspiration for much of the video game industry, Just Cause’s blue skies and unspoilt beaches are a breath of fresh air.
Like a book of quotations, the title proves indigestible if ploughed straight through, but an occasional browse yields considerable enjoyment. Rico’s tropical excursion failed to storm the software charts, but did well enough to ensure his return later this year. Now overshadowed by the likes of Crackdown and Grand Theft Auto 4, Just Cause normally retails at about the ten pounds mark. At this price, there’s little reason not to see if Rico’s particular brand of political activism is to your taste.