Xbox 360 Preview - Just Cause
Developer Avalanche Studios • Platform Microsoft Xbox 360
Version Reviewed Xbox Live Demo • UK Release September 22nd 2006
From the last couple of previews that I've written, you can probably tell that I've been playing a lot of Xbox 360 demos recently. After something of a summer drought, it seems like the coming month is bringing some great games to the platform, and as a result, we've already had the pre-release demos of these games hitting Xbox Live Marketplace this month. However, a demo I didn't expect to appear this past week was Just Cause, Swedish developer Avalanche Studio's new sandbox revolution-em-up. As a result, I've not only spent the past weekend unlocking achievements in Cloning Clyde, but also familiarised myself with the island nation of San Esperito.
To put the game in context, Just Cause is a 3rd person sandbox game set on an a series of South American islands; a sort of fusion between Grand Theft Auto's gameplay and Far Cry's setting. You play as Rico Rodriguez, a CIA agent whose mission is to initiate a revolution against San Esperito's despot government, and overthrow its tyrannical regime. With a premise like this, the narrative could easily come across as being false and uninteresting, but the setup is carried with just the right amount of tough guy bluster and tongue-in cheek dialogue, that it comes over like an 80s action movie, like Commando. Narrative aside, it's nice to see the genre branching out into different environment, one which isn't a city. Aside from the new gameplay opportunities that this presents, it also means that there's something to look at other than concrete and windows.
Having spent a good few weeks pouring over screenshots and videos, I knew that Just Cause was going to be a really good looking game, but it's certainly a lot more impressive running in real time on my system. The game looks absolutely gorgeous, and Avalanche has done a fantastic job of not only capturing the essence of a South American island, but also infusing the environment with an almost romantic quality, which plays right into the action movie ambience that the title pays tribute to.
The day cycles accentuate the beauty of the island, and as the sun starts to set, the whole environment is bathed in a warm orange glow; shafts of this light explode from the gaps in trees, and sublime cloud formations gently roll across the sky. All of these graphical elements do a good job of immersing the player, and making them feel like they really want to explore every inch of the island.
Although the environmental graphics warrant as much unnecessarily poetic praise as I've already written, not every aspect of the game's artwork is as accomplished. Apart from Rico's model (that, apart from bearing an undeniable likeness to Agent Sands from Once Upon A Time In Mexico, looks really quite good), the various enemy and civilian models feel like a throw back to five years or so ago, and lack any kind of complexity or personality. They're not distractingly terrible by any means, but when you start to get up close to them, they break the sense of realism that the environment alludes to. Fortunately, the vehicle models (which you'll probably spend far more time staring at anyway) look awesome, and are not only varied in their design, but also have a distinct aesthetic that is appropriate to the game's setting.
The designers certainly know how to show off their eye candy, and a lot of the island's majesty can be taken in whilst engaging in the breathtaking pursuits of freefalling and parachuting; two of the game's unique features. There really is no better way of enjoying the sun-drenched isles of San Esperito than by plummeting through its clouds, or gently riding its therms whilst looking on to the distant the military compound that you're planning to violate.
One of the first things that came across to me, is that there's a really good sense of cohesion between all of the game's various types of action; shooting, driving and parachuting (amongst other things) are seamlessly integrated into one another. For example, it's entirely possible to freefall off the edge of a cliff, pull out your parachute, pick off a couple of corrupt police officers on the way down, steer towards a main road, freefall on top of a car, kick out the driver and assume control, and then crash the vehicle into a police roadblock whilst bailing out of the door. In sequences like this the action really doesn't let up one bit, which really gives the game a cinematic quality. Suffice to say, this also really does a great job of making you feel like a badass.
The targeting system in Just Cause is somewhat similar to that of Tomb Raider Legend; rather than explicitly aiming with a reticule, you just face in the general direction of what you want to shoot at, and the game aims for you whilst highlighting your current target. Whilst this system isn't particularly deep, it very much suits the speed of the gameplay. It also seems that a lot of enemies are thrown at you, so being able to dispatch a target and move on to the next with some pace is necessary. However, the inclusion of a zoomed over-the-shoulder camera for precision aiming means that all bases are covered, especially for aiming at explosive barrels and other non-highlighted objects.
Given the stunt-laden precedent that the game initially establishes (with the aid of cars, parachutes, grappling hooks and the like) Rico seems relatively paralyzed whilst on foot, and is pretty much limited to running, shooting, and jumping, or any combination thereof. I think that a simple Max Paynesque dive might have made the running-and-gunning a bit more satisfying, and would have also added a bit more depth and strategy to the shooting itself.
Hopefully, some more attention will also be paid to the game's character physics before it's released at the end of next month; when you shoot or run someone over in Just Cause, they fall backwards awkwardly in a poorly animated, partially physics-influenced fashion, with no real sense of gravity or impact. In addition to this, if Rico gets hit by a car, he just skids across the landscape whilst standing up. It's also possible to reload and continue firing at enemies despite the massive blunt shock trauma, which just goes to show how rigorous CIA training can be.
With that said, the vehicle physics are great, with cars and motorcycles swinging around corners, flipping over, and careering off cliff faces with all of the weight and momentum that you would expect. There are the occasional bizarre moments (wooden roadblocks stop you vehicle dead in its tracks), but these are few and far between, and are easily overlooked. There are also various boats and helicopters to be commandeered, which have their own set of controls and mounted weapons.
Speaking of weapons, there's no shortage of ways to dispatch the filth of San Esperito, whether it be with dual pistols, shotgun, or submachine gun. Unfortunately, a lot of these feel exactly the same, and it's occasionally hard to tell which weapon is actually being used without looking at your inventory. Some weak sound effects also suggest that the guns are no more powerful than a pee-shooter, although I've found that each one is pretty effective in most situations. Given enough time and accuracy, it's even perfectly possible to take down a helicopter with a single pistol. The game's grenades, despite their huge and ridiculously cartoonish smoke trails, are a lot of fun, and can be thrown with a high degree of precision. It's also possible to target and shoot your and enemy grenades in mid-air, causing devastating explosions.
Although functional, the inventory system feels a bit clunky; pushing left or right on the directional pad scrolls through a linear list of the weapons that you currently have in your possession. It's perfectly usable most of the time, it can prove frustrating when you're trying to select a particular firearm in the midst of a heated battle, and it's necessary to cycle through three or four other guns just to find what you need.
Thematically, I find it strange that it's possible to execute the innocent public of San Esperito without any consequence; I accept that Rico has a mission, but he is a CIA agent. Pedantic as it may be, I can't really see how this would be explained this in the context of the story. I suppose that allowing players to do whatever they want will always compromise the integrity of protagonist characterization. At any rate, it'll be interesting to see if this is something that is addressed as the genre develops, and starts to include player characters that aren't of a criminal persuasion.
As you can probably tell from the deconstructive tone of the preview, I've spent a lot more time playing around and seeing what's possible than completing the missions that are available in the demo. Still, the missions that I have completed seem like a lot of fun, and suit both the sandbox nature of the game, and the narrative themes. In particular, there were two missions that I really enjoyed. The first of these saw me teaming up with a group of "Viva La Revolucion!" yelling guerrillas, and advancing through police blockades to a small town, where I was required to assassinate a corrupt mayor. The second mission also involved killing a corrupt government official, but this time, one who was fleeing the island by helicopter. I played through this one a couple of times, initially giving chase along the coastline in my own chopper and shooting him out of the sky. The second time, I ran up to the top of a military compound, and blew up his helicopter with a rocket launcher before it had a chance to take off. It's encouraging to discover that there are almost limitless ways to approach missions, and I can already think of several inventive ways of achieving the objectives that I've already completed.
I think Just Cause has a lot of potential to be this summer's sleeper hit; although it hasn't been widely publicised prior to its release, it's bringing some legitimately original features not only specific to its genre, but also to video games in a wider sense. I hope that Avalanche take some time to iron out the kinks before it goes gold, because I think they could really make the difference between a good game, and a truly great game.