24th May 2006 | 10:32
Forget crusades and bloody blitzkriegs - these days the politics of aggression are all about 'regime change'. From Grenada to Panama, from Haiti to Afghanistan, the USA and pals have been ousting uncooperative governments for decades. You might have thought the next target on their shopping list was Iran or North Korea, but you'd be wrong. It is, in fact, a small Caribbean archipelago by the name of San Esperito.
You may not have heard much about it on the news, but this small dictatorship is a key link in the global narcotics trade, and more recently the president has been suspected of harbouring nuclear ambitions. Unfortunately, with the US army's attention focused elsewhere, the normal level of response has had to be, er, scaled down somewhat. Forget your shock and awe, this time it's pretty much just one guy - CIA agent and Latin lothario Rico Rodriguez.
It may not sound like the most convincing response to a WMD threat, but rest assured, San Esperito is entirely fictional. What's more, Rico has one or two tricks up his sleeve, including the ability to commandeer over 100 different types of vehicle (from mini-submarine to Boeingsize jet), as well as leap from one to another and fly through the air like a Latin Caped Crusader (with the aid of his endlessly respawning parachute). With these tools and a little help from his CIA buddy Sheldon, Rico has to drop in, stir up the existing rebel forces and foment a revolution. It's all deeply implausible and rather silly, though in its defence, Just Cause is a very, very silly game.
"It's very tongue-in-cheek," says Christofer Sundberg, founder and creative director of Avalanche Studios. "There's lots of humour in the script and the game. It's really kind of boyish, with fast cars, nice girls, stuff like that. It's not Rainbow Six and it's not Benny Hill, but it's somewhere in between." It's also a game that's been variously described (by us) as 'GTA in the jungle' and 'Boiling Point with a short attention span'. Based on our latest handson encounter at Avalanche's Stockholm HQ, we can only confirm these assessments.
In case you missed the last bulletin, Just Cause is an immense free-roaming action game set in a seamless jungle environment roughly the size of Bedfordshire (1,024 square kilometres to be precise). The setting echoes that of Far Cry, with lush foliage, mountainous islands and tempting blue waters, while the game design is very much in the GTA mould - you have a clutch of essential missions that propel the storyline (21 in total), a vast pool of side-missions that are used to build up your resources and weapons cache, and endless opportunities for freeform horseplay.
"The only part of the game that's hard-scripted is the first mission," says Sundberg. "In it, you HALO-drop down to the beach, then stand in the back of a truck shooting while you get a bit of a tour of the island. But after that it's completely open - you can go anywhere you like, use any vehicle you like, pick up any weapons you like and do pretty much anything you like."
GRAPPLE ME GRAPENUTS
In practice, this means two things. One is messing about with the many different vehicles and the excellent grappling hook device, a new addition to the game that's instantly become its most appealing gadget. Fired at any moving vehicle, it allows you to latch on and hitch a ride - much like parasailing, but behind any truck, boat, car or indeed helicopter. It also allows you to reel yourself in and hop aboard the craft, an act which has significantly expanded the possibilities for insane stuntwork.
You might, for example, steal a car, drive it off a cliff, clamber on to the roof, deploy your parachute, sail down gently to a nearby chopper/yacht/scooter, fire your grappling gun at it, reel yourself in, assume control of the craft and carry on your way. (And why the hell not?) Once you've tired of that (if ever), the other thing to do is look at the mini-map and go to the nearest mission marker - a story mission or side mission, depending on how ambitious you're feeling.
Side missions take in races, assassinations, Driver-like 'run the van off the road'-style encounters and so forth, as well as the slightly more significant 'liberation' missions, where you help the local guerrillas (or drug cartels) turn a settlement over to rebel rule. In the early game, this simply means killing a handful of village cops while they mill around and shoot walls, but when it comes to destabilising cities, there's the potential for a fully-blown war to erupt, with government tanks, helicopters and all kinds of carnage.
In the process of these mini-coups, you not only help destabilise the ruling junta, but also improve your relationship with the guerrillas/cartels, which gives you access to better weapons and new safe houses. "When you get to under-boss level with the cartel," enthuses Sundberg, "you get your own jet."
The story missions are slightly more complex affairs, and take in tasks such as 'blow up train with chopper', 'assassinate General in brothel' and 'destroy coca plantations'. We had a chance to play the third mission and it soon became clear that there are, as promised, many different ways to achieve your objectives; although you could argue that they're simply variations on a theme.
A few possible tactics in this instance are to blow the coca to hell with a grenade launcher, commandeer a pesticide truck and poison the crops, fly a crop-duster overhead and spray them that way, or simply drive a truck full of exploding barrels onto the fields and let it do its worst. In the end the result is the same, but, to paraphrase Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten, it's always fun to experiment.
TO START LIBERATION, PRESS A
One thing that becomes abundantly clear at this point is that Just Cause is very much a console game for a console audience - even more so than the likes of GTA. The combat, for example, is almost ridiculously simplistic. Huge red aiming circles float over targets, ammo rarely (if ever) runs out and health packs fall in profusion and lie uselessly where they drop because you can take so many bullets before you die anyway.
Collisions and physics are also absurdly forgiving. You can drive just about any vehicle, be it scooter or gyrocopter, straight through the thick jungle growth without any impediment, hopping over rocks and sliding through all but the biggest tree trunks. Your
parachute can never be snagged on the environment, and helicopter blades can be passed through with nary a scratch.
It certainly means you never become frustrated or slowed down, but it also lends the game something of a dumbed-down, unsophisticated air. "We wanted to make a pick-up-and-play action type of game," explains lead designer Magnus Nedfors. "So we tried to keep it simple, both during combat and while you're driving vehicles."
It's a fair decision given the multiplatform nature of the game, but it's also sure to alienate a lot of PC players, especially those hoping Just Cause would be something of a bug-free substitute for Boiling Point. In fact, despite the many superficial similarities, they're very different games.
THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH
The team are also very proud of the technology behind the game, which, apart from the completely open, seamlessly loading world, boasts a detailed world simulation system with dynamically-generated weather (which changes according to actual fluctuations in air pressure, temperature, etc) and a highly autonomous AI populace.
However, the impressive aspect of all of this is that the game is running on everything from a PS2 to the latest PC, and it's on PC that we get the worst end of the bargain. Nedfors admits: "We've always been trying to build a scalable world in terms of graphics, and that puts some limitations on the PC version." Indeed, compared to the likes of Crysis, Just Cause is a distinctly old-gen affair, with slightly underwhelming graphics by PC standards.
As such, we don't know quite what to make of Just Cause. At a height of 1,000ft, it's immense, beautiful and awe-inspiring. Sadly, the closer you get to the ground - and to the realities of the derivative, arcade-tinged gameplay - the less impressive and more familiar it seems. At ground level, the sheer size of the environment is also lost somewhat, especially given the uniformity of the jungle terrain.
The best thing, as ever, is probably to ignore the PR bleating about how this game is going to change your life and accept that it's probably not. However, as a playground for arcade-action and over-the-top stunts, it's certainly going to provide a whole lotta laughs.