Talk about turnaround. You may recall we were kind of worried about just how big Just Cause was ("Can big ever be too big?" we wondered). At that time, we didn't really see too much in the way of cars or people inhabiting the game's San Andreas-dwarfing world. And we thought to ourselves, "It's all well and good being big, but big's only fun if there's stuff to interact with."
Zip forward a month or two, and what a difference, er, a month or two makes. Cars are everywhere, people are everywhere and a barren gaming zone has been transformed into the biggest living, breathing Xbox game area we've ever seen. EVER.
Just Cause, a game so large it would take nearly a day in real time to walk across, is nearing completion. It's the debut title from Swedish start-up company Avalanche, and it's a marvel how a fledgling developer could achieve such a feat. Just Cause doesn't pull a GTA and slowly reveal the map to us level by level either. After we'd completed the first mission, we jumped in a plane and spent half an hour just flying about for shits and giggles. Ah, yes, that's another thing - you can fly from the outset. You'll be mighty thankful of the fact as well.
Comparisons will be drawn with GTA (these days, it's wise to think of Rockstar's classic as the birth of a genre rather than the yardstick against which everything must be measured), but there'll also be comparisons to Mercenaries. The folks at Avalanche told us they'd never actually played the latter, and despite the similarities, we're inclined to believe them - Just Cause is simply too big and ambitious to be a mere rip-off.
Your character in the game is a deepcover CIA operative, and your ultimate goal is to overthrow an evil dictator who rules the tropical island (actually, lots of little islands) of San Esperito with fear and an overzealous military police force. It's not a particularly pleasant place to live. Two warring drug barons squabble over the right to pump the population with their coca, while a secret resistance movement plans to overthrow the government. The island has issues. With four factions all eager to control the country, it's your responsibility to boot out the dictator and restore peace.
Of course, since you're an undercover operative, this means you'll be working for some shadowy characters from time to time - forcing you to moonlight as a drug baron yourself. When you do favours for drug cartels, playing one off against the other, you'll be granted access to their arsenals, safe houses, weapons and vehicles. The higher up in their estimation you climb, the more you can do and see.
Safe houses will act like save points, allowing you to spawn or save at numerous locations throughout the map. With this one swift move, Avalanche has dealt with the problem of the map size. By sprinkling Just Cause with numerous save points - those clever Swedes have made the map brilliantly accessible.
During one play-through recently, we found ourselves at a waterside safe house, alongside which we noticed a nifty-looking speedboat. We thought we'd try it out - you know, go for a zip along the coast between missions. With each 'mini' island (there are something like 15 in total) almost as big as Liberty City, a boat would come in pretty handy.
We passed the ports of giant cities, zipped along cliffs and generally wasted a good hour causing mayhem, before deciding to take a short cut through a very small, very narrow, uncharted channel between two rather small, innocuous islands. Nothing much to see up there, right? After all, it isn't even on the map. Nope.