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It’s glorious boys-own stuff, and the main missions are mostly superb. Maybe the combat is simplistic, thanks to a particularly enthusiastic auto-aim, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, and the game throws in moments reminiscent of LucasArts’ under-appreciated Mercanaries, where the missions effectively feel like puzzles, asking you to use the pieces you’ve been given to obtain the desired effect.
So, we have a game that, at its best, plays like the best Bond game that never was; a high-octane cocktail of super stunts, daring raids, and pulse-pounding runs to safety. It’s probably made me grin like an idiot more than any other game this year. So what spoils the party? Well, it’s basically the world outside the missions. The problem isn’t that – like Mercenaries – it’s unattractive, or that – like so many other free-roaming action games – that there isn’t enough to do. The rebel factions and friendly drug lords give you plenty to keep you busy, with settlements and strongholds to take over, packages to be delivered and enemies to be taken out, and there are even bonus collectibles to seek out if you can find the time and patience.
No, the problem is that these activities just aren’t that entertaining. The first few takeovers are fun, but the drill – blast goons, blow-up barricades, then capture flag or kill commander – soon gets tired. It’s the same with the other missions; no matter whom, what or how you’re delivering or destroying, it all feels a tad generic. And while completing these side missions pays dividends in terms of safe-houses, weapons and vehicles, you can get by pretty well without them, raising the question “why bother?.”
The island, meanwhile, is bustling with activity, yet there’s no real sense of different neighbourhoods or local identity. One tree-festooned mountain or gorgeous sandy beach soon gets much like another, and the villages all feel cut from exactly the same cloth. You can’t help wishing that instead of concentrating on the quantity of the world, Avalanche had done a bit more work on the quality. Just because the landscape is being generated by a bunch of brainiac algorithms, it doesn’t mean the world should lose the human touch.
And this lack of attention to detail does cross over into the visuals. Taken moment by moment, Just Cause looks gorgeous. We’re now getting used to – even bored with – lush foliage and warm lighting on the Xbox 360, but here the sheer scale takes the breath away. Drifting down from a mountain road through a river gorge to the soft sands of a beach while the sun rises behind your parachute is an awesome experience, right up there with anything seen in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion or Test Drive: Unlimited. However, when you get up close and personal the character models are sometimes slightly rough, and nearly always noticably generic. Saint’s Row and Dead Rising have proved you can put large populations onscreen and still give figures individual details, but Just Cause doesn’t manage the same effect. This may be a result of that old bugbear, cross-platform development, but really, that’s no excuse. And why are the character models used in the in-game cut-scenes so crude, ugly and charmless? Compare the work done here to Dead Rising, Ninety Nine Nights or even Resident Evil 4 on Gamecube and you can’t help but wonder who thought this was good enough?
And on a similar theme, the music is great, but there’s just not enough of it to go round. I like the Spanish guitar mood pieces and the funky uptempo numbers, but could we have a few more tracks next time around?
Still, let’s not overplay these few complaints. The simple fact is that Just Cause is a very fine game indeed – the sort of game you want to recommend to friends just so you can share stories of outrageous derring do – but I’m sure you’ll understand my mild frustration when I say that, had the small stuff been handled as well as the big ideas, it could have been superb.
The stunts and the spectacle are matched by the scale of ambition, but in creating a world of fantastic possibility, Avalanche has forgotten to make that world convincing on a smaller level.