"Sandbox third person shooter/action game" is a mouthful. Let me instead suggest an alternate label for Just Cause 2 the effectively sums up the experience: "BASE-jumping, grapple-hook parachuting with guns."
Not that there's anything wrong with the sandbox third-person shooter/action game label; it certainly does sum up both Just Cause 2 and its 2006 predecessor. But with sequels, you're expecting something more, right? Well, Just Cause 2 delivers — in parachute and grappling hook form.
What Is It? Just Cause 2 puts players in the shoes of Agency operative Rico Rodriguez who is sent to track down his AWOL friend and mentor, Tom Sheldon on the fictional island of Panau. Along the way, he gets enmeshed in conflicts between three different factions and there are a lot of high places that are just begging to be BASE-jumped off of.
What We Saw I watched a developer recap the demo shown at E3 where Rico BASE jumps into a speedboat and then goes crazy grappling between points on what looks like a shipping port. Then the dev took me and several other games journalists through the beginning of the Casino Bust mission before handing over the controller so I could try my hand at playing in the sandbox.
How Far Along Is It? The game is due out sometime in 2010, but it looks pretty enough to seem like the release could be sooner rather than later.
What Needs Improvement? Wait, What Was I Doing? It's awfully easy to get distracted by the pretty scenery and raw freedom offered up by Just Cause 2. You do get map notifications of where you can go to complete the next objective on whatever question you might be on — and sometimes mobile phone updates from non-playable characters who want you to do something. But the map is easy to ignore since you have to open a menu to view it properly. Also the mobile phone pep talks are jarring enough to be irritating, so you might tune them out. It'd be nice if the game sent your PDA unobtrusive text messages or something.
Where Am I? Panau feels huge. I'm not sure how it stacks up compared to the first game, but the square mileage of the island is supposed to be something like 400 square miles (1035sq km). With all the ground to cover and topography that makes it hard to scan for landmarks, it's easy to get lost. You might not mind it much if you're an intrepid explorer — but if you're one of those gotta-beat-main-story-now types, getting lost while trying to learn the lay of the land is going to be a huge drag.
You Can't Grapple Two Elevators Together: Bummer.
The Malaysian Faction Boss Is Annoying: I might catch heat from both feminists and Malaysian people when I say that I can't stand the Malaysian faction boss lady. But seriously, she's irritating — especially when she's constantly yelling at you during a mission in heavily accented English.
What Should Stay The Same? I Want To Have The Grapple's Babies: It is so fun to grapple onto things, grapple things together or just grapple yourself to the ground then deploy the parachute while you're being pulled toward said grapple point to launch yourself into the air for what's basically the Spider-Man mode of transportation. The best part of the demo was when the developer grappled a truck that was pursuing him to the underside of a bridge as they passed by. The physics of watching the wire snap taut and the truck flip up and over were hilarious. Also, you can grapple cars and boats to helicopters. Oh, and you can keep your airborne momentum up when you're parachuting by grappling onto distant points on the ground or environment.
I Might Cheat On The Grapple With The Parachute: You can deploy your parachute at any time, pretty much anywhere if you've got even a few metres of air between your feet and the ground. A single button press deploys it and releases it, which is very low-fuss given all the guns you've got to handle. Once you master the pitch (point up, not down and you'll gain altitude!) and the grappling-to-the-ground technique, you might even forget to hijack cars.
We Could Have A Threesome With The Stunt Driving: Car chases are infinitely more fun when you're not actually driving. It's way better instead to let the car's momentum do the work while you straddle the front of the car as cover and shoot at the dudes climbing onto the back of your car, trying to kill you.
Final Thoughts Just Cause 2 is pretty and violent and expansive — just like sandbox third-person shooter/action games ought to be. It's really the grapple combined with the parachute that sets this game apart from, say, Mercenaries 2 or Saints Row 2.
Also, it occurs to me that if the game really went for realism with the parachute/grappling thing, discarded parachutes and wires would be littered all over Panau by the end of the game. Also, Rico would be covered in vomit.