If we were in the business of clinically dissecting games to reach a scientific verdict on their worth, we might end up spending the rest of this review detailing the many flaws of Just Cause 2. We might spend a few paragraphs describing the scrappy combat system; now we're used to the Gears of War/Uncharted school of duck-and-cover gunplay, running around like a nutter shooting enemies no longer seems quite as satisfying.
We might spend even more time complaining about the amount of time you spend grinding in-between the major story missions, then pause to reflect on the frequently atrocious voice acting and the game's stupid insistence on throwing in heavily armoured officer-class foes that require multiple close-range hits with a shotgun before they have the decency go down. However, the thing about Just Cause 2 is that we don't want to spend that much time focusing on the negative stuff, for the simple reason that the game is so much fun.
If you played the original, you'll already be aware of the basic setup. Latino super-spy Rico Rodriguez is dropped into an island paradise on a mission, and allowed to roam pretty much freely around the game world, hijacking vehicles, wrecking army installations and generally causing mayhem. Basically, the island is just a big sandbox, and the various cars, bikes, planes, helicopters, boats, armoured vehicles, trucks and miscellaneous explosive objects and buildings you'll encounter are the toys that Rico gets to throw around in it.
What's more, Rico is a pretty good toy on his own, being equipped with a parachute which he can deploy in an instant to deal with sudden falls or sneak into hostile encampments, and a motorized grappling hook which he can use to climb up walls or grab a lift from passing vehicles. He's James Bond, Ethan Hunt and El Mariachi rolled into one leather-clad killer (though we personally preferred his old silk shirt style to the new, more generic tough-guy look).
Just Cause did all this stuff, but suffered from repetition and a lack of really interesting things to do. Just Cause 2 does this stuff better, on a bigger scale, and with a range of new features that makes the action more enjoyable. Not only are the missions generally better designed and more interesting this time around, but Rico's movement, stunt skills and use of the grappling hook have been enhanced, making the action that bit more fluid, and adding to the range of cool, crazy and downright ridiculous stunts you can pull.
You see, the fun in Just Cause 2 isn't so much in what you're doing, but in how you're doing it. You'll be given missions by your controlling agency and the various rebel factions you find yourself temporarily allied with, but how you actually achieve them is up to you. Sure, you could drive yourself to the radar station you're supposed to be infiltrating, sneak inside with the grappling hook, steal the information you need then drive away, but why bother with the quiet approach? Why not call in a helicopter, abandon it in mid-air, leave it to crash-land on a waiting gas tank down below, causing a diversion while you parachute onto the top of the radar station and take down the guards in a hail of lead.
True, you could make your escape from a mountain airport on foot, but why do that when you can hijack a truck, drive it over a cliff, leap onto the roof as it's falling, parachute off and grapple your way onto the assault-helicopter that is coming up behind you. Just Cause 2 gives you all the tools to create your own ridiculous Joel Silver or Jerry Bruckheimer action movie; all you need is the imagination to push things that little bit further.
And there's no denying the cinematic appeal of all this nonsense. Where Just Cause had a lush tropical island setting but slightly primitive characters, Just Cause 2 has even lusher and more varied scenery - the expanded size of the new island group allows for mountain and desert areas too - and a much more detailed and human-looking cast. It's not quite in the Crysis/Uncharted 2 league for looks, but it's certainly heading in the right direction. When you're parachuting down from a mountain base towards the golden beaches of the coast with the sun setting behind you, there's something oddly serene about the whole experience - until, that is, you land near a naval docks and the mayhem kicks off all over again.
If the game has a major fault, it's structural. While you have a range of missions, including the main agency missions that push the storyline forwards and the secondary faction missions you'll take on for the various rebel groups, these won't appear until you cause a set amount of "chaos". Causing chaos isn't difficult - you just look for the government star logo and blow up anything that it's attached to - but it has to be said that there are times when you feel like you're grinding away for ages just to trigger the next bit of real action.
Sure, blowing things up never gets boring, but after a while one demolition job feels a little too much like the last, and the less said for the equally repetitive faction stronghold capture missions, the better. As we mentioned at the start, combat is not the game's strong point, and the missions that concentrate solely on blasting army goons are easily the weakest. Particularly when you spend 5 minutes at the wrong end of cheap one-hit kills from a rocket launcher.
The sheer scale of the game also has its downsides. While you can always call in a vehicle or pay for an extraction from your local black marketeer, you'll still occasionally find yourself slogging miles from one mission to the next, wishing you could make it all happen that bit faster. And it is frustrating when you make it nearly all the way there, only to trigger a fracas, meet your doom and respawn back where you started.
Still, let's not dwell on these problems, because 90% of the time Just Cause 2 is a ball. Even while we found ourselves grumbling about the grind, we found the game oddly more-ish; just a bit more chaos, and you just know that Rico will be back grappling his way up skyscrapers, blowing up antennae and throwing himself off the top while the whole thing explodes somewhere behind him. He might not have the charisma of a Bond or Bourne, but he sure knows how to have a good time.
Just Cause 2 has its flaws, particularly when it comes to combat and the grind between missions, but at the end of the day it's brilliant fun. The missions are stronger and more interesting than those in the original, and there are enough new ways to defy death and cause destruction that you'll keep trying to outdo the last stunt for days on end. It might not be perfect, but Just Cause 2 is one of the most all-out entertaining sandbox games in town.