It’s no secret that video games (or at least American made games) have a sort of love affair with Hollywood. In fact, it feels like a cliche just bringing it up. How many games can you name that clearly ape movies? Still, I find it especially useful to bring this up with Just Cause 2, a game that’s well aware of its inspirations. The game uses said inspiration for comedic effect wherever it can, from the narrative to play to the visual design etc. How, I’m not sure how well that approach works in the game’s favor. I’m not outright dismissing the game, mind you; I’m legitimately unsure. The action movie format does the game so much good and so much bad at the same time, that it’s hard for me to know what I feel about it.
The basic premise is this: an American paramilitary organization known as The Agency has been tasked with inciting revolution in Panau, a small island dictatorship somewhere in the Pacific. You do so largely by causing chaos for its own sake, whether that’s by aiding local revolutionary groups in their fight against the government, or by blowing up everything the government has laid its hands on. While the story develops from there, the gameplay is quite happy sticking to this premise. You spend most of your time in the game destroying things to unlock new missions with the various revolutionary groups, which in turn unlock Agency missions which progress the story.(Strangely enough, there are only seven Agency missions in this 20 hour game.)
So the game’s structure ends up pretty weak, which doesn’t work in its favor. Because Just Cause 2 wholeheartedly buys into its sense of chaos, the game itself lacks the kind of structure that it so desperately needs. Ignoring its structural problems, the game has quite a bit to be proud of. The island of Panau is portrayed as an absolutely gorgeous tourist hotspot, offering a lot to see and so much more to do. You can climb the snowy mountains looking for a military base to blow up. You can comb the beaches in search of that one last shiny trinket. You can race through the cities, skies, and forests of Panau. (Not to mention the things you can do with the parachute physics.) The people at Avalanche Studios clearly understand what it is that attracts people to sandbox games like this (minor activities and chances to dick around with what the game gives you), and they did everything in their power to stuff the game with as much of it as they humanly could.
Yet what they failed to understand is how important structure is to sandbox games. Without any framework to speak of, these activities fail to give anything in the game a sense of individuality. The lack of any real narrative arc attests to that, but the gameplay demonstrates it so much more strongly. What’s to separate one military base from another, or one trinket from the next? And what meaning does the variety in activities hold if there’s nothing to pace out the activities properly? Each one feels exactly the same, so they bleed into an indistinguishable whole amazingly well. Even when one part of the game bursts with personality, the game finds itself limited in highlighting that part, so it ends up slowly fading into the nothing. The once bustling island might as well become a barren ghost town by the game’s end.
Of course, the game owes some of its formlessness to its open world model, and it’s not like I can completely discredit what structure there is. I can see what designers were going for: they wanted to tie core engagement directly into the game’s progression. Doing that should make game more enjoyable in theory, and as long as you approach the game in small chunks without putting a lot of thought into it, then practice bears that out.
In fact, Just Cause 2 only works if you approach it in a certain way. It’s best to engage it as an action movie, if only because of how well the game fits that model and what it does within that. It employs every action movie trope it can get its hands on, and proceeds to exaggerate them into a cartoonish realm beyond the bounds of reality.How else does one explain a world where the hero can avoid falling to his death by falling faster at the ground? Or a world filled with modern day ninjas, hammy criminal kingpins, and oh so many explosions?
OK, I might be hyping the game up too much on my part. Humor is an all too common approach in the world of sandbox games, and Just Cause 2’s brand of humor isn’t that eccentric. In reality, its tone lands somewhere between the dull seriousness of Dead Island and the off-the-wall zaniness of Saints Row the Third. Still, it’s probably best to engage the game on those terms, since they’re what allow it to mock (and thus make more palatable) the dumb plot devices that would otherwise drag the experience down. For example, there’s a moment toward the end where the hero disarms four nuclear bombs by blowing them up a few hundred feet over Panauan houses. Were we to take the game seriously, this moment would be maddeningly implausible and the hero’s actions during it highly irresponsible. Viewed for comedy’s sake, though, the scene becomes funny for that very implausibility. And as I’ve implied before, the comedy applies equally well to the gameplay, with its singular focus on chaos.
However, this doesn’t leave the action movie model free of problems. If anything, the game indulges in quite a few when politics are introduced. Not that I was willing to consider that at first. I was initially willing to accept the action model wholeheartedly. “Sure, the game clearly has a political dimension”, I thought, “but that doesn’t mean it agrees with everything on display. Hell, it might even be using those action tropes as a light criticism of its own narrative.” That changed halfway through the game, when the Agency stumbles across three new ancillary villains. The Agency finds that Russian, Chinese, and Japanese crime lords have been pulling the strings the whole time. Each criminal mastermind is as stereotypical as the last, and game does nothing to question or even explore those stereotypes. As players, the game expects us to buy that this is just the way they are.
Their personalities are conducive to a dumb action movie parody, yes, but those same personalities risk construing the groups that they represent as naturally being this way. And they do represent those groups; there’s no other representation in the game. The only exception are the Japanese. They also have the tired “renegade Japanese soldier who doesn’t know that World War II ended” stereotype here to speak for Japan. You know, despite these particular soldiers living not four feet away from a modern dictatorship like Panau, complete with television broadcasts, Internet capabilities, and an array of people capable of telling these soldiers about the war’s end.
Suddenly, I became a lot more ambivalent about viewing Just Cause 2 as politically subversive. If anything, the game goes out of its way to affirm several assumptions in American political thought. While the game’s over-the-top violence might be humorous, it also gets things done. After all, the Agency takes down the dictator in the end, stops a nuclear threat aimed at the world’s superpowers, and effectively saves the world. And although the Agency very clearly doesn’t fight for benevolent causes, they still end up in the right by the game’s end, comparatively or not. Even the narrative premise inherently leans politically right in troubling ways. The active Panauan dictator demonstrates government power as inherently corrupt, while military power (represented through the Agency) is perfectly justified in supplanting it. The game makes no attempt to interrogate its latent political beliefs.
All these developments leave me torn about what to make of the game. It’d be outright cynical of me to dismiss everything the game gets right because of the big things it gets wrong. And it’d be equally foolish of me to say the game should stick to what it gets right, since that naturally entails what it gets wrong. Big action movies do this all the time: they treat politics as background dressing rather than as substance. That might be for their own good, though, as the format might not be well equipped to handle political nuance at all. I’ve seen action games fail at handling politics both when they treat it as window dressing (Call of Duty, Battlefield) and when they go out of their way to address it (Homefront, Spec Ops: The Line). So while ignoring the game’s political implications might be incredibly difficult (if not outright impossible), it’s ultimately in the game’s best interest to put those implications to the side. To engage it on the terms it’s laid out for itself. To look at it as the ludicrous blockbuster it seeks to parody.