You Know, between computer games, airport novels, Jerry Bruckheimer films and the American military, the world is soon going to run out of snappy, thrill-packed, two-word, dynamic-sounding, clichd-ridden titles. Then where will games like Far Cry, Boiling Point, Cold Fear and, indeed, Just Cause be left? Floundering either with poetic-sounding names such as An Island Of Dreams or, better yet, crudely Orwellian monikers -Shooting Game X-337-B (Contemporary, Vehicular). Good thing too.
E3 was full of such nonsense this year, which is unfortunate given the potential of some of the games forced to wear such titular strait jackets. Just Cause being a case in point; this is quite the promising-looking attempt to blend Far Cry's lush tropical visuals with GTA's freeform, go anywhere, drive anything, do as you please mechanics.
There is a plot, something about an undercover CIA agent with an improbable name (Rico Rodriguez I think, although it might as well have been Rick Hardnut or Dirk Gun for all it really matters) sent to the fictional South American isle of Los Madeuperito (San Esperito, I think you'll find - Geographical Ed) to uncover a stockpile of WMDs and overthrow the government in much the same manner the Mission: Impossible team used to do every week in the '60s. Except with loads more gunplay and vehicle action, which, let me tell you, is no bad thing.
Suddenly, before our eyes, Just Cause really started to shine. We were shown demonstrations of just a few of the hundreds of vehicles you get to play around with (reminding us oddly of the old 8-bit classic Midwinter), but what we saw included such feats as jumping out of a plane, freefalling through the sky for absolutely ages, finally deploying a parachute, gliding down to a random spot on the whole (huge) island, steering towards a moving car, landing on it, pulling out the driver and racing away to freedom. James Bond eat your heart out.
Freedom is the key to both the plot and the gameplay. Notionally you are tasked with recruiting allies, influencing various power groups and generally causing plenty of destabilising trouble as you complete the 20-odd missions, from setting up to eventually offing the ruling dictator. Along the way there are hundreds of side quests used to drum up support for your plans, or there's just the thrill of exploration to enjoy - you can go anywhere you like (with the local constabulary permitting).
Plenty of Havok 2 physics are there to pretty up proceedings, along with realistically changing weather and day/ night effects and beautiful scenery too. Even if you don't feel like playing the main game, there's plenty of fun to be had devising stupid stunts to show off with. Not as stupid as the name though, but what are you going to do, eh?
Download Just Cause
Just As Newton and Leibniz discovered the secrets of calculus simultaneously, so it transpires that two European development houses have arrived independently at another great epiphany of the modern age: 'GTA in the jungle.' This time, there seems little debate over who got there first - Deep Shadows launched the epic, bug-ridden Boiling Point several months ago, but Swedish upstart Avalanche Studios is not far behind with its tropical Rockstar homage, Just Cause.
The parallels between the two are uncanny. Both offer a huge, go-anywhere world, freeform gameplay and a fictional Latin American setting. Both feature an array of vehicles to pilot, points-based relationship stats with local powers and a fully simulated environment. Stranger still, both are named after crap Hollywood movies of the 1990s. But as Avalanche's lead game designer Magnus Nedfors is quick to point out, they are in fact different games.
Similar But Different
"When I first heard of Boiling Point I was scared it would be very similar, but now I've played it I don't think so. There are similarities, but I would say Boiling Point is almost an RPG, with all the people you can talk to and the inventory and so on. Our game is much more of an action game. We don't care about the inventory - just grab a weapon and shoot things."
To bring you quickly up to speed, the concept is this. You are agent Rico Rodriguez, an expert in regime change and 'modern-style James Bond guy'. You've been sent to the Caribbean island of San Esperito to overthrow the president and stop the threat of WMDs (or if you can't find those, drugs). How you go about this is, to a certain extent, up to you. There's a rigid storyline, with 20 core missions that can only be played in a fixed order, but outside of this you're free to explore the island, complete bonus missions, nick vehicles, unlock weapons and build relations with the local rebels and drug lords. Even within the missions your actions are relatively uninhibited.
"We provide mission objectives like 'blow up the radar station'," says creative director Christofer Sundberg, "but how you blow it up is completely up to you. You can steal a plane and crash into it, you can drive a car into it. You can place an explosion pack. We encourage players to be creative.
Taking A Dive
The game begins with a skydiving sequence, as you plummet toward the golden shores of San Esperito. Already the clock's ticking, as you have to reach the beach in time to save your CIA buddy Sheldon from some angry cops. After a brief and somewhat comical shootout - combat is extremely simplistic -you're treated to a luimvee ride back to the nearest safe house, shooting down choppers and jeeps as you go.
While this is a reasonably exciting way to open proceedings, it also introduces you to one of Just Cause's most endearing features - the parachute that Rico can unfurl from his Armani whenever the mood strikes. It may not adhere too closely to the laws of physics, but it is a lot of fun, encouraging you to chuck yourself off cliffs, leap out of planes - even bail out of speeding cars and boats. Better still, if you can guide your 'chute into the vicinity of another moving vehicle - be it a truck, boat or plane - you can land directly on the roof, tear the driver out of his seat and assume control of the craft swiftly.
Clearly, there's no shortage of things to do here. Other than messing around with vehicles and outrageous stunts, you've got 120 side missions to choose from (varying from assassinations to package deliveries), and a load of bonus tasks, which might be anything from rounding up fugitives to winning a speedboat race. It's what the yanks might call 'content rich.'
What worries us is the standard of graphics. Avalanche is very proud of the fact that the game is identical on PS2, Xbox and PC, but for PC owners this is a bit like being told the new wheels for our Porsche are the same as those on a Renault Laguna. Nevertheless, there are some good ideas here and certainly enough to raise an eyebrow or two up at Rockstar North.
Forget crusades and bloody blitzkriegs - these days the politics of aggression are all about 'regime change'. From Grenada to Panama, from Haiti to Afghanistan, the USA and pals have been ousting uncooperative governments for decades. You might have thought the next target on their shopping list was Iran or North Korea, but you'd be wrong. It is, in fact a small Caribbean archipelago by the name of San Esperito.
You may not have heard much about it on the news, but this small dictatorship is a key link in the global narcotics trade, and more recently the president has been suspected of harbouring nuclear ambitions. Unfortunately, with the US army's attention focused elsewhere, the normal level of response has had to be, er, scaled down somewhat Forget your shock and awe, this time it's pretty much just one guy - CIA agent and Latin lothario Rico Rodriguez.
It may not sound like the most convincing response to a WMD threat but rest assured, San Esperito is entirely fictional. What's more, Rico has one or two tricks up his sleeve, including the ability to commandeer over 100 different types of vehicle (from mini-submarine to Boeing-size jet), as well as leap from one to another and fly through the air like a Latin Caped Crusader (with the aid of his endlessly respawning parachute). With these tools and a little help from his CIA buddy Sheldon, Rico has to drop in, stir up the existing rebel forces and foment a revolution. It's all deeply implausible and rather silly, though in its defence, Just Cause is a very, very silly game.
"It's very tongue-in-cheek," says Christofer Sundberg, founder and creative director of Avalanche Studios. "There's lots of humour in the script and the game. It's really kind of boyish, with fast cars, nice girls, stuff like that It's not Rainbow Six and it's not Benny Hill, but it's somewhere in between." It's also a game that's been variously described (by us) as 'GTA in the jungle' and 'Boiling Point with a short attention span'. Based on our latest hands-on encounter at Avalanche's Stockholm HQ, we can only confirm these assessments.
In case you missed the last bulletin. Just Cause is an immense free-roaming action game set in a seamless jungle environment roughly the size of Bedfordshire (1,024 square kilometres to be precise). The setting echoes that of Far Cry, with lush foliage, mountainous islands and tempting blue waters, while the game design is very much in the GTA mould - you have a clutch of essential missions that propel the storyline (21 in total), a vast pool of side-missions that are used to build up your resources and weapons cache, and endless opportunities for freeform horseplay.
"The only part of the game that's hard-scripted is the first mission," says Sundberg. "In it, you HALO-drop down to the beach, then stand in the back of a truck shooting while you get a bit of a tour of the island. But after that it's completely open -you can go anywhere you like, use any vehicle you like, pick up any weapons you like and do pretty much anything you like."
Grapple Me Grapenuts
In practice, this means two things. One is messing about with the many different vehicles and the excellent grappling hook device, a new addition to the game that's instantly become its most appealing gadget Fired at any moving vehicle, it allows you to latch on and hitch a ride -much like parasailing, but behind any truck, boat car or indeed helicopter. It also allows you to reel yourself in and hop aboard the craft, an act which has significantly expanded the possibilities for insane stuntwork.
You might, for example, steal a car, drive it off a cliff, clamber on to the roof, deploy your parachute, sail down gently to a nearby chopper/yacht/scooter, fire your grappling gun at it reel yourself in, assume control of the craft and carry on your way. (And why the hell not?) Once you've tired of that (if ever), the other thing to do is look at the mini-map and go to the nearest mission marker - a story mission or side mission, depending on how ambitious you're feeling.
Side missions take in races, assassinations, Driver-Like 'run the van off the road'-style encounters and so forth, as well as the slightly more significant 'liberation' missions, where you help the local guerrillas (or drug cartels) turn a settlement over to rebel rule. In the early game, this simply means killing a handful of village cops while they mill around and shoot walls, but when it comes to destabilising cities, there's the potential for a fully-blown war to erupt with government tanks, helicopters and all kinds of carnage.
In the process of these mini-coups, you not only help destabilise the ruling junta, but also improve your relationship with the guerrillas/cartels, which gives you access to better weapons and new safe houses. "When you get to under-boss level with the cartel," enthuses Sundberg, "you get your own jet".
The story missions are slightly more complex affairs, and take in tasks such as 'blow up train with chopper', 'assassinate General in brothel' and 'destroy coca plantations'. We had a chance to play the third mission and it soon became clear that there are, as promised, many different ways to achieve your objectives; although you could argue that they're simply variations on a theme.
A few possible tactics in this instance are to blow the coca to hell with a grenade launcher, commandeer a pesticide truck and poison the crops, fly a crop-duster overhead and spray them that way, or simply drive a truck full of exploding barrels onto the fields and let it do Its worst. In the end the result is the same, but to paraphrase Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten, it's always fun to experiment.
To Start Liberation, Press A
One thing that becomes abundantly clear at this point is that Just Cause is very much a console game for a console audience - even more so than the likes of GTA. The combat, for example, is almost ridiculously simplistic. Huge red aiming circles float over targets, ammo rarely (if ever) runs out and health packs fall in profusion and lie uselessly where they drop because you can take so many bullets before you die anyway.
Collisions and physics are also absurdly forgiving. You can drive just about any vehicle, be it scooter or gyrocopter, straight through the thick jungle growth without any impediment, hopping over rocks and sliding through all but the biggest tree trunks. Your parachute can never be snagged on the environment and helicopter blades can be passed through with nary a scratch. It certainly means you never become frustrated or slowed down, but it also lends the game something of a dumbed-down, unsophisticated air. "We wanted to make a pick-up-and-play action type of game," explains lead designer Magnus Nedfors. "So we tried to keep it simple, both during combat and while you're driving vehicles."
It's a fair decision given the multi-platforni nature of the game, but it's also sure to alienate a lot of PC players, especially those hoping Just Cause would be something of a bug-free substitute for Boiling Point. In feet despite the many superficial similarities, they're very different games.
The World Is Not Enough
The team are also very proud of the technology behind the game, which, apart from the completely open, seamlessly loading world, boasts a detailed world simulation system with dynamically-generated weather (which changes according to actual fluctuations in air pressure, temperature, etc) and a highly autonomous AI populace.
However, the impressive aspect of all of this is that the game is running on everything from a PS2 to the latest PC, and it's on PC that we get the worst end of the bargain. Nedfors admits: "We've always been trying to build a scalable world in terms of graphics, and that puts some limitations on the PC version." Indeed, compared to the likes of Crysis, Just Cause is a distinctly old-gen affair, with slightly underwhelming graphics by PC standards.
As such, we don't know quite what to make of Just Cause. At a height of 1,000ft, it's immense, beautiful and awe-inspiring. Sadly, the closer you get to the ground - and to the realities of the derivative, arcade-tinged gameplay -the less impressive and more familiar it seems. At ground level, the sheer size of the environment is also lost somewhat, especially given the uniformity of the jungle terrain.
The best thing, as ever, is probably to ignore the PR bleating about how this game is going to change your life and accept that it's probably not However, as a playground for arcade-action and over-the-top stunts, it's certainly going to provide a whole lotta laughs.
Drop your load
You'll never be left high and dry with the heavy-drop feature
As you'd expect making a game in such a vast environment poses some unique problems, not least of which is the high chance of you getting lost or stranded. To avoid this, Just Couse offers a simple solution: the heavy-drop. With this feature, you can call in a CIA chopper to drop off a fresh vehicle for you at any point in the game, with the only condition that you're not under attack at the time. At the outset you can only get a dirt bike (or speed boat if stranded in the water), but with gameplay you unlock more interesting options.
Best of all though, you can actually ignore the delivered vehicle and commandeer the helicopter itself - by shooting it with your grappling hook, reeling yourself in and hijacking it This quickly became our preferred way of getting around the game, and effectively gives you an on-demand airlift any time of day or night. Could do with that in real life come to think of it.
With The Release of Just Cause 2, Mastertronic are sneaking out the original at a sodding low price, in hopes of having the words 'Just' and 'Cause' sprawled across as much of everything as possible, and having people like us open budget reviews in precisely this way, mentioning the sequel over and over again.
Just Cause sees Cuban-heeled CIA operative Rico Rodriguez parachuted into a civil strife-wrecked tropical island, with orders to instigate a revolution and make the place safe for democracy. (Meaning American business and tourists.)
How Rico does this is up to you. After meeting your contacts at the game's start you're free to go wherever and do whatever you want. Just Couse takes the open world idea and runs with it, laughing like a hyena sniffing nitrous oxide. You're left free to sky dive, parasail, and BASE jump on an 1,025km2 island. But it's not all extreme sports, as you also get to shoot many people and blow up many vehicles and buildings.
Just Cause is just entertaining. How can you not admire a game that lets you blow up a police station, ride a motorbike off a cliff, then jump off the bike, and skydive back to Earth?
Back during the hey-day of the original PlayStation, Syphon Filter was the king of covert-op action - but as the PlayStation faded away with the arrival of the PS2, so did the Syphon Filter series. Resurrection seems to be in the cards, however, as nearly three years later, the next installment arrives on the PS2 with Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain. Can it live up to its past glory? Read on to find out. Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain has all the makings of an enjoyable covert action game: a twisting plot filled with mystery and intrigue, equally engaging mission objectives, and most importantly for a game of this type, some fun and adrenaline pumping action. However, Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain seems to be built with multiplayer intentions mind, not single player.
For example, levels are absolutely huge and filled with tons of objectives. Not only is it hard to actually go out and complete the objectives, but finding your way around the levels to figure out what you have to do is also a huge pain since accessing the map doesn't pause the game, giving enemies ample opportunity to riddle you with bullets. And there are lots of enemies. Tons. Enemies constantly re-spawn in some areas, and often it's just best to run past them when you have to backtrack through the level. It seems a lot of these gameplay decisions were made to cater to the online portion, but a little more consideration into the single player experience would've helped out considerably, especially for all the gamers out there without a connection to the 'net. Online is where Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain really hits its stride though.
All of the problems that mar the single player game seem lessened in comparison during multiplayer sessions: the overly ambitious level objectives are a lot easier to tackle when there's three others by your side, the constant stream of enemies are much easier to mow down with a few buddies, and the map system makes a lot more sense. Overall, it's just a much more enjoyable experience online. It isn't exactly a graphical masterpiece howeber, but it works. It's obviously going for a realistic, gritty look, but it uses a limited color palette, giving all of the environments a drab and uninspired look. Character models, however, look nice and the character customization options available are extensive, though much of it will have to be unlocked through the course of the game. Audio-wise, Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain is pretty average.
The music isn't half bad, but the implementation of some of the voice acting wasn't done too well. One teammate, a strong and spunky female type, will constantly barrage you with comments that don't fit into the context of the situation, like telling you to hurry up when your objective isn't on the clock. Sometimes, Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain will hit the mark, providing an immensely entertaining experience. At other times however, it just seems way too ambitious for its own good, providing an equally frustrating experience. If you were a fan of the original Syphon Filter games on the PSX, then chances are you'll dig The Omega Strain in spite of its problem - just make sure your network adapter is set firmly in place before you buy it.
Think of Just Cause's setting--a 640-square-mile island--as a stuntman's paradise. And the biggest thrills will come with your legs dangling above it; parachuting and free-falling play key roles in your incursions. You'll use the 'chute to BASE jump from buildings, bail out from vehicles, and even shoot enemies while in mid-air