Rico Rodriguez, a skilled agent in the CIA (er, 'Agency'), is called in to investigate the situation in Panau, a nation spreading across several islands in the Malay Archipelago. The former, US-friendly president has been murdered and his son has taken over, cutting ties with the US. Rodriguez's mission is to link up with three different rebel groups on the island and cause chaos to unseat the ruler, whilst investigating another rogue agent, with the aim of removing the dictator and installing a new, US-friendly government.
There is an argument that games can be a truly transformative and liberating artform, a way of transmitting ideas and narratives and developing characters in ways that traditional film and literature cannot hope to match. There is also an argument that, whilst that is true, games should also seek new ways of including as many ludicrous explosions and insane stunts as possible whilst allowing the player to go mental with an Uzi whilst dangling from a helicopter. Just Cause 2 is the ultimate exploration of the latter idea.
The setting is the island-nation of Panau, which stretches across a massive 400 square kilometres. For the record, that's thirty times the size of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and twenty-five times the size of Skyrim. It's an absolutely massive environment taking in frozen, snow-blown mountains, burning deserts and lush, tropical jungle, as well as the skyscraper-strewn metropolis of Panau City. Playing as Rico, you can use ground vehicles ranging from tuk-tuks to armoured personnel carriers (via sports cars, bikes and fire engines) as well as a variety of helicopters, boats, jet fighters and airliners. An arsenal of weaponry is available including submachine guns, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, grenades, explosives and Magnum-like hand cannons. Rico has a grappling hook which he can use to grab lifts on passing aircraft or cars (and then hijack them), or ascend to the roofs of buildings quickly. He can also use it as a weapon, pulling enemies off high ledges or - most entertainingly - attaching them to passing vehicles or exploding gas canisters.
The game has a central storyline which is worthwhile enough, with a few good gags and a few satirical jabs aimed at American foreign policy, but it's mainly worth playing for the missions, which tend to be more epic and inventive than most of the game. The bulk of the game is spent playing missions for each of the three rebel factions, helping them expand their territory over larger portions of the maps. The faction missions are enjoyable, but tend to be brief and rather easy. Disappointingly, they also don't overlap. In fact, bizarrely, each of the three factions seems completely unaware of the existence of the others, even when their territory meets. The faction missions also just peter out in the end, with no big pay-off or final mission for each faction, which feels like a bit of missed opportunity.
Where the game's true appeal lies is in its enormous open world. The game scores everything by how much chaos you cause. The more chaos you cause, the more missions, weapons and vehicles you unlock and more unstable the regime becomes. You cause chaos by completing missions but also destroying government property, such as petrol stations, oil depots and military bases. Sufficiently impressive explosions also add to your chaos score. In short, whilst going absolutely ballistically nuts in, say, a GTA game is a fun diversion, in Just Cause 2 it's part of the core game design. To get to 100% game completion, you need to pretty much destroy every single bit of government property on the map (which, given the map's overwhelming size, will take weeks, if not months) and pick up every single upgrade (since there's literally thousands of them, this will also take a while). To make this more achievable, the game breaks the completion score down by location and settlement, with each settlement having it's own sub-score so you know if you have to do more stuff there or can move on.
This is the the core of Just Cause 2's appeal: going crazy and blowing everything up is built into the game design rather than being left as an optional extra, and makes the game more entertaining. Everything else, even the missions, are designed around this idea (so whilst doing a story mission in an enemy base, you may wish to simultaneously level the place and get all the upgrades to put it towards your overall score). This is useful as the main storyline, whilst amusing, is rather brief if you tear right through it.
Visually, the game looks astonishing, even three years after release. The draw distances are staggering, the views of the islands are incredible either by day or night (and at night the sight of the lights of villages on the sides of mountains a dozen miles away is particularly evocative) and the attention to detail is mind-blowing. Each island is packed with towns, villages, remote homesteads, ruined temples and other features of interest. You could play this game for months and still never see all there is to see. It's bigger than many MMORPG worlds (Panau is five times the size of the entire planet in World of WarCraft, for example).
Unfortunately, where Just Cause 2 does break down is repetition. The game world is enormous, but there is a limit on what you can do. In fact, whilst the game world is far vaster than any GTA game, you're still limited to blowing things up, doing story missions or taking part in races. GTA4's attempts to give you more stuff to do through bowling, mini-games etc may have been fairly naff, but at least it was an attempt to give the player more activities to pursue in its open world (something GTA5 sounds like it will improve on further). It's unlikely that many players will get to 100% completion in Just Cause 2 because to do so would involve attacking dozens and dozens of near-identical military bases, exploring dozens and dozens of near-identical towns and villages and base-jumping around lots of very similar skyscrapers in the city, whilst having to painstakingly explore every nook and cranny to make sure you haven't missed a hidden upgrade crate. The game world is vast, huge and overwhelmingly impressive, but it will eventually get a little stale. This will vary by player, and for me it didn't happen until almost 35 hours in the game and 40% completion (accomplished by completing every faction and storyline mission, destroying almost twenty military bases and generally causing lots of random havoc). Certainly there is more than enough game here for your money, enhanced further on the PC version by both the more lush visuals and the impressive multiplayer mode (added by modders).
Just Cause 2 (****) is a big, dumb and amusing game set in possibly the greatest environment ever created for a game. Some might wish for a stronger narrative, or more variance in the missions and locations, but as an open-world sandbox designed for having fun, Just Cause 2 is now the game to beat. It is available now in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3) and USA (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3).