The Basics: In Just Cause, CIA Operative Rico Rodriguez is a revolutionary agent set down on the island nation of San Esperito. As the days go by he does more than just soak up sun under the beautiful clear blue skies, because no vacation is complete without gunfire, explosions, and inciting unrest in the populace. The main quest is comprised of 21 missions, but there are reportedly about 280 more available for Rico to undertake. Everyone has a job or two for Rico to perform, and completing them earns him not only the trust of San Esperito's various political factions, but all sorts of new resources to play with.
If there's a theme in Just Cause, it's "big"! The island is roughly 250,000 acres, and at 640 acres per square mile that works out to 390.625 square miles, or close enough to a box 20 miles per side not to make a difference. In comparison, GTA: San Andreas was roughly 17 square miles, or a box about 4.12 miles per side.
More than just sheer acreage, though, Big can also be applied to the insanity of the stunts Rico performs. The usual stealing of cars and then driving them off mountains is always fun, of course, but how about cranking it up to full speed, jumping onto the roof, and popping open the ever-present parachute to fly into the air? Once up there you can then pull out the firepower to rain death from above to all who oppose you or use the grappling hook to latch onto a passing plane or helicopter. There are over 100 vehicles covering land, sea, and sky to play with, and many of them are armed for serious destructive potential.
What do we think? The recently released demo on the Live Marketplace gave me a taste of Just Cause, and it's showing a lot of promise. Grand Theft Auto clones tend to be pretty lackluster, trying too hard to be just like that series and not hard enough to use ideas in their own original way, not to mention so damn street it makes you want to bust a cap in the developers' unoriginal, me-too, wannabe ass. The gorgeous, lush tropical setting of Just Cause ignores the mean streets of [insert big city here] and instead uses the banana republic vibe to create its own identity.
As nice as identity is, the real proof will be in the gameplay. When fighting on foot, the auto-lock feature is maybe a bit too convenient, and Rico has an amazing ability to soak up endless bullets, so death doesn't look to be too much of a threat at this point. Controlling vehicles is smooth, with the usual individual physics available for different cars, boats, and aircraft, and the targeting that feels too easy on foot makes much more sense behind the wheel. As for the all-important parachute, well, that takes a bit of getting used to, especially when trying to target a specific vehicle to land on. The slightly twitchy camera doesn't help any, but that's the kind of thing that gets easier with practice.
One particularly worrying note the demo struck was in the set dressing, specifically in the island's population. There's a small town on the west side of the island, and the entire population seems to be missing. While that might, maybe, be fixed in the full game, it's still weird to stand on a rooftop with laundry drying on a nearby clothesline, looking out over buildings while nothing moves below. In contrast to this, the windmill on the hill slightly to the east had plenty of civilians, but they tend to fade into existence about a foot from Rico's face. It's a bit jarring.
Still, the action itself is looking solid, and running from a full police chase in a prototype SUV, blowing away roadblocks with the attached rocket launcher while avoiding helicopter fire is always fun. Though Just Cause won't knock GTA from the top of the sandbox gameplay heap, it's good to see a game look like it might be worthy to sit beside it. Just don't think too hard about the real-world politics of CIA involvement in Latin America and it should all turn out fine.