The road to release for Just Cause 2 has been long and winding. Not extreme for this industry by any measures, but I thought I'd give a brief tour of my experiences of the title from the moment I first heard of a possible sequel until now.
The first I heard about a Just Cause sequel was actually way back when I first saw Just Cause at developer Avalanche Studios. Its hard to put an exact date on it in retrospect, but most probably sometime late 2004 or early 2005. The plan was to finish the game and produce a sequel on the same engine. However, development on the original took longer than expected and it actually wound being ported onto Xbox 360 as well as PC, Playstation 2 and Xbox on release in September 2006. The market for last generation block busters had been incinerated much faster than anticipated. I had already been shown a sample of the next Avalanche Engine (2.0) at this point. A tech demo featuring a breathtaking Swedish forest, very similar to what you get in Avalanche's free-to-play hunting game - The Hunter. The new engine is the centre piece in Just Cause 2, capable of creating the same vast areas, while giving Avalanche more options in terms of vegetation, terrain, and mission structure.
Mission structure. That brings us to the original. Not a poor game by any standards, but a game that felt distinctively "last gen" when I played it on my Xbox 360. The technology held up surprisingly well, despite being a bread and butter HD-port with a few extras thrown in for good measure, but the game design was not were it needed to be. Most notably the side missions and the liberation of villages felt like a chore long before I had reached the half way point. I quit on the game about three quarters in. There were other issues too, of course, as there always are in sandbox games. The difficulty level was erratic at times and there was the occassional bug. The shooting and on ground controls were average and required little in terms of finesse. That said I enjoyed most of my time with Just Cause and it was one a very select few games where helicopters and jet planes actually made sense. That is saying something about the size of the game world.
Fast forward to early 2008 and Just Cause 2 is officially announced. Once again I'm at the Avalanche offices. The official word from the publisher Eidos is that Just Cause 2 willl arrive later in the year. Here is a hint: It didn't. At that point it didn't look anywhere near ready enough. But the differences compared to the first game were still obvious.
Developers are often the harshest critics of their own games. They can also be the fiercest defenders. Avalanche Studios definitely fall into the former category. They were aware of all the mistakes made in Just Cause, and during the presentation the changes made were revealed.
First of all San Esperito had been left behind. The lush jungle island had already been set free by Rico and the new island nation of Panau allowed the developer to use their new technology to create a more varied game world, with deserts, icy mountain tops, and an overall more varied vegetation. The story missions, although fairly good in the original had also been fleshed out and the system of liberating villages was thrown out altogether and regions are now won through creating "Chaos", basically killing people and destroying building to destabilise.
The demo back in January 2008 looked chaotic to say the least and the code was not fully co-operating with the developers. As I recall there was a bit of magically self-destructing buildings. Fun to watch, but evidence that there was still a lot of work to be done. The last major area of improvement was obviously controls. Rico is still Rico, gunslinging agent who likes his women hot, his cars lightning fast, and his missions dangerous and covert. Oh well. Back to the controls that have been spiced up with the addition of a stunt style parachute and dual grappling hook (always at his wrist). The stunt maneuvers Rico can pull in Just Cause 2 are hard to explain. But as the grappling hooks now attach to all surfaces he can sling his way forward Spider-Man style, he hook up and a helicopter to jeep and watch them crash... Its just pure mayhem. In the best possible sense of the word.
Rico likes to go in dark, and Just Cause 2 went dark for more than twelve months. It actually sent an e-mail to Christofer Sundberg (studio head) asking whether the game had been cancelled or something (fall 2008). But I was assured it was still coming along nicely a release in 2009 was on the cards. Fast forward to February 2009. Another visit to Avalanche, but let me tell you a bit of the game's story before we dive into that. After the original game Rico Rodriguez left the agency. He had the time of his life, women, booze, you name it. But the agency needed him for one last mission. His former handler Tom Sheldon (a likeable bastard who spent most of his time on the different beaches of San Esperito in the first game) had gone rogue in Panau with a shit load of agency cash. Rico's mission was simple - go in a get Tom Sheldon back - at any cost.
That takes us to the mission shown in February. We were thrown deeper into the game (if I recall correctly it was the fourth story mission) and now we are taking orders from none other than Tom Sheldon. When asked about this it became apparent that this twist, though not surprisingly was something Avalanche didn't really want to reveal, however the mission was chosen as it gave a good look at some of the new environments. Oh well, double crossing double agents duping other double crossing double agents is all part of the game and perhaps we will get to kill Tom Sheldon in the end anyway? Probably not, but its a remote possibility anyway. The mission saw Rico take on a mountain base before giving chase on a icy lake to save another agent who had been held in captivity by the ruthless ruler of Panau - Baby Panau (think of a North Korean leader with a crazy hair do). The mission gave a good example of how over-the-top the action in the game truly is, as you are racing across the icey mountain lake a submarine popops up through the ice sheet and Rico jumped from car to car using his grappling hooks to reach the kidnapped agent before she was taken away in the submarine. Now you may think it odd to find a submarine in an ice-covered lake a few thousand feet above sea level. Well, apparently there was some kind of tunnel in the mountain side, but I'm not going into the engineering specifics of that one.
While the game had come a long way, since the first time I saw it there were still some rough edges apparent. And it was not until I saw it for a third time that I came away with the feeling that this could be a sleeper hit in the making. While E3 may be a wonderful place it is also unforgiving, and if you don't bring something a little extra your game will be lost in the crowd. This is especially true for the crowded action genre. But Just Cause 2 held its own and the presentation focused on two things - the versatility of the combat and how this will work inside a mission. Of course, size is a thing Avalanche will always have on their side thanks to their technology, but I think noone is impressed by numbers like 32 times 32 kilometres these days.
It is what happens inside those square kilometres that counts and this is where Avalanche have raised the bar. The game really allows for some creative solutions when it comes to getting rid off enemies, and wreaking havoc. It simply looks like a ton of fun. While a lot of the missions in the original felt like a chore, Avalanche have taken one simple truth to heart in the sequel - blowing shit up is fun! And so is using a grappling hook to jump from chopper to chopper or using the same grappling hook to jerk enemies down from guard towers. I haven't even mentioned any proper weapons or the one hundred vehicles... then again a game shouldn't be about numbers or size, just about the amount of fun you can have with it and it looks like this is exactly what Just Cause 2 is all about.