Latin Bummer

Just Cause features acres and acres of . . . foliage.

Oct 25, 2006 at 4:00 am
Viewed from an airplane high over the islands of San Esperito, the land seems to stretch out endlessly. The sun slowly rises over the ocean, bathing the clouds in ochre and throwing stark shadows on the lush jungle below.

If only there were something worth doing down there.

Welcome to Just Cause, the latest "Go anywhere, do anything" game to try to improve on the Grand Theft Auto formula.

Just Cause delivers on its promise in a single way: scale. San Esperito has 250,000 acres for you to walk, drive, swim, or fly over. It's so big, in fact, that walking from one corner of Just Cause's map to the other would take . . . well, more time than you'd want to spend playing Just Cause.

As Rico Rodriguez, your objective is to overthrow dictator Salvador Mendoza and liberate the good people of San Esperito.

In addition to the normal skills of a videogame hero (he's a wicked shot, with a superhuman resistance to bullets), Rico distinguishes himself with Evel Knievel-style stunts. Flying along in a plane, he can jump out, hang onto the wing with one hand, jump to a passing helicopter, and then drop onto a motorcycle, which he can drive off a cliff, bailing out and parachuting onto a speedboat below. Olé!

Don't scoff: The game's flamboyant disregard for physics is its best feature. Everything else falls apart.

For all the acreage the developers stuffed into Just Cause, San Esperito really has only two types of scenery: jungle and ocean. Sadly, the jungle in Acre No. 1 looks identical to the jungle in Acre No. 250,000 (and every acre in between).

And San Esperito's size -- the game's main selling point -- is often a detriment to game play. Because of the huge distances involved, almost any mode of travel other than flight takes forever and a day. Too often you'll find yourself driving a jeep down a dirt road for far too long, miles from civilization -- and fun.

Indeed, "fun" is where Just Cause fumbles: The game doesn't have enough ideas to fill half its sprawling map. Of the 300-plus missions, there are only three or four variations -- none interesting enough to play the dozen or so times required.

Worse, many in-game tasks are shockingly bland "collection missions" that boil down to your picking up a few items within walking distance of each other. No shooting, no parachuting -- you just walk around and pick stuff up. Like Pac-Man.

The most glaring error is that the missions rarely employ Rico's stunt abilities. It'd be great to leap between planes or jump a car off a bridge and onto a yacht, but most objectives are easily accomplished by walking up to the bad guys' front doors and pulling the trigger.

Even the music -- an appropriately Latin-sounding mix of funky guitars and horns -- is undermined by the fact that it kicks in at completely random times. Make a U-turn in a pickup truck, and the music swells as if you're storming Mendoza's palace.

Overall, Just Cause feels more like a tech demo than a fully realized game. It's a nice playground, with some marvelous views and amusing stunts, but after taking in a few sunsets, you've seen everything San Esperito has to offer. Viva la ho-hum.