Several years ago, I saw a production of Romeo and Juliet by an acting company called Shakespeare on the Cape. While sitting around waiting for the play to start, I was looking through the program, and I noticed that the “about” section made special mention of the company’s tradition of “gender-blind casting”. As it turned out, Juliet was being played by a black man (there were some other changes–I think Mercutio was female–but this was obviously the most striking one). This alone wasn’t particularly surprising; the idea of changing major aspects of a Shakespeare play is hardly unusual. What struck me as odd was the relative innocuousness of the presentation. Other than the supposedly gender-blind casting, the play as presented was about as straightforward as could be; the staging was a bit stripped-down, as one might expect from a smaller company, and the costumes were relatively modernized, but the meat of the play itself–the plot and the actual nature of the characters being presented–was unchanged. What we saw, then, was a pretty standard presentation of the traditional version Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet simply happened to look like a skinny black guy in a tank top.
One of the company’s artistic directors said that “I find the idea of being really free with casting as both a way of getting in touch with the original way Shakespeare did the plays, with an all-male cast, and also getting in touch with […] the different views on gender and sexuality.” Honestly, though, the production did neither of these things to any noticeable degree–the first part rings rather false, as a woman was cast in the role of a character (Mercutio) who was written male, so even if that was the effect being sought it wasn’t being sought particularly well. The second part rings even falser, as other than the somewhat-spectacular decision to cast a traditionally (white) feminine role so contrastingly, the production was played relatively straight. Just to be clear on this: the fact that “Juliet” was a black man was not acknowledged in any noticeable way in the play itself. There are any number of things the company could’ve done; even having the characters simply acknowledge the fact that Juliet was now male would’ve more directly connected the production to “the different views on gender and sexuality” (albeit rather lazily). But they did nothing of the sort.
It felt like a lazy gimmick–“Hey, look at us, we cast a black guy as Juliet, aren’t we daring and/or cerebral?” Worse, it felt like a wasted gimmick, a gimmick used to gain attention but employed to no worthwhile effect. The concept at work, presenting Romeo and Juliet with a nontraditional couple at its center, is reasonably fertile (though not particularly original) ground for examining any number of social issues. But here, it was employed to no effect.
What I’m getting at here is that this production was an example of a gimmick gone disappointingly wrong. So why have I just spent THREE PARAGRAPHS talking about some play? Because Just Cause 2 is built around a gimmick gone absolutely, deliciously right.
Much of the game is built around the two rather unique tools used by its protagonist Rico Rodriguez: a grappling hook, and a parachute.
Well, actually, no, not really “a parachute”–an unlimited supply of parachutes, launchable from the same backpack, at essentially any given time. The grappling hook, too, is infinitely relaunchable.
Together, these two tools allow the player unbelievable freedom-of-movement. Tired of your car? Leap onto the roof, target another car, grapple over to it, and swing in. See a helicopter you want? Grapple up to it, pull out the pilot, and you’re on your way. Your helicopter shot out of the air? Pop a parachute, grapple to whatever shot you down, and take it. Sick of walking across a city? Fling yourself ridiculously from rooftop to rooftop, or just launch yourself into the sky and float to your destination. Want to get to the top of a building? Grapple onto the side, aim the reticle higher up, and Rico kicks off the building and shoots upward.
If you get the technique down, you can travel across the (expansive, beautiful) countryside solely by parachute, grappling ahead of yourself to generate momentum. You can launch yourself up sheer cliff faces, if you so desire–the game is, characteristically, prepared for you to do just that, and there’s even a trophy for doing it well enough.
That’s not all: the grappling hook is double-ended–you can tether pretty much anything, or anyone, to pretty much anything, or anyone, else. The possiblities are as near endless as makes no difference. The game plays fast and loose with the strictest interpretation of physics, as far as the grappling hook is concerned, but this works entirely to the player’s benefit (in perhaps the most absurd example, a freefalling player can aim the grappling hook at THE GROUND and safely reel himself in, momentum be damned).
The grapple/parachute combination is a perfectly-realized toy–and I say toy because it is a delight to simply play with. It’s the centerpiece of a design philosophy that makes Just Cause 2 what Tom Francis called “the ultimate screw-around game”. It fully satisfies Tim Rogers’s dictum, laid out in his review of Portal, that “every video game produced should […] contain at least one fantastical item that the player wishes he could have in real life”. Spend enough time building-grappling, and a noticeable Tetris effect is produced–walking around campus, I’ve found myself looking up at tall buildings like this one and mentally evaluating how I’d grapple up it. It’s really a fantastic mechanic.
Just Cause 2 has other toys, too. With a little bit of work you unlock the ability to have any of the game’s weapons and a nice selection of the game’s vehicles delivered to you on command, basically anywhere you are (this has the unfortunate side effect of forcing you to watch at least the first second of two brief cutscenes (before and after you make your selection) involving the obnoxiously-voiced character who delivers the items to you). It makes simply exploring the gameworld that much more pleasant–wrecking a car in the middle of nowhere in, say, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas almost immediately becomes distressingly tiresome, as you hoof it slowly across the landscape; in Just Cause 2, however, you can simply call in a boat or a helicopter or whatever and be on your way.
That’s as good a segue as any to the subject of the nonsensically huge gameworld. The islands of Panau and their environs, in addition to being somewhat enigmatically climatically varied (it’s almost prototypically Video-Game in nature; the islands are practically divided into Mountain World, Jungle World, Desert World, Urban World, and the like, though unless you stop to think about it it’s hard to notice, since the various areas are connected logically and flow together beautifully), are very well-stocked with Things To Do. The fact that said things are rather repetitive in nature (and sometimes downright obsessive–there are literally hundreds of collectable stat-increase items and hundreds of other, unrelated, collection-quest-related items scattered across the land) is at least partly counteracted by the fact that they’re often fun.
The goals the game supplies are, by and large, in keeping with the freewheeling spirit inspired by its unorthodox mechanics. One of the faction missions sees the player assault a rocket launch site only to chase down the rocket in a stolen plane to prevent a satellite from being launched; the game’s final storyline mission ends with the player leaping back and forth between several nuclear missiles in an attempt to “disarm” them in midair. The game is often blatantly over-the-top, but the player is never given to expect “realism”, so departures therefrom don’t feel particularly awkward or forced.
You’ll notice that I haven’t said much about the game’s narrative, or its characters. They don’t matter. No, seriously. They really don’t matter. Pay attention, if you want; skip the cutscenes and make something up, if you want. For better or for worse, Just Cause 2‘s “story” is pretty much “Action Movie: The Video Game”; the characters’ motivations are generally exactly what you’d expect them to be. Honestly, though, “Action Movie: The Video Game” is preferable to “Action Movie: The Action Movie”, and it rarely if ever sinks to the level of “Action Cutscene: So Cool You Wish You Were Playing A Video Game, And Then You Realize You Ostensibly Are, And Become Sad”. When Cool Things are happening, you’re blessedly in control.
Really, that’s Just Cause 2 in a nutshell: you are put in control of Cool Things Happening, and are given oodles of freedom to make Cool Things Happen by yourself. Its biggest weaknesses appear when it commits the minor sin of imposing structure on such a freeform playground of a world. The downside of creating such a delightful toy is, as Tom Francis says, that nothing in it feels truly important. Quoth Francis: “I’m interested in the physical result of my tinkering, but I already know the real result: nothing. Nothing can ever happen. They can’t give me anything significant, because they know I’d tie it to a ski lift until it split in two. Missions can make a helicopter the objective, but that doesn’t make it important – it just bolts on an arbitrary failure state. Missions provide a sort of ‘serving suggestion’ for the mayhem, but they don’t spice it up.” The many military installations to be assaulted at the player’s will, the dozens of missions available to take on–they’re all essentially scaffolding, jumping-off points to vary and set up the Cool Things that the player can do. The unfortunate flip-side to the design of the world is that it can’t be real enough for the player’s actions to really feel “real”. The story-related framework of the game all has what Tim Rogers might call a sort of metaphysical “swish”–all that you’re doing looks really cool, but when the only non-immediate result you actually see is a meter labeled “CHAOS” increasing, the Cool Things are robbed of meaning.
That all said, though…it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just Cause 2 may not be the 100% Perfect Game, but it is an absolute blast. The Cool Things at the heart of Just Cause 2 are totally, stunningly, cooler-than-being-cool-ice-cold, and you the player are at the heart of each one. Just Cause 2 is perhaps the apotheosis of the “sandbox game”: a big, beautiful arena in which you get to play with some really fun toys.