Just Cause 2: A Review

The worst part of open world games is that they seem huge and full of potential but then you end up doing the same shit over and over again. Just Cause 2 has you playing as Scorpio, a mercenary/special ops kind of guy working for the U.S. government to destabilize a made up fascist regime on a made up island nation called Panau by doing the same shit over and over again. The irony of the game is that to destabilize the military and get the dictator out of hiding, you not only have to partner up with the country’s three terrorist/criminal organizations, you also have to destroy the islands infrastructure.

Panau is going to have a shitty time rebuilding without its water, electricity, gas, oil, and communications. But hey, at least they will be free! The game is such a farce of North American 80’s action movies that the story and its characters is quite off-putting. Here is the evil dictator, Baby Panay or something, a copy of Team America‘s depiction of Kim Jong Il.  There is Tom Sheldon, your boss and an amalgamation of every gross and dumb American stereotype. He loves barbecue and hates commies. It is just so overplayed and bland at this point. I get that it is supposed to be satire, but does that really work in an open world?

There is potential for so much time between narrative that whatever punch the satire might have is lost. A common thread in stories in open world games, but this is especially damaging when critiquing a country’s foreign policy. There is a potential for a lot to get lost between storyline cuts cenes – depending on how much you do between them – which means that whatever message the game wants to deliver is likely to get lost.

It is also not terribly clever.

Playing Just Cause 2 for the story is like seeing a movie at the local theatre just to eat popsorn. It’s an expected part of the experience but is completely unnecessary. The optional missions from the three crime lords – the sexual communist revolutionary leader, the disease obsessed and probably dying mafia kingpin, and the stereotypical mystical native – are a bit more interesting and varied. There are escort quests, assassination quests, and sometimes you get to blow up special things. My favorite faction quest has you fly to an island set apart from the main one. In an effort not to spoil too much, the entire mission is an homage to a famous television show. While the things you need to do there do not differ from the usual, the whole mission’s scope is bigger than the rest and it is refreshing. The whole quest has a sense of purpose, cosmetic or not, that adds meaning. For the story, all you have to do is destroy stuff and once enough things have been blown up, you get the next cringe inducing cut scene.

Oh and then there are the races because every open world game needs races. Besides the car and motorcycle ones, I found these to be incredibly frustrating with a keyboard and mouse and skipped most of them. Maybe it would have been different with a controller.

The game map is so big that if you follow the main story missions, you will barely get to 30% completion. It is clear that the developers wanted to create a fun open world for your destructive whimsy and the story was added because every game needs a story. This doesn’t mean that the game isn’t fun, however. There is joy in creating spectacles of explosions or performing stunts but the game has just enough problems to really be a good game.

Your weapons, ammo, and vehicles come from the black market supplier who air drops whatever you desire at your feet. In the game, this means opening up a menu, watching a cut scene, selecting the thing you want, watching another cut scene, and then finally getting it into your inventory. If you want to order more than one thing at a time, be ready to repeat this process for each item. The cut scenes can be skipped but they still need to load and even these additional few seconds each time was enough for me to rarely use the black market except for fast travel (extraction). The planes handle strange and I found them almost un-maneuverable. When your threat level gets high enough, which happens bloody fast, the soldiers keep pouring in non-stop and if you can fend them off, the army sends in attach helicopters.

In most cases, I didn’t have the freedom to really wreak havoc on the scale I planned because I had to keep managing the threats and my quickly depleting ammo. Ironically enough, a lot of the military bases are sprawled out so the threat meter would naturally go down as I looked for the next collectible to get or destructible item to shoot up. Destroying a water tower and a gas station in a remote village would bring down hell-fire and brimstone while assaulting a military base often just sends in a few red shirts.

To 100% a settlement, you have to collect all the collectibles in the area as well as destroy all the things. Finding collectibles isn’t too difficult as Scorpio has a goodie radar so you will find most of them just by exploring the site. The destructables are also pretty easy to spot – water towers, communication towers, giant gas tanks – but there are also tiny generators and transformers that sometimes lie hidden in remote parts of the area. Hunting these down to get the last few percents can sometimes be extremely annoying. In some locations I spent 15 minutes just to find some shitty little box wedged between two buildings.

Story and setting aside, Just Cause 2 provides a lot of fun even though it runs out of gas. To get really prolonged entertainment out of it worthy of its giant map, you will need to either be super creative and love doing similar things over and over or delve into the world of mods.

As a stand-alone experience, the game offers too much with too little variety. I understand that a large map is required if you want to showcase every type of environment that has ever existed, and the game does that. You will wreak havoc in cities, deserts, snow capped mountains, jungles, rivers, swamps – almost every type of environment you can imagine. The landmark locations help add some excitement and goals to the game but at the end of the day, if you are at 35-40% completion, you have basically seen everything. Yet, the map beckons.

Maybe over here there will be something new. Did you find the bubble gun? The beached whale? Small gaffs and nods spread thin over hundreds of miles. Maybe the next mission will be different. Maybe this military base will have something new. It never does.

No wonder Scorpio looks tired and sad every time he accepts a faction mission.

Sleeping Dogs: A Review

Sleeping Dogs was sold to me as Infernal Affairs: the Game and as someone who loves Heroic Bloodshed, how could I say no?

The story of the game follows the story of Wei Shen, a Hong Kong native who has returned from living in the United States for a long time. His job is to go undercover in the Sun On Yee triad and try to bring it down from the inside. Sleeping Dogs does its best to capture the back and forth between being a gangster and a cop as seen in Hong Kong movies such as Infernal Affairs and Hard Boiled both narratively and mechanically.

There are two leveling systems that work in parallel during the main missions – triad and police. During the course of the main missions, completing violent actions and being chaotic will score you more triad points. The police points start at maximum at the beginning of the mission and decrease by crashing into property, missing actions, killing civilians, and generally being a bad cop. This dual system encouraged me to play the game more carefully and thoughtfully than I would normally have. In GTA or Saints Row, I never cared what I blew up and whose grandmother I just ran over.

I didn’t have to play this way but since in Sleeping Dogs I am playing undercover cop Wei Shen, I felt a responsibility to at least try to be a good person and act accordingly.

The missions are almost all about you getting the trust of Triad higher-ups and are comprised of gang heists, chauffeuring people, and getting wedding cakes. At first, you start with relatively light mobster activities, such as threatening shop owners and beating up rivals. It doesn’t take long for the stakes to rise and Wei rises in the ranks from an outsider who some have a suspicion of being a rat to a Triad boss. Throughout this process, he has to balance his loyalty to the police force and the triads. Making things more complicated is the police captain who is perhaps more ruthless than the Triad bosses and Jackie, Wei’s childhood friend turned wannabe gangster who soon realizes that being a triad member isn’t as glamorous as advertised.

The game consists of the standard open-world type missions. There are side quests, races, challenges and the story missions. Combat is mostly hand to hand and has you flying around the area punching and kicking people in the face while dodging and counter-attacking when fists come flying at you. True to Hong Kong, there aren’t too many guns lying around the world but when you do get your hands on them, the game turns into a sort of cover shooter. Enemies try to flank you so you still want to keep moving which makes it more dynamic than it could have been. Vaulting over obstacles turns on bullet time for those adrenaline John Woo moments.

Combat is backed by a strong story element telling a story of an undercover cop that gets too close to the triads. Cliche, perhaps, but is executed quiet well. We see Wei struggle with his role, we see him care for Jackie, and we see him be torn about who he actually is. Over the course of the game, we get glimpses into Wei’s past life and how his mission might be grounded in a desire for revenge rather than being a good cop.

Most of the characters in the game are male although there are plenty of female characters relegated to secondary roles. Most of these are found in the romances in the game which end up being just a few dates before fizzling out, usually due to Wei’s reluctance to get attached. While the game doesn’t do much for equal representation, it does attempt to throw some stereotypes back into the face of our male protagonist. One of the girls, an American named Amanda, has “yellow fever” – something more commonly attributed to white men who fetishize Asian women. Another, a karaoke hostess named Tiffany, “cheats” on Wei and when you confront her about it, she points out the double standard you are trying to enforce on her. After all, at this point in the game, you have been on dates with other women since dating her.  If gangster men can have multiple women, why can’t gangster women have multiple men? She then storms off, leaving Wei a bit stunned.

Sleeping Dogs stays true to the movies which inspired it, which were almost all overwhelmingly male. Even when John Woo tried to be more representative and include a female character in Hard Boiled, she was still relegated to an almost background characters.

It is understandable since Heroic Bloodshed movies tend to focus on male relationships and were mostly made in the 1980s and early 1990s, a time when being more inclusive wasn’t really thought about. I like that Sleeping Dogs took inspiration from these films but I also feel they could have done a lot more to make it more compelling rather than playing it safe. It is solid for what it is, but could have been so much more. This isn’t limited to the female characters. Of all the characters, Jackie’s arch is probably the best told, although even that one falls into predictable cliche territory.

As a GTA clone, it is hard not to compare it to the ever popular Rockstar Games series. I have never been that drawn to the Grand Theft Auto series. They draw too much from Scorsese’s mobster films and try too hard to be a commentary on the deprived American culture. I can get on board with mobsters and commenting on depravity, but the mix of the two in Scorsese’s mobster works has always been off-putting. I am not sure I can put my finger on it, but I think it is because he spends so much time telling us things and showing us things that a lot of his works just seem over stuffed and poorly paced. On top of that, the unnecessary cursing and being more style over substance just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Martin Scorsese won an Oscar for The Departed which is a Hollywood remake of Infernal Affairs. Like The Departed, the GTA series tries hard to be edgy and provide commentary on American culture to the point it feels gratuitous and unnecessary, padding that adds no substance or value except perhaps to shock and tittilate. In comparison, Infernal Affairs and to a lesser extent Sleeping Dogs is more subdued, more intricate and more human.

This is accomplished by putting faith in the player/viewer to deduce relationships and tension between characters without being told over and over again what is happening.

There is a third part to the story here and that is of Wei, a Hong Kong Chinese who immigrated to San Francisco and who has now returned. We can see that it is a struggle for him in how he talks (only in English) even with other characters who only speak Cantonese. He is slowly adjusting to a culture he is not completely part of anymore and he stands out. When King, a music producer, comes over to Hong Kong to do business, Wei is tasked with showing him a good time. There are a few moments in this mission where I felt uneasy because Wei is a bit complacent with King’s attitude towards Hong Kong but this might be because Wei feels more American than Hong Konger.  The contrast between Wei and the others really highlight the extent of his Americanization and his fellow Triad members treat him accordingly. Over time, he comes to call Hong Kong home again but you never see him really fit in.

Ultimately, Sleeping Dogs communicates on multiple layers to the player – what do I do as a Triad? What do I do as a cop? What do I do as a person? – without beating it into you via exposition or other nonsense. Sure, you can explode your way through the game and enjoy the playground for what you want it to be, but there are moments in the game where there is so much going on if you want to stop and reflect.

Like the scene with Tiffany described above, we can choose how to respond and in what way. Do we let her go, do we shoot her? In the missions this is represented with the level system. Do we try to minimize the impact of our gang fight on the surrounding civilians and property or is winning the mission at all costs more important? If we don’t speak Cantonese, we have to rely on subtitles for a good part of the game and even Wei, who should understand some at least, according to his back story, doesn’t seem to catch everything. This is apparent in the scenes featuring Winston’s mother who speaks no English. Wei will sometimes scoff or act surprised at Chinese customs and traditions but praying at Buddhist shrines raises your max health. (I supposed they could do more with the duality of Hong Kong and China, but I may have missed it.)

There is a subtle duality of forces in this game that exist for those who stop and pay attention because it is not shoved into your face and I appreciate that. The game does much to improve on the open-world formula laid out all those years ago by GTA. Both the story-telling, the focus, and the mechanics are tighter, better, and more engaging. Still. it could have been more.

Recommended Reading:

Kevin Wong’s What Sleeping Dogs Gets So Right About Being An Asian American




The Methodology Behind The Witness

Much has been said about The Witness’s ability to teach the player how to solve its puzzles. In designing the puzzles, Jonathan Blow worked from simple to complex, and while the game is arguably genius in how it teaches the player, the methodological … [Continue reading]

Games Can’t Portray Addiction Right

"This will be the last cigarette I ever smoke" is something I tell myself about once a week after I finish a pack. It doesn't take more than a few hours before I have a new pack sitting in front of me. --  Going out for a cigarette has become a habit … [Continue reading]

Tharsis: Gambling in Space

You barely fixed the life support module in time. The air is getting thing. Through a window, you see a never ending stream of debris floating through space. You know that the debris is coming from the ship. This is no longer a return … [Continue reading]