Lately, I've been playing plenty of Just Cause 2, by Avalanche Studios. It's been overshadowed by other open-world games this year, like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and Red Dead Redemption. But I found that in some ways, it's vastly superior to its other big-budget breathren. It may lack a mature and emotional storyline, and does not feature deep, involving game mechanics or a well-paced story. But it makes up for it in a great way: Just Cause 2 is pure fun.
It goes way back to the classic formula set in place by Grand Theft Auto III. There's a big world, with lots of inhabitants, vehicles to steal, and things to blow up. Plot was secondary to just exploring and seeing the sights, seeing how much mayhem you could cause before the police finally shut you down. However, open world games these days are much more structured and focused. They want you to follow a specific path through the story, and the world is less of a playground and more a way to immerse you into the game by convincing you it operates by the same rules as real life.
Just Cause 2 has none of that. Instead, it gives you a grappling hook and a parachute, plenty of guns and explosives, cars, planes, boats, and a simple objective: blow up as much of the island as you can. There are missions in the game, but they are secondary to the action itself. The player is encouraged to fly into a military base, rob them off their money and resources, then blow up the water tower, satellite communications, gas tanks, and assassinate the Colonel before finally succumbing to bullets. The penalty for death? You respond back at your base. You still have all the items you collected, and the things you destroyed are still gone. You might need to refill your ammunition, but other than that, you're good.
Besides the destruction, Just Cause 2 still has an ace up its sleeve that separates it from most games. When we play a game like Assassin's Creed, we expect to become immersed in its universe, so a simple glitch such as jumping to the wrong ledge can become frustrating and breaks the game flow. But Just Cause 2 is so detached from reality that such glitches just add to the humor. Cars will crash into each other even if you're only spectating, vehicles explode for no reason at all, and there are limitless ways to amuse yourself with pedestrians. Most games offer puzzles that have specific solutions. Just Cause 2 just gives you a bunch of tools and asks you to use them however you wish. When given a mission to destroy a statue and drag its head to another location, I asked myself if the head would just pop off if I attached the head to the helicopter and then just flew off. Turns out the answer is "yes".
It reminds me of Scribblenauts, in a way. No real structure or motive, just a big toolkit to mess around in. But the problem with Scribblenauts was that it relied on the player to choose his own tools to problem solve, and the result was that most players would pick a few good items and complete the game with those alone. Just Cause offers a ton of freedom to the player despite very little in the name of progression, storywise.