Just Cause (and the Cost Of Content)

It’s a thrilling opening – Rico Rodriguez, your third-person avatar, gets tossed out of an aircraft; you deploy his parachute, drift over a lush tropical island, roll-land on a beach, arm your weapons and dispatch threats. Into the back of a jeep, speeding across the island again whilst shooting down aircraft and pursuing cars. Later, you’re pushing Rico to use his grappling hook to grab a car, deploying your parachute, and paragliding behind it. Suddenly, you spy a flurry of aggressive helicopters; you shoot one down with your rocket launcher, grapple to another, kick the pilot out to land on the forest below, and speed off into the glorious sunset.

The problem is, Just Cause never re-captures the thrill of the first couple of hours of play. You acquire the grapple gun very early on, and it’s largely the last time you feel genuinely thrilled by the game – but the freedom it allows, letting you jump around the lush tropical island setting at will, is wonderful.

The story is laughably cheesey and undeveloped – and hopelessly short. It’s also occasionally too easy – in fact, the last three chapters I completed without actually knowing what I was doing. The side-missions required for Achievements can result in a bit of grinding, but it’s only thirty hours max for your full complement of 1000pts.

And, believe me, that’s a good thing. The Achievements are all very achievable, and they contribute about 50% of your playtime. I’ve no idea how long I would have played this game on the PC or PS2; it’s only the GamerScore on offer that kept me interested in the end.

And that makes me sad. Just Cause plays well enough, and it certainly looks gorgeous – the tropical setting is lush, the environmental effects stunning… just wait for dawn or dusk, they’re utterly convincing and gob-smackingly beautiful. The expanse of the San Esperito islands is wonderfully realised (especially when you learn that it’s created with a simple heightmap), but it feels… empty.

And, in a way, I can understand that – the gameplay area is massive, and to actually fill it up with content would require a metric truckload of manpower… which means money. And it worries me that a game that may have a playable lifetime of 20 hours would require so much money to produce. News that Lost Planet cost Capcom $40 million dollars exacerbates these fears; to be fair, the development budget was apparently just half that, but that’s still $20 million for the tech and content.

Kotaku also posted a story indicating that Gears Of War cost a mere $10 million to make. I’d imagine that’s pretty much devoted to the content development budget, too – I think the Gears hype machine pretty much negated the need for marketing, and one would imagine that the Unreal Engine development came from a different budget. Let’s think about that for a second: sure, Gears is a polished bit of work, but it’s hardly the most bug-free or – at about 10 hours of single-player time – the most content rich title.

And so the emptiness of Just Cause is to be expected, really – but it plays well enough, and I certainly think my AU$90 for thirty hours interactive entertainment was about par for the course. At worst, the demo is still well worth the download from Live Marketplace. But it highlighted to me the Cost Of Content – and, pessimism heightened, made me apprehensive for upcoming next-gen gaming.

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