Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cleared For Takeoff

NOT York.
Deadly Premonition might have been fun to play and write about, but did York ever surf a plane? Thought not.

The game I spent the most time with while writing the GOTY series, mostly in an effort to maintain my sanity, was Just Cause 2. I'd borrowed it from the library over the summer and finally bought a cheap copy a month or two ago. What a fantastic piece of B-movie candy that game is.

In case you're not familiar with the premise, you star as Rico Rodriguez, secret agent of some indeterminate type, who's sent to the fictional South Pacific island of Panau to blow shit up in the name of freedom and democracy, or something. The story is unapologetically shallow. By sabotaging military equipment and government property, you earn "Chaos," which translates into new missions and money. The game's a completionist's nightmare, with a massive map featuring 368 locations to discover and destroy.

Yet it miraculously never stops being fun. Traversal, that bane of open-world games, is never monotonous, mostly because of the unique mechanic for getting around. By deploying Rico's arm-mounted grappling hook and infinite parachutes in rhythm, you're able to slingshot your way across hundreds of meters with ease. Appropriating a passing vehicle - even, say, a fighter jet - is a breeze, thanks to your trusty grappling hook and a few well-placed punches to the erstwhile driver's face. And of course, if you tire of your current vehicle, you can always grapple onto something else or bail out using one of your parachutes.

Naturally, just tooling around Panau is the big draw. It also doesn't hurt that the environments are gorgeous to look at.

There's something refreshingly endearing about Just Cause 2's approach. It's so cartoonish and over the top that pesky issues like adherence to the laws of physics or the limits of human anatomy can safely be ignored. Those, and the whole clandestine imperialist sabotage of a sovereign nation thing.

One of my favorite things to do in Just Cause 2 is hijack airplanes. Competent piloting skills aren't required when you can ditch your ride at any time. Most of the aircraft you typically encounter are military - various kinds of helicopters and fighter jets. It wasn't until probably 15 hours into the game that I realized there were commercial planes to steal as well. Presumably with full loads of passengers on board.

After a bad experience with engine trouble over the Pacific a few years back, air travel and I have not been great pals. The last thing I should be joking about is plane crashes. So it was pretty weird to hear myself addressing my terrified passengers over the imaginary PA as my onscreen avatar commandeered their aircraft. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your hijacker speaking," I crooned to the screen. Watching me, Mrs. JPG was convinced I was having either a psychological breakthrough or a psychotic break.

Fortunately, it was the former. I even managed to work up some of that banter into a little riff for Kill Screen.

Writing that goofy piece was oddly therapeutic. The worst part of fear of flying, most sufferers will tell you, is feeling a lack of control. It doesn't matter that you are far more likely to die in a car crash on your way to the airport than you are in an accident on a commercial airline, or that you'd have to fly once a day for 22,000 years to die on a flight operated by a U.S. company. Statistics lose meaning when the heart starts racing. You're still putting your life in someone else's hands.

Just Cause 2 provided a strangely welcome inversion of that fear. I could literally swing in through the cockpit window if I felt like taking the yoke. Or I could surf on top of the plane, Teen Wolf-style, while the pilot guided it to its destination. Or I could hijack the aircraft, toss out the pilot, and then surf on top. Captain Rico was in command.

Thing is, I never bothered trying to land stolen F-14s. Panau's mountainsides and rivers are littered with their carcasses. I was content to send flaming helicopters plummeting into gas stations, chuckling as the resultant fireball sent bodies flying. I've probably killed 2,500 soldiers this playthrough, some by means as exotic as "crushing with a giant stone statue head winched to an SUV."

And yet the only time I mourned the loss of virtual life was when my Aeroliner 474 missed the runway at Panau International Airport. That's one fireball I'm not proud of.

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