Previews

Just Cause

A sun kissed mix of Far Cry and Mercenaries, promises bullets, babes and covert action!

What does a developer in Stockholm do during an 80-day snowstorm? When it's minus 12C outside and bicycles don't need locks to keep them chained to a fence (the ice does that job perfectly well, thank you very much), what does a fledgling games company do as it goes about building its first, highly ambitious Xbox title? Like anything surrounded by howling winds and car-swallowing snowdrifts, it dreams of being on its own island in the Caribbean. Then, it constructs two sprawling cities, several dozen towns, a hundred or so villages, and places them on a series of vast interlinked islands that are half the size of Jamaica.

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Boasting somewhere in the region of eight million trees (we're proudly told during the presentation) and a web-like network of roads, airports, plantations and coves, the islands you roam in Just Cause are huge - truly immense, in fact, and certainly the largest gaming area we've ever seen on Xbox. Yes, that goes for San Andreas too, but more about the obvious comparisons later.

Creating 1,225 square miles of playing area isn't bad for a company which started out with just three employees. "We didn't even have desks when we first formed Avalanche", says founder and creative director Christofer Sundberg. But since Eidos saw exactly what Just Cause was shaping up to be, Avalanche has gone from strength to strength, and now here we are, watching our hero Rico Rodriguez freefall through the clouds towards an island so vast it stretches out beyond the horizon... "We were impressed when we heard Far Cry had a 2km draw distance", Sundberg tells us later. "But it's okay. Ours is 32."

The story behind Just Cause is one of rebellion and skulduggery. Rico is a CIA operative, sent to San Esperito to destabilize the incumbent dictator Salvador Mendoza and his two sons (both of whom, we're told, have a liking for torture and men's fashion - there's humour in that there code, it ain't all politics). To do so, he has to free a jailed rebel general and stir up all manner of revolutionary feeling among the locals, but be savvy enough to keep both dictator and general on-side at both times (after all, you don't want one dictator to fall and another to rise up in his place).

This means alternately handling drugs then destroying them, or killing off government agents only to pin the blame on the rebels. It's a fine line you'll be walking, always having to check your Faction meter on the right of the screen to see how sweet you're keeping everyone. Fall out of grace and you can redress the balance by taking on a mission for them. And you've got to do all this double-dealing while swaggering around like some sharp-shooting James Bond-esque desperado. A 007-style score even kicks in once the action starts.

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In fact, there are several influences at work behind Just Cause, and despite appearances, the major one isn't Grand Theft Auto. "We wanted to create a more action-orientated experience than GTA," Sundberg smiles. "We're not interested in dressing Rico up or anything else that will detract from the action. We've focused a lot on putting in a lot of explosions and a great story - that is our main goal."

When we suggest some people will see a lot of LucasArts' Mercenaries in Just Cause, Sundberg merely shrugs. "To be honest, I haven't played it enough to draw comparisons." It's not unfair to notice the parallels, though, especially when Just Cause involves playing factions off against each other, and even ordering in special government vehicle drops when you get bored of slogging around on foot. But let's face it, what's more attractive; causing chaos in the Caribbean, or pottering around some North Korean demilitarised zone?

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