While Grand Theft Auto appears to be driving down a street marked 'realistic' and with it ditching much of the playfulness of the series, other games are stretching the 'sandbox' template. GTA has gangs, the urban thing is safe.
But while hoodies and hooligans are welcomed with open arms to Liberty City, other developers and trying new things with the open world formula. Prototype is going all Heroes on the formula, Brutal Legend is just plain weird and now Just Cause 2 adds spies and acrobatics to the army of games knocking on GTA's door.
The original Just Cause offered an original take on the open world idea, here was a tropical island free to explore. It packed in 200 side missions and a solid enough central plot, but most importantly added the freedom to take to the skies.
A unique grapple-hook-parachute gizmo enabled your hero Rico Rodriguez to cling onto passing jeeps and even planes before being whipped off into the sky. It was exhilarating. It was tremendous fun. It certainly wasn't 'real'.
Thankfully the sequel is going to be bigger, broader and crazier. There's no sign of Eidos tethering Rico to anything as boring as realism. If anything, the added zap of PS3 power behind the game has enabled developer Avalanche to push its ideas further still.
"We identified the key areas we wanted to improve for Just Cause 2. We wanted to make better use of our huge game world, enhance the stunts, improve the combat and reward exploration more." Commented Lead Designer Peter Johansson. "We feel we have been successful at that and created a true sequel."
Using the developer's new Avalanche Engine 2.0 means that many more things are possible in Just Cause 2. Firstly the old island is out, as you'd expect. In its place is the island of Panau, a tropical paradise in South East Asia ruled over by the ruthless dictator Baby Panay.
Rico's job is to infiltrate and destabilise the island and return with his former CO, Tom Sheldon, who has gone AWOL on the island and fallen in with Panay.
The story is pretty loose, though it's likely littered with a few twists to keep the writers in tequila until Just Cause 3 comes round. But it's the island and the game's structure that holds the real surprises. Sitting above the familiar jungle canopy is a range of mountains covered in snow and ripe for playing around on.
Just Cause 2 is being designed with more scope for exploration and experimentation than the past game. It's a bustling, burgeoning place that ideally will make even more use of the grapple-parachute mechanic.
No side missions
"We've ditched the concept of side-missions," says Johansson confidently. That's right, the classic structure of any sandbox game - and we're looking at you GTA - is to offer a straight story arc that's surrounded by side-missions to complete at your leisure.
Freedom is something of a myth - again GTA we're looking at you. In Just Cause 2 freedom should be more of a reality. The side-missions are out. You'll begin the game with nothing but your Cuban heels and a winning smile. Everything you get in the game will need to be earned. It's a rags-to-riches journey.
"From a design perspective, it was quite a challenge to design the new mission structure since we wanted to get that exactly right," enthuses Johansson. "We wanted to make sure that the game world is filled with things to do and gives you enough freedom to play the missions you choose and approach them in any way you want."
The idea is to create a structure that rewards the player at every opportunity, always propelling you forwards deeper into the game. The bigger game worlds become, the more astute a developer needs to be - to ensure you don't end up in a regular game with longer sections between missions.