Just Cause 2's weapons felt weedy and its missions were mostly repetitive and forgettable. It doesn't matter. I've spent fifty hours floating across the tropical islands of Panau with an infinite supply of parachutes, watching the sun set behind snowy mountains. I've flown hot air balloons to mysterious, stormy islands, crashed airliners into the ocean just because I could, and tethered more hapless guards to speeding boats than I can remember.
I've just spent the last few days doing all those things in the Just Cause 2 Multiplayer mod, which is now downloadable via a standalone executable in Steam. Let me tell you what (but not wot) I think.
Need more context? Check out John's Wot I Think of the main game. Particularly, look at those screenshots. Every one of them is stunning even four years later.
Don't like reading? I made you a video of highlights from my play experience.
JC2MP spent a lot of last year in beta, playable only during occasional weekends when the development team would throw up a server or two to collect feedback. These weekends provided some of my favourite moments of 2013. Just Cause 2's greatest strength was in its slapstick action: tying one thing to another, punting the whole lot off a mountain, and marvelling at Avalanche's unbeatably pretty explosions. It was the kind of game to which you brought your own fun, eventually turning to the modding community to remove its limitations.
Now imagine the same slapstick chaos on a server with 800 other people. Imagine planes crashing upon planes crashing upon planes. Imagine 300 people swarming an airport, every one of them attempting to get their own plane and take off before a stray grenade, rocket, tank, or helicopter smashed into them, forcing them to burn in the sea. Imagine all of those things smashing into them simultaneously moments after they finally take off.
For much of its beta, JC2MP wasn't a game. It was a glorious spectacle. Just like everyone else, I want games with smarter writing and games that are about more than just explosions. But sometimes explosions - thousands of explosions - are still enough to make me coo.
Now that the mod is out of beta - although still in development - there's a little more game to JC2MP. These come via different modes, which can be activated and joined through in-game chat commands - /derby to take part in a destruction derby inside an enormous satellite dish, /race to speed around parts of Panau in competition.
In all the servers I've joined, these events were frequent but poorly populated. Destruction derbies aren't much fun when it's just you and a few other cars, and certainly not in a world which is effectively one giant destruction derby already. If players do try these modes at all, they learn quickly not to return.
Instead my time in JC2MP has been mostly spent making my own fun. Every server I've played on also comes with a kind of cheat mode enabled, where the game's normal 'buy menu' has had all the prices set to zero, and any vehicle can be purchased and spawned from anywhere. This has some interesting consequences.
For example, spawning causes you to appear hundreds of feet in the air. As you skydive towards the surface, you can pop up the buy menu and spawn a plane or helicopter or boat in which to fly away.
Yes, boat. It turns out Just Cause 2's boat physics work in such a way that you can propel them through the air just by pushing the throttle down. You can't steer, but by skimming the tips of mountains, or springing down and back out of the ocean, I've spent happy half hours travelling aimlessly around Panau this way.
The rest of my time was spent trying to start something with the other players. Mostly by bothering them: shooting down their helicopters, crashing my planes into their cars and so on. Death has no consequence and any vehicle I destroyed could be instantly respawned, but there was still satisfaction to be found in picking a specific person, chasing them down and hitting them with a well-timed rocket.
But it's short-term satisfaction, and it's a lot less spectacular than in those earlier beta tests.
Partly it's that the scale isn't what it once was. JC2MP's full release means that there's now hundreds of servers to choose from and players are spread across them. The most people I found on a single server was a little over 400, less than half the maximum I'd played with previously. That sounds like a lot of people when compared to most other multiplayer games, but Panau is large enough that it no longer feels crowded.
It's also that there's no longer anything in the game to draw players together in the same place. In the beta, the airport served that purpose because it was the easiest place to find planes. Now that any vehicle can be spawned instantly, people only go there - and the Mile High Club, the other major landmark - because there's nothing else to do.
There are a lot of open world games in development right now that have a loose set of systems guiding players through them. DayZ is the obvious example. It's a huge world dotted with cities and towns, but mostly populated by empty forests and barren houses. Its relative emptiness doesn't matter, because the mechanics imbue elements of that environment with meaning. You don't care that this house looks the same as the last one when this one has a screwdriver inside. Forests might be empty, but their emptiness makes them a safe haven and a hiding place from threats.
Stripped of their missions and NPCs, with no need to go anywhere to get anything, Just Cause 2's empty forests are just empty forests. The structured fun it aims to provide - those races and derbies and so on - feel like poor use for a world as big and beautiful as Panau.
I don't think JC2MP needs a bunch of survival mechanics added to it. But it's an interesting design challenge: what system of reward would maintain the frivolity and invention of Just Cause 2's madcap action, while honouring and rewarding the players who wish to invest in it? For all its merits, it feels like Avalance didn't find an answer in the singleplayer's mundane missions. The multiplayer is still too shapeless to find any meaning in the involvement of other players.
For now. The mod is still in development - technically this is only version 0.1.0, which suggests there's a lot to come - and it has a support for LUA scripting so it should be relatively easy for people to build on top of what's currently there.
In the meantime, the spectacle is still impressive, but you should be prepared to bring your own fun, and preferably some friends, to make the experience worthwhile.
Find out more about Just Cause 2 Multiplayer at its official site.