The second game of Christmas is leaping out of the side of a skyscraper and plunging, unflinching towards the world below. It's not that it's suicidal, you understand, it's that it really doesn't think much of gravity. What could it be? Let's look behind the second window...
It's... Just Cause 2!
Jim: The original Just Cause somehow missed me. We should have been made for each other, but it just didn't work. Open world games are one of my key obsessions, and yet the original outing for the mullet-headed action man just didn't connect, and our time together fizzled out after a few tentative hours. This sequel, on the other hand, grabbed my attention with both hands, tied it to a gas cannister and then – with a precise single shot – sent it spinning haphazardly into the world beyond.
Partly it's the scale of the game: you are immediately acquainted with the vast verticality, the sense of breadth and life of the place. Mostly, however, it's the toolkit it provides: the huge scope for rocketing around the island with various vehicles means you are immediately more inclined to amuse yourself with vehicular devastation than you are in any GTA clone. The guns and vehicles and explosions just seem to cascade, and often you are surfing it out of one village into the next, with things going up in flames all around you. This, I think, is as an action game should be.
Better yet is the combination of grapple, which allows you to move like some kind of steel-cable spinning Spider-Man, and the parachute. The parachute isn't really a parachute at all. It's more like a pair of glider wings that pop out of the protagonist's back. It's impossible, makes no sense, and yet it makes perfect sense. You can hit the parachute key whenever you want, like riding on the back of a motorcycle, and suddenly be airborne. You can – and will – charge towards any cliff or building edge and leap into the space beyond, safe in the knowledge that you are, well, safe.
The other notable toy is a side-function of the grapple, which allows you to tie things together with the grapple harpoon function. Combine this with the game's easy, playful physics and you can delivered absurd and brilliant consequences. Pinning an enemy to a speeding car, pinning a car to another car, and so and so forth, until you are just laughing to yourself about the silliness of it all.
These are fine tools, but they're somehow not quite enough. (And the guns are never meaty enough, either.) Just Cause 2 is temporarily thrilling, but imperfect. The lustre fades quite rapidly. And the teething niggles meant that the route in wasn't smooth, either. I never quite got to grips with the controls, and regularly got myself into trouble by messing up one thing or another. Nor was I never really anything other than frustrated by the storyline. It was at its best by far when you were sent on Red Faction: Guerrilla style destruction missions. The game could essentially have eschewed narrative and exposition for thirty hours of this kind of carnage. There was never an action sequence where I didn't know what to do, or found myself overwhelmed, which was great, but I think more effort could have been put into creating an inventive world. And yet, worse, if Just Cause 2 falls down on anything, it was that the island really wasn't interesting or diverse enough for sustained exploro-combat. It's certainly not unbeautiful, or without its share of splendid vistas, but it is just a jungle island. All that said, I still came back to it again and again throughout the year, and that's why it had to sit on this list. It is a sweet hit, and occasionally just what you need to brighten up a silent afternoon.
Somewhere in the dying neurons of my brain is the spectre of some imagined perfect action game, and I feel like Just Cause 2 is some pale facsimile of that. That's not to damn the game, because it is an outstanding achievement – I'm just aware that there's a long way to go before this game has its work of genius. This, by contrast, is a work of high quality craftsmanship that somehow misses the mad energy and creative dash that makes the greatest games truly great.
John: Nothing this year will top the moment - the one single moment - of finding a hot-air balloon in the mountains and flying it to the top of a skyscraper. There are very many games I've preferred this year, but that moment is probably my favourite. And that's what Just Cause 2 does best: let you create moments, improvise with its ludicrous array of nonsense. That's it at its best.
At its worst, it tries to be a game. Which is just devastating for me. Every single time I posted about the game over the year before it came out I wrote a variant of, "This looks like it will be amazing, but please don't let the game get in the way." They let the game get in the way. And they did it in the most obvious, obtuse way possible. Which is infuriating. Beyond belief.
When the game was not rudely barging its pointless story or ridiculous overreaction in the way of my having fun, wow I had so much fun. It's a remarkable creation, and the mad fun of stealing a jumbo jet and flying it as high as you can, then jumping out to watch it dive into the world below as you plummet for minutes and minutes, is a proper joy. Grappling men to exploding barrels, cars to helicopters, yourself to vast disco-party airships - it's such a depth of understanding of what games can be, can let us do. Freed from idiotic ideals of "realism", we can realise impossible playgrounds. Infinite parachutes, as I've said many times before, isn't just a game feature; it's a design philosophy.
And they came so close to believing in it.
What most frustrates me - and let me stress that I'm negative because this game is so damned close to being wonderful - is that it's not the plot that ruins it. It's not boring missions coming between those that just let you blow shit up. It's that they make it idiotically difficult, far, far too quickly.
The game starts to respond to your actions with increased force so very early on that it simply stops being fun. No longer can you enjoy the huge pleasure of blowing up entire towns without being attacked from all sides by rocket-firing helicopters, tanks, and infinite infantry. If there's a way out of it, it's never a fun way. It's a struggle. And the whole game becomes about struggling.
In order to continue enjoying a game that I had been adoring, I was forced to use trainers - something I'd never done in any game before - that frankly did a far better job of balancing the game than the developers. And then it feels artificial - I was in far too much control at that point, everything began to feel artificial, and the magic was gone.
Nothing will top finding that hot-air balloon, or falling for so very, very long as a helicopter madly span out of control below me. But in the end this became despite the game's best efforts. A fantastic game, such an amazing creation, so bursting with entertainment and opportunities to play. But they let the game get in the way of it all.