Image: "Just Cause"
Eidos Interactive
In "Just Cause," you play a CIA operative helping to institute a "regime change" on the fictional island of San Esperito.
By contributor
updated 10/8/2006 4:57:37 PM ET 2006-10-08T20:57:37

As with any successful idea, the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise has spawned a host of copycats trying to cash in on the kind of open-world, free-form game play "GTA III," "GTA: Vice City," and "GTA: San Andreas" made massively popular.

But since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, let's just say this isn't necessarily a bad thing. When something works and works well, others are certain to follow. The question is, are those that follow merely imitators or are they innovators as well?

"Just Cause" — from publisher Eidos Interactive and developer Avalanche Studios — is one of two new titles that take the "GTA" style and tweak it in some new and novel directions.

Ready to trade in the concrete jungles of the "GTA" cityscapes for the tree-covered jungles of an island paradise? Well then, welcome to San Esperito, my friend. Here you'll find gorgeous sandy beaches, quaint villages, scenic tree-covered mountains…oh yeah, and a revolutionary war we'd like you to incite.

Dabbling in the news of the day, "Just Cause" has gamers taking on the role of Rico Rodriguez, a CIA operative tasked with infiltrating a South American island nation where a dictator named President Mendoza has weapons of mass destruction on his mind.

Yes, "regime change" is the name of the game. Your job: Help the "pro-democracy rebels" throw off the dictator dog while staying out of the hands of the policia and staying alive.

One thing is for sure, this game is packed full of nonstop action. Here you'll be tasked with breaking rebel leaders out of jail, liberating island settlements from "the government pigs," assassinating enemies and getting in good with the colorful and nefarious factions that control the island. Story missions, side missions, bonus missions — there's no shortage of things to do while whiling away your time in the sun and sand.

But forget the missions for a moment. Go explore the island. The game world itself is massive and lush with 250,000 digital acres of jungles, beaches, mountains and cities to explore. Meanwhile, there are dozens of vehicles to take over — motorcycles, cars, airplanes, boats — and a revolution's worth of weaponry to get your hands on.

But perhaps the neatest trick this title has up its sleeve is Rico's parachute skills. Not only does the game kick off with your character skydiving onto the island, but you can pop that chute whenever you want throughout the game. Stuck on top of a mountain and need to get to a village below? Simply base jump off the nearest cliff and soar to the ground. Being pursued by cops? Take them across a bridge and fly to freedom.

This ability to soar around the island – plus some of Rico's other stunt capabilities– dials up the fun level in a big way.

On the down side, "Just Cause" feels like a game that could have used more development time. For starters, the missions feel a bit on the repetitive side and the cops are a bit too enthusiastic in their constant pursuit. And while it's a good-looking game, the physics are sometimes downright baffling. It's odd to watch your character walk right up the side of a mountain as if it had a staircase imbedded in it…not to mention watch him walk right through a rock or watch him get hit by a car, go flying and land – unscathed – on his feet.

And while the Latin-flavored music is good, the sound design certainly leaves something to be desired. Why, for example, do Rico's footsteps sometimes sound like someone knocking on a door?

Once you're done with the jungle and ready to head back to the concrete, be sure to check out "Saints Row." If you're into GTA-style sandbox play, then this is one you don't want to miss.

"Saint's Row" — available only for the Xbox 360 and brought to us by THQ — is, in many ways, a pretty straight forward imitator of "GTA." Here you play a thug in a thuggish world with all brands of thuggery being the goal of the day. But this is not a game about revolution. It's a game about evolution — as in the many small improvements made to some of the "GTA" standards. These improvements add up to make "Saints Row" a remarkably smooth game to dive into.

"Saints Row" is set in Stilwater, a sprawling, seedy city run by four gangs — the Westside Rollerz, the Carnales, Vice Kings and the 3rd Street Saints. After being initiated into the Saints, you sink into the city with the goal of earning money and respect by robbing stores, gunning down rival gang members, stealing prostitutes from their pimps and committing insurance fraud (among other nefarious deeds).

The tweaks made here are small, subtle and yet ultimately significant. For instance, in addition to some excellent voice acting and an outstanding physics system, the free-style aiming mechanism makes using your weapons pleasantly easy to do. Meanwhile, the navigation system has been made highly intuitive thanks to the incorporation of a glowing trail of dots to help you find the location you're trying to reach. And, of course, "Saints Row" deserves serious praise for including an online multiplayer option through Xbox Live.

So let's not call "Saints Row" or "Just Cause" mere copy cats. Let's just say they've done their "Grand Theft Auto" granddaddy proud.

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