Just Cause 2 is a free roaming action adventure set on the island nation of Panau, where larger than life agent Rico Rodriguez is on a mission to bring in his former handler and friend who has gone rogue. It's the sequel to 2006's Just Cause and the third game to come out of Avalanche Studios. After getting to try a couple of missions of the game I had the chance to talk to the producer Daniel Willför about the development, the changes made since the original, and conditions for an independent developer such as Avalanche Studios these days.
How would you describe the journey with Just Cause 2?
We started working on it almost immediately after Just Cause. And the original plan was to continue working on that and make a sequel.
With the same engine?
Yes. With the same engine, but we realised quickly that it wouldn't be good enough and we wanted to take this further. We decided to redo pretty much everything, all the systems are new and obviously all the content, but that was always the plan anyway. New AI, new physics, the interface, and its made with the new consoles in mind.
Just Cause was originally an Xbox and PS2 game, or rather only an Xbox title from the start. Then we decided to make a PS2 version fairly early on in production. Which limited us somewhat, and then we ported the game to Xbox 360. This time it's made for the new consoles from the start.
Last generation ended kind of quickly, once the Xbox 360 was launched...
Exactly. And we had to make an adjustment. But now we were given the opportunity to work directly on the new platforms, or the ones that were new back then.
What were the ideas and ambitions that governed the work on the new engine?
There were two main trains of thought. One thing was to improve everything that was cool about Just Cause, but that we were unable to take all the way at the time, slingshots, grappling hook, parachute, and all the animations. We had a very limited budget (for animations) in Just Cause. That's one thing, but we also wanted to deal with the things we were criticised for in the first game. Among other things the physics, and the handling of the cars and vehicles were things we wanted nail in the sequel. And once again the animations were something we received criticism on, that they were stiff and this is something we have taken care of. There were also some that criticised the AI.
How do you deal with the AI. After all, you want the enemies to be a bit stupid so you are able to make use of your grappling hook and have a bit of fun...
Absolutely. The key is to find a good balance. We don't want them to appear super stupid, but we want to create windows of opportunity to use your grappling hook. One way we do this is that we have a pretty good aim help system when it comes to hitting the enemies with the grappling hook, it helps out more than when you're shooting. And once you have hit an enemy with your grappling hook, then he gets distracted, stands still and tries to free themselves. This grants you an opportunity to shoot something else with your grappling hook.
In this manner we have tried to make the enemies appear smart and still allow the player some freedom to play around with them.
One difference I noticed between the original Just Cause and Just Cause 2, was that the learning curve was much steeper. That there is more to learn...
This is obviously true. This is mostly due to the fact that there is so much more you can do in Just Cause 2 compared to Just Cause. This has been a real challenge. First of all to have a good learning curve. And to make everyone realise all the cool and fun things you can do. It is an action game, and you can play it such, run around and gun down the enemies. So it has been a challenge to make new players understand and take advantage of the things that are possible.
We have worked very hard with the first few missions in order to educate and teach players what they can do. And once you have learned this you don't want to stop using it.
It is easy to think "I need to be on the ground in order to do this", but in Just Cause this is not always the best plan of attack...
Absolutely not. We encourage the player to move around and get airborne as it gets harder for the enemies to hit you and it makes you life easier. Plus you gain a tactical advantage.
Something else I noticed while playing was the vehicle physics and how differently the cars behaved off-road. In the first game most cars had similar handling and physics.
Yes. We have put a lot of effort and love into creating different vehicle classes that handle differently according to terrain. We have vehicles that handle very well and are really fast and fun to drive on tarmac, but they don't react well to off-road conditions where they are too low and it gets bumpy. They loose their grip and so on.
And then we have vehicles that handle themselves really well in rough terrain. For example the military jeep you tried in the mission you played.
Yeah, I hardly noticed any difference between driving on the road and taking it off-road.
No. But it is actually better off-road. The same goes for boats, there are different types. Some may have better handling while others may be faster.
With a game such as Just Cause 2 you can play for countless hours. The first game was fairly linear and you basically had to do everything (free settlements to gain region control), and you got a bit criticised over this. You've replaced this with you Chaos system. How come?
You really didn't have to do everything.
But in order to open up new missions you had to liberate specifics regions by capturing settlements...
But you didn't have to do the side missions...
Exactly. There are certain things you have to do in this game too. There are agency missions you are given by your handler, and these are the mission that carry the story forward. There are seven of these and you have to do them. In total there are 60-65 missions to play. There are a lot of faction missions and some of these you have to do. There are less than 10 stronghold missions, similar to the liberations in Just Cause, you don't have to do them all, but you have to do them in order to unlock a region. And when you do this said faction gains influence in the region, and this in turn unlocks more faction missions.
Moving away from the specifics of the game. Is it necessary for an independent developer these day to have a franchise and work on sequels in order to survive?
I believe it depends on the current climate. Today, I have the feeling that a lot of publisher are careful and hesitant to create new IP's. This makes it important to have a franchise obviously. But its also a lot of fun to develop and get a chance to improve in order to achieve perfection. To continue to work on something. I don't think it's a necessity, but almost.
It's something to fall back on...
Yes, exactly. It's hard without it.
But you have always regarded Just Cause as a franchise, I recall Christofer (Sundberg, founder and CEO of Avalanche Studios) talking about a sequel when I first the original game for the very first time (2004). Has the plan ever changed along the way aside from the technical side?
No. We have actually been pretty firm ever since the start of the project. We knew what we wanted to do and we got very good feedback from journalists on what was good and not so good. So we knew what we had to work with and we also did a lot of testing in external focus groups. Plus all the ideas we had ourselves. Early on we knew what we wanted to do, and what we wanted to prioritise. There of course a million things you can do and you have to sort out what is best.
Just Cause 2 has been in the works for a very long time. I got to see it almost two years ago. Why has it taken so long and how come you've been given this much time?
(laughs) First of all, it goes back to the fact that the project has grown. The basic concept has remained the same, but details have been added so the project has grown. We came to stage where we were unhappy with the production values. We simply needed more time in order to improve this make it feel like a top class production. This was also something that came from the publisher Eidos, they wanted to raise the quality, it comes back to it being a franchise as well, they wanted it to be as good and detailed as possible. We didn't want any part or detailed to be worse than competing titles. For example the vehicles, they can't have worse handling or physics compared to similar titles. And then, of course, there are elements where we need to be the best, no one else should come close to what we are doing.
This was something we were allowed to do and they (Eidos) wanted to have real quality titles as well, and Batman: Arkham Asylum is a brilliant example of this. A game that has garnered glowing reviews and sold very well. And we want to do the same thing with Just Cause 2.
Has the upcoming Just Cause film had any impact on the development?
It hasn't affected the development in any way. But it's just one further example of how Eidos wants to build a lasting franchise.