Just Cause 2 is an exhilarating and chaotic sandbox action game: you play a secret agent whose main skills are the ability to grapple two objects together with a magical wristbow and spawn an infinity of parachutes.
The game's set on the island of Panau, a place of disasters and pinwheeling hilarity where a single, seemingly insignificant mistake can have ludicrous and explosive consequences. The whole thing's glorious and exhausting and ultimately perhaps a little bit hollow. Over the last few weeks, I've been told that the recent fan-made multiplayer mod -- standard Just Cause 2 is resolutely single-player -- is even more extreme in all these aspects. I had to see it for myself.
And I had to bring a friend along, too. Everyone else I know who's ventured into this strange and glitchy multiplayer landscape has emerged with the same three things to say for their experiences:
1. For a multiplayer game, you sure spend a lot of time alone. Since the mod went live and everybody and their brother can now bring a server along, most online versions of Panau have just a few dozen players. Spread across a vast open world like this, that means you may not see many of them on a single visit.
2. When you do see somebody, they'll immediately spawn a helicopter gunship or a rocket launcher and blow you to pieces.
3. Boats can fly here, probably due to a physics bug but possibly because it's quite amusing.
Anyway, armed with all that knowledge, I set off at 11am on a Tuesday morning, bound for multiplayer Panau. I was hoping to quickly meet up with my friend Porkface -- Eurogamer's features editor Martin Robinson -- and spend a pleasant half hour seeing the sights, grappling through forests and jungles and skyscraper canyons, and occasionally stopping to spawn a dinghy and scud into the sunset.
It didn't quite turn out that way.
"Where to meet?" asks Porkface when I first drop into the mod. I can't reply immediately because I hadn't expected to drop in quite so literally. You spawn in the multiplayer mod in the middle of the sky, and I'm so busy trying to get the server's welcome text off the screen that I forget to pull my parachute ripcord. Within seconds, I break every bone in my body. I am ruptured.
Let's call that a false start, eh? The next time I spawn, I open my 'chute and then start to gather my bearings. In the chat channel, a lot of people are talking about the airport (they're also talking about each others' mothers, incidentally) and that sounds like a good place to meet up.
There are about 200 people in the server we've joined, and they're all at the airport. What's more, they're all blowing each other to pieces. As I drop down out of the sky over the terminal, I see fire engines colliding with tuk-tuks, helicopters strafing attack jets, and boats -- so many boats! -- sailing through the clouds and ripping over treetops. Porkface will love this! I think to myself. Then I get a message from him. He's been killed twice already since he arrived. He wants to meet somewhere quieter -- like maybe the demolition derby.
Ah, the derby! Each server has a series of activities players can take part in if they want -- such as races and these violent arena events. The thing is, though, the whole game's already so wild and untamed that most people tend to ignore the managed content, which means that you'll generally be derbying with shadows or racing against yourself. Regardless of what I've heard, though, I drop into the derby -- and there's Porkface in the distance! Hello Porkface! Oh, he's been hit by a bus.
This is getting ridiculous. For the next few minutes, we teleport around, catching fleeting glimpses of one another as we plummet to the ground with crunching impacts or get shot to pieces by fighter jets that scream down out of the sun while we're trying to remember how to reload. Everywhere we go, there's a kind of howling emptiness for a few seconds, and then just enough people turn up to ensure a quick and bruising death.
What it reminds me of is this: when I was young and my friends would come around at the weekend so we could play with our action figures, there was a pretty huge gulf between our plans and our reality. We'd plan for narrative -- for epic, multi-episode mysteries with character arcs and sudden twists and last-minute rescues from the brink. Ultimately, though, we'd gather all our toys in the living room and have a massive dust-up. Chaos had an irresistible allure -- chaos emerging from freedom -- and that's Just Cause 2 in a nutshell, too. It's madness. It's the Heart of Darkness. It's bewildering and upsetting and I love it.
Eventually, I find what I'm looking for, incidentally. Not a calm spot on Panau -- despite the smallish headcount, there don't appear to be any of those -- but the menu for spawning vehicles. This is another bonus of the mod, of course, although many have argued that the whole thing was better when you couldn't spawn a vehicle from nothing and you had to wander around actually looking for them first.
Porkface and I teleport over to Lost -- a location with a huge concrete Bond-Villain installation rising out of the jungle canopy. By the time I arrive, Porkface is being bothered by a man with a machinegun -- I think his name's grozzzny or something - and he's got Porkface racing around looking for cover.
I spawn a helicopter, picking one at random. Luckily, it has machineguns of its own. I move in on Porkface's position, firing blindly in the hope that grozzzny takes the hint. Porkface certainly does at any rate, grappling onto the underside of the chopper and off we go, off into the wild blue yonder!
Um, grozzzny's grappled on too. I'm basically carting an enormous charm bracelet through the skies, and at least one of the charms is shooting at me. "Well, we had 30 seconds of glory!" says Porkface as I bail out and the chopper explodes in a fireball. Yes, I think to myself as I spawn a boat and boost across the clouds towards the horizon. Then grozzzny drops in from nowhere, produces a toy gun, and, as he fires, the sky is suddenly filled with shimmering soap bubbles.