Games 10/11/06: Just Cause, The Fast and the Furious, Bounty Hounds

Just Cause
For: Xbox 360
From: Avalanche/Eidos
ESRB Rating: Mature

Does “Just Cause” have problems? If you’re a stickler for realism, boy does it ever. Any game that lets you scale the side of a mountain by literally running up and along it isn’t what you’d call a work of realism.

Same goes for the ability to, oh, jump off the mountain, deploy your parachute, fire a grappling hook at a passing car, paraglide behind the car, leap onto a passing plane, kick the pilot out, fly the plane, shoot down a police chopper, leap out of the plane, somehow deploy your chute again, and land at the site of your next mission while the plane crash-lands in the distance.

The preceding stunt — or several million variations of it — is entirely possible in “Cause,” which takes the open-ended gameplay of “Grand Theft Auto,” mixes in the worldly sensibilities of “Mercenaries,” and piles a huge helping of Hollywood blockbuster on top. Where games might pull off similar stunts through scripted events and other contrivances, the insanity one commits in “Cause” is entirely organic, limited only by imagination and a need to stay alive.

The explosive possibilities — and what you’ve read only scratches the surface — are made all the more impressive by “Cause’s” incredible visual and technical prowess. The fictional tropical island of San Esperito is 250,000 acres of wow, boasting expansive highways, skyscraping mountains, shanty and resort towns and a numerous bodies of water (full ocean floor included). Gorgeous lighting and weather effects deepen the immersion factor, and the almost complete lack of load times really hammers home just what developers can do with this new generation of hardware.

“Cause” is sprinkled with nagging issues that actually are problems, including some unpredictable car physics, a map that sometimes deceives you at the worst possible time, a degree of sameness to some environments and some rudimentary artificial intelligence. Fortunately, these problems rarely add up to anything debilitating, and they’re pretty small potatoes in a game that lets you do heaven knows how many things no game has ever before let you do. Suspend your disbelief, think on or off your feet, and enjoy the ride — be it by land, sea, air or all of the above.

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The Fast and the Furious
For: Playstation 2
From: GoBig!/Bandai Namco
ESRB Rating: Teen

Wow, talk about showing up a little late to the party.

“The Fast and the Furious” was a movie screaming for a game tie-in back in 2001, when street racing games were still a novelty and the film’s popularity was at its peak.

Yet here we are, three films and five years later, with the PS3 looming and street racers a dime a gross on pretty much every gaming medium down to and including mobile phones. “Furious” has arrived, but its tardiness guarantees casual observers will dismiss it as an also-ran based on a has-been. Perceptions aren’t helped by the game’s almost superficial ties to the films: The Tokyo setting from the third movie plays the part of host, but the not-quite storyline features none of the main characters and functions more as glue than anything else.

Let’s be honest, though — the only good thing about the films was the racing. And purely as a racing game, “Furious” is much better than a mere also-ran — a little too similar to its contemporaries, for sure, but no slouch in their presence and just different enough to justify its existence.

For starters, the game is fast: The sense of speed on the asphalt is terrific despite a slightly jumpy framerate, some grainy visuals and other indications of the PS2’s limited power.

More importantly, though, the cars — which are licensed and extremely customizable — handle nicely even in the lowest class. The sense of power and weight, combined with awesome drift controls and the aforementioned speed, mean you won’t have to wait until you can purchase faster cars to enjoy the game like it’s meant to be enjoyed.

The attention to control becomes especially apparent during mountain drift races, which have you peeling around a peak in a frantic tug-o-war between speed and control. “Furious” is fun on the streets, but you’ve likely been there and done that in other games. If your street racing thirst still burns and you want to try something truly different, head for the mountains ASAP.

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Bounty Hounds
For: PSP
From: XPEC/Bandai Namco
ESRB Rating: Teen

Part of being a gamer is wondering how a sprawling team of developers, publishers and game testers managed for months to overlook a problem (and solution) you’re able to spot almost immediately.

Take, for instance, “Bounty Hounds.” Here’s a game that, while never spectacular, has a lot going for it. It’s a new franchise made specially for the PSP, and the pick-up-and-go gameplay — your typical mindless hack/slash romp, albeit with a futuristic motif and shooting weapons tossed in for variety’s sake — is an ideal fit for the portable. The graphic novel-like story is pretty slick, and the action is fast, pretty and full of enemies crawling out of every nook.

“Hounds” allows you to use either the directional pad or the analog stick — but not both — to control your character. It would stand to reason, then, that if you use the D-pad to move your guy, the stick would be used to control the camera and vice versa.

Unfortunately, while games have been doing just that for some 10 years now, “Hounds” does not. In fact, beyond being able to center the camera behind your character or on a targeted enemy, you have no control whatsoever over the camera. This is no trivial matter with enemies surrounding you almost constantly, and the problem is compounded by a fidgety auto-targeting system and the fact that the default camera angle almost always is inadequate in the first place. You’ll spend as much time running in circles to fight this problem as you will fighting actual enemies.

It’s about as fun in practice as it sounds on paper, and XPEC’s inability to map even bare-bones camera controls to either the D-pad or the stick is a pretty staggering oversight given all the things it does right. Those with great patience can probably get around it, but only someone desperate for a game of this ilk should even make the attempt.