Following up on what has been an absolute cornucopia of quality AAA titles early in the year of 2010, Square Enix did not want to be left out of the party. As such, the publisher released not one but two major games in the month of March. They're both 100+ hour games, and for the most part are both firmly ensconced in the "quality AAA title" column.
The first was the long-awaited international release of Final Fantasy XIII. The game is a mix of traditional Final Fantasy fare, plus changes that will have and have had mixed reactions. It's a gorgeous game, combat is fun (once you get far enough to actually use some of the strategy available), and the presentation is the grandest of any Final Fantasy yet. Falling into tradition in the "bad" column, there's about a 4 hour introductory section with about 30 minutes of gameplay, and that only actually introduces about 20% of the gameplay, with the other 80% then thrust on you in one go.
Where does FFXIII differ from prior games in the series? Well there's no real experience points, to start. There's a grid of abilities (Ice, Fira, etc) and stats (like Magic +10 and Strength +5) that is similar to the sphere grid found in Final Fantasy X. Points earned from battles get manually placed along the grid to unlock the different spots. Only limited sections of this grid are open to the player at any given time, however, and it's relatively easy to simply max out each section of your grid in each section of gameplay. It keeps things moving around, but will not make grinders very happy.
That leads us to the other major change, and that's the extremely linear world and gameplay. Gone are towns and worlds to explore, instead giving levels that fit more in a platform game than in an RPG.
Tons of customization to characters and items alike is great, but tempered by a difficult gathering of necessary points and parts to do the customization, especially in the first 30 or so hours of the game. This isn't a game for players looking for a weekend game, it's one for folks wanting the long haul. There are some goofy stereotypes, ridiculous plot points, and enough confusingly similar-sounding made up words to make even the most devoted player pull out a few hairs, but hey, it's Final Fantasy. And that's what it comes down to. With any other name on the box and title screen of this game, few would get past that first 4 hours; but with the trust gamers have in Square Enix's lead franchise, this game gets the time it needs to turn into something fun and special. It winds up as another game that, while not necessarily winning any awards, gives players another solid RPG to play at a time when stellar RPGs are coming out with a higher frequency than ever.
On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum comes Just Cause 2. This game became a Square Enix property after their purchase of Eidos Interactive, the originally announced publisher. Again, this is a game that you'll need to play for more than 100 hours to see everything, but it's in a completely different way.
Just Cause 2 is incredibly non-linear. The open world can be explored from the start, and is simply huge. There are literally over 360 unique locations to visit, each with their own items to collect and objects to explode. While some wind up being similar, they are each truly unique and it just plain never gets old.
The explosions, the stunts, the use of the lead character's arm-attached grapple, the ridiculous selection of vehicles… it's difficult to extoll the virtues of this game without simply saying "SO COOL!"
What's really amazing and refreshing is how much is available to gamers from the start. You can find every weapon and every vehicle simply by exploring. You can easily go 20, 30 hours without playing a single real mission, and have an absolute blast. The missions themselves offer even bigger, more over-the-top explosions, stunts (try grappling a trailing vehicle to a bridge and sit back and enjoy), and a plot that while a bit silly, does its job: it gets you to the next place you need to go to make something else go boom. This is the ultimate playable action movie. You can even record your big stunts and send them to youtube to show off your skills to the world, right inside the game.
So here we have two very different games, from one publisher, released in the same month, and both requiring huge investments in time. What to do? Well, RPG and especially Final Fantasy faithful simply must play FFXIII. It's not a masterpiece, and won't touch your imagination the way some earlier games in the series did, but it's still a fun experience that has enough FF to keep fans involved. If you like a good casual experience where a few simple button presses can make amazing things happen, that's where Just Cause 2 comes in. It's a game that you can sit down and just play for 20 minutes, but be warned that if that's your plan, two hours will have passed before you know it.
Fans of both styles of games? Well, settle into your couch, and pray for rain so you don't feel quite so guilty about sitting in front of your TV so much this spring.