I always tend to surprise myself when I consider that despite being a massive fan of the original Crash Bandicoot series, I never got into Naughty Dog’s next project on the PS2 – the Jak & Daxter series. I never noticed the games in the shops first time round, and by the time I had developed a slight interest, I had already played the Ratchet & Clank series to death, finding a new platforming hero in the process.
As has been the case of the past few years, in the post Christmas period I have been looking to catch up on a bunch of games I have missed from the past decade or so, and thus placed Jak & Daxter high on my list of priorities. After a quick triple purchase from a well known online retailer, I now have the three games of the PS2 trilogy, and have been playing them to see how they compare to the Ratchet & Clank trilogy.
JAK & DAXTER: THE PRECURSOR LEGACY (2001) – NAUGHTY DOG
The first game of the series was released early on in the PS2’s life, and playing the game now it really does show. The Precursor Legacy is another in the long list of platformers dominated by collectibles and is sometimes far too vague for its own good, but it shows a decent first effort for a new franchise.
The story goes as thus; on an un-named world, a race of long eared people live comfortable lives surrounded by eco (the life force of the planet). Two of these people are the titular heroes, Jak & Daxter, the latter of whom is involved in an pre-game accident with Dark Eco and is transformed into an Ottsel; a cross between a weasel and a otter. Sensing that evil doings might be afoot, Jak is ordered by the resident sage of his village, Samos, to go out and investigate. Along with help from the sage’s daughter Keira who is a dab hand with mechanics, the duo explore various Precursor temples and typical platform environments (snow, fire caverns etc.) to stop the Dark Eco problem. It never really evolves beyond a simple A-B quest, and the main villains are so forgettable I can’t even remember what they do during the game.
The game wears its innovative platforming as its strongest suite, and in that sense it’s really quite impressive for such an early PS2 game. The entire game is a seamless world with no loading screens (although it is very clear that some extended narrow passageways and lift rides are covering this up), meaning there is little to get in the way of jumping around and collecting stuff. The main drive of the game is to collect power cells to advance the quest, and you can collect these either out in the levels or by completing various tasks for the local folk, ranging from herding animals into a pen, racing on a hoverboard or shooting stuff with turrets. There’s enough of a variation in tasks to keep you amused, and each power cell you collect rewards you with a funny victory dance from Daxter. Each section also has a number of Precursor Eggs to collect.
It’s a pretty simple game to play as well – Jak can run, jump and duck, as well as punch and kick enemies, all within access of four buttons. It’s a bit of a disappointment to be honest, as there is nothing here that you hadn’t already seen in a Crash game. Even with this simplicity however, the game becomes needlessly frustrating at times – the camera (as you would expect from an early PS2 title) is rubbish. Combat is fiddly, and not helped by an awkward health system. Oftentimes there is little instruction about what to do, meaning you progress more through sheer dumb luck than skill. The worst part of the game by far is the hideously infrequent checkpointing system; there is no notification of when your progress has been saved in a level, and you’ll find quite often that if you fall near the end of a platforming section, you’ll have to redo a fair chunk of gameplay. It doesn’t feel quite as refined as it should be, especially compared to the first Racthet & Clank game that came a year later.
As is surprisingly the case with a lot of cartoony platformers, it hasn’t aged too badly. Sure, it’s nowhere near as refined as its sequels in looks but the colourful wide open worlds offer a nice contrast to what the series would turn into with the second game – considering the absence of loading screens, it also impressive that it runs with barely any hints of glitches. On the sound front, it’s a strange beast. Jak is mute for the course of the game, but Daxter (voiced by Max Casella of The Sopranos fame) provides plenty of wise cracks and hints along the way. It also carries on some of the faintly Australian themes of the Crash soundtracks as the composers stayed on board; Sandover Village is a worthy replacement to N Sanity Beach as the prime theme of the game.
Strangely, The Precursor Legacy has more in common with the first Crash Bandicoot game then initially meets the eye; a competent and humorous platformer showing off what the new hardware could do, but plagued by basic control problems. Naturally, one might have expected that the series would continue in a mould similar to its predecessor…but things changed for the sequel.
JAK II: RENEGADE (2003) – NAUGHTY DOG
Talk about a culture change…in narrative terms only two years separate Jak II from The Precursor Legacy, but they feel worlds apart. After going through the rift at the end of the first game, Jak & Daxter are separated from Samos and Keira, and find themselves lost in Haven City, a dystopian wreck ruled with an iron fist by Baron Praxis. Jak is taken prisoner by the local rozzers and is tortured by the Baron with Dark Eco experiments. Daxter is eventually able to locate Jak and free him; at which point he declares ‘I WILL KILL BARON PRAXIS!!!’. Yep, Jak can talk now – and he’s got a bad attitude. And a gun.
You might groan at the sudden change to a grimdark atmosphere between the first and second games (anyone familiar with the Prince Of Persia series will be all too aware of this), but it’s arguably the best thing Naughty Dog could have done. Jak II doesn’t feel like another Crash Bandicoot game – it’s the point where the series carved out a niche for itself as its own genuine identity. It’s also a massive improvement on the Precursor Legacy, if not still without niggling issues.
So, what’s new in Jak II? Well, having Jak actually speak now instantly makes him more relatable, and allows a more complex narrative which follows the heroic duo as they fight for an underground resistance against that Baron and the Metal Heads, a race of lizard like creatures looking to invade the city. You’ll encounter a far more interesting cast of characters including a shady arms dealer and a guru mystic who uses a bird called Pecker to talk for her. The improved interaction between Jak & Daxter also means it’s a much funnier and more risqué story that you tread along, with some prodding at the fourth wall for good measure.
Moving the location to Haven City is also a stroke of genius. The massive city acts as a hub area, where Jak can access a variety of missions and generally mess around by stealing people’s hovering vehicles – clearly the success of Rockstar’s open world GTA III had an effect on the gameplay tweaks by Naughty Dog. Most of the missions then take place in areas outside the city, where the usual mix of platforming and hoverboarding established in the first game comes into play. Haven City itself is also filled with checkpoint missions, requiring you to get to a certain spot with a strict time limit. It’s a lot tougher than it sounds, and finding all the Precursor Eggs that you get as rewards will take a fair amount of time. It’s actually worth it this time however, as you can unlock secrets and gameplay mods with more eggs.
And then there’s the addition of firepower – yep, in his mission to fulfil his sudden bloodlust, Jak has access to four mods for his Morph Gun during the game; the Scatter Gun (which acts like a shotgun), the Blaster (a long range rifle), the Vulcan Fury (a chain gun) and the Peace Maker (electrical balls of death). It certainly makes a difference to combat, as you can call upon the different mods at will with a press of the relevant d-pad button. Defeated enemies also drop Dark Eco, which Jak can absorb into his body. Collect enough, and you can transform into Dark Jak, a much faster and stronger physical attacker, for a limited amount of time.
These are all clearly improvements, and yet the game still suffers overall. Difficulty has been noticeably heightened, and yet the crap checkpoint system from the first game hasn’t been solved, meaning some parts of the game can leave you tearing your hair out as you repeat the same section over and over (anyone who has played this game will shudder at the mention of ‘Water Seal’). The vehicles, while offering a much needed quick route around the city, are fiddly to control, and you’ll crash into other vehicles and buildings 9 times out of 10 – incredibly annoying when attempting to do the checkpoint challenges. My main issue is the addition of shooting elements pushes the game that much closer to the Ratchet & Clank series, and in direct comparison Insomniac’s second effort wipes the floor with this one. Not only does Ratchet have a much more interesting and enjoyable set of weapons at his disposal, but he can also strafe – Jak can’t, and it really hurts in some of the later levels when you can get swamped to death trying to get the camera and controls working in tandem.
JAK 3 (2004) – NAUGHTY DOG
The final game of the trilogy was for me the most enjoyable experience overall. Following the events at the end of the second game, Jak has been branded as a criminal and is dumped in the Wasteland (a huge desert on the outskirts of Haven City) along with Daxter and Pecker, and left to die. Before meeting his demise, Jak is saved by Damas, the king of the oasis settlement Spargus City. While in the city, Jak learns of an entity hovering in the sky which is fotretold to bring destruction to the planet. The rest of the story deals with Jak as he attempts to stall the destruction of the planet, as well as aid the resistance in Haven City which has become over-run with Metal Heads. The sense of desperation is well captured, as the Krimson Guard fight openly with the enemy in the streets of the city, and the payoff at the end of the story brings a satisfying end to the trilogy. Completing all the extra challenges and races will take some time, but the actual core game is a bit shorter than Jak II, which might leave some gamers wishing for more.
What is quite immediately noticeable with Jak 3 is the scale of the game – the Wastelands are huge, and Naughty Dog very kindly give you plenty of vehicles to pilot around the desert sands in. The driving mechanics are quite pleasant, and it is little surprise that they formed the basis for the racing spin-off game Jak X. In fact, the entire game is the benefactor of some much improved control from the second game; in particular, the hoverboard is much more user friendly and a hoot to use, and by this point the camera controls were sorted out as well.
The third game also increases the firepower at Jak’s disposal – the four mods from the second game return, but now you can get a further two mods for each weapon. This means that now you can create enormous shockwave explosions with the Scatter gun, have Blaster bullets which will rebound from enemy to enemy, and get a modification for the almighty Peace Maker that vaporises everything on screen. You can also purchase further upgrades for the guns (rate of fire, increased ammo etc.) from the secrets menu by spending Precursor Eggs of which there are now over 600 to collect in races, time trials and hidden spots. At times the improved weaponry almost makes the game a bit too easy, but for the most part it remains good fun.
Finally, not just content with giving Jak more guns, the Precursor’s themselves decide to help our hero’s anger management issues by infusing him with Light Eco powers at various points though the game. These new powers allow Jak to regenerate health, slow down time and even grow wings to fly to previously inaccessible areas. Sadly, these new abilities do make the game a hell of a lot easier (the health regeneration, along with more hit points in general, certainly prevents as many deaths as before), and I found that I barely touched Jak’s Dark power’s apart from when it was necessary to continue.
Certainly, Jak 3 is the best presented game of the trilogy – despite the large environments, the game runs pretty much without a hitch, loading times are minimal, and the cut-scenes are excellent. The soundtrack doesn’t perhaps have quite the zip and energy of the first game or the moody atmosphere of the second, but it is offset by some very solid vocal performances from the cast. If you get the opportunity, listen to the extras in the character model viewers for a laugh
The Jak & Daxter trilogy is a fine collection of games – there is a clear sense of improvement across the three titles, and it proves that Naughty Dog were still top of their game when it came to pumping out high quality platformers. Ultimately though, my personal preference still weighs in favour of the Ratchet & Clank series; the shooting mechanics are simply better in Insomniac’s games, as are the crazy selection of weapons themselves. I also think the side distractions are more varied than they are in Jak & Daxter (which rely a bit too much on time trials), and I generally prefer the more humorous story and space setting.
If like myself you missed the Jak & Daxter games the first time around and you have access to a PS3, then why not check out the recent HD collection (which is also going to be released soon for the Vita) to see what you missed out on.