Jak 3: New Hands-On Impressions
We go hands-on with a recent version of Naughty Dog's forthcoming sequel - is the old Jak magic in tact?
Sequels in the videogame industry are nothing new. What's more rare is for a company to radically alter the direction of a series, and yet that's precisely what developer Naughty Dog did with Jak 2: Renegade. While the first game was essentially a standard platformer - albeit a well-executed one - more along the lines of the company's previous Crash Bandicoot games, the second instalment darkened the tone and deepened the gameplay. If Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was Naughty Dog's Mario Sunshine, then Jak 2: Renegade was its platforming Grand Theft Auto, and despite this divergence the series was better for it.
We recently got to spend time with Jak 3, the next entry in the critically and commercially successful franchise. Fans of Jak 2 will be pleased to know that Naughty Dog has stuck to its ground this time. The build we played is an early developmental snapshot, so there are bound to be significant changes before the release of the game later this year. That said, as it currently stands, Jak 3 looks set to provide a similar experience to its predecessor.
The game begins with Haven City officials clearly upset with the aftermath of Jak's victory over Kor at the conclusion of Jak 2. A large part of the city was destroyed in the process and Jak is accused of being involved with the destruction through his relationship with floating fat man Krew. As punishment, Jak is banished to the Wasteland outside the city. Left for dead in the searing heat, Jak, Daxter and Pecker are picked up by Damus, ruler of Spargus, a city of exiles located in the Wasteland. But before they're left to explore their fate in their new home, Jak and Daxter have to prove themselves in the Arena of Death (read, go through tutorial missions). What follows these introductory stages is nothing less than a quest to save the world from destruction through yet more abuse of Dark Eco.
The general gameplay dynamics are thus far precisely the same as in Jak 2. Characters central to the story give Jak a variety of missions to complete. In addition there are several returning and new categories of items ready for the collecting. The precursor orbs are back, and their role is substantially the same as in Jak 2, providing proverbial Easter eggs to keep you canvassing the levels. The early build we spent time with only provided a small sample of the missions that will be available in the final game, but they present a good idea of the breadth that will be available.
The most obvious change in Jak 3 is the new setting. Instead of the hustle and bustle of Haven City, Spargus provides a much less technologically advanced backdrop. Sandstone houses overlap one another alongside tangled dust roads while small, dog-like creatures scamper about. Gone are the schools of hovering cars and bikes - and good riddance, I say - and in their stead are dragon-like Leaper Lizards. They don't travel as fast as the hovering vehicles, but they're easier to control.
The other new people mover is the sand-buggy. Several missions in this early demo see you racing across the sandstorm-ridden desert areas of the Wasteland. The controls are capable, allowing you to hop (very useful for getting over and around enemies and obstacles) and boost with ease. The buggies take a little getting used to, but after a few minutes in the seat you'll feel confident enough to take to the dunes.
If there's one thing that people will remember about Jak 2, it's that it was a hard nut to crack. While conspiracy theories involving a publisher/hardware manufacturer and a controller-snappingly hard game don't seem too farfetched, Naughty Dog has eased up on the difficulty. This is largely due to the current dearth of traditional, pixel-perfect platformer-style elements.
Outside of the primary tutorial missions at the onset, the remainder of the demo primarily showcases the Leaper Lizards and the sand-buggy. The former are introduced in a mission where you're tasked with catching verminous kanga-rats roaming the town, while two missions bring you up to speed with the dune-buggies: one involving a traditional race around a desert track and another where you have to retrieve artefacts from the wind-torn Wasteland. There's also a bizarrely shoehorned-in rhythm game involving timed presses of the four face buttons, which is visually reminiscent of Sega's Samba De Amigo. It strangely feels both out of place and yet completely consistent with the game world.
The basic moves are currently largely unperturbed. Jak still commands the same repertoire of attacks, including the spin, roll, uppercut, stomp and punch. Character animation looks to be identical too. Since these are still early days in the production cycle, there's a good chance that there's still work being done on this, but we'll have to wait for a later build to tell for sure.
This recycling of past code extends to the game's audio-visual presentation as well. Everything from textures and animations to character models and level design has a distinct sense of familiarity to it. There are minor additions, like particle effects in the form of little puffs of smoke kicked up as you run, but by and large Jak 3 currently looks identical to Jak 2. The demo does have portions of the aural component in place already, and mercifully the high quality of the script and voice acting has been replicated. Jak initially seems a little more cheerful, while Daxter is as wise-cracking as ever and Pecker reprises his Gilbert Gottfried-inspired role admirably.
So, you say you have Jak 2 and you want an idea of whether you should start pocketing pennies to buy the new one. At the moment, it doesn't seem that there's going to be all that much in the way of radically new features in Jak 3, so if what you're looking for is more of what you liked about Jak 2, then this will probably be the game for you. If you're looking for dramatic improvements in the graphics or substantial gameplay additions, you might be disappointed. But, there's still time left before the game's eventual release, which should give Naughty Dog the opportunity to add the spark for which the series is renowned.
Jak 3 is scheduled for release in North America in November with a European release tentatively following later in the year.
Editor, Kikizo Games
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Direct feed gameplay footage (640x480, 1Mbps)
Extensive SCEE E3 trailer (640x480, 1Mbps)
Lots of direct feed gameplay - the best footage around (640x480, 1Mbps)
Realtime story scenes - direct feed (320x240, 1088kbps)