Jak II: Renegade
Naughty Dog promised some of the slickest platforming action ever. Now that Jak and Daxter's sequel is here, we tell you if it's true...
Action / Platform
Forgive my opening on a negative note. I'm going to begin by saying that I found the original Jak and Daxter shallow and unexciting; for a platformer it was really weak on actual platforming or areas requiring any brainpower. I remember encountering just the one puzzle in the entire game and only one true platforming level, the last one. Other than that, I'd say it was an anticlimax of mediocre action hiding behind slick production values. The announcement of Jak 2 didn't exactly stir my loins. But things did start to look promising since its playable debut earlier this year.
After hearing Jason Rubin's courageously blunt criticisms of Jak 1 and other honest comments from the man in interviews my interest piqued, and I was led to believe that Jak 2 would be a major reworking of the franchise into something far superior to Jak 1. In the time leading up to Jak 2's completion, Rubin revealed how Jak 2 was going to use ideas from Grand Theft Auto's freeform gameplay and how, soon after work on Jak 2 kicked off, ND hired the gameplay designer from the better episodes of Sonic the Hedgehog.
These are both great things. Freeform gameplay in platform/action games for one, will add something fresh to the genre, and the imaginative, unpredictable level designs of Sonic designer Yasuhara-san can only improve on the arguably 'vanilla' gameplay within The Precursor Legacy.
Furtunately for Naughty Dog, both these factors have successfully worked in Jak 2's favour.
Bad thing however, that you have to play through an hour or two of Jak 1 style mediocrity before the game opens up to reveal its true brilliance.
When Jak 2 shows the fruits of Hirokazu Yasuhara's assimilation into Naughty Dog, it's a wonderful thing. The levels now gain a more organic and free atmosphere and dare I say 'character'. Challenges are less frustrating, more fun, and variety becomes the backbone supporting it all. Unfortunately however, this standard of great level design stays exclusively within the game's main levels and ranges from dire to above average at best, when taking on missions in the outdoor city map.
Which brings me to the GTA influence. Similarities to the Rockstar classic lie only in the following: the game 'hub' is a large city, you can steal vehicles, there are challenges played within the actual cityscape and there are a range of different sub-games available that offer a twist on regularly encountered game mechanics.
Here's the gameplay in very large nutshell; you move Jak through a very large, bustling and highly impressive city. At certain points you'll find challenge pods and doorways to levels. Some levels are largely platform-orientated, some revolve around shooting and others range from racing to hoverboarding, or a combination of several.
You can steal the jetcars that fly by and drive them to your destination, or simply walk / hoverboard everywhere, which takes more time and can be unexciting. The challenge pods give you very short and optional missions within the city, that involve you either speeding through a number of spawning checkpoints, or simply finding an item within a time limit. You're usually rewarded with Precursor Eggs, which are now rare and reward you by unlocking secrets and bonuses like cut-scene players, big head mode and a simple but ultra-cool mirror mode that flips the entire game.
The city itself is nothing short of staggering. Truly, I have not seen a slicker, livelier city in any game, ever (for those who wish to write in and mention Freedom Fighters' cityscape, save your breath as I've yet to play it). GTA's city is great in its own respects, but the amount of hustle and bustle and colourful décor makes Rockstar's Vice City look like a quiet Welsh village in comparison to Jak 2's sprawling Manhattan of a city.
Another major plus is the well-executed inclusion of the hoverboard. With a click of R2 you open the door to a range of satisfying stunts and flips made famous by Tony Hawk. You even get an excellently designed and fully decked out skatepark to practice in; possibly my favourite moment in the entire game, though I wish they only made it easier to return to upon leaving via some sort of warp gate, as it's such a chore to get to. Other favourite moments in the game include the ability to control tiny Daxter in a number of Crash inspired set-pieces, the cube-unwrapping pool-crossing puzzle, the better platforming levels, the gun turret sections, the jet-bike races and the highly unforgiving gun course, once you master the at-times annoying camera.
Another element Mr Rubin evangelised was how he'd like to make games more emotive by improving characterisation in games. Some of you will know that games like the Final Fantasy series have succeeded at doing this in their cinematic sections - particularly the scene where Aerith is killed in Final Fantasy seven. Unfortunately, Jak 2's characters are far too cliché and juvenile to stimulate any emotional attachment - at least from me.
Maybe kids will warm to Hollywood Ghetto stylings of Sig or the Jabba-like Krew, but I found them and the script rather uninspired and forgettable. Jak himself is particularly one-dimensional, borrowing much of his 'personality' from tacky Saturday morning angst-filled teen superhero cartoons.
The excellent voice acting manages to lend the weak dialogue some weight, but as far as emotive characterisation is concerned, I'd say that only young Daxter and Kira showed any vague range of believable emotion and thus were the few to feel even remotely alive. In this instance, I feel Naughty Dog has failed and maybe they could look to the JK Rowling method of character creation by fleshing out back-stories for each character to draw inspiration from for future Jak scripts.
The lack of radar in the main levels and in action-heavy areas, the imperfect camera, lack of an overhead view or tilt, impractical placement of some of the respawn points, having to start all the way back from the beginning of a big level when you die, the 'bug' where walking into a stationary enemy vehicle will count you as run over and dead. All hideous things, and frequently frustrating.
In fact, you'll find that the levels that annoy the most are those where the challenge is tough, the time to complete is long, the ability to die is easy and the punishment... to start again from the beginning. What's worse is that these levels are numerous and often mandatory to complete. They're also mostly frequent in the city-based missions.
A classic moment exposing these horrors in their combined glory is the legendary 'destroy five Hellcats' task. This concoction of evil will drive you into fits of bleeding rage until you solve and execute the solution. Till that time comes, you will tear out all your body hair, destroy everything in your room, break several televisions and curse all manner of dark intent to your surrounding loved ones.
The first two hours aside this is an excellent game, only marred by a number of minor flaws and a few intolerable ones. A major issue that lets this down, is how you can't choose what order to do things in, or whether you can ignore them completely. In a game with the same gameplay type throughout, this is often not a problem provided fresh ideas are injected regularly, but when you have to learn and master a new game-type, like say... racing, it can be somewhat annoying, as you might actually not really like the racing, but be more enthralled by the platforming and have to put up with trying, trying and eventually crying until you finish that one level. It is here, where the lessons from GTA really could've helped the most. GTA had freedom of choice, and while Jak 2 creates an illusion of free choice, it soon becomes apparent things are as linear as in the original Jak.
What makes this worse is that most of these levels are immensely unforgiving, with one mistake often costing you the whole challenge and a restart from the beginning - even the long ones. This can be very off-putting and also immensely frustrating to the point where anger can taint what could've been a superb experience, if only a few checkpoints were included.
And that brings me back to Jason Rubin's goal to emote players. Throughout playing the game, I felt elation, excitement, satisfaction, happiness - and then in quick bouts, frustration, anger, loss and intense rage. A full spectrum of emotions and it had nothing to do with the characters, but more the pain given unto me by but a few careless mistakes. So in a way, Jason Rubin did achieve his goal... but possibly not the way he planned.
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Jak 2: Renegade (480x356)
This spectacular PS2 sequel features some Disney-quality voice acting and design - see it here.
Jak 2: Renegade (320x240)
As above, lower resolution.
Jason Rubin Video Interview
The full video interview, with game clips.
The Making of Jak II: Interview and New Footage