Review by Kevin Rynn
"A platform game by any other name is STILL a platform game."
Jak II is developer Naughty Dog's sequel to its ground-breaking platform game Jak and Daxter. In Jak and Daxter, Naughty Dog created (what is to date) the most sophisticated game engine on PS2. With no load times, an endless horizon and game world, realistic physics modeling, and absolutely gorgeous artwork and graphics, it would be hard for Jak II to fall below the grade technically. On a technical level, Jak II succeeds admirably. Arguably, Jak II is the best looking game on PS2 at the year ending 2003. But beauty (in the case of Jak II) is only skin deep. What rests beneath the surface is an entirely different matter and one that brings Jak II down many notches from gaming bliss. Ultimately, what is most important is that Jak II isn't fun to play. Featuring a level of difficulty that can only be labeled ''cruel and sadistic'', Jak II misses its target market (children and teens) by a long shot. And if you think kids won't like the difficulty, you can bet adults won't be too enamored either.
For the record, let me state my bias right from the start. I hate platform games. No. Let me say that again. I despise platform games. Why? Because the platform genre relies on tired, reaction-based gameplay that typically punishes gamers for even the smallest mistake. Jak II claimed to be different. It claimed to bring the platform genre to a new level by incorporating adventure elements, open-ended game design, and a mission structure similar to Grand Theft Auto 3. Indeed, Jak II does do all these things. However, at its core, Jak II is still a platform game. In every situation where Naughty Dog could have replaced typical platform gameplay with new ideas, the developer takes the low road and gives us re-hashed platform jumping. Jump on disappearing platforms? Check. Avoid rocks falling overhead? Check. Grab a health pack only to have it taken away seconds later? Check. Make a small mistake and be forcibly restarted at the beginning of a level? Check. Jak II has all this ''goodness'' and more. If this is your thing, then Jak II is the game for you, but for me, these types of mechanics were (thankfully) outdated years ago.
Jak II's story picks up where the last game left off. At the outset, Jak is captured by Baron Praxis who tortures and experiments on him with magic dark eco. Two years later Jak escapes and joins the rebel alliance in an attempt to overthrow Praxis. It is here that the story proper begins. As you discover new missions, Jak II fills in new parts of the story (through cut-scenes) and adds new characters. The cut-scenes are well acted and well voiced, but the dialog and character development are entirely asinine. The story does hang together, but only by a thread. There are no compelling characters or deep, emotional relationships. Likewise, there are many instances where the story is so vague that you will find yourself asking ''why am I fetching <insert required fetch-quest item> again?'' The story definitely plays backseat to the game which is odd because Jak II was supposed to be the other way around. Jak II promised to be a game driven by its story. There is enough story to hold platform gaming segments together, but little else.
What most bothers me is that the story includes content for adults that is not suitable for children. Characters get drunk and make sexual remarks. There is swearing (albeit, very little). There is lot's of sexual innuendo. And finally, there are a few instances where the camera focuses on various female characters' breasts in order to get a laugh (or a *rise*, you take your pick). I just don't get this. If the story was aimed at adults this would make sense, but as it is, Jak II is a Disney film on steroids. As with the gameplay, Naughty Dog seems to have totally missed the mark in the story telling department. With content too silly for adults yet too salacious for children, Jak II gets a failing grade story-wise.
I've said most of what needs to be said about Jak II's graphics in the overview. In short, Jak II is one of the best looking games on the PS2. The Jak II engine presents a glorious word full of reflections, lighting, particle effects, sunlight, water, and movement. The world is absolutely huge (even bigger than Jak and Daxter) and features no loading between levels and a limitless horizon. Character designs are incredibly detailed and well animated. Buildings, walkways, signs, and other architecture feature creative textures and lighting that make them come alive. While the world is impressive, the various enemies you face almost steal the show. With glowing eyes, tongues that lash out, and many unique magical and electrical attacks, the monsters of Jak II are a visual treat. Every new area features new monsters and when you return to previous areas, the monsters change. Naughty Dog gets a big thumbs up for its creature design.
A few small things mar an otherwise superb graphical presentation. The frame rate is consistent and very playable, but if you pan the camera in any direction, you'll see the screen stutter for a bit. This happens any time you pan the camera. While we are on the subject of the camera, the camera in Jak II is a beast that is hard to tame. While not as bad as the worst cameras I've experienced, Jak II's camera causes much frustration. When you pan the camera in third person view, the camera locks up on any objects it comes into contact with. Thus, there are many instances when the camera will not let you see the enemies and objects you are fighting. In close quarters (such as a hallway or archway), the camera completely locks up and will not allow you to turn it in any direction. (Note, these are not scripted camera moments.) Oddly enough, when you put the camera into first person view, all the lock-ups go away. Thus, when you get into a tough situation and the camera refuses to move, you must put the camera into first person view, reposition it, and then go back to third person view. If you've got time to do this, this is fine. In other circumstances (such as when an enemy is attacking that you can't see) it will mean your death.
There is no question that Jak II is a stunning graphical accomplishment for Naughty Dog and for the PS2. I've subtracted one mark from perfection because of the stutter while panning, but mostly because of the camera lock-ups. If you buy Jak II expecting a graphical treat, you're in luck. Jak II delivers luscious graphical delights in spades. (Oh, and for the purists out there, yes, Jak II includes progressive scan and wide screen support.)
Sound is another area where Jak II excels. Featuring both stereo and Dolby Pro Logic II with dialog in six different languages, it is hard not to be amazed at what Naughty Dog has crammed onto a single DVD. Character voices are superb and extremely well acted. The only fly in the ointment is Daxter (who unfortunately, by design, is incredibly annoying). Just as George Lucas made a critical mistake with the Jar Jar Binks character, many (including myself) would like to see Daxter tarred, feathered, and then agonizingly tortured until death. (Yes... Daxter is *that* annoying).
Whatever spacializer and crisping effects Naughty Dog has used, the environmental sounds are incredibly detailed even on small television speakers. There is a noticeable improvement in clarity and dynamic range over the original Jak and Daxter. Each enemy has their own unique sounds and this is superbly incorporated into the gameplay. There are lot's of places where Jak II uses sound to alert you to the presence of enemies before you can see them (such as when bug-like/alien-like monsters leap out of the ground). Dungeons and sewers also use sound very effectively with clanging and surprise noises that really keep you on your toes. The guns in Jak II deserve special mention. Although there are few, each gun goes off with a perfect boom and recoil. When you pull the trigger, you really like feel you've got power in your hands.
The only place where the audio fails is in the music tracks. Like Jak 1, Jak II's compilation of music tracks is instantly forgettable. The music tracks are not bad, but there is really nothing good about them either. Jak II could have used a bigger, grander symphonic score to highlight the many chase scenes in the game. To be fair, there are a few places where the sound track hints at a grander theme, but it just isn't enough to quash the memory of the tiki elevator music that fills the rest of the game. Why no character themes? Why not use silence more effectively? Why not have an actual symphony orchestra create music for the game (instead of using synthesizer/sampler libraries we've all heard dozens of times)? This is a perfect example of how Jak II tries to be bigger than its britches, but ultimately takes the low road. In a game with a dictator, secret police forces, rebels, oppression, car chases, and dynamic, open-ended events, symphonic music could really have set the stage, but instead Naughty Dog gives us a traditional platform game score.
Up to now (excepting the overview), I've had a lot of good things to say about Jak II. Gameplay, however, is where Jak II falls on its face and where (ultimately) the entire game fails.
Picture this for a moment. A tyrannical dictator rules over a huge world. A secret police force keeps citizens under strict surveillance and punishes wrongdoers by shooting them on sight. While this is going on, a small group of rebels attempts to dethrone the dictator by performing various acts of treason without getting caught. You join the rebels to further their cause.
Now picture this. You jump, jump, jump from platform to platform. Oops. You miss a jump (or get pushed/dropped off a ledge by a hidden gameplay device) and are punished by having to restart the level from the beginning. Repeat. Or conversely... You race through town on hover car trying to beat carefully calculated time limit. You make one mistake (such as missing a turn or bumping a wall) and are punished by having to restart the level from the beginning. Repeat. This is Jak II in a nutshell. And the question that begs asking is: ''How many times are you going to be punished in Jak II?'' Many times my son. Many, many times.
I have nothing against games that try to bring different genres together, but there is something hugely wrong with Jak II. Jak II wants to be Grand Theft Auto 3. It wants this so badly that it has copied nearly every structural aspect of Grand Theft Auto 3. The problem is that when it comes to gameplay, Jak II substitutes traditional platform mechanics and then cranks the difficulty level so as to make each mission bone-grindingly tough. Is this fun? No way. Is this emotionally involving. Nope. Is this going to convince platform fans (or non-platform fans) that Jak II is a game they should play? I hope not.
Jak II uses a mission structure and map system copied directly from Grand Theft Auto 3. When I first experienced this in GTA3, I said to myself ''hey, the game is kind of cool, but with no in-mission saves, it feels a bit like a cheap platform game (i.e. make a mistake and get sent back to the beginning of the level).'' Well, now this structure is in a platform game and you know what... this is exactly what it is - a platform game with cheap game-inflicted deaths followed by restarting levels at infinitum. Jak II tries to be different, but in the end, the game continuously falls back to traditional, outdated platforming mechanics. No matter how you dress it up, a platform game is still a platform game and while Jak II tries very hard to disguise this, it ultimately fails.
Jak II's biggest failure is that it just isn't fun to play. Soon after the beginning of the game, Naughty Dog cranks up the difficulty to an insane level. From about the third mission on, every mission is designed so that you are going to fail many times before completion. You must complete mission objectives with near perfect execution. If you miss a turn, miss-time an enemies' attack, or make even the smallest mistake, you're toast. Add to this the fact that there are almost *no* checkpoints within missions and you have a game that punishes players at every turn. Every small mistake starts you at the beginning of the mission again. Jak II would be more fun (and much less frustrating) if it provided a save anywhere feature. Likewise, providing checkpoints between each difficult section of a mission would have made the missions much more fun. (Note, don't be fooled by the Save option in Jak II's menu. This option only saves your progress up to the beginning of a mission.)
When you first enter its game world, Jak II gives you a sprawling city alive with people, flashing signs, police officers, and cars to steal. The world is so large that it is hard to fathom. After you've played for a while, you'll realize that the world is nothing more than a hub to missions that contain:
Rocks dropping on your head
Timed spikes rising from the ground
Checkpoints (or lack of checkpoints)
If you're thinking ''Gee... this sounds like a platform game from about fifteen years ago'' you'd be right. And just as some of the story content is questionable for children, some of the gameplay is as well. For example, the game forces you to kill innocent citizens by driving over them with your hover car. Do I really want my child playing a game like this? This kind of gameplay was inappropriate in GTA3 and it is no more appropriate in Jak II. (Yes, GTA3's beating of prostitutes is left out, but beating, shooting, and driving over innocent people is key part of Jak II's hub world.)
Jak II's hub world causes a problem that I'm sure it is not meant to. Because the hub is so big (it can take upwards of five minutes to get from one end to the other) and because the streets are full of citizens and police officers, it is very difficult to get from one place to the other. After many hours of playing, I just wanted to get to my destination rather than fighting through the hub world. And fight you will. If you accidentally knock a citizen or police officer, the game goes into chase mode and every foot patrol and hover car officer comes after you. These chases become very monotonous because every time you need to go somewhere you're going to experience them. The streets are so full of people and cars it is impossible not to bump (or run over) someone while maneuvering through.
Jak II is at its best when it abandons all its GTA3 mechanics and attempts to be its own game. Some of the shooting missions truly bring you into the game and feel more like Halo than a platform game. The enemy AI is very good and consequently you have to use a lot of skill to take out the harder enemies. If you go in ''guns a blasting'', you'll be dead in no time. However, a save anywhere feature and the ability to manage your weapons and skills more effectively would have vastly improved this part of the game. Just as an example, Jak has a ''Dark Jak'' mode whereby if he collects enough dark eco (dark magic) he can enter an almost invincible mode and take out many enemies simultaneously. The problem is, once activated, the Dark Jak mode uses all the dark eco you've collected - you cannot turn the mode off to conserve dark eco. Thus, Jak II takes the low road (once again). The Dark Jak feature (while undeniably cool) feels more like a platform game power-up than an actual weapon to be used strategically.
I don't understand why any gamer would want to play a game that punishes you at every turn. Games should be fun. Jak II is not fun folks. Do not try this at home. Because of the extreme difficulty level and the rate at which the difficulty ramps up, I give Jak II the highest/hardest score possible. Jak II is a poorly balanced game that misses its target audience by miles. My eleven year old daughter gave up playing Jak II after only a few minutes - the game was just way too hard for her.
Replay Value: 0/10
I'd never want to replay Jak II and I can't because after many hours of torment, I snapped the disk in half out of frustration (yes... that's how sadistically hard Jak II is.). I'm not kidding. My thumbs were bruised raw by this game and my controller barely made it out alive. (I guess Microsoft, when they put ports in the front of the Xbox controller, didn't realize that gamers throw their controllers when they get frustrated.) Parents be warned. Jak II might look like a game for kids, but it is definitely not for children.
Buy or Rent?
What it comes down to is this:
Jak II's graphics and sound?
A big thumbs up.
Jak II's story and gameplay?
A huge, enormous thumbs down.
If a GTA3-like game with tough platform missions substituted for GTA3's gangster-style missions sounds appealing to you, you'll love Jak II. For all others, I'd say you should stay far away from this game. Likewise, if you hate replaying levels over and over hundreds of times until you get them exactly right, this is not the game for you.
Jak II could have been so much more, but it isn't. In the end, the game is just another poorly balanced, frustratingly difficult platform title, not the genre bender it wants to be. This is another example that proves all the fancy graphics in the world can't save a game if the fundamental gameplay is deeply flawed.
Reviewer's Score: 3/10 | Originally Posted: 10/27/03
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