Review by King Kool

"Not the genre-changing blockbuster we were hoping for..."

One of the most anticipated sequels of this generation of consoles, Jak II may have been destined to disappoint at least me. Its prequel holds a very important space in my heart, as the game that introduced me to FAQwriting. It remains one of my favorite games of all time, with its purified platforming mechanics expertly displayed with crisp, almost Warner-Bros-style animation. It was a masterpiece that I feel perfectly demonstrated the talent of Naughty Dog, and the wisdom in their decision to leave the stagnating Crash license for greener pastures.

Of course, not all gamers were satisfied with the purified platformer. Many gamers consider the 3D-platformer dead, or at least done to death. For every Super Mario and Ape Escape, there were Donkey Kong 64’s, Glovers, Tonic Troubles, and Vexxes. It seemed to be a genre in a deep rut. Collect this, collect that, beat this boss, yawn. So, Naughty Dog said, “All right. Let’s take the platformer in a new direction. Let’s step away from the kiddie stuff and make something kinda dark” And I commend their bravery; two roads diverged in the woods and they took the road less traveled, yadda yadda yadda.

Graphics and Sound – 10

Astounding. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the first game. The game takes place in the dystopian Haven City, a massive city that never loads. When the rigors of the map require a loading, it is furtively obscured with an airlock or elevator, a la Metroid Prime. The city has slums, marketplaces, downtown, a marina and gardens. The sections are not merged too neatly, but they are beautifully rendered and designed.

Filling the city is a throng of pedestrians and vicious Krimson guards under a cloud of hovercars and hoverbikes. While the cars and guards don’t vary very much, the pedestrians come in all shapes and sizes, with a cornucopia of body shapes, hair and clothing styles. Small voiceboxes located throughout the city barks the anthem of the leader of the city, Baron Praxis, neatly finishing the Orwellian feel to the city. The engine has also been crafted so expertly that you can have several cars and dozens of people walking (or running from you) with no slowdown; it’s a site to behold.

The character design has altered slightly to suit the darker tone of the game, but remains very strong. Jak is a few inches taller, and a few years angrier after being tortured relentlessly with Dark Eco. It is not long into the story until we are reunited with the quick-talking Daxter. He remains to carry the dialogue, but Jak is no longer contented to stay silent. Still, Daxter is the one making all the jokes, and that’s what’s important.

Jak is looking for revenge against the notorious Baron Praxis, who certainly seems evil, but whose true intentions cannot be immediately determined. You also meet Sig, a warrior ornamenting his armor with the dead skulls of the beasts he spends his life fighting. He works for the gruesomely fat Krew, a shady bar owner who is only mobile because of his personal hoverchair, which he has no problem filling up. These are only a few of the colorful men and women you will meet during this game. As far as the nuts-and-bolts go, this game is cinematically flawless.

Gameplay - 4

Yeah, the game looks great. I’d be doing the game an unforgivable disservice is I did not mention that one more time. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into why I don’t like this game.

Along with having an unnatural love for platformers, one of my favorite games of this generation of consoles is Grand Theft Auto II and Vice City, the urban opuses from Rockstar and Take Two. The simple liberty of being able to shoot anyone you want, beat them on the ground, hijack a car, drive away, let the car blow up, and run for your polygonical life... it was a criminal masterpiece with a plot sizzling with scummy characters and seedy betrayal.

I know what you’re thinking; “Focus, King! This is Jak II!” This is probably the biggest problem I have with Jak II. I give my lauds to Naughty Dog for wishing to breaking out of the normal trappings of the traditional platformer. Their theory was to bring to this genre what works in other genres. This doesn’t always work, (the first-person shooter modes of Banjo-Tooie were ridiculous) but the best cow makes the best hamburger, right?

One look at the radar and you can immediately tell what this game is trying to be; it’s trying to be the urban opus, but with a stronger platforming engine. Imagine GTA with the precision and action in motion as Jak and Daxter, perhaps even with a dynamic camera. Unfortunately, Naughty Dog approached this from the other direction (giving a platformer GTA elements), and the product is weaker in both respects because of it. Jak II has many moments where it’s pure platformer, and these are arguably the best. But the hijacking and racing of cars, the guns, the pursuit by Krimson guards, all these elements seem like afterthoughts with nothing near the depth of GTAIII.

First, let’s look at the vehicles. The cars were an integral part of GTA. Among the dozens of choices, you could get the crappy Perennial or the godly Banshee or the sturdy Police Car. Jak II has nowhere near the variety of the cars in GTA. Hovercars come in seven or eight varieties that don’t operate much different from each other as far as handling or durability (they still all handle like airborne boats, as is expected). There are small bikes that don’t take much punishment, three average cars, one large civilian car that can take a lot of punishment (but handle like glaciers), two Krimson vehicles and that’s about it. The ennui of the homogeneity of the vehicles will penetrate any chase from the Krimson guards you have, and it will grow cold quickly.

Speaking of the Krimson guard, when you do have them chasing you, there’s only one wanted level; “Kill on sight.” While GTAIII had many levels of pursuit that would escalate and ramp the difficulty in escape, only one misstep or criminal act and the guards are running you down with every breath they have. It takes a bit of the fun out of the chase, and ALL the fun out of causing chaos. In GTA, the best part was when the tanks or feebs show up to kill you after taking down a helicopter or something; Jak II is trapped with too low a ceiling to reach the fun of GTA.

The weapons in Jak II are very creatively designed, and all the necessary archetypes are there; the shotgun, the rifle, the chaingun and the BFG. I don’t really wish for the cornucopia of guns in GTA; four is plenty. Or, four WOULD be plenty if the guns were designed correctly. GTA worked because you could target the people you wanted to shoot; having no targeting mechanism (or first-person view, either), the guns are cumbersome and frustrating to use. They’re roughly as well integrated as the guns in Donkey Kong 64, except you never had to fight an onslaught of about sixty monsters with the Coconut Shooter.

But it’s not all taken from GTA; the most original part of Jak II is probably the new power “granted” by the Baron; Dark Jak. You collect little pellets of dark eco to fill a meter. When it’s filled, you get to become a hulking demon of flurrying rage for about twenty seconds. Now, twenty seconds sounds like a lot of time, but not when it has taken you so damn long to collect all them little pellets. It’s akin to trying to buy a car by saving pennies. By the time you realize how little this ability can be used, you’ll probably be at a point that it CAN’T be used (like a race or mini-game). Then, you’ll be afraid to use it at almost ANY circumstance in the hopes that it WILL come in handy some day. There are no puzzles that require it, but a heads-up to this fact would have been nice. How does Jak feel about being tortured for two damn years and his only reward for it is a power that has only extracurricular utility?

Possibly the sorriest loss from the transition between Jak and Daxter and Jak II is the loss of the traditional level system. Jak and Daxter was a seamless world, but still divided noticeably into levels, with a handful of power cells to each level. This is the system in almost all platformers, and this is probably the greatest leap Jak II makes to move itself away from the platformer stereotypes.

So, Jak II has adopted a mission-based system. You take a mission from a handful of denizens and do what they say. It’s something like GTA, but if you don’t want to do the mission you’re currently on, you seldom have a choice to do anything else. There are a handful of missions you can take on the side, but they seldom vary. For the missions that matter, you have almost no choice in what order to do them in, making the game agonizingly linear.

And it all leads up to the ending. For a game that seemed so determined to be dark and negative, it sure got Hollywood in the end. I am certainly not allowed to say exactly what happens in the ending, but it’s the same group-hug, all-is-well, watch-the-credits-roll-and-drink-hot-chocolate crap you could get from any platformer, except it makes less sense here.

For all the whining I’ve done in this review, you’d figure I wouldn’t complain that the game was also too short. It’s not so much that I wanted this game to be longer, but I beat it in twenty hours (compared to thirty for its prequel). I did not get all the extra precursor orbs (they unlock cheats), but after the game’s saccharine ending, I had my fill of this particular sequel.

Overall - 6

This game presented an interesting paradox for me. Having promised to write a FAQ for this game before it was released (an egregious error I will not soon repeat), I bought this game as it came out and quickly realized it would not be beaten as easily as its predecessor. My FAQwriting self wanted more of the same, even though that train of thought it what got Naughty Dog into the broken-record philosophy of uninspired Crash Bandicoot sequels. They abandoned that license to make Jak and Daxter, but I was subconsciously hoping for them to give me more of the same and fall into the same trap.

So, I thoroughly beat myself up for my hypocrisy and wished Naughty Dog all the best with their new franchise. Though a FAQ would never spill from my pen of this game, I still wished to enjoy the game as a revolutionary experience.

But that experience never came. This is still the normal Jak and Daxter engine I knew and loved, but for no apparent reason, Jak was trying to be Tommy Vercetti. Hi-Jak and Daxter? Error: Does not compute. Why am I stealing cars? Why am I taking missions from the guy with face paint? Why am I using this gun? What happened to the normal platforming goodness? There must be some new ground to strike within the platforming genre, some progress to be made, without simply transplanting parts of other genres, right?.

The reason I condemn Jak II is not because it’s derivative. Cross-breeding genres has given us some of our best games; Deus Ex was the legendary offspring of a first-person-shooter and an RPG. It’s just that Jak II derives from Grand Theft Auto so poorly. The now two-year old GTAIII kicks the crap outta everything borrowed from it in this “revolutionary” game.

Jak II is not the loving offspring of two consenting genres; it’s a teenage franchise imitating the most popular game at school, deluding itself into thinking that it’s revolutionary by playing copycat. All I could think was, “Man, just be yourself!”

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 12/24/03

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