The huge success of the critically and commercially adored Uncharted series has obviously put Naughty Dog on the map, but for many, this group of extremely talented developers will forever be associated with a simplistic but nonetheless competent platformer that somehow expanded into becoming one of the most wide ranging, diverse and downright epic trilogies that the gaming world has ever seen.
The arrival of the Jak and Daxter Trilogy coincided with a time in which the huge popularity of colourful, cutsey platformers was on the wane. Arriving at the tail end of the platforming boom, the first game in the series, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy has all the hallmarks of the type of family friendly platforming that Nintendo and Rare had made so popular in the mid to late nineties. With the sequels however, you find the series falling in-line with trends of the time as the Jak and Daxter universe took on a grittier visual style and ill advised GTA-like framework for Jak II: Renegade, before finding a happier, more natural middle ground for Jak 3. Play the first and third games next to each other now and the difference is like night and day. Beyond the obvious tonal differences, by time the third game arrived on shelves, the Jak and Daxter series had developed into one of the most schizophrenic videogames of modern times.
While all three games have dated to one extent or another, there is little doubt that the underlying quality of this remarkable trilogy still shines through, and if nothing else, the package as a whole serves to highlight a unique evolution of the genre at a time of great transition and change for both traditional platformers and the industry as a whole. Still, despite how fondly this series might be remembered and how revered it is by fans, newcomers to the series should approach cautiously.
Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy in particular has aged pretty badly with its simplistic collect everything gameplay, mute leads and extremely dated design and visuals unlikely to appeal a great deal to gamers of more modern tastes. Sure, the blocky visuals are certainly charming and there is undoubtedly something to be said for platformers of this purity, but the fact remains: this is no Mario. Heck, it’s not even a Banjo & Kazooie as far as I’m concerned. It’s a competent platformer with some rather iffy level design, forgettable enemies and, at this point, two protagonists who failed to find the cool or cute end of the spectrum with any degree of success. Many will berate me for my harshness, but even with the HD upgrade, this is a game very much of its time and needs to be approached accordingly.
For Jak II, the series makes a pretty major leap in both quality and scope. Gone are the mute, dancing idiots of the first game, in are an altogether grittier, darker but unquestionably chattier and subsequently more interesting pair of protagonists. Whatever your feelings on the sequel’s darker tone, there is no doubting the fact that it served to make both Jak and Daxter more rounded, visually and tonally appealing characters – Jak II is the moment are two heroes truly became the Jak and Daxter we know and love today.
While there is still some platforming to be done in Jak II, this is a game that shares very little resemblance to its forbearer. With platforming only making up a small part of a wildly diverse experience, you’ll spend just as much time shooting, racing and hover-boarding as you will jumping from one ledge to the next. It doesn’t stop there either, with an array of mini-game-style diversions, Jak II proves an experience eager to appeal to the little ADHD sufferer in all of us. Not all of it works of course, but with the action rarely sitting still for more than a few seconds, its foibles become somewhat easier to bear. The driving is loose, the gunplay is overly simplistic and some of the mini-games feel a tad half-hearted, but in Jak II you’re never doing one thing for very long and you’ll usually find yourself jumping into a different style of gameplay long before anything has the chance to become obviously boring or annoying.
What is less forgivable, however, is the poorly implemented GTA-a-like overworld of Haven City and the game’s consistently ruthless difficulty. Haven City is a vast open world and does a good job of connecting each stage but for a place as expansive as this, there isn’t nearly enough going on to actually fill it. To make matters worse, lady time has once again been rather unkind to its level of visual lustre. I’m sure it looked the balls back in the day, but now, Haven City is little more than a lifeless hub-world with very little to do or see beyond its rather dated backdrops.
While I can forgive the need to traipse back and forth across the largely uneventful Haven City, I simply cannot abide having to replay huge sections of the game time and time again. Jak II is home to some horrendous difficulty spikes which, when combined with some extremely stingy checkpoints, can become a real bone of contention. I’m all for a bit of challenge in my games, but having to re-do large sections of the game just to get back to that same point is no fun at all and is an aspect of its design that I would happily see left in the past.
Jak II, then, is far from perfect, but it’s hugely inventive and at times extremely imaginative. I have many gripes with this game and newcomers will inevitably struggle to accept some of the more obtuse design choices, but there is certainly enough here to make it worth a punt, especially for long standing fans returning for a second run through of this beloved PS2 franchise.
The one game in the series that I find far easier to whole heartedly recommend to both newcomers and fans alike, is Jak 3. Even if released on its own, an HD upgraded Jak 3 would certainly be worth picking up. It benefits more than any other game in the package from the visual upgrade and is by far and away the most polished, enjoyable game in the series. Finding a middle ground between the light hearted fun of the first game and the variety and character of the second, Jak 3 takes the series to a natural and extremely memorable conclusion. Playing much closer to the wide-ranging Jak II, Jak 3 lightens the mood with its easier banter and more naturally fitting collection of locations while sticking with the variation in game types that saw Jak and Daxter move so effortlessly away from pure platforming into full-on action adventure mode.
If anything, Jak 3 actually surpasses its predecessor in terms of sheer variation by including a sizeable commitment to vehicular combat along with unique takes on numerous classic gaming franchises amidst its huge array of mini-game style offshoots. It’s the more subtle design changes however that truly set this game apart from previous instalments. For one, the difficulty is toned down to a much more manageable level with checkpoints that now make sense. The hub world too, while smaller than that found in Jak II, has a hell of a lot more to do in it, thus giving the whole experience a more natural and organic flow. The driving still isn’t perfect and the shooting is still overly simplified, but as a complete experience, Jak 3 is leaps and bounds ahead of the first two games in the series. It still looks pretty good, has some great banter and finally sees the always loveable Daxter taking a more central role….oh, and it also happens to have one of the finest denouements to a videogame of all time.
The Jak and Daxter Trilogy then is an uneven package, one that will inevitably be enjoyed by long standing fans but one that will prove at least partially testing to modern gamers previously unaware of Naughty Dog’s earlier work. It’s a shame that some of the kinks haven’t been ironed out for this re-release, but Jak 3 alone makes this package worthy of purchase. Even at its best, just about every aspect of the Jak and Daxter series has been done better elsewhere, but few games dare to bring so many ideas together into one (mostly) coherent whole. As a trilogy, it’s far from a perfect experience, but despite its age, is rarely anything less than memorable.
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