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Jak II Review

2000 words on my most nostalgic game:

If there’s one thing Naughty Dog knows how to do, it’s making games that truly earn the right to be called a sequel. Jak II is a monumental leap forward from the previous game, both in scope and technical achievement. Jak II uses the basic mythos, characters, and gameplay elements of the first game and expands on them so much further. The game mixes more sci-fi and drama with the fantasy elements developed in the original game, but in a way that feels completely natural. If the previous game did a good job of removing elves from their typical Warcraft/Elder Scrolls fantasy lore stereotype, then this second iteration in the trilogy will make it easy to completely forget that there are foot-long ears jutting out of the sides of everyone’s heads.

The most glaring and obvious change in Jak II from The Precursor Legacy is in the drastic tonal shift. The way in which the game’s mood turns on a dime within the first cutscene is almost comical. Just in the first 5 minutes of pressing “New Game,” the staple cast of TPL (Jak, Daxter, Kiera, and Samos) is literally sucked through the rift gate they discovered at the end of the first game, and are all completely displaced in a dystopian, totalitarian, police state. Then, if that weren’t enough, Jak gets captured, imprisoned, and subsequently subjected to 2 years of torturous Dark Eco experimentation under the dictator, Baron Praxis’s, orders. The perfect game for the kiddies!

Fortunately, on the eve of Jak’s execution, Daxter manages to find our downtrodden hero. Apparently after all that time, Jak learned how to use his voice. His first words to Daxter: “I’m going to kill Praxis,” pretty much embody his general attitude towards authority for the remainder of the game. It turns out Jak’s a man of few words, and he’s pretty mad about the situation he’s in, often speaking with a cross tone as if to instigate a fight with literally everyone he sees (sometimes succeeding in doing so). So… he’s a bit different than he was in the first game. There’s still some light-hearted moments and humor to be found in the game, despite this. This is due in part to Daxter serving a well done comic-relief role once again, piercing through everyone else’s serious demeanors. Always the wise-cracking weasel, the T rating does allow more adult jokes than the first game, including his getting drunk and the occasional sexual innuendo. How scandalous.

Without spoiling too much of the plot for this 10 year old game (you never know), Jak’s freedom allows him to enact a campaign of vengeance against the Baron, and on the way, he gets involved with a plot revolving around the ancient Precursors and a child heir fabled to be a savior to the city. The story is guided along by a much more fleshed out supporting cast of characters, each with distinct, memorable personalities. More developed mission handlers like Krew, (morbidly obese crime boss) replace the talking heads from the first game. Aside from the final boss, who is rather two-dimensional by contrast (a deceptive and despicable villain who’s only character trait is the embodiment of evil), the writing and characters establish a nice sense of connection to the game world. The twists at the end are pretty goddamn cray-cray, but because the story was treated as such an integral aspect of the game, they are relatively impactful, (as opposed to the slap of an elderly woman with osteoporosis had they been weaker).

The game is set in the futuristic metropolis, Haven City. Jak II’s new open world layout serves as one, large central hub. Similar to other open-world games, areas of the map are unlocked via story progression, but it happens pretty quickly. One gripe that rises out of this new approach to the world is the fact that the city ends up being just an elongated way of getting from Point A to Point B. And, with no interesting soundtrack (unless you’re into somber, ambient music), it gets tedious flying around all the damn time on hover vehicles (which Jak has no qualms about hijacking). Nevertheless, the objective content of the game is where Jak II shines. Missions differ from GTA and the like, in that most do not typically occur within the city. Instead, like the first game, unique locations exist as pockets budding from the main map. These locations are where the majority of the “action” takes place. Puzzles, platforming, and punching things all return. Levels are no longer littered with scout flies, power cells, and precursor orbs abound. (Precursor orbs return, but they are more akin to recent videogame collectibles in that there is a small, well-hidden amount which players are rewarded upon collection with in-game cheats.) Levels themselves follow the tried-and-true videogame rule of three. You’ll be going back to certain environments multiple times, but often, there will be a newly accessible path as well as a different goal than the first time around.

Gameplay in Jak II varies wildly mission-to-mission. It’s as if Naughty Dog drew its structure for the game from a hat full of disparate activities from other games. Racing missions, various mini-games, and getting to play as Daxter are interspersed well with the already deep well of platforming and combat-based tasks. Jet Board integration is one of the more impactful changes that the game has taken on for itself. This rip from Tony Hawk is faster and more convenient than running. Plus, Jak is also apparently a prodigy or some sort of gifted autistic, as he can perform several complicated tricks from the get-go. The ability to grind, go up ramps, and float on water adds new ways of platforming for several specially designed missions that require the board. The Titan Suit (mech) is used only a few times in certain levels, but is one of the many methods in which Naughty Dog widens the description of its game.

As well as the Baron’s forces, Jak encounters a much more terrible scourge of horrible enemies referred to as Metal Heads. Metal Heads take the place of the Lurker grunts and then some. These monstrosities are fiercer and put up a much tougher fight than those in the first game. They will take on many forms and use different tactics based on their class. Some use ranged weapons. Some charge the player in large numbers. Some are giant centipede beasts that will have the player hectically jumping from platform to platform, hoping they don’t get eaten alive. This means Jak can’t go bopping things on the head anymore. In The Precursor Legacy, Jak interacted with Eco energy to enhance his capabilities. Eco does return, but the myriad assortments and their characteristics have become the 4 gun mods Jak now has to fight his new adversaries. For instance, where Blue Eco made him faster in the first game, it now is used as ammunition for a rapid-fire Gatling gun. Same goes for Red and Yellow, which have become a shotgun and rifle respectively. The fourth gun, the Peacemaker, is capable of destroying multiple enemies and vehicles with one destructive, chain-lightning shot. The aiming is sometimes problematic, so playing aggressively and wildly is recommended over attempting to play with precision.

Another of the new combat features is the inclusion of the Dark Jak trigger ability. Like in Jak 1, this is tied to collecting little blips of eco, which can be found in crates or dropped by dead Metal Heads. Once the player has collected enough they have the option to release the energy in the Jak and Daxter equivalent of Hulking out, albeit very briefly. This alternate Jak starts out as being just an incredibly quick and bestial fighter, but also gains special powers such as invincibility and the ability to unleash devastating area-of-effect attacks. The Dark Jak system is an intriguing one, and does allow one to clear a room like an absolute bad ass (literally, in slow-motion), however there are some niggling limitations. The fact that the ability takes such a large amount of eco means that a) it is not often utilized, and b) it can have first time players frustrated since they will use it only to realize that the next group of enemies was bigger, or that there was a boss fight around the corner they should have saved it for. Also, the only method of upgrading your abilities is collecting Metal Head skull gems, which is just unnecessary collecting for the sake of collection, as there is nothing inherently special about them at all. All in all,  it serves for a fleeting, eye-catching break in fights, but it’s extremely limited usability and method of implementation hold it back from being a real tactical element in a player’s strategy.

Now just for some other miscellaneous grievances with Jak II. Let’s start with how hard this game is. This game doesn’t hold your hand. In fact, with no compass or arrow icon in the HUD to lead the players, traversing missions requires intuition and exploration on the part of the gamers (bright glowing lights and a spot with a group of enemies are generally good leads) A map is included in the start menu, but no one would blame you for looking at it like, “wtf?” Gamers who’ve grown accustomed to the game design of “press x to win,” are going to struggle a bit the first time around. The difficulty and frustrations that might have some rage quitting are related to the fact that the game is going to unapologetically expect the player to have some well-developed gaming chops. Getting swarmed with waves of Krimson Guard patrols is going to take some skill in order to get out alive. As some missions do not have health crates (a much welcomed addition over having to pick up 50 pieces of green eco in order to get one more hit point) in them, players will be at the mercy of the checkpoint system, which is about as generous as King Joffrey from Game of Thrones. You will die a lot. And it’ll more than likely send you to the beginning of a mission regardless of where you were and how long it took to get there. Many will welcome this level of challenge in their game, and some will think it’s not that bad at all. But others might end up putting the game down in favor of something more painless, like plucking all their bodily hairs out. Also, what the hell with the inverted camera being the default? Praise be to Morgan Freeman this did not live on past the PS2. Oh, and unfortunately, Naughty Dog does throw in a few escort missions in there, deserving only one response: “Blech, blech, (dry heave) blech. WHY?” That is all.

Jak II is a like a Frankenstein assembled from Jak 1’s chopped up parts, GTA’s brain, and random bits and bobs from every other game. The game makes sure that you will always have something new to do and makes doing so meaningful by propping it all up with a well written story to keep players invested. The evolved combat adds another layer of depth to the game despite the missed opportunity with the Dark Jak power. The game is tough, but is still manageable and a fun ride that rewards its players throughout. This entry in particular has led to divisiveness amongst fans of Jak and Daxter. Some won’t like the fact that the game is basically the videogame equivalent of someone who’s suddenly adopted wearing a lot of black and smoking cigarettes. Others won’t get why the original wasn’t this in the first place. If the inclusion of firearms, mild language, and a more melancholic world are things that don’t jive your turkey, then just stick to the original. However, there’s so much that this game has on offer that it’s at least worth trying Naughty Dog’s darker outing in the series.

Obligatory Number Rating: 8.5