Review: Jak II (PS2)

Platform: PlayStation 2
Category: Platformer
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: SCEA
Release: Oct. 2003
The Down-Lo: The dynamic duo returns, but this time it’s not all smiles, lollypops, and candy canes.

The original Jak & Daxter was great fun and well deserving of a successor. But if you were among the millions that bought J&D back in 2001 and were expecting the follow up to offer the same light hearted, jubilant fun gameplay of its predecessor then be prepared for a big wet gaping surprise. This is most drastic change we’ve seen in a game sequel since Super Mario Bros. 2 on the NES. Naughty Dog took some chances here and nearly reinvented the fledgling franchise. The soul of the first game still beats beneath the exterior of changes, but the series has evolved in a way that will surprise many.

And chances like these aren’t something that too many developers are willing to take anymore (or perhaps even allowed). It gets out of the safety zone, as it were. There’s always the risk of alienating fans and having the entire project turn into steaming piles of cow dung. It’s a roll of the dice that pays off with some, and falls flat with others. Innovation is and always will be a gamble. A big, risky, scary gamble.

So the obvious question is, “Does this gamble actually pay off?”



LET’S REVIEW

1. STORY:

A little history is in order.

In the first game, Jak & his best friend Daxter live in a quaint little town by the name of Sandover Village, along with Samus the Sage and his technical savvy daughter Keira. At this point Jak was the typical cliche videogame hero. Strong, do-gooder, silent type. And even though he was a mute, you could tell without words that Jak’s intention was to always do the right thing. In slight contrast, Daxter was more of a cowardly, selfish, loud mouthed, non-heroic annoyance, albeit with a good heart.

Daxter however, wasn’t always the furry wise cracking pipsqueak that he is today, with his original form more akin to his buddy Jak’s human-like appearance. Dax’s current malady originated from an accident involving a dangerous black substance known as Dark Eco. Jak, being the heroic chap that he was, eagerly set out to help his friend in need find a cure. It is on this ultimately doomed quest to reverse Daxter’s fuzzy predicament, that the duo uncover and foil a fiendish plot to unleash the majority of the planet’s confined hazardous Dark Eco reserves upon the rest of the unsuspecting world at the hands of the maniacal Sage turned bad, Gol, and his extremely well endowed sidekick, Maia. Pity she had to go actually. After the world is saved, Daxter has accepted his fate, and the chaos subsides, the pair discovers a large and mysterious Rift Gate at the Dark Eco Silos where the epic battle took place. This is where the last game left you hanging and where Jak II picks up, with the crew putting the finishing touches on the reassembled Gate back at Samus’ Hut in Sandover Village.

And it’s here that all heck breaks loose.

The Gate is opened and sends the entire group spiraling through space(?) time(?) into a bustling yet perilous metropolis called Haven City. The crew is split up. Jak is immediately thrown in jail. And Daxter spends the next two YEARS trying to find him. Wow. That’s a lot to take in so quickly, especially for those that are used to the slow build of threat introduced in the first title. So yeah, basically everything’s gone down the crapper. Thankfully, after the aforementioned two long years Daxter finally finds Jak, but he’s not the same pure hearted goody two-shoes he used to know. Baron Praxis, ruler of Haven City, has conducted two years worth of Dark Eco experiments on our blonde haired hero. But instead of killing him or even turning him into whatever in the world Daxter is supposed to be, Jak now holds a hidden and savage power within. This is immediately evidenced by Jak’s transforming right before Daxter’s eyes into the powerful yet lunatic-like Dark Jak, almost killing his little friend two seconds after he’s saved him.

Upon Daxter finally setting Jak free, the purpose of the game is quickly differentiated from its predecessor. While the first game was about the saving of life, this one starts out purely for REVENGE. Two years worth of that crap has seriously PISSED Jak off, as the first words uttered in the life of the previously mute hero are, “I’m going to KILL Praxis!” And that’s how your new adventure starts off. Finding your way back home is secondary. You’re on a blood lust.

Without a doubt, this is one of the most compelling stories ever crafted for a platformer. Heartache, betrayal, comedy, love, rivalry, despair, hatred, camaraderie, pride, disgust, growth spirituality, and hope. All of these and more are executed within the story of Jak II with such finesse that it makes this title standout from any other game within it’s genre released this year outside of perhaps Disney’s Haunted Mansion. Jak II’s shift of focus from the standard heroics of the first game towards a much darker, more sinister world has paid off in spades. Sure some of the plot twists you see coming a mile away, but it doesn’t matter… you still enjoy them! And they probably won’t even unfold in the way you were envisioning. This is the first platformer where I cared more about the story then I did about the actual gameplay. And that’s saying a lot for those who know my “it’s all about the platforming” gaming tastes.


A Rich Cast Of Characters Brings Jak II’s Story To Life
The excellent voice acting and dialogue bring each polygonal citizen to life in ways that some movies aren’t even on par with. Each character has personality DRIPPING out of every orifice. From the sassy and conflicted Keira, to the treacherous yet passionate Krew who seems as though he was ripped straight out of a world amalgam based on Dune and Star Wars, these characters make you CARE about them. All of them. Regardless of whether you like them or not. There’s not one throwaway individual in the entire game as each serves a purpose and contributes to the story in a meaningful way, practically and emotionally.

And then there’s Daxter. Good lord. This is the funniest performance by a character in videogaming HISTORY. I exaggerate not, Daxter’s mannerisms, one-liners, and antics will have you in stitches. You will honestly be chuckling sometimes and full laughing out loud other times at the game’s many well-done cut scenes all because of that little wise-cracking muskrat. A staggering improvement over the comedy of the first game, and a testament to Naughty Dog’s writing team that crafted not only an engaging story, but a largely humor-filled one as well. Perfect to counteract the darkness that has engulfed the series, and it all blends together to create one engaging, compelling story.

Plot rating: 9/10

2. GRAPHICS:

Very impressive. Consider this: Haven City is a living, breathing, bustling metropolis. Think Grand Theft Auto with a distinct futuristic flair. Thousands of citizens roam the streets, while hundreds of hovercrafts roam the skies. Neon lights flash in the background as day turns to night. And guards patrol the heavily crowed landscape. While it’s untrue that no two citizens look exactly alike, there’s enough variety within their skins and weight sizes to present the illusion of the type of multiplicity you’d see in any big city. The hovercrafts have their own personalities as well, with an array of colors, seating types, and shapes to marvel over as they zoom overhead. Jak II’s world is constantly active. This ambitiousness does breed a bit of slowdown here and there, but it’s not very prevalent and it almost never affects gameplay. With the amount of activity that could potentially be happening on your screen at any given time, it’s a wonder that the framerate doesn’t come to a screeching and careening halt every ten seconds. If there are any substantial complaints, it’s that New Haven lacks a little bit in scenery variety. The city itself has a good amount of drastically different sections, but once within these sections everything looks the same, with only a few notable landmarks to give you an idea that you’re in a different part of that particular zone.


A Massive World Lays Before You
But that’s just the main city hub. Once you get to the actual missions the game really shows off its graphical muscle. From forests to sewers. From sky scrapers to under water ruins. Jak II’s environments are constantly changing, with a variety that keeps things fresh and interesting. Thinking back over the dozens of areas that I’ve traveled feels staggering.

Then the character models. EXCELLENT. Animated with Disney like quality and fluidity, Jak’s major players in particular feel like they were ripped straight out of Toy Story. You’ll be eagerly watching the game’s numerous cut scenes for more than just the narrative. Seeing these done entirely with the ingame engine is striking.

By and large great stuff, mired only slightly by a lack of variety within Haven City and some minor slowdown. Again, impressive. It’ll make your PS2 sing.

Graphics rating (for a PlayStation 2 game): 8/10

3. SOUND:

Wow. Just wow.

Sound effects? Absolutely wonderful. Explosions, gun shots, the slight hum of the hovercrafts, it’s all there. All perfect.

And the voice acting, as mentioned before, is fantastic. Guards radio to one another throughout the city looking for suspects with the gruffness of voice you’d expect from trained killers. Hide around a corner, and you’ll hear two guards carry a full on relaxed conversation; sometimes about spilling your innards, sometimes about whether they’re going to the races later on. The shadiest looking of characters sound shady, the funniest looking of characters sound funny, and the most dangerous looking of characters (i.e. Jak) sound dangerous. Every voice fits their character, and I’d have a hard time thinking of a different way for them sound any other way. Of special note is Krew, who sounds just as slimy and greasy as you’d expect a gluttonous, overweight, underworld criminal to be.

Music? Gold again. For each of the numerous environments you’ll come across comes equally unique musical accompaniment. Ranging from good to great, the music of Jak II draws you into the game. And little touches here and there serve to make an already stirring musical score even more enjoyable. Pull out your gun, and the music will add a techno background beat to represent the heightened state of alert you’re in. Ride on a hoverboard, and the game will add an upbeat tempo to signify the increased speed of gameplay. It’s these tiny flourishes that add so much more to the overall sound presentation. Sure it’s nothing I’d pop into my CD player and listen to, but it’s appropriate for the game’s world and that makes it great. When I play Jak II… I WANT to hear that music.

So a round of applause for Naughty Dog. They went above and beyond the call of duty and didn’t rest on their laurels from the previous title. Improvements all around from what was already impressive in the first game, and a new high water mark for themselves and platformers in general.

Sound rating: 10/10

4. CONTROL:

If you’re familiar with the original Jak & Daxter then you know how to control everything here. Jak can run, jump, long jump, spin, and punch just as he always has been able to with a quick press of the appropriate button and a twist of the left analog stick. As before, camera control is automatic which has continually worked out well in this series due to it always being in exactly the right place at the exactly the right time. Well… MOST of the time it’s good. A few moments of un-clarity pop up, but if you need to change your view for some reason that can be easily adjusted with the right analog stick. Naughty Dog took the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it mentality” here, and that was for the best as the controls were on point the first time.

Of course it wouldn’t be a sequel if they added absolutely nothing. Jak has some cool new abilities this go round, with the most easily noticeable being the guns. 4 different types, and comfortable to manage. Use the non-analog directional pad to choose between them and the (R1) button to fire. Easy as that. Later you learn more advanced techniques such as punching an enemy and then quickly pressing (R1) to send a barrage of fire at another nearby foe, helping you to take out squads of attackers at a time. This is one example of the game building upon the knowledge you already have to help you execute more and more complicated moves without the player even realizing that they’re doing something they wouldn’t have been able to do upon first starting the game. At this Jak II, shines: taking the player in baby steps through the game’s controls.

Then of course there’s Dark Jak. Kill a metal head or some other unscrupulous creature and perhaps you’ll be fortunate enough to discover some Dark Eco from their remains. Once harmful in the previous game, collect enough in small doses to fill up your Dark Eco meter and you’ll have the ability to activate your Dark Jak powers (L2), sending Jak into roid rage mode obtaining increased speed, matrix style super moves, and eventually invincibility. Trust me boys and girls, nothing compares to your first time pulling off a Dark Jak super move decimating every enemy on the screen with a light display rivaling the Japanese children’s cartoon that sent all those kids into seizures. Cool, cool, stuff that’ll bail you out of the toughest of spots you’re likely to get in. And you better BELIEVE that you’ll be getting into some tough spots.

Hrm… and then there are the vehicles.

FEH.

Nothing’s wrong with the vehicles per se. You can tell a lot of work was put into this aspect of the game, as each of the many hovercrafts has a distinct handling to them. But it’s the maneuvering of them within the city that’s a pain in the rear end. Jak has A LOT of land to explore, and in order to do it he’ll need to commandeer (read: steal) a vehicle from one of the many hovercraft-riding citizens. Press the (Triangle) button while one passes by, you’ll boot them out, and you’re on your way. Simple enough. But navigation is a difficult ordeal. The Baron has the city on LOCK DOWN. Accidentally bump into one of the guards whether on foot or in the air and the whole freaking army will come down on you harder than a Source Awards audience on Ja Rule. Forcing you to find a place to hide to sweat it out. The problem is, in order to know where you’re going you must look at the small map in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen and follow the twists and turns toward the icon of your next mission. Sounds easy enough again. BUT it’s almost impossible to pay attention to how to get to your destination AND where you’re going while navigating through the city. So you can imagine what happens more often that not. You’re watching where you’re going, but not actually WATCHING where you’re going, and… “bump”. You tap a guard in the shin or something and the entire city goes into high alert trying to kill you. It’s absolutely insane. It’s also annoying. Sure. Eventually you’ll get better at this, but the whole scenario wears thin on you as time goes by.

Overall? While marred by a few blemishes with city navigation and a camera that occasionally makes aiming at enemies difficult, the controls are spot on and easy enough for the most simple minded of gamers to grasp. That of course means you good folks.

Control Rating: 7/10

5. REPLAYABILITY:

Good replayability here, even if there is only one ending.

Littered throughout the world of Jak II, Naught Dog has supplied ample mini-games for the player to enjoy. From shooting courses, to Extreme-G like hovercraft racing, to a Tony Hawk-like skateboarding arena, to a Daxter custom version of Whack-A-Mole, and too many more to mention; there’s plenty of side distractions to play and enjoy here. Some you won’t want to touch ever again, and some will become more addicting than a scratch & sniff adult website. The best part being is that you can revisit these areas seemingly at any time to relive the amusement, and that adds greatly to the replay value.


Daxter Likes Whacking Things
Then there’s the cute idea of the precursor orbs. Unlike in the first Jak & Daxter where they were used as penny-worthy currency, the precursor orbs aren’t in ample supply anymore. In Jak II they’re very scarce and only found by completing certain objectives in mini-games and in the rarest of places within the main game itself. These orbs are now used to unlock secrets, which can be turned on and off from the menu screen any time during the game. First starting with things as austere as toggling Jak’s goatee on and off, and later progressing onto much cooler bonuses like a Scene player, additional mini-game courses, and ultimately Hero Mode… Which I won’t spoil for you. ;) Bottom line is, I restarted the game all over again before I even finished the thing, just so I could make sure I got as many orbs as possible to unlock all the secrets. And I had a blast doing it, because the game is that much fun so as to warrant a second romp.

Replayability rating: 7/10

6. BALANCE:

Woo. I’ll be honest. Here’s where things get a little hairy. Balance accounts for more than just difficultly, folks.

Let’s say you’re playing… oh I don’t know, a sports game. How about boxing. Ok, boxing. So your boxer gets into the ring, and you and your opponent go to town. The controls are spot on. The speed is exhilarating. You’re having a pretty darn good time. And then you win the match. Nice. You’re pretty content about it, and you’re more than ready for your next fighting melee. But as you prepare yourself for some more pummeling action, the game suddenly changes styles on you and now you have to platform around the boxing arena to get to your next match. Hrm? That’s a bit strange. But let’s go with it…

Oops, I keep dying trying to make that jump from the announcer’s booth to the third story cheap seats. Let’s try again.

ARGG! Oh come on! What’s up with this? Why do I even have to go through this? Whatever. Let’s give it another shot…

OH FOR THE LOVE OF… This is hard, and it isn’t even as fun as the actual boxing! Why won’t they just let me box?! Sigh… Ok, one more time.

Yes!! I made it! FINALLY. And great, I’ve got another boxing match! Against, Sugar Ray Leonard?? Sweet! I’m getting good at this too! (Bang, bang, boom, boom!) KNOCK OUT. How do you like me now, Sucka? Alright, bring on the next match.

Whoa, I get to fight Mike Tyson? Great, let’s go for… wha? Mike Tyson lives in a 15-story high building, and I have to climb up the thing to fight him? And I’ll have to avoid land mines that Don King’s dropping on me from the top floor? Are you serious? More blasted platforming!? And the next 10 stages are all platforming too!! What the blood clot happened!??

I JUST WANT TO FREAKING BOX!!

And that’s how you’ll feel quite a bit of the time during Jak II. You see, while there’s a plethora of platforming fun and shooting chaos to be had, the game will force you to ride around on vehicles nearly as much as you’re on foot. Trust me, you WILL get tired of driving! It’s unavoidable in this game. It’s totally and completely inevitable that you’ll be riding around the city quite a bit if you want to get to your next mission in any sort of timely manner. Sure you could just take your time and walk, but you’d spend a hour or more trotting along New Haven’s extremely large landscape every time you had to go anywhere. I mean goodness, it takes you long enough to get where you’re going inside a hovercraft let alone walking! But hold on… just imagine if once getting to your destination, after countless time driving around, you find out that you’re next mission is… more driving!! Eek. Which wouldn’t even be a problem except for the fact that the racing / driving missions just aren’t as much fun as the rest of the game. The issues involving navigation have already been addressed above, and the time spent driving all over the place can get pretty wearisome. Don’t get me wrong; riding around isn’t a terrible experience by any means. As Jak navigates, Daxter can fire your various guns at other city riders to incite some chaos, which is always good for some sadistic fun. And once you’re skilled enough, dashing around the city’s many twists and turns can be mildly amusing. But it just felt like a breathe of fresh air when I was presented with a level that was all platforming, because Naughty Dog has that style of play down to a TEE. It made hopping back on that hover bike that much harder to stomach because the rest of the game was THAT GOOD.

As for the difficulty? The game starts off pretty easy, but appropriately as you get towards the later missions it gets pretty darn tough. Nothing unbeatable, of course. Just challenging and that’s fine, especially because you have unlimited lives. Then again, I guess they felt they needed to balance that out too, as the penalties for death are a bit steep at times. You can get quite far in a level, playing for nearly a half hour or more only to die and have to restart the whole blasted thing all over again. It gets to you every so often, but not enough to dampen the enjoyment of playing by any means. If anything, you just get more determined.

So we have good balance with the difficulty. But so, so balance within the gameplay itself. This is the game’s weakest, and possibly only weak area. Moreover even then it’s not THAT hard to swallow.

Balance rating: 6/10

7. ORIGINALITY:

Well it IS a sequel. The game by definition is derivative. But as mentioned before they broke far and away from the previous game’s tendencies and tried some great new things here. The living breathing city that navigates you around the world for one, is something they tried to pull off differently from others within the genre. And the mission objective gameplay where you get to pick and choose what you’d like to do first (in most cases) is a bit of a twist. But other than those two things (which granted, count for a great deal), I’ll have to be honest, once you get into the actual missions nothing truly stands out to me in this game that hasn’t been done elsewhere. Does it do what it does well? Oh yes, definitely. But it all comes down to them borrowing from several different gameplay styles of the past, fusing them together, and then polishing it. Again, outside of the bustling city and choose your own adventure nature of the game (which once more, I’ll give credit where credit is due) it’s all things we’ve seen before just with a shiny new coat of paint.

But wow… that’s one FINE coat of paint.

Originality rating: 7/10

8. ADDICTIVENESS:

Did Naught Dog lace this thing with crack? No seriously. DID THEY? You will eat, sleep, breathe, and live Jak II. Entire days will be wasted away of your life because you wanted to find out what will happen next in the story. Or what new challenge lies ahead. Or what the next joke Daxter’s gonna quip out will be. Or to see the newest level so you can marvel over the stunning graphics. Or to… or to do anything else that’s associated with this title! I’m not kidding boys and girls… when I wasn’t playing Jak II, I was thinking about playing Jak II. When I WAS playing Jak II, I was thinking about how much time I had left in the day to play Jak II. And as I knew my time with the game was coming to a close because of social responsibilities (bathing, going to my job, eating, & countless other unimportant pieces of garbage that would keep me away from gaming) I was thinking how long it would be until I was available so I could again PLAY JAK II.

To put it bluntly, the game has some problem areas. A city world that gets annoying. The unbalance of riding around on too many vehicles when you really just want to run, jump, and platform. Enormous penalties for deaths. Yes, at times this game contains tremendously annoying things. But I’m going to tell you right now. NONE OF THAT MATTERS. This game will completely consume you if you have any shred of 3D platform gaming love within you. The last time I’ve felt like this towards videogames in general they went by the names of Panzer Dragoon Saga and Shining Force II. That’s right; Naughty Dog has crafted a game that is nearly as addictive as my two favorite RPGs of all time. I can’t give it any higher recommendation than that folks. Forget looking at the final score down at the bottom of the page. Buy the game. Caress the game. Make love to the game. Because that’s what it’s going to do to you once it slips inside your PS2.

Addictiveness rating: 10/10

9. APPEAL FACTOR:

Broad appeal on this one. And Sony’s doing a great job of advertising the thing to make sure you know it’s out there for you.

This game will please fans of the original (which is quite a few since Jak & Daxter achieved multi-platinum status) and nearly all 3D platform gamers. The story isn’t too “kiddy” for older players because as I said before, this game is dark and brooding bordering on adult. Yet its not so overly mature that kids can’t enjoy the romp either, just barely maintaining that TEEN rating. It’s not too hard. Not too easy. Fun for mom. Fun for little Susie. Fun for teens. Fun for everyone. The only way I could see this not appealing to some is if they weren’t fans of the genre to begin with. In that case, what are you even doing reading this review? Go away.

Other than that, I suppose the aforementioned sometimes high penalties for dying and hard to navigate overworld may turn off some lesser skilled gamers but even that can be overcome with practice and patience.

Appeal Factor rating: 8/10

10. MISCELLANEOUS:

The extras have been covered in the replayability area, so here we’ll focus on something that most games don’t seem to get right, let alone sometimes at all. Atmosphere.


Jak & Daxter’s Charm Is Undeniable
The ambiance this game gives off is incredible. Perhaps it has to do with the artistry. Perhaps the story. Perhaps the excellent voice acting. Perhaps the seamlessness of the world as a whole. Or perhaps it’s the combination of everything, but the character this game has, the FEEL… it’s just wonderful. You truly get immersed in the world of New Haven. It haunts your waking dreams. Naught Dog has crafted not merely a game, but an experience. It’s something not too many titles have achieved, especially within this genre. In all honestly, I’ve played RPGs where mood doesn’t emanate as strongly as it does here. Thus, congratulation is in order to the developers. This is truly a work of art and a labor of love that only the most jaded of gamers couldn’t appreciate. And or Alex Lucard.

Miscellaneous rating: 10/10



The Ratings:
Plot rating: 9/10
Graphics rating: 8/10
Sound rating: 10/10
Control Rating: 7/10
Replayability rating: 7/10
Balance rating: 6/10
Originality rating: 7/10
Addictiveness rating: 10/10
Appeal Factor rating: 8/10
Miscellaneous rating: 10/10

Short Attention Span Summary
There is no excuse not to buy this title. None. This is the new version of crack for 3D platform lovers, ladies and gentlemen. Smoke it on up. What we have here is an evolution of a series that could have simply stagnated itself based off of its previous successes. But Naughty Dog wouldn’t let it happen; they shot the series in the arm with steroids and have produced one of the most engrossing game playing experiences of the year. Throughout this review I’ve referred to this game as a platformer and that’s not entirely accurate. Jak & Daxter was a platformer. Jak II is more than that. This is an adventure more grandiose than what some RPGs are capable of. A compelling story, awesome voice acting, platforming goodness so sweet it’ll cause Diabetes patients to go into comas, it’s all here people! Naughty Dog has crammed so much to do and see into Jak II that you’ll NEVER experience it completely, and that’s half of the beauty right there. This game is a huge, monstrous beast. Now go out, buy it, and perform bestiality. NOW.