Jak and Daxter: An Uneven Bridge

Crash Bandicoot was an incredible series for Naughty Dog. It was insanely popular and skyrocketed their studio in the industry in terms of status. So, when the PS2 was on the horizon, what else was Naughty Dog going to do but scrap the whole thing and start afresh on a whole new franchise. Many people at the time thought this would be the biggest mistake Naughty Dog would ever make. But it wasn’t. What it was, was Jak and Daxter.

Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was built on a simple ambition – no loading screens. The whole game would be a big open world which can be explored to one’s heart’s content and at no point be broken up with loading screens. Quite an ambitious feat when you consider the hardware they were working with. But, because it was Naughty Dog, they managed to do it.

The game they came up with is about a young lad named Jak – because no one needed a ‘c’ in that name to begin with. Jak is mute, so the person who does all the talking is his buck-toothed friend Daxter. While not following the instructions of Jak’s guardian, Samos, they sneak off to an island and find a big pit full of an ominous liquid substance called dark eco. Daxter promptly falls in and is transformed into an ottsel. If you’re confused, an ottsel is not a real thing. An ottsel is a mix of an otter and a weasel. Predictably frustrated by his condition, the two ask Samos the sage for help. He respectfully informs them that he is unable, and they would have to go to the other sages for advice. Unfortunately, the teleportation rings aren’t working for some unknown reason so they will have to go the other sages on foot. What is even more unfortunate is the fact that the only way to get to the next sage is across a lake of lava. Keira, who’s like the sexy young woman who works for Samos (she’s the love interest), suggests using a sort hoverbike heat resistant thing that she just happens to have. To get it working, however, Jak and Daxter need to find 20 power cells.

That’s the premise which sets up the whole game. And also a description of the main gameplay – collecting. To collect the power cells, you have to complete a series of side quests for the villagers, as well as purchase them with these egg things that are just everywhere, and most of all – platforming. The power cells are basically just lying around the place just waiting for someone to come and get them, and all they need to do is jump around some obstacles for a bit. Once you get the 20 power cells, you get across the lava lake and fight a boss battle, and then some plot happens which means you need to now find another 20 power cells. This is the format of the whole game. To complete the game, I think you need about 80 in all – 100 if you want to 100% the game.

The game is fairly relaxed. It’ll take a long time to finish it because it is a hard game – some of the platforming is only reasonably described as a challenge, to say the least. It seems a good time to talk about eco. Eco is a magical substance which bestows upon a person a mystical property. Green eco heals, blue eco gives speed, red eco gives strength, yellow eco gives the ability to shoot projectiles at people and dark eco hurts you until you die (unless your name is Daxter apparently). Now, this is all fine in Jak 1 because it is very limited and you can only use one kind at a time. The only issue I have is that green eco serves no purpose whatsoever. Jak has a total of three hit points throughout the whole game, and the only way to regain a hit point when one is lost is collecting green eco. The thing is that you need to collect fifty balls of green eco to get one hit point back – which takes a while – and on top of that if you get hit again you’ll lose all the eco you’ve collected. I think I managed to restore a hit point about twice during my time playing the game. So it’s often easier to just die.

That’s not to say that dying matters particularly in Jak 1. It’s an important point to look at the number of checkpoints in each game. In Jak 1, they’re everywhere. You jump to a platform – that’s a checkpoint, you kill an kill an enemy – that’s a checkpoint, you walk a step forward in any direction – that’s a checkpoint. The result of this is that death no longer really matters at all apart from in boss battles. This doesn’t make the game ‘easy’ but it means you don’t ever really have to redo anything when you die – just the thing that killed you. Not that failing a section of the game is always death; a lot of the time it’s because you fell off of a precarious platform and have to go back to the start, or you took too long on a timed segment or missed the target on one of the hoverbike sections. The interesting thing about this format is that it allows you to start again as soon as you realise you failed. How many times have you played a hard game and got into a pattern of pausing and restarting the section at the slightest screw-up? Jak 1 feels like it was built on that mentality. Screwed this bit up? Just go back to the start again. This, for me at least, does so much to avoid making me frustrated at the game, because it always seems fair and every failure feels like my own. It’s just nice to play a game that’s so forgiving is all. It is a game for children after all.

Jak 2: Renegade is a dramatic departure from everything that Jak 1 is. Released only two years later, Jak 2 says goodbye to the child-friendly Disneyland style of Jak 1 for a more mature style and a teenage audience. Set after the events of Jak 1, Jak 2 begins with all the main characters driving into a portal thing and then Jak finding himself alone in a strange place called Haven City (it’s an ironic name because Haven City is actually not very nice at all). He’s tortured by Baron Praxis (the man in charge of the city) for two years until Daxter (who is still an ottsel for reasons which would be spoilers) comes to rescue him. Jak speaks for the first time, “I’m gonna kill Praxis!” Not following the colourful child-friendly fun atmosphere from the first game at all.

The game is in fact so different from the first one that you could say that Naughty Dog basically dumped all they had established with the franchise up to this point in the bin and only carried over some small components. You still have the same base four characters, but Jak 2 adds some more – well over doubling the cast. These characters are conflicted, deep and interesting (most of the time). Yes – Naughty Dog has officially entered its BAFTA-winning story writing phase. The plot is interesting but isn’t exactly going to blow you away or anything, but it did hold my attention and I found it easy to follow. Gameplay is still the focus here.

Gone is collecting. There is only one mission in the game which involves collecting anything at all (as far as I remember) and that is only to send the message that collecting is dead and Naughty Dog killed it. So, considering that Jak 1 was all collecting, what is the gameplay for Jak 2? Shooting! Violence! Platforming! (They kept that part in) Jak 2 gives you four weapons to use – a shotgun, a rifle, a mini-gun and a rocket launcher. Using these weapons, Jak must fight off hoards of creatures called metalheads (I have no idea why they have this name – nothing about them is metal) as he completes missions for the resistance who are trying to take back the city from Barron Praxis and liberate the people while also discovering Jak’s origins and uncovering the secrets of the ancient precursor civilisation. It’s cool.

Or it would be cool if it weren’t for what Naughty Dog did with the checkpoints. Where Jak 1 had a checkpoint for every step you take (and every move you make), Jak 2 goes for the polar opposite. One single checkpoint at the start of every mission. One! You have to complete every mission without dying at any point because if you die you start the whole mission again. The game does not give you enough hp, you can only heal up with health packs which are found sparingly throughout a level, and you can never level up your hp – what you have at the start is what you have at the end. Combine this with the instakill sections of quite challenging platforming coupled with the sometimes endless waves of enemies and not enough ammo for all your guns and, well, it takes a certain amount of monk-like patience to complete every one of the “65 stunning missions”.

Sometimes it’s not even dying that causes you to fail. There are a number of escort missions where your companion doesn’t even have a weapon in most cases so they die very quickly because you’re having a hard enough time keep Jak alive let alone whoever you’re supposed to be protecting. You can also fail these missions if you walk just slightly too far away from your companion. One mission involved platforming while escorting a man and protecting him from random enemies. I kept falling off of the platforms, which wouldn’t actually kill me but I had no way of getting back up without failing the mission so my only option was to restart the mission from the pause menu. This frustrated me many times and prompted me to have a civilised ‘discussion’ with my controller where I introduced it to the floor – on several occasions.

There are loads of examples I could give of what I would (in polite company) refer to as “quite unfair” missions. The racing missions are a little bit annoying but manageable. The street race mission, however, is completely ridiculous. In typical video game style, Jak must settle an argument by winning a street race with this random person. The problem is that there is no obvious path to take in order to win the race – so you have to just keep failing and eventually you’ll learn the route because it will be engraved into your memory. That’s okay, I’m not complaining about that. What I am complaining about is the wriggly twists and turns you have to execute perfectly on this quite long course. If you crash at any point – it’s over; you’ll not be able to catch up. If you don’t travel at the speed of light, however, you might avoid crashing but you won’t win the race. The incredible precision you have to perform with a PS2 controller combined with the difficulty of trying to remember what the course is going to require you to do after the next turn just makes this mission the worst. THE WORST I TELL YOU.

Missions like these normally frustrate the hell out of you until you manage to get past them using ninja gaming skills at which point you feel amazing and nothing can stop you – you’re Superman with the wind at his back, but when over half the missions in the whole game are like this it makes you question whether it’s even worth you’re time anymore; you complete a mission that you struggled with and then you just know you’re probably going to struggle just as much with the next one. That being said, finally finishing the game felt pretty incredible but I can’t decide whether that was because I was just glad I no longer had any obligation to keep playing that game or if I just genuinely was enjoying myself and not knowing it. I think I’m happy that I played the whole game and looking back at it I did enjoy the world that Naughty Dog had created. But if the game were a little easier I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more.

Jak 3 is almost exactly the same as Jak 2 – but with a few important differences. The world is even bigger and now featuring a quite large desert area which is used for driving around in – yes Jak has cars now! Just what we all wanted. I’ll get to vehicle combat later. Where Jak 2 had a mere 4 weapons, Jak 3 has 12! It’s not that hard to keep track of them all because it is the same 4 from Jak 2, but now each has 3 versions which alter the weapon’s behaviour. Also, the only gun you’ll ever need is the second tier rifle; it shoots bullets which bounce off of all the surfaces of the room until they hit someone. Goodbye aiming. Now when you enter a room with a load of enemies in it, just spin around in circles while shooting until everything in the room is dead. It is actually that easy most of the time (until you run out of ammo).

Aiming is now also improved. Where Jak 2 had sort-of half auto-aim, requiring you to slighting move towards to the enemy, which ultimately just means you’ll slowly nudge around the area in an annoying way, Jak 3 has much more controlling auto aim which is actually usable.

Jak 3 also keeps up with the trends with the option to invert the x-value of the camera control stick. This was something more and more games were doing at the time. Previously, third-person games camera system had the player push the analogue stick in the direction they want the camera to rotate around the camera. In practice, it feels more like you have to push in the opposite direction you want to look. Games started defaulting to the, what we now call, modern camera control system. I am very pleased they did.

The most important change to talk about is the checkpointing. Jak 3 features many checkpoints throughout missions rather than just one at the start. This makes the game so much more enjoyable to play and I was so pleasantly surprised whenever I died in a mission, dreading having to do the mission from the start again, only to discover that the mission had a checkpoint so I only had to do the final third of the mission. It just makes the gameplay so much better. You no longer need to train in the art of patience from ancient monks in a mountain temple in order to complete the game. That’s not to say that the game is ‘easy’, however. The checkpoints feel like a compromise between Jak 1 and 2. Not quite everywhere, but also not nowhere. For many, this is the right balance.

Vehicle driving features heavily throughout the game. Many missions involve Jak driving through the desert to do various odd jobs that don’t seem to be that important when compared to the world ending peril that Jak is also supposed to be single-handedly preventing but whatever I’ll go and heard a bunch of leapers into a pen for you ‘cos that’s important as well I suppose. For some reason, there are a bunch of randy buggers driving cars of their own who seem to have nothing better to do than literally drive directly in front of you while blasting machine gun turrets in an attempt to destroy your whole self. To avoid this you must shoot forward while swerving out of the way of any other vehicles you may encounter. The thing about swerving in this game is that the vehicle physics just loves flipping you over and sending you on a car rolling journey which will see you rolling down the entire face of the hill as the game tries to flip you over back onto your wheels which causes the car to just flip back over again until you are on flat ground – of which there is not an abundance. This can cause some frustration when you are doing a timed driving mission and you fail just because someone dodgemed into you. The driving missions in this game are easily the worst thing about it.

You know what’s better than platforming? Platforming in a car. Did I say better? My mistake. Having to platform while travelling at characteristically PS2 fixed, very fast vehicle speed is less than ideal. Jak 3 features a temple area in the map which you must go to on the regular and can only be reached using the jump car. The jump car has a button that propels the car in an upwards direction entirely to powerfully. Using this, Jak can leap over large gaps. If you’re a bit careful, you can quite easily get to the temple. Getting back from the temple is a nightmare. I’m not sure why, but leaving is just so much harder. If you fall off of the platforms (which is quite easy) the game puts you back to the temple. It doesn’t even feel like this is supposed to be part of the game, it just feels like a mistake. It’s not fun, it just stops you from getting to where you need to go. It normally would take me quite a few minutes to free myself from this section of the map. Until I discovered that you can just shoot your car and cause it to explode. It turns out that if you do that the game just takes you back to the desert city. I discovered this the final time I needed to leave the temple island. Because I am a very rational person, I got very annoyed by this.

Naughty Dog used this game as an opportunity to expand its trademarked BAFTA-winning story writing and it really comes through in this one. The story in Jak 3 is actually pretty good and features one of the best plot twists I’ve seen in a game. That being said it’s still pretty clear that for Naughty Dog, the gameplay still takes priority – which is a good thing; all I’m saying is that sometimes a character will ask Jak to do something that makes no sense at all but will lead to a standard type of video game quest, which is most of the time quite fun.

Since we’re talking about Naughty Dog and I’m a nerd, we can’t not mention how impressive it is what Naughty Dog can do with that PlayStation 2 hardware. Jak 3 is the first game that actually made me realise how impressive the game looked that the time. Not only has Naughty Dog build this quite impressively large world with absolutely no loading screens (pretty much), it can also have an amazing number of things going on on screen at a time. In Jak 3, large sections of Haven City have become a war zone, and Jak needs to fly over it to get to places. The war is played out in front of your eyes as the streets are filled with enemy AI and friendly AI characters dynamically fighting with each other – in impressive numbers (for the PS2). Everywhere you look you can see different battles playing out with different groups of people and different stories going on. The animation and graphical quality Naughty Dog has achieved is also just so spectacular – especially when you compare the game to others released for the PS2 at the same time. In my head, I was picturing how not good looking Beyond Good and Evil looks in comparison, and how small the world is before you need to go through a loading screen.

I find the Jak and Daxter series quite interesting because it connects the Crash Bandicoot Naughty Dog to the Uncharted Naughty Dog, but the transition is not linear. Jak 1 is like Crash Bandicoot with an open world and a bit more focus on storytelling. Jak 3 is like Uncharted but cartoony and less grounded in reality. But Jak 2 and Jak 3 are essentially the same game in lots of ways. You could say that the Jak series is a kind of uneven bridge that has a big gap after one-quarter of the way through it. The leap taken here was startling – almost like a whole new franchise entirely. So what happened there? The answer is simple – GTA 3. GTA 3 came out and had an effect on every game around it. Loads of games at the time tried to emulate it in some way, and Jak 2 was one of those games. I think that Naughty Dog also wanted more of a focus on storytelling anyway, but GTA 3 definitely inspired the move to a more mature, darker tone. Also the open world city and shooting and all that stuff. Naughty Dog does a good job of taking that stuff and making it feel a bit more unique to Jak 2 and it doesn’t just feel like a GTA clone. Jak 2 is more ‘inspired’ by GTA 3.

That being said, I would say that I am one of those who thinks that the series definitely suffered some losses in the transition. There seems to be some debate about which game is the best. Most people go for the third one, and I can see why – it’s like Jak 2 but more balanced and less of a pain to complete. Some think Jak 2 is the best because they like the challenge of it and, arguably, the story is the best in Jak 2 according to some people. I think Jak 1 is the best. Neither of the other games in the series held the same charm and attitude I enjoyed so much while playing the first game. Yeah, it’s a game primarily designed for children, but I that doesn’t mean that adults can’t enjoy it as well. It’s just a nice game to play and I have the fondest memories of it after completing it.

Overall this series took me ages to complete, made me very angry and I constantly complained to my friends about it during my time with it. So, yeah, I enjoyed them – a lot. I would even recommend them to my friends. The trilogy was recently released on PS4 in a kind-HD remastered format. I got Jak 1 for free with another game. It’s like playing the game on PS2 but in 1080p and with a DualShock 4. They haven’t changed the button prompts so the game will ask you to press the non-existent start button on occasion, but this can be achieved by pressing the right side of the touchpad. I didn’t know that there even were PS2 games that can be emulated on the PS4, so that’s cool. The list is quite short though and doesn’t have many classics I’d like to play, like the Simpsons Hit and Run. If you’re in the market for a series of classic adventure games that are also pretty old at the same time, this is a great series to go for, and probably best experienced on the PS4 because of the HD and the non-inverted camera controls.

I apologise for the length of this and also the fact that it is twelve days late. I had a lot to say and not enough time to say it in. So I’m sorry I care about quality.

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