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Jak II
System: PlayStation 2 :: Rating: Teen :: Players: 1
Genre: Platformer :: Released: 14 October 2003

By drqshadow
31 August 2006 I didn't care all that much for the original Jak and Daxter. Let's just get that out of the way right now. I found it was too short, the gameplay too straightforward and repetitive, the characters too sticky-sweet and friendly, and the visuals completely lacking for a first wave next-gen title. Where it did shine was in the gameplay, although even that had a few hiccups, and in the occasional character and level designs. It was, generally, a really fun game to play, but you had to be willing to ignore a few bugs and completely shut your brain off during the storytelling sequences, which were yanked right out of a Saturday morning cartoon show. I felt like I was playing something marketed toward seven year olds, and that worked to put me off of the package as a whole.

That seems to have been a frustration heard by the developers at Naughty Dog, as well, as it's precisely that image that's confronted and shed like an old skin within the first five minutes of the sequel. They even played off of that old vibe by totally cheesing up the opening moments of Jak II, only to hurl the cast into an entirely different, deeper, darker, more mature-themed universe before the player hits button one. Where you wouldn't be surprised to see the Easter Bunny stashing eggs behind a bush or a unicorn prancing by in the bright, obnoxious world of the original game, the setting of Jak II is more along the lines of Blade Runner. It's a cold, dark, repressed new world, complete with downtrodden, defeated city residents and a stuffy, filthy rich ruling class. Nothing that hasn't been seen in the realm of gaming before, but also a complete about-face for the series. And the immediate improvements you'll notice are more than just environmental. Though the entire cast of heroes returns from the first game (albeit mildly altered and scarred by their experiences in this new world), an entire platoon of darker, grimacing new faces is there to join them and, strangely, don't seem out of place or at odds alongside the more innocent characters from chapter numero uno. What's more, the visuals are much better realized; most of the blips in the gameplay have been ironed out, and the experience as a whole feels twice as deep. In short, my immediate impressions were universally good.

The story picks up just hours after the conclusion of the original, with the heroes just outside a mysterious, giant gate, unlocked by their epic battle with the first game's boss. As they stare on, doe-eyed with wonder, the gate opens and an enormous army of dark creatures floods through. Eventually the lead characters are dragged in as their world is torn asunder, separated from one another, and dropped onto the cold pavement of this tough new world. Cue the white-on-black "two years later" type face, and the game really begins.

None of the four main faces have had any contact with one another since the accident at the dark gate, and Jak in particular has had a rough time of it. After crashing to earth without his friends, he was grabbed off the streets and thrown into a scientific lab specializing in military experiments. There he was poked, prodded and experimented upon for the entire two year lapse in storytelling, until Daxter arrived to pseudo-heroically set him free. As you can imagine, this didn't exactly leave him with the same glowing, childlike disposition that defined him in the first title, and his own personality changes are an excellent parallel to the abrupt change of tone and direction of the series itself. In fact, I felt like the typically lazy "two years later" setup actually functioned beautifully in allowing the main characters to grow, both physically and internally. My own anticipation of their new quirks and fresh outlooks made the eventual reintroductions and accompanying new personality tweaks of these familiar faces that much more rewarding. The time off also made what would've been a horribly abrupt change from Thundercat to Akira a lot easier to swallow, and helped to immediately shake off the "kids-only" image that the first game had been labeled with.

The mission-based system of objectives from the first title has returned for round two, and remains your only true means of progressing through the main story, although it's been revamped and improved to function a little more easily within the broader scope of this large new world. Where the first game was divided into a half dozen themed chapters, with no overlapping missions in between, Jak II's basic structure feels a lot more like the games in the Grand Theft Auto legacy. The entire story takes place in one enormous city, with Jak taking instructions from a few key characters spread around the map, and involves frequent backtracking and re-explorations of familiar locales. This goes quite a ways toward establishing the city itself (not to mention the faceless nobodies who call it home) as a major character, much in the same way as Gotham City itself represents one of the top players in the Batman mythos. Take one away from the other, and the stories aren't nearly as entertaining... but together, they add up to more than just the sum of their parts.

The city in Jak II is truly alive; as you play, you'll see the time of day change, the ebbs and flows of traffic increase or decrease, depending on which section of town you're in, and the horrified reactions of the general population as the scenery around them continually changes. As a part of an underground movement dedicated to unseating the dominating local government, you'll have to work around the law, which adds a whole new dimension to the time spent in between missions. I won't go so far as to say that these little bits of downtime are as deep and entertaining as Grand Theft Auto's, but there is something to be said for speeding through a crowded farmer's market on a Back to the Future-style hoverboard, spraying fruits, vegetables and other wares in your wake. You're quickly and easily identified as an outlaw by the constant patrol of law enforcement officers, which means that your journey between missions will involve a frenzied run from heavily armed government agents. These crazed dashes for freedom force players to memorize the twists and turns of the city's streets under pressure, but doesn't really result in any negative ramifications should they fail. Jak has an unlimited stash of lives, and you'll spawn almost exactly where you were killed should a chase turn sour, so the need to run from the law isn't really all that pressing unless you happen to be aboard a particularly nice vehicle at the time.

One of the pitfalls of this large, mission-based system, of course, lies in the incredible size of the landscape and the means of successfully moving the player from one destination to another without getting hopelessly lost along the way. Jak II confronts this by adding a new overworld map to the corner of the screen, complete with tiny indicators that fill you in when a new mission is available and try to point you in the right direction as you navigate the streets. It's not entirely successful, but it gets the job done and is a welcome addition to something that was mildly annoying in the first game. Perhaps a more useful addition to the between-missions gameplay is the introduction of a vehicle-snatching function. The constant presence of bumper-to-bumper traffic is there for more than just eye candy in Jak and company's new home, and makes the whole process of getting from point A to point B much less headache-inducing and a bit more of an adventure unto itself. The entire city revolves around the use of hover-cars, which clog the airways but leave the streets themselves open for foot traffic. The floating autos move at roughly five times the speed of a running Jak, and the title character can almost supernaturally cover the twenty-foot distance between foot-level and car-level, which makes car theft more of a necessity than merely a possibility. Once aboard, you're given the option of flying at the car's regular height or skimming underneath the traffic jams at ground level, plowing over civilians along the way. After flattening your first dozen innocent bystanders, you'll stop feeling that little twinge of guilt in the back of your head, and will more intimately understand the necessity of fast driving versus safe driving, at least in this bleak, futuristic town.

The vehicles provide more than just a method for getting from one mission to another, though, and are featured much more prominently in the missions themselves than in the first game. Where chapter one had you occasionally climbing aboard a giant bird for a few moments, or trying to get through a set of glowing rings aboard a scooter in a goofy side quest, part two uses vehicles as more than just a mindless accessory. They're a major part of your life as an outlaw, and are essential in rushing illegal goods past a border patrol or breaking prisoners free from an armed motorcade and hurrying them to safety. In this instance, it's nice to see the attention paid to improving that previous system, and the conscious effort to invent and introduce new staples to an ongoing series.

Perhaps the most noteworthy change from part one to part two is Jak's occasional Incredible Hulk-like transformation from heroic humanoid to killer albino rabbit, seemingly implanted during his years under the knife at that evil military lab. After absorbing enough dark eco from the bodies of fallen enemies (and, naturally, accepting a gentle prodding from the player), he grows white fur, develops sharp black nails, dark black eyes and a penchant for hurling purple lightning at anyone in the remote vicinity. After a short period, Jak returns to his normal state and things pick up where they left off. As you delve deeper into the story, further powers are unlocked and these little spells become more impressive and useful, but the length of the power-up grows shorter and shorter. In action, it's a quick way to get yourself out of a tough spot, and if you build up your dark eco and save it for just such a moment, you'll step out of the smoke feeling like an action hero.

Also worth noting is the sudden introduction of gunplay and weaponry to the series, which was lacking entirely from the previous chapter. It goes hand-in-hand with the coming of age of the characters and the story, as well as with the tone of the new environment, but was actually pretty shocking to see after the simple punches and kicks of the first game. One of the characters you'll wind up accepting missions from is actually a weapons smuggler, and your association with him leads to bigger and louder toys as the yarn spins longer. They're somewhat cumbersome and underthought, just as the vehicles were in the last game, and though they play a much bigger part in the overall story than the bird and scooter did in The Precursor Legacy (you can't finish the end boss in part two without a gun of some sort), their inclusion leaves something to be desired and overall they felt clunky and unnecessary. If that's meant to be some sort of tongue-in-cheek parody of the value of worldly technology, job well done... but I don't think deft satire is what they were aiming for when they added a shotgun to Jak and Daxter's repertoire.

As I mentioned previously, the flaws in the previous game's control scheme have been addressed and largely ironed out here, leading to a much more enjoyable, less distracting in-game experience. You'll occasionally run into an undetected double-jump, which was a huge issue in chapter one, but it's a much less common occurrence, and the issues with ledge detection and Jak's refusal to grab onto some cliffs after a death-defying leap have been completely erased from the picture. I did continue to notice some problems with out-of-bounds areas that were somewhat bothersome: if you try to leap up to an off-limits area, Jak will go into this strange floating crouch and slide around as though he were on ice until his feet touch solid ground again. The idea in itself wouldn't really be so bad if that disembodied slide didn't have such a penchant for hurling you off into a bottomless pit. Chances are good that, if there's certain death anywhere nearby, Jak will find a way to slide into it if you get fruity and try to explore uncharted waters.

Otherwise, for a game with so many functions and potential actions, the actual control scheme is fairly straightforward and easy to grasp. X is, as always, your primary action button, which means jumping if you're on foot or accelerating if onboard a vehicle, while O and Square reprise their roles as physical attacks. R1 pulls a weapon and automatically pulls the trigger, which can get a bit hairy when you're scooting along in a flying car, as R2 is used to change levels from car-height to people-height and vice versa. It's easy to get caught up in a big chase scene, hit the wrong R button and wind up starting a horrible explosion that leads to your own demise, when your intention was to simply float a little bit closer to the ground.

The camera floats in the standard third-person position high above the back of Jak's head at a three-quarter angle but is easily controlled with the right analog stick should you prefer a profile view for some tricky platforming action. As with any 3D action platformer, you'll sometimes run into a few tight spots with the camera angle, but such instances are very infrequent in Jak II, not to mention easily remedied through the use of that right analog. All things considered, my only real complaint about the controls lies with the use of the hoverboard, and even those issues are largely due to it not utilizing the flawless Tony Hawk's Pro Skater control scheme. The hoverboard is largely a novelty act, though, and as such I can't really tear the game apart if those controls aren't entirely up to snuff.

One of my major gripes about the first title was with the graphics, which I perceived to be lacking, especially for an early next-gen title. When the PS2 and Xbox were first released, it seemed that everyone set out to impress, to flex the new hardware's muscle, and The Precursor Legacy looked like the nerdy guy who gets sand kicked in his face at the beach. In this area, the sequel provides a much better showing. The characters, which were primarily lumpy and dull representations of a truly gorgeous original design, are much more detailed this go-around. Eyeballs have the right glint to them, skin doesn't look like it's wrapped around a pile of rocks, and clothing is finely textured and well done. The environments are suitably decayed so as to meet the vibe put out by the story, but to also not lose touch with the fact that this is supposed to be a somewhat cartoony setting. Even more exciting, HD output is supported with beautiful results, although the option to turn it on is buried deep within the options menu and is turned off by default every time the game loads. Still, the lush environments, beautiful live-rendered cutscenes and tight character portrayals are worth the extra minute it takes to hunt down the option and check it at the start of each session. The visuals of the series can be panned no longer, as chapter two provides a great turnaround in that respect.

Of the game's vital components, only the audio leaves much to be desired. While the voice acting work is usually in the "good to very good" range, with a few characters in particular standing out from the pack, the in-game soundtrack is extremely dull, not to mention maddeningly repetitive. For the main cityscape, where you'll spend most of the game moving from zone to zone, point to point, to only have a single, minute-long looping theme, is beyond inexcusable. It's downright lazy. Every sector has its own personality, whether it's a bustling market, a smoky industrial zone or a ritzy, canal-riding high-income residential area, and that's something that could've been keyed into and heightened through the game's music. Instead, that single, dull, looping theme carries across the entire city and tears a lot of the personality away from what is otherwise a lush, densely populated metropolis. On the positive side, Dolby 5.1 has been implemented. I'll always applaud a title that uses that effectively, and the ambient noises, speaking parts and explosions all sound great in surround sound.

In all, I came away feeling much more impressed with this sequel than I expected to be, considering the quality of its predecessor. It is in every way a successful step forward from the ideas and executions that came before: the graphics have improved boundlessly, the controls have been nearly perfected, the characters have grown and developed of their own accord, and the difficulty has gone up considerably. This is a much, much deeper, more involved game than The Precursor Legacy ever could've been, and earns special marks by not only shifting the series into a more contemporary, interesting setting, but by doing so in a way that also makes the first game seem a lot more intriguing and thought-out than it ever really was. There's still room for improvement here, which means I'm expecting a lot out of Jak III, but this is in many ways the Empire Strikes Back of this trilogy. Dark, and in many instances utterly hopeless, but a much better tale than the first, with a better cast, better effects, more variety and a great open-ended story that leaves plenty of room for expansion in the threequel.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9.1

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