Jak II review
Having completed the first Jak and Daxter entry, ‘The Precursor’s Legacy, it was time to revisit the next iteration in the series, ‘Jak II’. Clearly, Naughty Dog did not get the memo which states “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” because Jak II is a dramatic revision of the existing, successful formula most likely due to the astounding impact of Grand Theft Auto III which was released a couple of years earlier. Jak II heavily imitates the GTA structure of driving and shooting in an open-world but also attempts to maintain the original blend of platforming action. In 2015 however, the combination just does not hold up anymore, cracks initially appear upon encountering the nonsensical open-world level design and it ultimately collapses under the weight of sheer player frustration upon wading through the stupidity of its checkpoint system.
Jak II begins in Sandover village with Jak, Daxter, Samos and Keira fixing up some ancient Precursor machinery, however after Daxter starts pressing buttons he really shouldn’t (NEVER PRESS THE RED ONE), it opens a rift in time where they are launched into a portal that transplants them in the middle of a dystopian city far in the future. Haven City to be precise, ruled with an iron will by its maniacal leader Baron Praxis who imprisons Jak as soon as he arrives, all the while subjecting him to gruelling dark eco experiments. Daxter finally shows up to rescue him after two years have passed but finds that his old pal has changed drastically due to all the Dark Eco in his body. One, he actually has a voice this time and two; he’s really really pissed off about what’s happened to him, a fact that he’s eager to demonstrate continuously throughout the game.
The narrative is unsurprisingly then a lot more complex than Precursor’s Legacy, the power struggle of Haven City between the Baron, the underground rebellion and the Metal Head creatures will hold your attention until the credits roll. Without delving into spoiler territory, overall it’s well written with a few nice twists even if Jak and Daxter’s slapstick scenes feel odd and out of place in the overriding serious tone of the game.
Jak II as I’ve reiterated a few times already is a completely different game to the first instalment, for one it takes place in a true open-world rather than the interconnected environment collectathon of the first. The city is the hub and mission icons are dotted along the map a la GTA which you can do in any order as and when you please. For the most part, you’ll be driving and shooting your way around the city which on paper sounds ace right? It worked well in 2003 but sadly in 2015, it all feels so clumsy to play, for instance the shooting mechanics are needlessly chaotic as you have to rely on the game’s auto-aim to dispatch your enemies. This it has to be said isn’t ideal when often the auto aim refuses to pick out enemies over a long distance, alas leaving you at the mercy of a hailstone of bullets as you try to close the distance to pick them out. There’s a good arsenal of guns though, all which get upgraded over time, the blaster for instance gets modded with ricocheting bullets; but none of them feel satisfying to wield thanks to the awry camera and aiming mechanics.
Furthermore, as Jak has been injected with copious amounts of dark eco, the junkie has the ability to transform into ‘Dark Jak’ a sort of beserker mode when he practically obliterates a legion of enemies within a few seconds. This doesn’t last long though and you’ll have to gather quite a bit of dark eco segments to recharge the poorly displayed dark eco bar on the HUD so you can’t just unleash him on a whim; it’s sort of strange in a way that Jak II makes such a big deal over ‘Dark Jak’ as the player is never able to use him very much.
Another problem with how it plays is how painfully tedious is to get around the city, there’s a small selection of vehicles available from a nippy zoomer that appears to have been made from paper judging from the amount of damage it can take and a range of more saloon-esque hover vehicles. But man, they’re all utterly diabolical to drive, drifting around corners is complete guess-work as is figuring out if the pedestrians are just going to leap in front of your vehicle for no reason whatsoever. This would be bad enough on its own but wait there’s a few tortuous races that you NEED TO WIN in order to progress through the story that will have you pulling your hair out. Thankfully, there are numerous traditional platforming segments here which hark back to the Jak of old, a whole section in an ancient tomb is a particular highlight but these are unfortunately quite rare in this GTA-lite creation.
Ah but have I mentioned there’s also a hoverboard, rhythm mini-games, a wack-a-mole section, gun courses and cargo transports…? No? Well because they’re all so damn pointless and none of them are actually any good; it feels like Naughty Dog have included them for the sheer sake of it. You’re not bored thanks to the frantic pacing but you sure are bewildered.
Which brings us onto the level design and structure of the game, as previously mentioned it’s open-world so you take missions when you want, sounds great however the mission structure is so badly designed it’s truly exasperating. Case in point, you’ll get a mission from a floating belly in a chair called Krew at the docks, so after you’ve made your way all across the city, your task is nearly always around the area where YOU’VE JUST CAME FROM AT THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF THE CITY. Hence, you’ll be spending a ridiculous amount of time driving backwards and forwards through the city to get a cut-scene and then eventually to the mission area.
This is about as enjoyable as I imagine driving in Cairo or Mumbai is, probably because there’s a similar level of traffic in Haven City. I’m not kidding, although its impressive from a technical standpoint, the density is unbelievable, to counter this you’re able to switch hover zones to try and wade through but it’s like trying to swim up a waterfall. Not to mention, if you’re forced to go ground level and hit a civilian the guards will go mental and then your hover-car will explode, you’ll flail about trying to get another one, get killed and then I’ll set fire to the disc…. wait what?
The whole structure of this open-world is a bit bizarre, the missions never feel cohesive to the world with many taking place in designated areas outside Haven’s walls, and it has the effect of making Haven sort of a needless obstacle course.
The frustration doesn’t end there though as Jak II also contains one of the most horrid checkpoint systems I’ve ever had the misfortune of playing through. Let’s start by saying, Jak II is an extraordinarily difficult game for what it is, there are insane difficulty spikes here with some missions being sadistically cruel. I’m fully expecting at this point for some of you to scoff and say that’s a load of rubbish, but it’s not and I’ve indeed beaten the game but good grief the cheapness of the level design is utterly absurd.
How about this for starters, at one point you have to escape from a monster by jumping onto the right platforms and avoiding the obstacles, standard platforming stuff; on your first attempt there’s a hefty bit of luck involved because you aren’t fully aware of the patterns and timings so you might miss a platform by a fine margin. Galling enough right? Well imagine that, but being forced to go back ABOUT 20 MINUTES AT THE VERY START OF THE LEVEL not when you’re running away from the monster, not when you solve the puzzles to trigger the scene, not when you beat the enemies the get to the puzzles but before you even walk through the first fucking door of the level. Oh and if you die, you’ll start from the last checkpoint with all the ammo you used gone, so you better hope there’s a few crates about or you’re absolutely fucked. How on earth did the play-testers not pick up on this at the time, honestly playing this in 2015 is about as stressful as it comes and don’t even get me started on that docks level or I’ll be writing the rest of this in my own blood.
Considering its shift from a colourful, tropical world of the first game to a gritty sci-fi dystopian city, Jak II somewhat predictably hasn’t aged all that well on a graphical front. The gorgeous art style has sadly not been translated to Haven City and it’s drab, oppressive streets means that thanks to the passing of time, it all looks quite garish. The HD upgrade cleans it up a bit, however it can’t make up for the fact that the environments overall are dour to look at. It’s still impressive though to see the effort made to make every district of the city feel distinctive, for instance the slums have leaking pipes and dense housing, whilst the bazaar is full of small market-style buildings and the stadium has a wide, dominant courtyard. There’s plenty of stuff on screen too, from the dense stream of traffic to the parade of foot-soldiers on the ground all the while not interfering with the steady, smooth frame-rate it performs on. Indeed, it’s hard to overly-critical in general in this respect, this is after all not a proper remaster, just touched up in HD so what was once jaw-dropping on the PS2 is naturally a little flat and underwhelming on the PS3, but the ambition is nonetheless striking.
Sound-wise, it’s decent with Haven City having cool background themes for each distinct district, however the repetition of enemy dialogue gets quickly tiresome with every guard seemingly patrolling ‘Sector 9’ and proclaiming where they are is ‘a no-hover zone’ even when a stream of dense traffic zooms above their head. Voice acting is still good with Jak actually getting a voice this time to fit his new personality of being a sullen teen. Daxter is the highlight again though with exceptional voice acting throughout, perfectly capturing his excessively animated nature; although one could argue that his comedic scenes does controvert the darker tone and feels somewhat out of place, like Daxter is still suspended in the themes of Precursor’s Legacy but the rest of the game has shifted tonally.
To be blunt, Jak II is a bit of a mess when playing it in this day and age, the shooting mechanics feel clumsy and the structure of the open world is truly baffling. I admire how brave Naughty Dog were for this dramatic shift in the series and how ambitious they were in terms of scope, but it pains me to say that the gameplay here is sorely lacking in its overall execution and age has done it no favours.
+ Intriguing storyline
+ The platforming sections are still great
– Baffling open-world design
– Horrid checkpoint system
– A lot of variety, but not a lot of fun