Friday, January 6, 2012

Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy - The Beginning Of A Great One

Within the sea of modern games out there that are sequels or reboots/re-imaginings, perhaps this is the best time to look into the past for some quality entertainment. As Sly 4 is slated for release this year, this blog now has an ongoing project to review every game possible from within three of Sony's landmark franchises: Ratchet & Clank, Jak and Daxter, and Sly Cooper. Since the first one is already being taken care of, it has become my job to tackle the second. With this being my second playthrough of the game after a couple of years, my only question now is where to begin talking about Jak and Daxter.

I suppose the first thing to say would be a brief history of this title and its developer. After creating only three titles with mixed reception, Naughty Dog hit their stride when they developed the highly acclaimed Crash Bandicoot series for the PS1, which would later become some of the best selling games of all time for that system. After their acquisition by Sony, Naughty Dog made Jak and Daxter as the developer's first title for the PS2. Released in late 2001, it would go on to receive massive critical acclaim and spawn three sequels and two spin-offs. With that introduction out of the way, I now present my review of Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy for the PS2.

Before the story can begin, the player is given an explanation by Samos, the sage of Green Eco, about the concept of the Precursors as creators of all things, as well as the substance known as Eco. Following this, the story starts officially with Jak and his friend Daxter travelling to Misty Island against Samos' wishes. While there, they witness an evil plan being hatched by two people and are attacked by a Lurker while trying to leave. While Jak is able to defeat it with a bomb, Daxter accidentally falls into a vat of Dark Eco and ends up transformed into a creature called an Ottsel, a combination of an otter and a weasel. When they return to Sandover village, Samos yells at them for their disobedience, but informs Daxter that Gol Acheron, master of Dark Eco, may have the ability to change him back to his former self.

As the plot advances it seems to be rather thin, even with an rather interesting twist regarding the true identity of the villains, who seem to be made mostly of cardboard. There's even a developing romance between Jak and Keira, Samos' daughter, that seems to play out under the radar. Due to the lighthearted nature of the game though and how wonderfully it is pulled off, these things are very easily excusable. While the story may not have much meat, there are other aspects that make it interesting anyway. For example, we get to learn more about the world these characters inhabit, as well as the kind of technology that exists.

Controls are very simple and responsive, with moves that are easy to figure out with the lack of a tutorial. Since Jak's only moves are in the realm of hand-to-hand combat, experimentation in this sense is so intuitive that looking at a manual isn't even required. However, there is one small problem where the second press of the X button doesn't always seem to register, leading occasionally to some unintended loss of health. Despite this, it doesn't detract from the amount of platforming required to get through a level.

Speaking of which, the various levels of the game are crafted very well, especially since they are all interconnected in some form or another, with some events sometimes affecting what is accessible in other areas. The advantage to this level of interconnected design results in the absence of load times no matter how big the area, as everything is right there waiting to be accessed. While this may result in some formulaic structure for some games, there is fortunately a great variety in world structure and enemy types, though some of the challenges do carry over between stages. Most of the challenge familiarity however is focused within the three hub stages, mostly consisting of paying off NPCs or Oracles for Power Cells needed for advancing the game. Also, the levels seem to borrow from every type you'd expect from a platforming game, like cave, forest, ice, and lava levels. It seems to work in this game's favor though, since it creates a lot of level variety while still being fun and accessible to play.

Jak and Daxter is one of those games where collection is key to getting to the next area available. These collectibles are the aforementioned Power Cells, Precursor Orbs that are used as a sort of currency, and Scout Flies that gain you Power Cells once you've collected all seven in one area. As you can probably tell, Power Cells are the biggest key of all to going to the next hub stage, but thankfully they are fairly easy to obtain and it is not required that you have all of them at all times. This design trait helps to keep the game fun and interesting, with motivation to continue playing to collect them all.

One other key aspect of gameplay is Eco. Different types of Eco interact with the player in different ways, with Green Eco offering health, Blue Eco providing speed and ability to operate certain machinery, Red Eco giving Jak a leg up in combat, and Yellow Eco allowing him to shoot forth small energy blasts. With a system as simple as this, it's interesting how they are placed in the environment in a way that you can figure out what you're supposed to do without the game treating you like an idiot. It also helps the game retain a certain level of challenge as well, with the occasional need to try and conserve certain types that won't regenerate.

For a game released in the year 2001, making it an early PS2 title, the graphics hold up surprisingly well.  At this point in the franchise there's still an upbeat tone as evidenced by the cartoony visuals, which are very inviting, and the colors used which work very well with the lighting, especially considering the game has a full day-to-night cycle. The in-game models are very smooth, with precursor technology always dominating with a particular shade of brown. One thing I especially liked was the interactions that Daxter has with Jak's character model during movement. During jumps and runs, he fluidly moves through the air as he tries to hang onto his buddy's shoulder. I suppose the only complaint I could have about the physics is that the lava in the game seems to move and sometimes sound like water, but then again they may not have had the kind of physics engines we had later on to facilitate the proper effects.

One other thing I can praise is the overall sound design. The sound effects are all very fitting and unique, with the right choices that they aren't annoying every time they are heard. Voice acting is also superb, though one thing to note is that between the title characters, only Daxter does the talking. Thankfully, his lines are actually pretty humorous and help keep the overall tone of the game intact, although during control he sounds much like a guide fairy. In any case, he seemed to be handled pretty well in this game as the voice of the duo. Of course, that would change in later installments.

Lastly, it's important to mention that this game does provide a healthy degree of challenge. On some of the challenges it is possible to die multiple times, even the final boos, but each death is always the player's fault and only serves to provide motivation to try again. Given the nature of this game though, it's overall a fairly easy but enjoyable game.

If I could give an opinion on Jak and Daxter now, it would be that Naughty Dog was able to craft a very excellent platforming game that no one with a PS2 should miss. Taking the longevity of the game into account though, I'd say that it was a very good start for the franchise, and the ending unlocked by collecting all of the Power Cells does create an air of mystery that seems to only be solved by playing the sequel. If you want to relive the game but don't own a PS2 anymore, maybe the upcoming Jak and Daxter HD collection will suffice, as it promises to do just that.

Now I can't wait to play Jak II and continue my reviewing adventure with this series of games. Hopefully I'll enjoy is as much as, if not more than, this masterful work.

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