Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jak X: Combat Racing

As part of this blog's coverage of the Sly Cooper, Jak and Daxter and Ratchet & Clank franchises to build up to Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, it has been my duty to cover all of Jak and Daxter. After having already covered the three main entries, I remembered that I still needed to go through another trio of games, two of which are spin offs and another which is developed by a completely different company. The first of these, Jak X: Combat Racing, was released in 2005, merely a year after Jak 3, presumably due to the popularity of the franchise. Of course, this game is also from a time where if a successful franchise went on long enough a kart racer would inevitably be developed for it. I didn't care about that when I first got this game at the age of 12 however, and I don't really care about that years later now that I've played it again after so long. This second playthrough has reminded of that initial point in my youth when I was very obsessed over it, even though I couldn't take it online. I found it to be fun back then, but as an adult I've started to notice more of the rough patches contained within. While the game was still fun to play, I don't feel that it's design completely holds up after seven years.

Before I officially begin my review, allow me to share a personal horror story I have regarding this game. My first exposure was through a PS2 demo disk. I played it for a while and was instantly hooked, which led to me playing. After what felt like an eternity, my parents finally bought me a copy from a Best Buy. Excitedly, I popped the disk into my system and it turned out that there was a demo disk of the game within a retail copy that was valued at full price. Needless to say, I wasn't very happy about this, especially since it meant that an entire shipment at the store came that way (oops). Thankfully, we were able to exchange it for the full version and I was able to get plenty of mileage out of it.

Now onto the actual review. Jak X begins with the news that Krew, from Jak II, is dead and the duo, along with some other familiar faces, are gathered for the reading of his will. The group is introduced to his daughter, Rayne, who pours them all a drink to toast with as a video will is played. As Krew speaks out through the video about his will, he reveals that everyone's drink has been poisoned and the only way to obtain the antidote is to compete, and win, in a race known as the Kras City Grand Championship. While this does spark a frenzy amongst the group initially, they all agree to work together to stay alive. Stories for racing games are usually more of an excuse plot, hence why a player shouldn't expect such a well-written story in that genre. Jak X, however, manages to get this aspect right.

Seeing as how this is still, after all, a Jak and Daxter game, it comes as no shock to me that they would try to make this game more story driven. From beginning to end, I couldn't help but find myself intrigued by the personalities of each character, both old and new, as they interact in the various cutscenes, helped by the ongoing mystery connecting them together that ends in a surprising twist that ties everything together rather neatly. At times however, I still couldn't help but feel as though the story was there only to introduce nearly every character form the entire franchise, while introducing more, just to remind the audience that some of them, like Kleiver, exist. Thankfully, some of the newer characters, at least the ones that mattered, are pretty memorable. Two of them are revealed right off the bat to be racers gunning for Jak, the robot mercenary UR-86 and the villainous Razer, who comes out of retirement specifically to kill our hero on the track. Admittedly however, they feel a little more like cardboard most of the time, having almost no personality except that they are criminals that want the duo to lose.

One character in particular that I found very entertaining was the racing announcer G.T. Blitz, named as a nod to Sony's Gran Turismo series of games, especially when he shares the screen with Pecker, who makes a reappearance from Jak II and 3. The cutscenes involving them bring a lot of humor to an otherwise serious story and I appreciated the balance, since it also shows that the game isn't taking itself completely seriously. The two of them also occasionally add fuel to the mystery surrounding a mysterious crime boss named Mizo, who wants nothing more than to win the competition. Towards the end when the player finally gets to see who Mizo is, the final confrontation feels a little dissatisfying, though it does show just how deep his goals were and puts certain statements made in the game in a darker context.

Of course, I can't talk about a racing game without mentioning the gameplay. It should be noted that racing was a concept introduced in Jak 3 and is greatly expanded upon here. Players take control of a variety of characters piloting one of several vehicles as they fight with an array of power-ups while driving, standard fare for a game like this. What's unique about the idea however is the way that Eco, a powerful magic within the Jak and Daxter universe, is integrated into the gameplay. Yellow Eco is what contains the forward weapons, ranging from missiles to grenades, while Red Eco houses the rear weapons, like landmines and gun turrets. Green Eco, obviously, is health and Blue Eco can be used to make the car go at turbo speed. Dark Eco is the real game changer here, represented by a meter that builds when you inflict or receive damage. When the meter is full, the car returns to full health and every weapon you pick up becomes more powerful, potentially killing opposing drivers in a single shot.

While the various weapons on a fully crowded track is chaotic enough, there is actually a deeper strategy at times, involving such ideas as using the jump button at the right times, whether or not to use a rear weapon to dodge a missile, what power-ups to grab and when (or why), and plenty more. The frantic gameplay is both fun and sometimes frustrating, a delicate balance on the player's feelings that is tested heavily during the campaign. As the game goes on, there is a sudden difficulty spike in both level design and enemy AI, which makes trying to get into the last cup race more infuriating than necessary.

Allow me to briefly talk about the different events in the game. Quite a few of them involve going down the actual track, including the regular Circuit Races and Freeze Rallies, which are akin to a time trial mode where you have to get under a specific time to get a higher level medal. Modes that feel more unique to this game are Death Race and Rush Hour modes, which both involve destroying unmanned cars going in a specific direction to rack up a large combo to score more and more points. Then of course are modes that involve killing enemy drivers in Twisted Metal style events, like Death Match, which operates as the name implies, or a Sport Hunt mode where opponents try to kill as many of a specific thing as possible across the arena. The large amount of events creates a lot of different variety for the game, which helps to keep the single player campaign fresh enough to warrant more playtime without feeling completely overwhelming, a factor that thankfully helped me enjoy things a bit more.

Then there's the actual level design. For the most part, the design team seemed very capable at creating interesting environments that bring forth different personalities representing the different worlds that the franchise inhabits. However, the more complicated race tracks have some elements that make it a bit more frustrating at times, admittedly due in part to me somehow not being as good at the game as I was many years ago, but also due to many cosmetic elements that throw you for a loop. However, my only real complaints stem from the stages that are more designed for close encounters, especially when there isn't much open space. In bigger areas, I found myself able to plan out my strategies much easier and tactically place items and specific weapons. Smaller arenas however were a bit too hard to navigate and the design prevented me from having solid footing for more than a few seconds, but I'm ready to admit again that my way of handling the events wasn't exactly perfect. In any case, these levels were a bit too crowded to do anything straight and I just ended up getting very lucky a few times to advance with enough medal points to unlock the next challenge. I won't name any specific levels, since there are at least two to three times as many levels than game modes, a staggering number to say the least.

Jak X is also notably the first game in the Jak and Daxter franchise to have an online multiplayer component. This seems rather appropriate for the genre, and I would gladly have tried if I had a connection at the ready for the PS2 earlier on. However I am in the year 2012, so I'm pretty sure that the servers would have been cut off by now. Therefore I can only talk about the split-screen multiplayer available in the exhibition mode. When you know what modes can't be played this way, this mode can actually be pretty fun, though it is helpful to have some bots in the action so that matches don't become too stale. An optional LAN mode is also good for being able to play with friends, provided they still own PS2's or even copies of this game.

If there's one thing I will praise, it would be the car customization. Playing through the campaign and getting gold medals in certain events, some of which are easier said than done, will earn you one of plenty of different car parts. When you've unlocked enough parts though, there's a deep sense of customization, as you can swap out parts and set a wide array of colors down to give the car a custom paint job. In the end, you can make the car look practically any way you wish within the provided parts and the cars each have unique designs for each part between them, so it's also fun just to see how certain things look on other vehicles. The unlockables are also fun to obtain, making spending your winnings on them seem worthwhile, more so when it's a video or other way to play.

On a final note, I'd like to say that the graphics are very good for the game at that point in time. They retain the same feel as a Jak and Daxter game, with the darker color palette of Jak II and 3 used suitably. The music is also very well done, with Dean Menta from Faith No More and Billy Howerdel from A Perfect Circle collaborating to form a very memorable score that suits the tone of every race perfectly.

As a whole, Jak X: Combat Racing is a very well done racing game, especially for coming out only a year after the last major installment in the franchise. With some well-designed courses and game modes, the experience is fun, though a bit rough around the edges, and it manages to stand out as a worthy PS2 era title to play. While it may not hold up as well now as it did when I was a kid, it still proves to be a decent game to me as an adult and I would recommend playing this game for a pretty enjoyable time. Next time I get to this franchise, it will be with its first handheld title, Daxter.

No comments:

Post a Comment