Monday, January 16, 2012

Jak II - Continuing The Legacy

After the success of 2001's Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, Naughty Dog began developing its first sequel, Jak II. Released in 2003, the game would go on to receive critical acclaim like its predecessor, as well as get added to Sony's "Greatest Hits" lineup of PS2 games. Having finished a 16+ hour campaign, Jak II definitely lives up to its fame, but is also a little off from perfect.

The tone of the game takes a complete 180 from the first game based on the opening cutscenes alone. Jak, Daxter, Samos, and Keira go through a portal generated by a Precursor Ring on a Rift Rider (both of which they found in Jak and Daxter) and end up in a technology-filled dystopia known as Haven City. They are nearly immediately separated for about two years, during which Jak has been experimented on Dark Eco in an attempt by Baron Praxis to create essentially a super soldier. Daxter comes to his friend's rescue, aiding in his dramatic escape from prison as they run into a man named Kor that tells them briefly about the citywide takeover by Praxis as well as the attempts by the Underground to restore control to its rightful owner, who happens to be a child he is protecting. Once the duo start aiding the Underground, things quickly escalate as they continue to realize just what they have gotten themselves into.

Storywise, the game unfolds like a rollercoaster as alliances are made and broken, love is tested, and numerous revelations come to light, especially a very notable one near the end that will literally leave you guessing. While the story is considerably darker than the previous entry, its execution is astoundingly brlliant thanks to its expert pacing, as well as including well-written dialogue that explains just about everything you need to know about the characters and events without going into long expository speeches. With the screen time the characters are given, it's easy to map out their relationships and motivations while still being genuinely surprised by at least one or two unexpected plot twists. At first I didn't feel too much emotional attachment, but it's hard not to be shocked when something happens to them late in the game to affect plot or character dynamics.

Speaking of characters, the very first thing anyone should note about them is that Jak can now speak. While he is fueled by revenge on Praxis, this is justified by having been tortured in experiments for two years against his will. The growly tone of his voice serves as a nice touch and adds some depth to him, allowing him for once to interact with other characters on a more equal level. In addition, new characters like Sig, Torn, Tess, Ashelin and Krew are well-written for their roles, though talking about their relationships with each other would only make this more confusing than it needs to be. The voices selected for these characters are also done well, with specific praise going to Krew's sinister British voice and Clancy Brown's voice for Baron Praxis. I also found Daxter's dialogue to be humorous at times in a way that didn't feel annoying.

In terms of overall gameplay, this is perhaps where Jak II differs the greatest from its predecessor. The Eco abilities from the previous entry are now instead integrated as ammo types for a single weapon known as the Morph Gun. Using the D-Pad to switch between ammo types is very simple to adjust to and aiming the morph gun was never a problem, with advantages for each ammo type serving to inject a nice level of tactical skill on the part of the player. Thanks to Jak's prison time, players can also collect Dark Eco to transform him into Dark Jak with the press of a button, though they must forgo using the Morph Gun for the duration. While Dark Jak does have his own advantages and is very strong in melee combat, the time it takes to recharge a single use plus a near lack of a need to use him greatly lowered my incentive to even consider using him, especially when taking into account that the Morph Gun alone is enough to get you through the game. The rest of the controls are lifted directly from Jak and Daxter, so there was also a great sense of familiarity in the game that I could immediately latch onto.

In addition to gaining a new weapon and a new power, the enemies Jak and Daxter must face are now a race known as the Metal Heads, replacing the Lurkers from The Precursor Legacy (though they still play a role in the story). This race has plenty of enemy types to keep one on their toes, adjusting strategy accordingly to deal with specific groups. Killing Metal Heads can reward you with a Metal Head Skull Gem, the new currency of sorts for the single Precursor Oracle in the game. Bringing a certain number of Skull Gems to the Oracle will reward Jak with a new ability for Dark Jak to wield, ranging from invincibility in this mode to clearing a group of enemies much faster. No matter how many abilities Dark Jak gets however, I still did not feel the need to wield his powers that often. In addition, Precursor Orbs, the currency of the previous game, plays a bit less of a role now, with a total of only 286 scattered throughout all of the game's levels. Collecting a number of them will unlock secret modes or other extras, which may or not be worth it depending on how much of a priority you place on collecting them.

While different powers and enemies already provide a good amount of variety to the game, a great deal more is applied throughout the entirety of the story. One moment you'll be platforming as usual, the next you'll be racing on a NYFE vehicle, and in another you'll be piloting a mech suit that can punch through walls. There's even an on-rails shooting section and times when you'll be shooting airborne enemies with a turret. This level of gameplay variety is something I liked since it helped the game constantly feel fresh, helped by the fact that the controls in any stage are mapped very well and respond near-flawlessly.

Overall level design is good in this game, though some annoyances do crop up. Checkpoints are placed in each mission with the frequency of Ratchet & Clank, making some of the longer ones painful to redo multiple times in succession, each death becoming more frustrating to deal with. However, the constant replaying of missions did manage to improve my efficiency in approaching them once I figured out the correct way to do it. Haven City is also designed as a sort of giant maze, which while making the environment a lot better to look at also made it sometimes difficult to travel to my destination since it was easy to take a wrong turn and waste too much time in a critical moment. Transit also takes some time whether running on foot or using a hoverboard or flying vehicle of some sort. The AI for the Krimzon Guard, controlled by Baron Praxis as the other enemy faction of the game, is also interesting. It seems that you can absolutely anything to the general populace and they won't do anything, but if you so much as tap them while not running or dodge rolling across the city streets they'll send the entire city after you, ending their search only after you're dead, you hide under a bridge long enough, or you get into an open spot and keep running away long enough, sort of like how you outrun any police force in other open world games.

The NYFE races are also a good example of a mixed bag. Since you need to get into first to advance the story, there is absolutely no margin for error thanks to the course design and enemy AI. The only way to achieve this is by exploiting every shortcut possible at every turn or abusing boost power like there's no tomorrow. Controlling a NYFE vehicle is harder in courses with lots of turns, since letting go at any point during the turns makes it harder to regain steady control again. Regardless, I felt a feeling of triumph once I managed to get through these missions.

In terms of graphics, Jak II improves greatly from its predecessor of two years prior. The atmosphere is helped greatly by the use of a darker color palette to show just how different it is in tone from the more upbeat Precursor Legacy. With the presence of the day-to-night cycle still around, I also praise the lighting on the environment as the shadows projected also change more realistically. Water and lava also operate more distinctively this time around, with physics that stick much closer to their real world counterparts. I also loved the lack of a visible load time despite how huge and intricate Haven City is, which made the experience a lot more immersive. In addition, I also praise the great score and sound design, which is done in a way to not only make the world believable, but also keep the appropriate mood throughout.

With its hairpin u-turn in both tone and style from Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, Jak II is still an impressively fun and enjoyable game. While there is more focus on variety, open world play and third-person shooter elements, the core platforming aspect is still visible in a way that keeps the experience fun and fresh, and its ramped up difficulty by comparison is still a good challenge despite its annoyance from time to time. On its own, Jak II is a game that fans of the series or PS2 owners should not pass up, as it holds a rightful place in history in more ways than one.

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