About halfway through my time with Naughty Dog's Jak II, I set my controller down, took a few deep breaths and thought to myself "What the hell happened?"
Jak II's predecessor, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy may not have been the most innovative game ever produced, but nobody can deny that it was a totally solid play experience with some outstanding production values and a lot of brilliant design choices, putting it near the top (if not at the top) of the PlayStation 2's platform genre.
Originally dubious that the odd-looking characters would ever amount to much, I changed my tune after playing the game and came around to being a big supporter of the effort. As such, I was quite excited to get my hands on the sequel. After all, it could only be better, right? Keeping the core mechanics and including new elements seemed like a simple thing, as logical and expected as two plus two equals four, only in Jak II's case it equals three—the sum is definitely larger, but something's just not adding up.
Jak II is a 3D platformer starring (who else?) hero Jak, his new goatee, and everyone's favorite smart-mouth rodent Daxter pulling sidekick duty. Jak has a wealth of moves at his disposal, most of which you'd expect from a platformer; things like acrobatic jumping, a few melee maneuvers, ledge grabbing and the like. No real surprises there, and the controls still handle as comfortably as they did before.
The opening cutscene sets Jak II's story in the far-flung future, showing Jak and company sucked into a time warp immediately after the events of the first game. Upon arriving through the warp, Jak discovers that his green, lush world has become a corrupt urban fiefdom, and then gets promptly captured and used as a science experiment by enemy forces. Escaping from imprisonment in the lab, Jak sets out for revenge, overthrows the tyrannical regime in the process, and unravels part of the mystery surrounding the ancient Precursors established in Jak & Daxter.
Sensing that a simple (or perhaps, not so simple) repeat performance expanding on the old formula wouldn't be enough to keep the first game's momentum going, Naughty Dog has altered their winning gameplay by branching out with elements seemingly inspired by other recent titles—Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto (GTA) and fellow Sony superstars Ratchet & Clank in particular.
From GTA, the ability to hijack passing cars and a semi-freeform mission structure were gleaned. Discarding the former forward-moving level progression, Jak II takes place in the hostile city with various missions available from people in different locations, each with their own distinct icon on your in-game map. It's up to the player to choose the order of missions to tackle, although you'll eventually have to do them all to reach the end. While this sort of setup worked well in GTA, it fails miserably here.
Why does it fail? In a nutshell, the city is empty, and the lack of interaction means that there's nothing for players to do while they shuttle long, boring distances back and forth between mission hot spots. Upon first realizing the extreme size of the city, I was quite impressed, but that feeling wore off the moment I realized there wasn't anything to do in it but drive. The thrill of stealing a car or hoverbike loses its charm since you do it so often and with so little consequence, and I wondered exactly what the point was in forcing me to backtrack from one end of the city to the other to complete just about every goal. It's a serious chore, and a time-consuming one at that. My recommendation is for Naughty Dog to either add more things do while driving, or better yet just drop the entire idea altogether and leave it to games where it's better implemented and makes more sense.
From Ratchet & Clank, an emphasis on weapons and shooting was included, along with echoes of its circular level design philosophy. Previously only able to deliver punches and kicks, Jak now packs heat in the form of a gun that can morph into four different firing modes. I was surprised that it was impossible to fire while using the game's first-person look-around view, but besides that complaint, the gunplay comes off convincingly well. However, projectile weapons are Ratchet & Clank's raison d'etre, and as such, Jak II dilutes its pleasing hop-n'-bop identity by trying to adopt the run-n'-gun style that Ratchet & Clank is built on. Jak II assimilates the trigger-happy attitude well enough, but if I wanted to run around and shoot things, Ratchet & Clank (and its outstanding sequel Going Commando) both do the same thing, and do it much better.
Left feeling less than enamored with the game's new play formula, I was hoping that the story and characters would be the glue that held the whole thing together, but that didn't pan out either.
A big complaint I had about the first Jak & Daxter was that Jak didn't speak, and having a mute protagonist really undercut the quality of the story and the character. Obviously I wasn't alone in that thought since Jak now speaks freely, and there are even a few jokes poking fun at his former silence. However, as glad as I am to have the voice work (and it's generally very good), the writing and tone for Jak is just terrible. Perpetually in a state fluctuating between anger and irritation, he kills any sense of lightness and levity that develops. There actually are quite a few good one-liners and gags during the adventure, but just when you start to laugh, Jak spews vitriol and throws a wet blanket on the proceedings. I don't understand why the writers felt it was so important to keep Jak in a constant state of being aggressive since the game does not exude a believable sense of seriousness or drama. It's doubly odd since the bulk of dialogue from everyone except Jak is generally written for laughs.
The plot itself didn't fare much better than Jak's scripting. The story arc is serviceable enough, and from a current events standpoint the parallels between the game's evil dictator and the current Bush administration's "War On Terror" are quite striking. That said, the plot twists are telegraphed miles and miles away, and everything falls into a very predictable pattern. It's not the worst story I've ever seen by a long shot, but it was nothing to write home about, either.
After finishing Jak II and seeing the credits roll, I couldn't help but feel disappointed and unsatisfied. The things mentioned above were all major factors, but there are also other things to drag the experience down, like the way the camera seems to always find the worst angle possible when you're in the middle of a brawl, or how the lack of sufficient checkpoints leads to unnecessary frustration. Neither of these were ever problems in the last game, leading me to wonder why I'm dealing with them this time around.
Jak II does have a few high points like the Crash Bandicoot "being chased by something dangerous and running towards the player" tribute level, and the graphics and draw distance are as sharp as ever, but the experience as a whole never solidified the way a great game's should. A little bit of this and a little bit of that might look good on the drawing board, but without a strong center and enough balance to smooth it out, stuffing the disc full of different elements only distracted the game from doing what it used to do best.
Looking at the total package, I'd say that Jak II is still better than a lot of other titles out there based on the quality of its controls and graphics alone, but I'd also recommend the original Jak & Daxter and both of the Ratchet & Clank titles over Jak II. (Sly Cooper would be a great one to check out, too.) They all have the same stellar production values, but Jak II lacks the cohesion, pacing, and spirit the others possess. All else being equal, those missing qualities put Jak II squarely at the rear of the pack.