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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


 






 


Naughty Dog's Jak & Daxter was released two years ago on the PS2 to critical acclaim and commercial success largely thanks to its addictive gameplay and beautiful design. Now, the sequel has arrived and while there are some familiar elements, it feels like an almost entirely different game. Surprisingly inventive gameplay modes, new vehicles and the addition of weapons are just the beginning. Add a darker, more mature storyline that takes place in a much larger gaming environment and you have an idea of how thoroughly the series has been reinvented. Two things haven't changed: the solid graphics presentation and solid play mechanics are back. Join us as we explain how Jak II that takes the series in unexpected directions yet remains just as appealing as the original.

Set two years after the events in the original game, Jak II finds our heroes accidentally transported into a bleak future city where the evil Baron Praxis has imprisoned Jak. He's been experimenting on Jak, injecting him with Dark Eco. These experiments have unexpected consequences, and transforms Jak from a na´ve soldier into a dark, angry young man. Once his old pal Daxter rescues him, Jak finds himself trapped behind the dark, forbidding walls of Haven City. While some elements such as the dark eco and the eggs will be familiar, this is a very different world. Unlike the warm, rustic feel of the original, this decaying city is slowly falling apart and under constant siege. As Jak explores the city, he'll see the streets are patrolled by the Baron's Krimson Guard who keep things under their watchful eye and will stop at nothing to prevent Jak from his revenge. Unfortunately, these oppressed people live in fear not just of Baron Praxis and his minions, but of the Metal Heads that lurk just outside the walled city's exterior. It's up to Jak and a band of renegade resistance fighters to battle Praxis and stop the Metal Heads to free the people of Haven City. There's definitely a darker tone and an edgier feel this time around. While some elements, such as Daxter's annoying wisecracks and the still-cutesy character designs, seem a little out of place, Jak II's more mature take on the platforming genre is definitely welcome.

The basic-building blocks that made the first game so appealing are still evident, but the series has evolved significantly and now offers more variety and larger levels to explore. While there's still plenty of platforming action, Jak II offers many more different gameplay styles than the first game. It's also far less linear, allowing players to take different paths and complete the missions a variety of ways. The success or failure of each mission has a big impact on the plot as well. The first few levels are linear but greater freedom is introduced quickly with branching paths and multiple objectives. The refined platforming aspects of Jak & Daxter have been retained, and players will find the gameplay is fairly close to the original game, with familiar moves such as rolling, hitting, jumping and smashing are essentially unchanged. However, later on Jak can acquire an arsenal of weapons that he can use to defeat enemies. There are four main types of guns including scatterguns, basters with laser targeting, Peace Makers which emit large electric shocks and Vulcan Fury which fires short bursts of fire at foes in machine gun style bursts. Each of these weapons can also be upgraded to hold more ammo, Peace Makers. Additionally, Jak transforms into his Dark-Eco alter-ego when he's angry. This increases his powers and makes his attacks more devastating to enemies in close range.

While you can still traverse much of the area on foot, in an obvious nod to Grand Theft Auto, Jak II allows you to 'jak' flying hovercraft in order to move around faster or escape from enemies. You merely need to press a button, but be warned that jacking a vehicle alerts the guard to your presence. There are several different types of vehicles in the game, with the lighter ones moving faster while the heavier ones take more damage. This is a great addition to the series, and definitely makes things more interesting. In addition to the vehicles, Jak can also take control of a hoverboard, which allows him to perform stunts and grind walls. There's even a special trick area where you can perform moves ala Tony Hawk. Additionally, Jak can also take control of a sleek mech, which is yet another unexpected twist on the formula. Taken together these elements keep the gameplay fresh and make Jak II one of the best platformers to date, even though it could be argued, that it's got so many extras isn't a true platform game.

Jak II's epic scope is evident in just the fact that Jak II's world is three times larger than the first game. While the sheer size alone is impressive, the highly polished design and attention to detail throughout is even more so. The city itself is vast it's separated into different regions, with distinctive challenges in each. Obviously, this lends itself to a lot more exploration, and that's just the main city areas. Add in the outside areas where you battle the Metal Heads, and the game's true scale is simply astonishing. You'll definitely spend a lot of time exploring the world so you can find all the secret areas and bonus mini-games. Additionally, you can spend hours just with the mini-games. Between mastering the hoverboard's tricks or racing on the sleek Wipeout style tracks and other tasks, it will probably take even good players quite a while to see everything included in the game.

Jak II's city sequences are impressive but, you'll also have to go outside the city to complete many of the missions. These outlying areas are populated by what are known as Metal Heads, evil creatures who are ripping up the world and destroying its natural resources. Going outside the walls presents the player with a whole other set of challenges, since they don't have the maps or hover-vehicles in the rest of the game, they're pretty much on their own, aside from their weapons. The creatures in these sequences attack without mercy and the stakes are much higher. Success in these missions has a big effect on what goes on inside the city and the interconnected nature of your actions is the key to the game's appeal. What you do in one area has an effect in another, and can make your missions easier or harder.

Naughty Dog has built a large part of their reputation on smooth controlling action-platforming titles and we're happy to report that Jak II carries the tradition forward. Jak moves through the worlds with ease and the new play mechanics, such as the weapons are seamlessly intergrated into the main action. Performing the special attacks is simple, yet enormously satisfying. The gameplay flows easily from event to event and the game controls as well as you can expect in this department. Controlling all the various vehicles is intuitive, and most players will encounter little trouble piloting the hovercrafts and boards through the city. "Jak"-ing vehicles is easy to perform as well, since you only need to press the triangle button to take one over. Unfortunately, the vehicles have a tendency to over steer, making crashing and damage seemingly unavoidable at points. This can be annoying, especially during boss battles, but in the end, it's a minor quibble, given the overall quality in other areas. Naughty Dog has done an excellent job in mapping out the buttons and basic controls, which makes jumping from a hoverboard to the ground and back easy. The controls' consistency makes for a seamless transition between game types, making the game feel natural.

Another key element of Naughty Dog's success has been their ability to put amazing graphics on the screen, and Jak II is no exception. Between the game's massive scale and rigorous attention to the smallest areas, the production values are fantastic. Haven City itself is an impressive technical achievement, with many richly detailed areas. The darker tones add to the atmosphere, but this isn't a dead world. It feels alive with literally hundreds of NPC characters on its streets. These characters react realistically to the world around them, screaming and scattering in fear when action breaks out. All the character designs look great with more detailed renderings than the last game. The increased polygon count is impressive and each major character from Jak himself to the guards and other enemies moves fluidly onscreen. Jak performs his moves with a natural grace while the Metal Heads leap at you with abandon that makes them look dangerous the moment you set eyes on them. The game world itself is quite large but has a cohesive design that places you right in the center of the action. As you'd expect, there are many elaborate cinema sequences where the story unfolds and these are effective at further bringing the player into the story. The voice acting is excellent, featuring a talented cast that brings Jak II's many characters vividly to life. Unfortunately, some of the dialogue needs work, especially his sidekick Daxter's wisecracks that seem out of place and disrupt the mood. Aside from that, Jak II is definitely one of the best looking and sounding PS2 games to date, and stretches what was thought possible with the console's hardware.

While many sequel developers would have been satisfied with adding a few new features and polishing the graphics, Naughty Dog has instead reinvented the series. The darker tone and deeper gameplay take successful elements of other games and add them to already solid gameplay mechanics. The new car jacking and hover-board play mechanics add a lot of variety to the game. While attempts at this have been made before, Jak II strikes an excellent balance and these sequences don't overpower the main quest or feel like cheap gimmicks. The addition of those innovative elements alone would have been impressive, but the game's epic scope is even more so. By melding these different genres so effectively and seamlessly into what could have been a standard platformer, Naughty Dog has created a refreshing hybrid that takes players into unexpected territory often There's so much more to do this time around, it will doubtlessly take even good players awhile to see the game's full range. On paper, you wouldn't expect a game with this much ambition to work, but it succeeds for the most part. This is definitely one of the more innovative titles to date, and while many fans of the original are probably shocked by the series' new direction, there's something to be said for pushing forward. Jak II is a brilliant, deep, and incredibly challenging experience with an expansive scale that makes for an endlessly addictive and inventive game no PS2 owner should miss.




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