Theorists often discuss how we spend our whole lives preparing for that one life changing instant. It’s often said that we don’t spend copious amounts of time dwelling or thinking about such an occasion, just that we spend a lifetime waiting for it to happen so that we’re prepared for it when it arises. There are games that you’ve waited your whole life to play, Jak II
is one of them. From the day I picked up a controller I had often wondered what a near-perfect video game would play like and now I know. Jak II isn’t just one of the best games to come out this year, it’s one of the best video games ever made.
We all change as we grow and develop. Some of us were perfect angels in our youth only to turn into hellacious devils in our teenage years. Whether or not that was the case in your life one thing’s for sure, times change as do their trends. This is also the case when it comes to the video gaming industry. In recent years we’ve transcended from the kiddie-tastic confines of Mario
and into the evil clutches of Grand Theft Auto
. It should come as no surprise then that the company that used to be the very personification of kiddie-ness, Naughty Dog, has matured and grown into a full-grown adult machine.
Dammit Daxter! Did you cut the cheese again?
Jak has taken a decidedly large turn for the worst. When you begin he starts out as the shy and doe-eyed buck that we knew in the last game, but about 10 minutes in he gets captured and tortured by Baron Praxis. After which he becomes a hatred-filled revenge monger. Of course being tortured and beaten for the better part of two years tends to do that to a guy. Daxter eventually breaks Jak free from his bindings and from that point on Jak begins his quest to dole out some revenge to his tormentor.
I hate to make the comparison but Jak II shows plenty of similarities to the Grand Theft Auto
style of gaming in that it’s a 3rd person mission-based game that transpires across a gigantic cityscape. When you’re not engaging in missions you’re free to roam around the city and wreak havoc. Initially one could get the impression that the free-roam mode is just a half-assed attempt to capitalize upon the success of GTA
but it’s really much more than that. As you progress you’ll notice distinct regions of the city that add new depth and layers to the entire game. There’s the slums, the rich district and even an entire district that’s built entirely on water. Some of the design isn’t as appealing or attractive as what you would expect to see from GTA, but it’s only because of the time frame. Instead of looking like something that you’d see when you travel down to South Beach it’s sort of something that you’d expect to see in the future or in Ratchet & Clank
. Best of all you can wreak havoc upon civilians and the Krimzon Guards, the game’s main foes, as you run amok and steal vehicles.
Jak’s got all of his original moves but he’s learned a few things along the way. For starters there’s a rage mode where the dark eco consumes him. After being effected by enough dark eco you can trigger an alternate mode where Jak can tear up anything and everything that comes across his path. He also has four guns at his disposal, all of which allow you to unleash varying degrees of hell upon your enemies. The duo also has a hoverboard that can be utilized at all times to help them transverse tough terrains. It serves as a fun diversion for folks who want a little Tony Hawk with their platformer but it also has practical uses such as the ability to skim across liquid surfaces.While the game may have Grand Theft Auto-esque facets at its core, Jak II is still your traditional 3D platformer, just on a grandiose scale. There are still plenty of platforming elements that stand before you. Floating platforms, rotating cylinders, precarious ledges and blind leaps of faith are still the order of the day here. It’s just that there’s a much larger emphasis on the combat than there’s ever been before. Rarely will you be faced with a sequence that doesn’t include some sort of carnage or mayhem. It’s not just meaningless carnage either but carnage that really makes an awful lot of sense. For instance, early on you’re asked to sneak inside the enemy armament in order to perform a sabotage mission. As you try to enter you’ll activate a defense tank who will take potshots at you. In a nice change of pace you’ll actually view the action from the viewpoint of the tank as you run, jump and platform your way away from harm’s way.
As you get near the end of the mission you’ll notice that you have no means of actually sabotaging the enemy cache. So what do you do? You’ll have to turn the enemy’s own weapon against them and trick the tank into destroying the structure for you. It’s innovative mission designs like this that really make Jak II something unique and special. In other games you’d probably find a conveniently placed rocket launcher or a set of highly explosive barrels next to the structure’s only weak point. Not so here, everything in the world has been placed for a reason, logical ones at that.
Who says you need to go to Chuck E Cheese to have fun?
And that’s just it, Jak II never feels like a tedious platformer where everything is manipulated to the convenience of the level designers. Things make sense; you don’t conduct missions just for the sake of conducting them. Most platformers have you engaging in missions as tedium, this is not the case with Jak II. Every mission that you partake in serves as a device that helps move along the storyline. Sure there are ones that seem to be filled with tedium, but the in-game cutscene that takes place after their completion more than makes up for the mild pain and agony that you may have to endure.
You’ll really fall in love with the storyline as well. We’re not saying that video games haven’t had deep and engaging storylines before; it’s just that none of those games worked as hard to push the storyline to the forefront. Sure, people were upset when Square decided to take Aeris away from them in Final Fantasy VII
but it’s only because they were geeks who were lonely and couldn’t get laid. There was absolutely no emotional attachment to be had and no reason to empathize with her loss. In Jak II you’ll empathize with the characters and relate to them. You’ll feel their emotion, their hatred, anger and jealousy. It’s a feeling that transcends off the screen and into your hearts and minds. By the midpoint of the game you probably find yourself saying, “Jesus, that Baron is a real bitch! I can't wait to kick his ass!” It happens when you watch movies, but how often has that happened to you when you were playing a video game?
Another aspect of the game that really excels is the production values. Sony’s getting really good at producing story-driven games that are worthy of appearing on the big screen. The Getaway
played out like a Guy Ritchie movie while Jak II plays out like a sweeping epic, filled with plot twists and emotion-churning events. Cinematic camera placements, massive reveal shots, operatic music, intense dialogue, all of this is worthy of a major motion picture, yet it’s present on our consoles.
While the game has a significantly darker tone it’s nice to see that Naughty Dog hasn’t lost its sense of humor. It’s just that the humor has changed significantly from being borderline childish to being grim and dark. It works for this game though as Daxter is still pretty damn funny and provides moments of levity for when the game begins to get too serious. The game may be dark, but don’t mistake being dark for being grim. Sure it has an M rating but there’s very little violence here that could be ruled excessive. You can’t decapitate foes; tear their limbs apart of even draw blood. Every person or enemy you dispose of just vanishes as opposed to lying on the street in a mass of blood and guts. Yes, there’s violence here but it’s nowhere near the point of being excessive. Sure there are some more mature themes that will probably make you want to keep this out of the youngsters hands but aside from the storyline and the ability to attack people at random, there’s not really too much here that would deemed as too adult for the kiddies.
When you’re not enjoying the storyline you’ll probably be mesmerized by the game’s insane beauty. Naughty Dog set out to prove that the old PS2 still has a lot of life in it and it’s done a damn fine job of doing so. Beautiful lighting effects are used to accentuate the finer points of the environments while concealing the danker elements. Particle effects lend a satisfying feeling to the gamer after he’s just blown his enemies to shreds. The animation is top-notch as well, not an easy task considering that Daxter is rendered alongside Jak at all times. It’s a technological masterpiece that probably won’t be appreciated as much as it should be.
All of the TV spots, all of the screenshots and gameplay movies just can’t accurately convey how beautiful this title is. Seeing is truly believing in this case, everything looks simply amazing and all of the characters moves, behaves and reacts in a highly realistic manner. Facial structures look great thanks to some lifelike eyes that not only move and look realistic but behave realistically as well. In happy moments you’ll see the eyes light up while in sappy moments you’ll see eyes tear up. In a word, witnessing this game in action is simply breathtaking.
Aside from the characters the environments and weapon effects take center stage, doing an admirable job of holding their own against the land’s inhabitants. As you’re traveling around the city you’ll notice small little nuances such as the way that lit billboards and random lights actually effect the look of your vehicles as you travel near them. Plenty of lighting effects are used here to ensure that you get the proper mood when heading into various parts of the city. The slums have a very subdued look that is used to both hide the grit and oppress the people who are unfortunate enough to live in them. Meanwhile the upper echelons of society live in flashy neighborhoods that are well lit to exude an aura of superiority to the masses. It’s just like in real life, as if the rich folks are saying “here, take a look at what you can’t have, you poor bastards.”
Complementing the visuals is a superb audio track that is also some of the best to ever appear on the PS2. Utilizing Dolby Pro Logic II capabilities to the fullest, Jak II does an excellent job of providing a virtual 3D surround sound environment. Dialogue is relegated to the center channel to avoid distortion and noise pollution from the rest of the game’s effects. Sony has been making good use of the Pro Logic II support as of late but it’s never fully realized its potential, until now that is. Sounds happen all around you, immersing you in the experience. Not that they just happen all around you, they sound convincing as well. There’s also enough bass in the effects to give your sub a good workout. If you’ve got a great audio setup Jak II is an excellent showcase if just what it’s capable of.
Make no mistake about it, Jak II
isn’t just the best game to come out on the PS2 this year, it may very well be one of the best games to have ever come out for the three-year-old console but this doesn’t mean that Jak II
isn’t immune to the problems that plague all of the other platformers. For one the camera is just atrocious at times. This game has a decidedly faster pace than the original and the camera has a difficult time adapting to this. There are plenty of situations where a cavalcade of enemies will pummel you from various directions; it’s just too bad that the camera has a difficult time of swinging around to show you your attacker. I hate to say it but a targeting function that helped you quickly identify targets could have probably resolved this situation and save you a lot of headaches.
But this is just a minor problem that doesn’t really hinder the experience too much. Naughty Dog and SCEA have come together to produce one of the greatest games, not only of our generation, but also in the history of video gaming. Jak II makes the future of gaming look brighter than ever. It’s harder to think of a game that I could whole-heartedly recommend more than Jak II. Of all of the games to come out this year, it’s the most engaging, most polished, most entertaining and most worthwhile games of the bunch. You won’t want to miss out on this one because depriving yourself of Jak II is depriving yourself of the future of video gaming.Do you really want to sock it to the Baron? Then you'll want to pick up BradyGames' excellent Jak II strategy guide, chocked full of goodies, strategies, maps and tips. At 200 pages, it'll help you give the Baron the thrashing that he deserves!