Last week, I talked about my experience with Jak & Daxter, Naughty Dog’s first game on the PlayStation 2 and its successor to Crash Bandicoot. I found a fun, charming collect-a-thon, even if it lacked the more interesting acrobatics of the 3D Mario games.
Now, I want to examine Jak II, the 2003 sequel that is as ambitious as it is bizarre.
While Jak & Daxter had a similar Saturday morning cartoon vibe as most 3D platfomers, Jak II gets darker. And to be clear, I’m talking about that 2000s edgy “darker.” Characters are swearing, drinking, and staring at cleavage. It’s a juvenile kind of “mature” that often exists mostly to shock.
But the tone isn’t the only thing that has changed. Jak II abandons the giant, nonlinear platforming levels of its predecessor for a mission-based structure set in a large city. It takes inspiration from Grand Theft Auto III. You can even hijack people’s hover cars and drive them around the city, all while avoiding running into guards so that they don’t start chasing you.
If, like you, I was just reading this description, I’d probably expect to hate Jak II. But when playing it, I came to admire and appreciate Jak II.
Jak of new trades
Yes, its “maturity” is often crass and childish. But it’s not over-the-top. This isn’t Conker’s Bad Fur Day, which revels in its immaturity with stuff like a giant, singing boss made of poop. Jak II is sometimes trying to take itself seriously. And it does help to set your expectations for what kind of a game this is.
It’s hard not to appreciate just how different Jak II is from its predecessor. I think anyone would have expected Naughty Dog to make a safe sequel to Jak & Daxter. You know, something like Crash Bandicoot 2. Something that is similar to the first game but refined.
Instead, Jak II is wild. The core platforming is still there, but now you have guns, hover boards, giant robot suits, races and a giant, populated city acting as your hub.
Naughty Dog was experimenting. And, sure, some experiments failed. That giant city isn’t all that fun to traverse. Riding around on those hover vehicles can feel slippery, and it’s annoying trying to avoid all of the other cars and guards. The city, despite its dense population of NPCs, is large but barren. There’s not much to do in it aside from traveling from a mission giver to the actual mission … which you’ll be doing a lot of. Hell, it felt like half of the game is spent just travelling to places.
Other ideas work OK, but they could use refinement. The guns are fine, but this is pre-Resident Evil 4. You can’t go into an over-the-shoulder view for precision aiming. Instead, you just have to face Jak in the general direction of where you want to shoot … and then pray that the game’s auto-aiming algorithm will cooperate.
And then some mechanics are just busts outright. Jak can turn into a dark, monstrous form when you gather enough Dark Eco. This stuff is everywhere, so it’s easy to have enough. But I would often not even bother with the transformation. It gives Jak strong melee abilities, but so much of the game depends on you shooting enemies from a distance. And since you can still take damage while you’re Dark Jak, using the form felt more dangerous than anything.
Oh, and the robot suit I mentioned? I’m not a fan. Naughty Dog was trying to channel some Aliens energy with the thing, but the segments with this mechanical monstrosity felt slow and boring, especially the ones that focus on block-pushing puzzles.
On the other side, the hover board is a lot of fun. Using it makes the game feel a bit more like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, even letting you shoot off of half-pipes and do tricks. And unlike in Back to the Future Part II, this hover board works on water, so it helps you access some new areas once you unlock it.
And again, the core platforming feels great. I wished it had more of it. Jak & Daxter would let you stay in levels for as long as you wanted, letting you complete multiple tasks while you’re there. In Jak II, you visit a level to do one specific thing, and then you leave. You may go back later, but it’s not worth your time unless a new mission sends you there.
Lots of risks, enough rewards
Jak II is one of the most interesting sequels I’ve ever played. It’s just wild how much experimenting Naughty Dog did with this game. And, sure, not every experiment worked. But there’s something to be said for a game that’s willing to try so many new ideas instead of just iterating on proven mechanics.
I’m curious to see what direction Jak 3 goes. It may take longer than a week for me to tackle this final installment in the trilogy, as I’m spending a decent amount of time in Naughty Dog’s newest game, The Last of Us Part II. But I’ll let you all know what I think of Jak 3 when I get through it.
The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.