After passing the Crash Bandicoot torch onto Universal Interactive, Naughty Dog sought to re-create the success they had with Crash by creating a new franchise, Jak and Daxter. Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was released in December 2001 to rave reviews and big Christmas sales. However, The Precursor Legacy only posted about 1/3rd of the numbers of the PSX Crash games (J&D sold over 1.2 million in the US, and well over half a million in Europe, which is still bloody good), leaving Naughty Dog with the idea that the days of the traditional, happy, collection-based platformer were over, and the only way to get the big sales numbers again was to take elements of today's popular titles, and graft them into the platformer. The Precursor Legacy was a happy, lighthearted adventure, but Jak II: Renegade is a dark, mature-themed adventure with a story focusing revenge. Certainly a bold change, but an effective one as well.
At the (rather unsatisfying) end of The Precursor Legacy, Jak, Daxter, Kiera and Samos discovered a warp portal. The group decides to travel through the portal, but their journey is obstructured by an evil creature. The rift rider goes out of control and crashes in Haven City, a massive urban area under the control of a cruel baron. Jak is captured by Baron Praxis' troops at the site of the crash. The baron injects Jak with dark eco day after day for two years; in his attempts create a super soldier capable of ending his war with the Metal Heads. The experiment is a failure, but as Jak is about to be scheduled for termination, his little Ottset buddy Daxter helps him escape. The entire experience has changed Jak significantly, as he now can transform into a dark version of himself (not to mention that he gained the gift of the gab). Jak vows to take his revenge on Baron Praxis, and discover the fate of his other friends.
Grand Theft Jak
Jak II: Renegade seems like a great departure from The Precursor Legacy in many ways, but a lot of the core gameplay elements still remain. The first major change you will notice is the sprawling hub level, Haven City. This city redefines the word huge - there are many different areas to explore and a lot to do. The best part is that you don't have to traverse the city on foot only - you can simply "acquire" (see: steal) a hover car or hover bike from any of Haven City's citizens. If you upset the guards, alarms will go off throughout the city, and they will begin to draw in on your location - a situation which often results in a high speed chase through the streets. It's evident that a lot of the changes to Jak II came from the Grand Theft Auto series, and they actually fit in surprisingly well.
The next major change gives Jak II a feeling that's closer to its Insomniac-developed cousin Ratchet and Clank - Jak is packing some serious firepower. You'll acquire the shotgun first, and a laser rifle, chain gun and "The Peacemaker" soon after, as well as a load of upgrades in between. Switching between guns is handled by the D-pad in a similar fashion to the ultra-intuitive Metroid Prime. Guns aren't Jak's only weapon - collect enough dark eco and you will be able to transform into Dark Jak; a super fast, super strong dark eco creature. Dark Jak has a variety of combos and special attacks best used in those ultra-tight situations.
Progression in Jak II is handled very differently to other 3D platformers. Rather than collecting X number of object Z, you are required to complete missions and other tasks for people around the city. This involves everything from stealing a flag from a tower to hijacking prison trains and taking the hostages to safety. It's certainly a good change from the endless collection aspects perpetuated by some recent platformers, as these missions help the progression of the plot, and give you the feeling that you've actually achieved something upon their completion.
Thankfully, with all of the changes that have been made, Jak II still plays a lot like the original game - that is that all the play mechanics and the general feel of the game are still the same. This is a good thing, considering how intuitive and tight the control scheme of the original Jak and Daxter was.
Almost all of the players of the original game will be glad to know that Jak's second adventure is significantly longer than the first, with expected play time falling somewhere in the 15-25 hour range, depending on your skill, and how many of the extras you seek, as there are a few collectables hidden throughout the world which unlock cheats and small features. One must take note that Jak II can become very frustrating in parts (I've never sworn at a game so much in 15 years of playing), and that this may limit the progress of some players. Persevere, and you will be rewarded.
Jak and Daxter was no slouch in the visual department, with a massive draw distance, high polygon models, and a frame rate locked at 60 frames per second. Naughty Dog have outdone themselves (with a little assistance from Insomniac), as Jak II looks absolutely phenomenal. The models feature the same highly fluid animation as the first game, but have received a massive surge in the number of polygons used in their construction (something like 10-15,000 polygons for Jak). The environments are absolutely massive in comparison to the previous game, though the darker look sometimes limits the beauty of the engine - compare a colourful level such as Haven Forest (by far the best looking level in this game, if not one of the best this generation) to a darker level like the Ammo Dump. Some people may be disappointed to know that Jak II's frame rate is not as solid as the original game - while it remains at 60 frames per second for the most part, it can often drop to between 30-40 frames, depending on the amount of on screen activity. Luckily, these drops tend not to happen in important situations. Jak II features support for 60 Hz, Progressive Scan and 16:9 display modes, so tech heads will be able to see a much clearer version of Jak II than the rest of us.
The soundtrack is an odd mix, with a lot of variation during the cut scenes, but a minimalist approach taken throughout the gameplay. In fact, there are only one or two themes in each area, which is really quite disappointing, given the quality of the music. The voice work is a little better this time around. With Jak being able to speak, Daxter doesn't have complete dominance of the dialog. All actors do a good job with their lines, and there are quite a few amusing moments - mainly involving Daxter talking himself up, or being caught in a situation too big for him to handle. This comic relief does a good job of complementing the more serious situations throughout the game. Jak II also supports Dolby Pro Logic II.
For all of the hoo-hah about Jak II being an entirely different experience, it seems to manage to retain some of the charm and a lot of the mechanics of the first game, while introducing a lot of new elements that do a great job of enhancing the game. Some folks may not be in sync with the darker theme of the game (Bronze is the only one so far), so keep this in mind if you've always been one for bright colours and cute animals. If you're after a solid platforming experience this Christmas, Jak II: Renegade is likely to be your ticket.