System: PlayStation 2 :: Rating: Teen :: Players: 1
Genre: Platformer :: Released: 09 November 2004
21 September 2006 — My expectations going into each successive chapter of the PlayStation 2's Jak and Daxter saga have fluctuated like an unpredictable stock on a busy day. The day I initially plugged in the first Jak, it was amid hopeful feelings and great anticipation, thanks to the critical and commercial success the series had seemed to enjoy from birth onward. When that turned out to be something less than what I was looking for, my motivation to play Jak II plummeted... and when I finally did get around to playing through the sequel, it surpassed every last one of my presumptions and completely threw me for a loop. So, when I only recently picked up the final chapter of this trilogy, it was with those fresh impressions of part two dancing in my subconscious, alongside a set of (you guessed it) newly heightened expectations. I should know better than to anticipate excellence out of a game these days, when any title's hype is usually far greater than its delivery, but such things can't always be helped. As I noted at the very outset that Jak 3's scene had changed from the busy, dark, industrialized city setting of part two, I remained optimistic. A change of locale had treated the series very well in the excellent Jak II, so what could go wrong with another shift of headquarters at the beginning of chapter three?
Fortunately, not all that much. As Jak 3 opens, we're smacked right on the nose by the revelation that Jak and Daxter have been hurriedly exiled from the city. In retrospect, this became something of a theme for the series: establish right away that this is not the game its immediate predecessor was. It worked to establish an identity for the series in part one and symbolized the change in tone with part two. And, wouldn't you know it, the same trick works the third time around, this time personifying the saga's reluctance to stagnate. This isn't nearly as great a departure from Jak II as the former was from The Precursor Legacy, but the need for such a radical shift of mood was no longer necessary.
In a way, Jak 3 is more of a direct sequel to chapter two than it is a continuation of the storyline that was established in part one. I realize that this was meant to be the end of a journey, a "coming of age" story that follows the title character through his innocence, his adolescence and finally his ascent into adulthood. Bearing in mind, it's only natural that he'd want to distance himself from the people and places that make him feel like an adventuring child, rather than a self-assured saver of globes. "When I became a man, I put away childish things," after all. With that said, there is very little remaining connection to the first game in the series, here in the climactic third chapter. With the obvious exception of Daxter himself, the characters from The Precursor Legacy are treated as an afterthought. Especially so in the case of Keira, who barely has a speaking role — her voice actor didn't even return for this game. Now, I was far from a cheerleader for the cast of the first game — with no exception, they were all squeaky clean, cartoony, bubbly creatures that played a big part in my dislike for the title in general, and I was glad to see the second game distancing itself from that kind of environment. The fact remains, though, that she was one of the four central characters from that first adventure, an instrumental part of the ensemble cast of Jak II and she barely grabs a minute's worth of screen time in the finale. The single motivating figure in that first story, the green sage, doesn't fare much better.
As strange as it feels to say, I was hoping for a return to the stomping grounds of the first title, as the path of Jak 3 eventually takes you back to the city of chapter two. It would've made sense alongside the recurring time travel motif, presented at the conclusion of that second story and continued in bits and pieces here, but also could have delivered the kind of full-circle conclusion that really sets the legendary yarns apart from the very good ones. By the end of this one, though, that tie is severed completely... for better or for worse.
Where the inspiration behind the storytelling of Jak II was unquestionably Blade Runner, the main source of direction for this final chapter comes largely from Mel Gibson's The Road Warrior. The outlanders who rescue the title-endorsed duo from their exile and drag them back to their own makeshift shanty town are the textbook definition of an early '80s burly man. They adorn themselves with hundreds of pointy edges, enormous, hopelessly detailed weapons and layer after layer of questionably-hemmed leather. They puff out their chests at every opportunity, and speak like a cluster of throat cancer survivors. They really weren't what I was expecting, especially after the technological-meets-industrial nightmare of Jak II, but they aren't without a unique charm entirely their own. If the idea of dozens of guys running around the desert dressed like the gimp makes you squeamish, you might want to think about attempting another game.
These new characters are just overflowing with personality, which makes the minor cutscenes and motivational speeches entertaining, but I couldn't shake the feeling that they were just going through the motions in an attempt to mimic the successful main cast of the second game. It's like they were trying to match the edge of the gritty, sullen warriors of Jak II, but were missing some intangible element that kept them from reaching that full potential. The twists and turns of their storylines were somewhat transparent (I figured out the major twist in Damas's story within an hour of meeting him), their importance to the central plot is thrown into question fairly early on and for all of their gusto, their emotional impact on the player doesn't hold a candle to the inner-city gangs that ran chapter two. In keeping with that tiding, the new main villain, Veger, doesn't have the same kind of physical imposition that was typical of the villains of previous games. As an intellectual nemesis, he's absolutely incredible — his scenes are consistently the best in the game and you're immediately pulling for him to fall on his ass, but he's not the kind of guy you're going to be excited about trading blows with. It seems that the game's writers suddenly realized that midway into the script, as Errol — one of the key baddies from Jak II — is suddenly brought back to reprise his role and accept the brunt of the player's aggressions midway through the game.
As the "last" game in the series (Daxter and Jak X: Combat Racing continued the saga in their own way, and there are rumors of a new game for the PS3), Jak 3 is an atypical grand finale. A lot of things didn't happen that I expected to during the "wrap up" cutscene, and vice-versa... I was caught off guard by more than a few revelations, including the Wizard of Oz-styled reveal just before the final boss. For the first time, I think the series found its stride in the vein of comedy it had sought since day one. The character interactions are actually very funny in places — I legitimately laughed out loud on more than one occasion, which is not something I'm known to do during a game. Daxter has a few lines about what he misses most about his humanity that are just great, and there are one or two very subtle John Byrne She-Hulk moments, where the characters actually acknowledge that they're in a video game, that I'll fess up to chuckling heavily over.
In all, the storyline really finds its niche here, finally filling out the cast with the broad, deep, interesting characters that were missing from chapter one, and delivering an excellent blend of drama and light comedy. It can crack a good joke when the opportunity presents itself, but it also doesn't seem out of place or heavy handed when the situation calls for a more dramatic overtone. With the outline in place and the unexpected twists and turns counteracting the few more obvious revelations, the stage would have been set for one of the greatest final chapters in video gaming history — if only it were a bit longer. Jak 3 weighs in at about a dozen hours, which is less than half the length of Jak II, and that results in a much less rewarding experience than you'd hope for in a final episode. It also wasn't nearly as difficult as its immediate predecessor, which means less screaming and shouting, but also less relief and self-assuredness upon reaching that final scene. After completing part two, I had a sense of accomplishment, almost pride, at having finished such an elaborate and difficult game. I didn't get that same sensation upon putting this one to bed.
One area in which Jak 3 doesn't disappoint is the "holy crap" department. This game is legitimately overflowing with the kind of sequences and situations that bring a smile to your face and force you to do that weird "squat about an inch above the couch and tilt the controller in the direction you want to go" maneuver that you used to give your mom shit about employing when she first tried Super Mario Bros. It just spoils you with these things: you'll control Daxter as he clings for dear life onto a speeding missile, you'll leap onto a teensy platform while the camera leers above you and displays the dizzying heights below, you'll take down creatures the size of a whale — just unimaginably cool stuff. It doesn't overload on the action in quite the way that God of War did, but it's damn close, and the last full hour of gameplay is one of those long moments that transcends mere video gaming and puts the player right into the middle of a summer blockbuster. I've long considered the last stage of the original Halo to be one of the, if not the greatest level in the history of gaming, and I'd seriously consider the closing moments of Jak 3 at least on par with that. So, yeah, damn high praise indeed.
In both the grand finale and throughout the entirety of the game, there's a lot of variety in the gameplay. This is not just your standard jump, shoot and explore adventure game. You'll bump into an odd blend of flight stages, DDR-style coordination stages, racing levels and railed first person shooter segments, in addition to the exploring, jumping, punching, shooting and all-around adventuring levels. And, while this is something I had a big problem with when it was shoved into the mechanics of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it doesn't bother me so much here. The main reason is because the Jak series has always had some sort of similar variety ingrained within it, but it's also a bit more admissible here because the setup actually works. Nothing feels like it's been needlessly crammed into the proceedings, like the dance stages or the workout levels of San Andreas... it all just works together, several parts of a whole. Although I won't go so far as to say the approach is flawless, since it's that broad variety that contributes to the game's lack of a serious identity (I'd never point out a game and say, "Hey, that plays exactly like Jak 3!"), it does lend a much more multi-tiered air to the proceedings and the overall outcome is a much longer-lived gameplay experience. Where most genre-focused titles tend to grow repetitive and dull after a few hours, there's never a shortage of new tasks and things to do in Jak's world.
While the basic gameplay model (and its dedication to consistently bending genres) has remained mostly intact, there are three notable variations from the functionality of Jak II that become abundantly clear within the first couple of hours. First and foremost is the much, much heavier emphasis that's placed on the driving stages, more so than in The Precursor Legacy and Jak II combined. In the first game, the concept of climbing aboard a moving vehicle was all but an afterthought. There were a few race stages, but they were very few and far between, and had little to do with the big picture. In part two, they were primarily used as a means of transport. You'd steal a flying car, because it would otherwise take you a legitimate ten minutes to get from one side of the city to the other. Races were introduced in that second title, as well, but it was clear that the emphasis of the gameplay was elsewhere. In this third chapter, they're vital to the completion of half the game's levels, including the final boss fight. It's almost to the point that I'd call this an "action / racing" title, because you'll find yourself spending as much time behind the wheel as you are on foot... and the functionality isn't really all that different. There's a jump button built into each car that, depending on that particular model's configuration, will launch you into the air with varying success. Each car has, naturally, its own unique front-mounted weapon, as well as a rocket booster attached to the back that can work alongside the jump functionality to pretty much fire you into orbit. It's an interesting transformation, to be sure. When it was successful, the vehicle-based gameplay was a blast, something that's never really been tried before — a sort of supercharged platformer on wheels. On the few stages that failed, however, the wheels felt like a gimmicky death trap — incredibly frustrating, like trying to shove a square peg through a round opening. Largely, the vehicle stages were a roaring success, however.
The second innovation is the continued emphasis on weaponry, and the existing weapons' insane increase in power and flexibility. This was actually a trend that started with Jak II and merely continued here, but it's to the point now that the hand-to-hand attacks are virtually useless out in the real world. And that's something I'll mourn, because despite all of its shortcomings and tendency to result in a barrelful of cheap hits, there's a certain satisfaction to dealing with an enemy up close and personal that's lost when you merely focus the little red dot on them and unload a round or two. The power level of the new weaponry is just obscene, and took a lot of the technique and difficulty out of the general gameplay. Especially destructive is the new heat-seeking ricochet gun, which essentially seeks out and destroys every enemy on the screen without requiring much in the way of aim or timing. You could turn your back on a bad guy, fire a few rounds at his buddy across the room and turn around to see that the bouncing shells had not only taken out the man you were vaguely aiming for, but also the man behind you and the three guys around the corner that you hadn't even seen yet. I didn't use anything else once I'd acquired this thing, which is itself far too early in the game's progress.
Finally, there's the revelation that there is a "Light Jak" to mirror the bestial "Dark Jak" that was unveiled in the second game. Where Jak's darker persona brought with it a variety of new attacks and offensive maneuvers, his light side focuses more on exploratory aids and defensive mechanisms. As such, it's not quite as exciting to play as "Light Jak" for the first time as it was to burst into "Dark Jak" mode near the opening of Jak II. It's just not as much fun to grow wings and casually flutter around a room as it is to fire purple lightning out of your fingertips and fry the opposition. These light powers enable a few new modes of exploration for the diehard fan, but are generally fairly useless and go unused until the situation demands that you employ them. For the most part, the emphasis has been taken off of these powers in Jak 3, where they were a vital part of his progression in Jak II.
As far as controls are concerned, it's a pretty tight ship at this point in the series. Most of the infuriating glitches and bugs from the first game were ironed out in the second chapter, and the third game actually improves upon the near-perfection attained by the second. A few jump commands go unrecognized and I had some problems with touchy collision detection during the faster races (which meant I had to hit the checkpoint dead center or risk doing it all over again), but those are minor gripes at best. I seriously found myself trying to dream up a few flaws, so I could write a little more than "this thing controls like a dream," which says something about how easy and successful this scheme really is. Also, considering how big a part of the game they play, the vehicles don't control all that well in Jak 3. But they're manageable, and become just another bump in the road (har har) after a few rollovers, peel-outs and violent deaths, which is to be expected when an established series branches out to a new style of play like this.
Visually, this could pass as Jak II's identical twin. The characters look almost exactly the same as in the previous chapter, and all of the little quirks, cartoony exaggerations and background puns that gave the first two games their identity are here in living color. It's not the best looking game I've ever played, and I didn't notice much of a difference upon switching to progressive scan, but it's near the top of its genre all the same. I'd imagine the phrase "ain't broke, don't fix it" could be applied to Jak 3 without hesitation. Some of the particle effects and inclement weather situations are worth seeing, and the visuals really hit it out of the park on the few occasions where such an effort is truly called for. The character designs, which have long been the series' calling card, remain top notch in this third chapter, both for the new faces and for the old. Jak has a new hairstyle, a different outfit and a slightly older frame, but you can still recognize him on a crowded street.
The musical selections were one of the few areas that I had a problem with in the second game, and sadly that hasn't been completely addressed here. The soundtrack, which was plodding, repetitive and boring throughout about three quarters of Jak II, is only plodding, repetitive and boring through half of Jak 3... which is a bit of an improvement, I suppose. Across the board, regardless of level, situation or tone, the original score borders on overwhelming repetition for most of the game, but does finally start to come through near the end. They could've improved twofold the mood of many crucial cutscenes and conversations with a full orchestral arrangement, pulling out all the stops — but instead, that's saved for the very tail end of the story, and is very limited even then. Granted, that kind of a treatment isn't always appropriate, but used sparingly, it could've nailed the kind of atmosphere I think they were looking for in many of the late scenarios.
The voice acting is one area that's been kept fairly high in quality throughout the series, and that legacy is kept up here. Where the story falters, the voice actors often revive it, and vice versa... it's a good collaboration. The scenes are routinely stolen by Daxter and / or the villains, who go above and beyond in their pursuit of a good reading that matches the circumstances, while Jak is kept fairly low-key and stoic. It's for the best, too, because on the few occasions where he does decide to go all bad-ass and tries to spit out a line like, "Let's go kill us some metal heads," it doesn't fit and he comes across as awkward and unsure. Even the new characters contribute to the success of the voice acting, although they do occasionally go a bit too far over the top and distract from the events at hand. One minor qualm that kept me amused, however — the boss of the desert city, Damas, sounds a lot like Harvey Fierstein. So instead of this tough warrior spirit, boldly leading his people through the difficult desert life, I kept envisioning him as a gay, out of shape Jewish guy. Apples to oranges, I guess.
To summarize (and to be blunt in so doing), Jak 3 is not the game that Jak II was. It's shorter, easier, less rewarding and quite a bit lighter on character development. The story has its highs and its lows, and would have made a great improvement over the original Precursor Legacy, but as a successor to the outstanding Jak II, it falls well short. At the end of my write-up for the second game, I likened it to The Empire Strikes Back, in that it took a fairly light-hearted series and transformed it into a more adult-oriented saga — with incredible results. For what it's worth, that Star Wars parallel carries over fairly accurately with this third chapter: you'll get lots of warm fuzzies at the end and it's not quite as weighty or substantial as the second chapter, but overall it's still a very entertaining experience with a cast of characters you can't help but love. The big action scenes are really done fabulously, and there's rarely a dull moment, but this game suffers from the unbelievable quality of the game that immediately preceded it.
On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 8.7