Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Jak and Daxter vs Jak II

The age of the Playstation and the Playstation 2 is one that I think a lot of people look upon with much fondness. There are a lot of old Playstation classics that came out of that time which people will talk about to this day. One of the things that stick out in my mind the most was eagerly awaiting my monthly edition of Playstation Magazine, a publication that often had something to say about the newest Ratchet and Clank or Jak and Daxter game. It seemed like the two series had something of a rivalry going on, and the gamers loved it. At the time I was happy enough playing nothing but RPGs every day, but these days I feel a compulsion to go back and see what the fuss was all about. Luckily, this is made pretty easy by the existence of HD collections. I rather enjoyed my time with the Sly Cooper collection, and now the time for Jak and Daxter has arrived. At the time of this writing, I have completed the original, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy and am about half way through Jak II. The purpose of this article is to compare the two, because I feel like there is a lot to say on the matter.

So let's start off by talking about the original game. Jak and Daxter is ultimately, a pretty simple game. It's a game about exploration, collecting pickups, and platforming. It does all of these things quite well, boasting a surprisingly large world that is entirely seamless (unless you are warping) and more to the point, well constructed. The levels are complex, but not to the point that they are difficult to navigate even without any form of map. The areas are colorful and interesting, and the same is true of the game on the whole. It has a lighthearted cheer about it that's quite endearing, and it doesn't bog you down with superfluous things. Story is minimal; the characters are interesting but don't overstay their welcome. Overall the game just compels you to not only play, but to perfect it. It's very easy to open up your menu and see that you've collected 142/150 precursor orbs and 5/7 power cells in an area. Finding what's left may be a little tricky, but the counter both tells you where to look, and encourages you to do so.

That's not to say it's a perfect game by any means. Jak's attack animations have a lot of character, but the game's actual combat feels pretty hamfisted, and I don't know that it really adds anything to the experience. Like many PS2 era games, Jak and Daxter also suffers from some camera woes. It's not especially bad, but the camera movement feels somewhat leaden, and situations where you can't look where you want are pretty frequent as a result. There are also a fair number of vehicle sections, which are pretty decent for the most part, but can be pretty frustrating at times because of difficult platforming which is often coupled with instant death mechanics. I found that most of the time when I died, it felt like I hadn't really done anything particularly wrong. Thankfully the game has pretty plentiful checkpoints and so it's easy to get right back in there and try again. In the end I was entertained enough that I never really wanted to stop playing, and there was never any question that I was going to 100% complete the game.

Now let's look at Jak II... So in the sequel, Jak is turned into an angsty badboy, given a voice, imbued with dark powers, given guns, placed into a dystopian city... You get my point. The game's entire feel is changed. It's not fun and carefree anymore, instead it feels like it's trying really hard to be dark and edgy and I really don't like the change. But that's just my personal opinion. Thematic changes aside, the biggest difference between the games is that while Jak and Daxter was a free roam collectathon, Jak II is a mission based open world. The thing is that this world is just boring, needlessly windy, and only really serves to create busywork. You go from one end to the other, watch some kind of scene that's try too hard to be gritty, then you go back across the city to complete your mission. Along the way you'll probably bump into a guard, the entire city will go into "hunt down Jak" mode (which they may or may not eventually abandon, for some undiscernable reason). When you get to the entrance to another area you won't see a loading screen, but you will sit in an empty room waiting for a giant door to open. Everything about this city just irks me, and you spend the vast majority of your time there.

Playing Jak II immediately after Jak and Daxter, I feel like the game flow has none of the elegance, and the overall theme has none of the character and charm. The areas aren't as well put together, the collectibles are fewer, you don't have the same collectible counter to drive you to find them. The game's focus has shifted significantly towards more combat, which doesn't really feel any better than in the first game. If anything it feels worse because there are very few checkpoints in the game, meaning death usually puts you back at the start of the level with all enemies being respawned. On top of the lack of checkpoints, the game's overall difficulty seems to be higher to boot, and the two combined lead to significantly more frustrating moments. The game's story is much more in your face, and it always feels like it's trying way too hard to be gritty and edgy. The vehicles are a lot more annoying to handle, they blow up easily, and you have to drive them much more frequently to get around the city, complete races etc...

Ultimately the point I'm trying to make here is that Jak II feels nothing like Jak and Daxter. Almost everything I liked about the first game is now gone or altered beyond recognition. It's pretty apparent that Jak II is trying to be a completely different kind of game. That isn't inherently a bad thing; I think there's something to be said about managing your player's expectations, but different doesn't mean bad. That said, the truth of the matter is that I'm just not enjoying my time with Jak II that much. It's not like it's a bad game per se, but I find it to be a pretty annoying experience that is somewhat lacking in actual fun parts. I don't know how the sequel turned into this thing, maybe it's just me, Jak II has a reputation of being a good game. I suppose I'll just have to keep playing, maybe I'll find some fun in it yet.

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