Naughty Dog’s Jak and Daxter trilogy pushed the platforming genre to its limits in the early 2000s. The first title was a fine collect-a-thon fashioned after Naughty Dog’s first PlayStation icon, Crash Bandicoot, and Rare’s Banjo Kazooie. By the time the similarly designed Jak II and Jak 3 quickly rolled out in 2003 and 2004, Jak was transformed into a Dark Eco-consuming bad boy traipsing across an dystopian open world inspired by the liberating gameplay mechanics of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto III. The tonal shift toward action is even more jarring today and highlights some of the original game’s troublesome weaknesses. As such, going through Mass Media’s HD retouch of this series is a beguiling and slightly old-fashioned experience knowing Naughty Dog’s current-generation triumphs with the phenomenal Uncharted trilogy.
These PS2 classics return with a fair bit of 720p polish, full PSN trophy support, and in stereoscopic 3D no less. The first game, in which Jak ambles around a lush, ribald environment, is a quaint affair. The thrilling platforming levels are tight and responsive, but the clunky vehicle sections are only truly perfected in future games. Like other PS2 platformers of the era, the boss battles and camera system will leave you wanting a little more. Battling with your Crash Bandicoot-esque spin attack and Eco powers is still fun, though.
Jak II and Jak 3 add so many more wonderful elements to the gameplay formula that work. The upgrading of guns isn’t quite as immersive as the upgrade structure in the Ratchet & Clank series, but exploring the hubworld of Haven City and its surrounding wastelands is endlessly enjoyable. Jak II’s hoverbikes top the vehicles of the first game by a landslide, and the frenetic “Dark Jak” segments add a sense of danger to the proceedings. Jak 3 amplifies all of these elements and finishes the story in dramatic fashion.
The missions in the final game are action-packed, and if you played Jak II you’ll instantly fall in love with the pacing and deep melee options. It’s nearly an identical game in that respect. You still have the same four categories of guns (shotgun, rifle, Gatling gun, and the heavy-duty peacemaker), though this time out each gun possesses two upgrades that fundamentally modify their functions. Even your trusty hover board from the previous game comes into play. At times, all the options can seem overwhelming, but each new gameplay device is introduced at an even pace.
The gameplay in these games is rock-solid. What’s just as intriguing is the evolution of Jak from an unexciting, voiceless protagonist to an authoritative antihero. Where Daxter remains a wisecracking fan favorite, Jak slowly becomes worthy of the pairing once the trilogy is finished. (Daxter’s wiseacre humor from the first game is still present in the sequels and somehow works alongside the menacing undertones of the storylines.) Jak’s gradual and necessary change mirrors the video-game industry’s evolution from peddling oft-derided games for children to producing high-quality adult entertainment.
These three games were released at a time when platformers received the deluxe production treatment, when voice acting was top-shelf, Naughty Dog’s custom-built graphics engine dazzled, and game developers could nab professionals such as DEVO’s Mark Mothersbaugh to score a dynamic soundtrack. The amount of innovation Naughty Dog packed into their early trilogy is a testament to their ongoing craft. And they had the wherewithal to stop at three games when they were at loggerheads in trying to adapt the intermediary Jak and Daxter series to the PS3 world. Instead, they moved onto Uncharted. More developers should follow their paradigm.