With Jak II, Naughty dog decided to complete reinvent one of their most accomplished games in the name of trying something new and exciting, resulting in a rough but very good game. The contrast between Jak II and 3 may not be as obvious, but is instead spread throughout the game in smaller ways. Except for the very big, obvious change that comes right at the beginning of the game and kinda invalidates this opening paragraph.
Jak II started players in a very familiar location and environment – Sandover Village – before throwing them for a loop and pushing the more gritty and grim Haven City in our faces. Jak 3 goes a different route – starting the game reveals that basically everything you were accustomed to in the second game has been thrown out the window. This is especially true if you skip the pre-menu cinematic that actually gives you all the important plot details rather than skipping to the more interesting parts.
After the end of Jak II things go horribly wrong for Haven City. The Metal Heads, angered by the death of their leader, have launched a full assault on the city, claiming a district for themselves. The Krimson Guard have returned as a robotic army, launched from a floating factory that hovers high above the city. The Freedom Guard – the replacement Krimson Guard – are hard pressed to fend off their foes, and the city’s population demands someone be held responsible. They choose Jak (Mike Erwin).
Under the command of Count Veger (Phil LaMarr), Jak and Daxter (Max Casella) have been exiled to the Wasteland, a harsh and cruel desert many times the size of Haven City. Joining them is Pecker (Chris Cox), a monkey bird (or bird monkey) that helped out through the second game. Ashelin (Susan Eisenberg) sends Jak off with a remote beacon, which leads the Wastelanders to the trio.
Damas (Bumper Robinson), leader of the Wastelanders, sees potential in Jak, and decides to let the two of the live in exchange for their services and places them under the watchful eyes of Kleiver (Brian Bloom). The pair also find themselves being watched by the strange monk Seem (Tara Strong).
Intent on returning the city to save it and take vengeance on Veger, Jak and Daxter accept their place in the wasteland. However, a strange light in the sky hangs over them, for the Dark Precursors are coming, intent on destroying everything.
Whilst Jak 3 has a lot of new information and plot to take in at an early point in the game, it helpfully divides this up into small chunks that gives plenty of opportunity for the player to actually play the game, pacing the game out pretty well from the get go. With the exception of the very long pre-menu cinematic (which leads up to Jak being saved by the Wastelanders), all the cutscenes are kept to as short a length as they need to be, often being balanced out with plenty of moments for characters to offer humorous asides (a great deal of effort seems to have been put into making sure Jak 3 has more humour to it than its predecessor).
We get re-introduced to the basic game controls very early on, with the first gameplay section being a very quick obstacle/ gun range that gentle eases you into the gameplay, with the second and third missions providing vehicle tutorials. Well, technically the third mission is a minigame, but I figured that doesn’t really count.
Immediately, you have two new areas to explore; Spargus City, home of the Wastelanders and the Wasteland itself. Spargus isn’t a huge location, but it has plenty littered around it, from Precursor Orbs to Side quests. The Wasteland is more barren in terms of additional content (though there are plenty of side quests and records to break here later), and is more a hazardous hub for levels.
Both of these areas, however, use the same basic design philosophy that is spread throughout Naughty Dog’s other games – each environment contains many smaller areas that differ in terrain and nature whilst adhering to the same theme as the main area. Spargus is less varied, but the two major areas noticeably have distinct and unique features to them. The Wasteland is filled with different areas, from oasis to ruined towns, and it’s clear that a lot has been put into giving each sub-area its own unique assets.
With the inclusion of new areas comes new vehicles. Zoomers and hovercars aren’t suited for the desert, and so dune buggies are the preferred wasteland vehicle. There’s a selection of about eight or so in the game, each with its own unique handling and features. There’s the basic buggy, which is about as average as possible, as well as more specialised vehicles, such as a buggy made for jumping distances or for being as durable and deadly as possible.
In Spargus city itself, Leaper Lizards are a common mode of transport and racing. Moving at a surprisingly fast trot, Leapers get some good air from jumping and can hover for a second or two. You’ll need to use them to get to certain areas around Spargus, as well as for a lot of the racing and time trial side missions.
Haven city makes a return as well, with very little in terms of reuse from the previous game. The only area of Haven City that is unscathed by the war is the Port district, but the rest of the city has been substantially altered to reflect the occupying forces and the damage from war. Ruined buildings block off paths, and the market districts have been obliterated by the Metal Heads, whilst the stadium and Palace are now shadows of their former selves.
The city is more dangerous now as well. With half of the city under enemy occupation, you’ll find yourself being attacked on your way through the districts, besieged by robots or Metal Heads. Thankfully your allies won’t attack you if you hit them accidentally, but travelling through the city can be very dangerous. Especially when you’re trying to do side quests and your attention is elsewhere.
In terms of gameplay, Jak 3 is almost identical to its predecessor, save for a few noteworthy changes. Jak now has access to more than four weapons, with each gun having two sub weapons, often completely altering the effect of the weapon. For example, the shotgun can now be used as a charge, area of effect weapon or grenade launcher, or the minigun can shoot a ray of electricity or launch a drone. You activate these extra modes by simply pressing the corresponding button on the d-pad, with each upgrade requiring an extra push of that direction.
Jak also has the ability to become Light Jak, an angelic version of himself to counter Dark Jak. Oddly, you activate this with the same button as Dark Jak (L1), but Light Jak is summoned by holding down L1 in combination with another button. Light Jak is primarily used as a support/ healing mode in contrast to Dark Jak’s more combat heavy play style, and strategic use of Light Jak makes some of the more difficult parts of the game more bearable. Thankfully, Naughty Dog fixed one of the more annoying aspects of Jak 2 by allowing you to turn off Light/ Dark Jak whenever you wish instead of waiting for the gauge to empty.
Oh, and the hover board returns. Yay.
Much like Jak II, a large emphasis has been put into the story of Jak 3. Although Jak 3’s story is narrower than II’s, it is better paced and has a lot more funny moments to it. It also has a better sense of reward to it as a result of the many upgrade you get through the game (gun, health and Light/ dark upgrades), promising that continued questing will result in new and cooler stuff.
Jak 3 is also much more focused on character development for a few of its lead characters – Jak and Daxter, Seem, Veger, and Damas being the main ones – resulting in a much better emotional attachment to the characters. Unfortunately, this is partialy undone by the amount of returning characters that are largely ignored, such as Onin and Keira (who is now voiced by Tara Strong). Keira is perhaps the biggest misgiving, seeing as she was a major character in the previous games but is here waved aside in favour of Ashelin. It seems like a poor fate for an important character.
Jak 3 also suffers slightly from the idea of cool scenarios being slightly more important than making narrative sense. This is mostly in relation to returning villain Errol (David Herman) who somehow survived his fate in Jak II and has returned as a malevolent cyborg that wants to destroy absolutely everything so he can… uh... destroy more stuff. His actual goal is a little unclear, as is why he’s still alive, why he has a robot army and just why he exists in this game. Errol’s purpose in the second game made sense – he wanted Jak dead to gain glory with Baron Praxis and out of jealousy of Jak and Keira’s relationship. In Jak 3, he just wants everything to be destroyed. Which sucks, because he’s otherwise a pretty effective villain and his design is great.
To be honest, Errol is one of the only complaints I can draw with Jak 3. Everything else is superb and a vast improvement on Jak II, which in itself was a great game. Every flaw in Jak II is fixed – the controls are tighter, the vehicles control better, the difficulty has been fixed (especially in terms of the racing) and the game is just all around better. Except for Errol.
The other complaint is that Jak 3 leaves a lot open that is never dealt with – much like Jak II did. There are a lot of teases that are never given proper closure, resulting in the series feeling as though it was ended prematurely. Unfortunately, I doubt Naughty Dog will ever go back to the Jak series, which leaves us with the rather unfortunate note of having Jak X and The Lost Frontier as sequels.
No, I won’t talk about those two. You can’t make me.
In conclusion, Jak 3 is an improvement upon an already excellent game. Exceptionally well-polished, precise platforming and beautiful to boot, Jak 3 was one of the best games on the PS2.
On a side note, I want to reflect on how weirded out I am by Seem. I don’t know how to react to the character, mostly because I can’t work out what gender Seem is and how I should refer to him/her/it. I think I would be happier if the game knew how to react to Seem as well, since it makes several references to Seem being male despite the effeminate design and the directors of the game don’t seem to know either.
On an extra side note, I mean no offense to gender neutral people. Gender vagueness just unsettles me slightly – the result of growing up in culture with very strict guides as to what each gender should look like.
Also, 250th post! Yay!