Back in the PS2 era, there was a lot of hype surrounding the new Naughty Dog franchise. The developer had made a name for itself with the very successful Crash Bandicoot series and gamers everywhere were buzzing with excitement over what they could do on a more powerful console. Then in December of 2001 they revealed their “demolition duo” in Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. By 2004 they had finished the trilogy and evolved into the studio that would eventually give us the amazing Uncharted franchise. Now PS3 owners can play through all three games in Jak and Daxter Collection, but should they?
It's more than two but less than four. Five is right out.
This latest collection follows suit along with this latest trend of HD collections on PS3. Games that were “must-play” franchises on the PS2 are up-rezed, made to work with 3D televisions, given trophy support, and put on a single disk for $40. They mostly target gamers who have nostalgia goggles on their face and spare cash in their wallets. Of course, they also allow gamers who either missed them the first time around or who are too young to have experienced them when the games were new to give them a try. I personally enjoy collections as a playable history of the evolution of the interactive entertainment media we call video games. They act as time capsules of gaming trends and of our past entertainment culture. Of course, there are also questions like, are the “games still fun” and “should we buy it”? Ok, that's three questions in the first two paragraphs, let’s get on with the review and try to answer them.
The first game in the trilogy drew a lot of comparisons to Banjo-Kazooie and Crash Bandicoot when it first came out, and for good reason. The palette is cheery and colorful. The characters’ personalities and design are rather cartoony. You have a silent protagonist (Jak) who has a chatty little comic sidekick (Daxter) who both have to save the world from evil by completing various fetch quests.
Yes, this first game in the trilogy shows its age more than the other two. You are running through different lands, collecting objects, and completing tasks that will reward you with “more important” objects that will allow you to continue once you have enough of them. It is the standard 3D adventure platform formula that was still popular back in the day. It was unique in that there were no loading screens, the environments were designed to seamlessly transition back and forth, and once you collected something… it stayed collected. Unlike the standard set by Mario 64, if you died before completing a task, any collectables you had found were still collected.
All in all The Precursor Legacy is a fun, but dated little title. It wasn’t so much inventive as it was evolutionary. It took everything about the 3D adventure platformer genre at the time and polished it so that it was as shiny as it could get. The problem is that at the time gamers were beginning to gravitate more to the sandbox genre made popular by Grand Theft Auto III. Many “hardcore” gamers complained Jak and Daxter was too easy, too childish, and too short. This led to the second game in the trilogy, which brought with it a massive change of tone.
Jak II is truly a product of its time. It took the open world, story missions, jack-able (get it?) vehicles, and police presence elements from GTA. It added hoverboarding sections that seem to call back to when the Tony Hawk franchise was relevant. It took the silent cheerful protagonist and gave him a dark form, a thirst for vengeance, a voice (for which to express his angsty anger attitude), and worst of all… a soul patch. You could say that this is when the franchise transitioned from Disney-esqe to full on Dreamworks. All the characters had become edgy and sarcastic. Everybody had a chip on their shoulder from living in a tyrannical 1984-ish society. The only character who stays the same is Daxter. He becomes the only spot of light humor in a world that takes itself very seriously. He helps keep the mood from being too dark, making it a shame he was removed from the game’s title.
Let's have an emo-off.
This second game in the franchise mixes all these various elements well without losing its platforming roots. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was an early example of the modern action platformer genre. Also, this is the game that shows the first signs of Naughty Dog evolving into the studio that gave us Uncharted. A greater focus on story, massive set pieces that crumble around you as you climb them, and deeper character development. While it has aged better than the first, the angst laden dialogue reminds me of a time when it was cool to dress like you were from the Matrix and emo bands ruled the musical landscape.
Jak 3 sits in the style of trilogies where the third act is a more polished continuation of the second. The tone doesn’t get much lighter but the gameplay and control receive some minor improvements that help make the game more enjoyable. The main difference being that you're now getting around in a dune buggy in a wasteland, instead of hover cars in a city. All in all, it further improves the formula to make it the most enjoyable out of the three. The hyper-serious attitude still feels a tad goofy in retrospect, but a little Daxter goes a long way.
The developers have done the bare minimum to update these titles. They ran the polygons through the UpRezomatic 6000, which helps, but you can still see the seams in the models and the environments. Luckily, the franchise was among the best looking stuff on the market at the time so it doesn’t mean everything looks bad; it's still good, just disappointing that they didn’t do a little bit more work to at least bring the first title up to the visual quality of the other two titles.
The gameplay is still fun. Unfortunately, the series as a whole has controls that are a tad looser than I’d like. There are times when a characters' double jump doesn't take place, causing a fall in a death pit. The fact that this was made during the generation of games that did away with a life counter helps, since having an immortal character and forgiving checkpoints removes a lot of the frustration. Still, when you only feel like you have control of your character 95% of the time it feels like a surprise punch in the face when you have to replay a section.
Rawr. Dark Jak smash puny expectations!
The worst thing about playing games from the early days of 3D design is how cumbersome the camera typically is. Since not being able to see where you're going quickly results in death in platformers, it's nice to have camera control. All of the games in this trilogy have a finicky camera; it will get stuck on the landscape, it takes issue with you if you want to spin it around your character to get a quick lay of the land, and it wasn’t designed to really allow you to look up and down, forcing you to switch into first person mode if you need to figure out where you're supposed to be climbing to. It doesn’t make the games impossible to play, but it is an annoying relic that could have been improved upon before the games were re-packaged.
Most people could get through the games in about 50 hours overall. Of course, completing everything, and getting all of the collectables and trophies could bump that up another 25 hours. After that, what has your $40 gotten you? Not a whole lot. There are no alternate modes of play, and you can’t play through the game in a different way (unless you're considering going for the speedrun record), so once the game is over… it’s over.
When playing re-releases I tend to take off my nostalgia goggles and judge a game by modern standards, which brings us back to the review’s earlier questions. Should PS3 owners play through these three games? Yes. Are the games still fun? For the most part, yes. Should you buy it? That depends. It's a solid rental title and should give you a fun week (maybe two) of last generation platforming action. However, since the games are pretty easy and have nearly no replay value, you have to be a fan to want to own this Collection. Just like the blockbuster movies that Naughty Dog was intending these games to emulate, they were great for their time, but experiencing them once is often enough.
This review is based on a PlayStation 3 copy of Jak & Daxter Collection, purchased by the reviewer.