Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: October 25, 2005
Jak and Daxter Get Their Licenses!
I like change. More than change, I like growth even more. Jak and Daxter began life as a PlayStation platform adventure game with the slick hero Jak and his goofy mongoose looking sidekick Daxter. Naughty Dog has since spent a great deal of time and energy developing this franchise into a PlayStation standard-bearing franchise, as Mario has done for Nintendo and Master Chief has done for Xbox. In their current iteration, Naughty Dog has done some paradigm shifting, or rather, gear shifting. Based on my time with an early build of Jak X: Combat Racing, I can say that the decision looks to be a sound one.
Rather than go with another 3D platform-hopping adventure game that adds new features, weapons and settings to the already-long list that Jak and Daxter have accrued, Naughty Dog has put Jak in the driver's seat and on a course with rockets, mines, and people to blow up. It seems like a very unoriginal idea, and although this sort of genre-bending and switching has been done before, this experiment looks to be a very fruitful one. This time around, Jak is adventuring at the controls of a dozen new cars that pack upgradeable machine guns, shields, rockets and landmines.
The game modes vary between a single-player campaign across various race tracks where Jak and Daxter have to deal with a crime lord's thug by the name of Razer and his racing team of ill-tempered brutes, to a mission-based race style called Artifact Racing and an open arena style Deathmatch mode. New cars can be unlocked, and they each boast different abilities and stats in terms of their handling, acceleration, shields and weapons, but that is all the mundane gameplay aspects that we have come expect from racing games.
What makes Jak X look so promising is well, how it looks. I have seen developers do some crazy things with the PS2's aging hardware, but Naughty Dog has already gotten this game to look amazingly textured, vibrantly colored, devoid of pop-up and fogging and all the while running at least 30 frames a second (and this is on a beta build, mind you). The engine is coupled with some satisfying physics that will make you believe that riding up a wall, jumping off that wall and rolling over to land right behind an opponent so you can dismantle his ride via gatling guns is all perfectly plausible. The game's racing style reminded me very much of Codemasters' Colin McRae Rally racing series, which boasts the best racing dynamics and fidelity on a console (say what you want about GT 3 and Forza, but Codemasters has got this shiz on lock).
Another really cool feature that I glimpsed during my preview run of Jak X was the storyline. I only caught snippets, but Jak and Daxter, along with their buddies Ashelin, Keira, Samos and Torn are all tricked into racing the Kras City Grand Championships by Jak's old nemesis Krew (who Jak killed in Jak 2 but cunningly had Jak and his pals poisoned somehow to get them into their current predicament, which is Jak X). The whole storyline is nicely developed between races, where you'll discover more and more about the truth behind Krew, his crew, the poison, the antidote for the poison, and how many lies Daxter can tell to impress as many girls as he can. Oh, and there will be at least a dozen races thrown into the whole lot as well.
I like that while Naughty Dog is clearly making a racing game with some arena elements, the narrative inherent in adventure gaming is still a major part of their design values. As fun as games like Wipeout Pure, Gran Tourismo, Forza or Burnout can be, there is little to no narrative in them unless you consider tweaking springs, wings, ride height and tire pressure to be short stories in their own rights. This approach to the racing genre looks promising, and it is good for the industry as a whole when a developer like Naughty Dog looks to step outside the normal constraints of a genre by doing something as simple as adding a strong narrative element to a combat racing game.
Rounding out the entire package is the ability to play Jak X online or split-screen. Racing games are entirely too satisfying to play against friends; they are inherently multiplayer experiences that really encapsulate the sheer competition of something as simple as racing an opponent to the finish line. With the ability to take things on the 'net, gamers will be able to race another friend or seven friends, which will makes things really intense, as if the game were lacking in intensity.
All in all, Jak X: Combat Racing is shaping up into a game that should not only make waves with critics but also sell a lot of units. Hopefully, the technical promise and elevated game design ethics will gel as well as they seem to in the beta build. There is enough time before the release date for Naughty Dog to fine-tune and refine all of the details to wrap up a top-shelf title right in time for the holiday season. Be ready.
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