The developers at Naughty Dog are most beloved for the Uncharted series on the PlayStation 3, but a lot of gamers remember them just as fondly for a couple of other franchises. The Jak and Daxter Collection, which features the three "main" Jak and Daxter titles from the PlayStation 2, is definitely one of those franchises.
The Jak and Daxter series, along with Ratchet and Clank, made the PS2 one of the best systems of its time for platformers. Nintendo gets a lot of well-deserved love for the Mario games, but Jak and Daxter took a lot of risks that Nintendo is still too scared to take. Granted, not all of those risks panned out, but it's remarkable to look back at these three games and see the big leap in design between the first game and its sequels.
The original Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was basically a Super Mario 64 clone in that its gameplay was largely focused on collecting things. You collected Precursor Orbs, which were used as currency to buy another object, Power Cells, which were Jak and Daxter's "star" system. They were often needed to advance to new sections of the world and would typically be rewarded after completing tasks for various non-player characters.
While the concept was definitely derivative of Nintendo's title, it was still exceptionally well done. The world was a marvel, free of loading and fake fog that was typically used to cut down on draw distance, and it remains technically impressive today. While the art design has aged a bit, seeing this game with an HD sheen surprised me with how well it compares to modern titles in the genre.
The controls of the original title are fairly basic: Jak is the only character over whom you have direct control, and Daxter is essentially present for color commentary. Jak is a mute protagonist, which ends up changing in the sequel. Jak could jump and double-jump, grip ledges to pull himself up, spin attack, and dash to punch enemies.
He has a limited amount of life, just the equivalent of three hearts. You can replenish health by collecting Green Eco, an energy source that comes in an abundance of colors in the first Jak and Daxter. The health system in the first game does come off as a little odd; you don't collect the green stuff and refill, but you have to collect a fair amount of Green Eco before you refill even one section of health.
In addition to Green Eco, Jak encounters a number of other colors that bestow him with powers. Blue Eco electrifies Jak, allowing him to run faster and open certain doors. It also automatically opens nearby chests and other containers and absorbs Precursor Orbs. Yellow Eco gives Jak the ability to toss projectiles, which can also break open containers that can't be accessed otherwise.
While the original game was extremely well done, I don't think anyone was prepared for the changes Naughty Dog made in the sequel. The Mario 64 formula was radically altered, and instead of collecting Power Cells to open new areas, you take on missions given out by NPCs who are scattered across the large, sprawling hub world of Haven City.
The sequel sends Jak hurtling into the future and actually creates a two-year gap in the story during which Jak was imprisoned and infused with Dark Eco, the substance that had corrupted the villains in the prior title. Dark Eco can now be collected as a drop from defeated enemies, and collecting enough of the material allows Jak to turn into Dark Jak, which powers up his melee attacks for a limited amount of time.
There are a lot of intentional elements in Jak II that are reminiscent of the Grand Theft Auto series at the time, right down to the minimap in the bottom right corner of the screen. Quest-givers show up as small icons on the map, and at times, you'll have multiple quests to complete at once, allowing for some open-endedness in how you make your way through the game.
The GTA influence doesn't stop there, as Jak can now commandeer vehicles; some are innocently parked, but you'll actually have to steal some cars from people by knocking them out of the car. It certainly feels GTA-like in execution. There are even patrols of enemies that leave Jak alone until he runs into one of them or attacks them. This causes the patrols to swarm Jak until he can evade them for a certain amount of time.
While the second game is considerably different from the first, it still manages to be a lot of fun. The majority of the changes were welcome; having a minimap to display quest-givers definitely took some of the guesswork out of where to go next. Using vehicles to cover ground is a huge plus, as it makes your downtime spent exploring go by a whole lot faster.
It isn't all great, though. The missions are often long, and Jak II is notoriously held as the most difficult game in the series. A lot of that comes from the poor use of checkpoints in the missions, and you can often clear a large part of a mission only to have it reset to the beginning after an unfortunate death. As a result, there are sections that felt a lot more aggravating than the first game.
Also, while the driving is a big plus when it comes to getting around Haven City, the actual physics are pretty bad. It never feels very precise, and traffic is always heavy and in the way. It's also extremely easy to run into the patrols by accident, and they are an absolute pain to shake, often not going away until you trigger a mission marker.
Jak 3, which rounded out the trilogy for Naughty Dog, didn't make as many leaps in design as the differences between the first and second game. Most of Jak's core mechanics stay the same, but there's a slightly greater emphasis on driving and shooting.
Jak's Morph Gun was introduced in the second game, but only came with four variations, whereas the third game features a total of 12. The driving, necessary to traverse a huge section of the world known as the Wasteland in part three, has thankfully been improved. You'll spend a lot of time in a diminutive dune buggy, but the handling is more in tune with what you expect out of third-person games that feature a driving mechanic. It comes off as a bit dated, and it's certainly not as fluid as the driving in something like Rage, but it still holds up well.
The mission structure remains in place, as does the minimap to guide you to the next quest-giver. Haven City is left behind for a much larger hub world called Spargus City, which is a pretty big improvement in both size and look to Haven City in the second game. There's also a lot more to do in Spargus than there ever was in Haven City. Thankfully, the collectible Precursor Orbs can now be found in the city, giving you more reasons to explore.
Of the three games, Jak 3 remains my favorite, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the original game holds up. It's really a blast to play, especially considering how different it is from the other games in this collection. Jak II is worth checking out, but it feels like merely a stop on the way to the superb Jak 3, which nails the mission-based, open-world gameplay that Jak II had attempted. It feels second only to GTA developer Rockstar's take on the formula.
The HD aspect of the game is handled extremely well, and the frame rate is solid throughout. I never encountered a noticeable bug, slowdown or other technical issue after playing through all three games. It doesn't seem like any changes or removals have been made, either, which is also a big plus. I had the chance to check out the 3-D effect, but I didn't find it to be that big of a draw. It's a bit like films that have 3-D added in postproduction instead of being filmed in 3-D, and it doesn't add much to the games.
If you missed out on the Jak and Daxter series when it first debuted or haven't spent any recent time with the games, I'd highly recommend that check out The Jak and Daxter Collection. It's a great set of platformers with a whole lot of content for $40. They look gorgeous on an HD set, and age hasn't deteriorated the gameplay.
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