Jak X: Combat Racing (PS2)
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: Fall 2005
Release Date: Spring 2005
The new Jak and Daxter game is a racer? Yes, this appears to be the case. While limited scenarios for Jak X were on display on the show floor, we were able to go behind closed doors into a meeting that showcased some of the special, still-developing features of this title. Developers from both Naughty Dog and Readybydawn were on hand, and answered a lot of questions about how the games were made, how they'll relate, and what fans can expect from the finished product.
The Jak and Daxter series has been a major hit in pretty much every sense of the word, the three games selling seven million copies and drawing warm reactions from gamers. Since Naughty Dog regarded the "trilogy" of Jak and Daxter titles as basically complete, the developers decided against attempting to continue the series with another platforming adventure game. Instead, the decision was made to expand the Jak and Daxter universe by focusing on the driving sequences from the earlier games.
The result isn't a hybrid of action and racing like the upcoming Crash Tag Team Racing, but what is really a pure arcade-style combat racing game. The driving style the gameplay emphasizes is fast and loose, with power-drifting around turns and a hefty turbo meter. Some events were based on circuit racing, while many of the more combat-oriented events used an arena. We didn't get a chance to go hands-on during the demo, but what we saw behaved a lot like a fusion of Wipeout Pure and Burnout 3. The developers refused to name names, but were up-front in admitting that most of the features of Jak X were inspired by their favorite racing games.
Tuning and driver choice were the racing elements most heavily emphasized in the demo. There were one dozen playable drivers and about nine cars displayed in the demo, each possessing different strengths and weaknesses. Any driver can be assigned to any car, so players will need to think about the way a driver's strengths play both to the car's and their own personal playing style. Once a car has been assigned a driver, the player can then begin to customize it in the tuning section of the game. Tuning radically alters the look of your vehicle, and alters its crash physics as well as its basic handling. Finally, players can totally customize their car's color scheme with surprisingly sophisticated RGB controls.
The Jak and Daxter elements aside, Jak X displayed a lot of the elements of a solid racing game in the demonstration. Online multiplayer, complete with perks like friends lists, is the major feature that Naughty Dog talked up during the demo. Each of the 100 events available in single-player mode can be played multiplayer as well, and the extensive in-game customization system will help make sure that no two players are racing identical vehicles. During races, the individual cars will show off battle and crash damage. Naughty Dog promised that in the final build, rag doll physics would be in place so drivers could fly out of the vehicle in particularly nasty wrecks.
A major emphasis on storytelling, complete with cut-scenes and references to the events of older Jak and Daxter titles, helps keep Jak X from feeling too disassociated from the earlier games. The cut scenes we saw featured some excellent direction, although the story they told was fundamentally a bit cheesy. It involved Jak and Daxter heading into a tough gang-infested area named Kras City, and being tricked by an old enemy into joining the brutal Kras City racing circuits. If they can't win the championship, they'll face certain death.
As interesting as Jak X was shaping up to be, Naughty Dog raised eyebrows when they turned the demo over to Readybydawn, an independent company founded by some of Jak and Daxter's original creators. They began to show off a game simply titled Daxter for the PSP, which finally lets players control Jak's wacky sidekick throughout the entire game. Daxter will be one of the first PSP titles to support connectivity with a PS2 title, in a style similar to what Nintendo pioneered with the Gamecube and Game Boy Advance. Instead of a proprietary dongle, gamers who happen to own Jak X and Daxter can connect their PSP to their PS2 by using the same USB-to-USB-mini-B cable that connects the PSP to a home computer. Connecting the two games will unlock a variety of bonuses in both titles. One batch of secrets will be unlocked simply by connecting the two games, while later batches can be accessed by completing each title. The most immediate example of bonus data available to us was a Daxter character appearing as a selectable racer in Jak X after the two games were connected.
Daxter itself plays much like the earlier Jak and Daxter titles, a blend of traditional 3D platforming with some vehicle sequences. What is impressive about this title is that it brings the experience of 3D platforming to a portable system without compromising quality in graphics, sound, or gameplay. The graphics were particularly impressive, with some gorgeous lighting in the demonstration levels and full fur texture details on Daxter. Some of the other press representatives at the event asked if Readybydawn was running the game off of some sort of "special" PSP, since it seemed too hard to believe that such a graphically rich game could run on the PSP without compromising the battery life. Readybydawn assured us they were using the same PSPs the players would be.
Gameplay was nothing too out of the ordinary according to the demo, which was less complete than the Jak X demo shown to us. Daxter takes place during the two-year period in Jak 2 where the title character is in prison and his sidekick is slumming around in bars. Daxter ends up being drafted into a job as an exterminator, fighting a series of "metal bugs" who are connected to the villains from the earlier Jak and Daxter games. He waddles through many locations from Jak 2 from the rather unique viewpoint of a fairly small animal, such as the wine cellar attached to the bar first seen in Jak 2. Despite this reliance on Jak 2 for story and environment concepts, Daxter's engine was entirely recreated from the ground up to take the best possible advantage of the PSP's capabilities.
As he goes, he fights metal bugs with his trusty fly swatter and bug spray, occasionally crawling around on all fours to get into really tight areas. Readybydawn emphasized the work they put into creating a uniquely animalistic style of movement for Daxter, who is actually a sort of strange otter-weasel hybrid unsurprisingly referred to as an otsel. There were no vehicle sequences ready for the demo, but Readybydawn promised that eventually there would be some flying sequences where Daxter has to dust crops.
All in all, Jak X and Daxter both left us with the impression of somewhat formulaic but very fun-looking games. Daxter brings the 3D platformer to a portable with a level of authenticity we've never seen before, while Jak X's huge breadth and multiplayer support promises hours of fun. The connectivity gimmick seems uniquely appropriate to the titles, and less intrusive than some of Nintendo's experiments with concept. Of course, both games will have to contend with heavy competition from similarly themed games this fall, and Jak X could be hard-pressed to win gamer interest with the next generation of consoles on the horizon. We look forward to seeing the complete versions of these games hit the market in the months to come.