Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Review: Jak & Daxter The Precursor Legacy
Jak And Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is not only a precursor to the excellence that is Jak 3, but also a reminder that platformers can still be relevant even on a new system. Well, Silent Hill 2, Onimusha and Resident Evil: Code Veronica were praised and they used archaic tank controls, why the fuck can't Naughty Dog make a 3D platformer that's like Banjo Kazooie? Better yet, Naughty Dog made a 3D platformer, but with mostly seamless transitions between levels almost like a sandbox game ala Grand Theft Auto 3, which is very much the opposite of the overly linear Crash Bandicoot series. Being the tail end of the majestic 2001 lineup that made the PS2 relevant outside of being a cheap DVD player, Jak And Daxter certainly left a lasting impression by having a big world to play in and a light hearted atmosphere with some fantastic writing that still keeps peoples' spirits high even to this day. It isn't necessarily the greatest game of all time, but it definitely gets a few things right to make up for what doesn't seem as cool or interesting, whether you were playing it on Christmas day in 2001 or you randomly decided to relive some old memories or wanted to see what the big deal was in 2012.
There is a story, but very much like your typical 3D platformer, it's filler - basically, Jak and Daxter explore an island full of Dark Eco known as Misty Island because they have an itch for some adventuring. Unfortunately, Daxter is knocked into a pool of Dark Eco and is transformed into a weasel looking otter sort of thing, and they escape back home. From there, they have to find Power Cells to turn Daxter back into an elven human kind of thing while investigating the power of Eco and beings known as Lurkers, the latter of which had chased Jak and Daxter off of Misty Island. Whenever you get to certain locations, you are given bits of the overarching conflict, but other than that, there isn't much of a story to give a shit about. All it really amounts to is "shit happened, do something about it now". No character arcs or anything, just collect Power Cells. It's a bit of a shame because the characters have a metric fuckton of personality - Daxter's wisecracking one liners are often at odds with the green sage Samos and his daughter Keira as there's a fair amount of banter between them. Then again, Daxter's constant need to be a smartass is because Jak is a mute. Unlike Nathan Drake who is a smartass because survey said smartasses are endearing characters, Daxter is a wacky cartoon character whose one liners offset Jak's lack of lines. Every other character you meet along the way either have their own troubles or are bad guys, but their dialogue just seems so... out there that you can listen to them and feel like some wacky cartoon is playing out. FUCK I love this! It's good enough to help you overlook the fact that there's really not much of a story playing out.
Jak And Daxter is very much a platformer, meaning that you'll be running, jumping, double jumping and doing this kneeling slide punch thing that'd bloody up your knees if you did it in real life in order to find the Power Cells. Oh, and you can spin around and use Daxter to hit enemies. The aim is to collect enough Power Cells to power up each of the devices you'll use in order to get to different areas of the world, and the method of which to get them involve running around each area to drunkenly stumble upon them. Some of the Power Cells are in plain sight while others have you doing some precision jumping across gaps and onto moving platforms, or using vents of Blue Eco to activate some Precursor technology that lets you either enter Precursor temples or jump a million feet high. Said Blue Eco can also magnetize nearby Precursor Orbs, a shitload of which you'll need to find in order to acquire some Power Cells from some Precursor Statues. Each area also has a set of Scout Flies inside metal boxes that you'll need to collect in order to acquire a Power Cell for said areas... because they track it down or something and Keira is able to magically deliver it to you. You'll also have the odd boss to fight and... they're alright. Nothing particularly special, just either smack them with Daxter or head inside the Yellow Eco vent conveniently placed nearby to unload with fireballs. They're very formulaic and it becomes evident that fighting is not Jak's forte. Nope, it's all about the double jumps, the rolling jumps and riding the occasional vehicle around to collect orbs and cells.
If you feel a strange sense of deja vu while playing through this game, then not to worry - even when I played this at the bright young age of 10 years old, I felt like I was playing the Sony equivalent of Banjo Kazooie and at twice that age, it felt like I was playing Banjo Kazooie if the joints were greased up and the levels were shorter to placate the sudden need to make everything feel like one giant fucking level. There's no hub level so to speak, so you're not entering levels via caves, mini buildings and paintings. In fact, the closest thing to entering a level is taking a boat to Misty Island or riding a gondola to Snowy Mountain. At the same time, this approach to level design gives it a somewhat more distinct flavor, especially after every third Nintendo 64 game was "inspired" by Super Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie, not to mention the fact that we're dealing with a somewhat more powerful system than the Nintendo 64 in the Playstation 2 and there was a huge need to show it off. Much like the Playstation 3 and eventually (hopefully, even) the Playstation 4, the Playstation 2 initially did fuck all to impress the public - maybe except existing in a market where DVD players required a second mortgage to purchase - so there was a need for third party developers like Capcom, Konami, Naughty Dog and eventually Insomniac to step it up and release something that validates the purchase of a PS2 as a gaming system. Producing a seamless sandbox world with the formula of a 3D platformer instead of making 2D platformers with 3D graphics was Naughty Dog's way of saying "look guys, the PS2 is a grand old purchase for new and exciting games with huge, interesting worlds - fuck Banjo Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64 and all these old ass games, this is the future you pricks!". Consequently, that train of thought transpired to the Uncharted games where they basically went "look guys, the PS3 is the best console ever - I mean look at these graphics and these gripping action set pieces, you can't get that on a dusty hunk of junk PS2 you fucks!".
Funny enough, Jak And Daxter's biggest claim to fame is also one of its weaker points. While other 3D platformers clearly had levels, they also had levels that were fantastically designed. It says something when only a few levels are well designed while the rest seemed to have gone with the motions. I mean Misty Island certainly felt like a place you wouldn't want to go and Snowy Mountain certainly had its freezing cold caves and literally breathless heights, but fuck me, if that jungle level or the beach are considered good levels, then I suppose Rusty Bucket Bay and the Water Temple are masterpieces in level design! Simply put, a lot of the levels either seem to go with the motions or feel constricted by small size limits. It's no secret that the PS2 has the random access memory of an Alzheimer's sufferer - some levels had to be the size of a fire ant or have as much content as a McDonald's meal has nutrition. Meanwhile, because they're so separated from the rest of the world, Misty Island and Snowy Mountain have more things to do in them than simply running around to stumble onto Power Cells. Stuff like exploring icy caves, using vehicles or riding an ostrich-like animal to get to places Jak alone couldn't and much more - these levels leave more of an impression than the others. Same with Spider Cave - because of its blander color schemes, there's a little more to it like a mining facility and spiders so they can design something more interesting to make Power Cells a bit more exciting to get. That's not mentioning the Lost Precursor City - holy shit, there is a whole lot of shit to do! But again, it's because it's far removed from the rest of the world, meaning it doesn't have to deal with arbitrary constrictions so that it doesn't bugger up the game's processing or add in loading times all over the place. The Zoomer also sees some use, whether the level is like that of a tapeworm's home environment where you have to simply make it to the end and smash Scout Fly boxes, or it's a more open level that has you engaging in time trials and attacking flying monsters, on top of other things. Other than that... well, there are parts of levels that are kind of cool. I guess. Kind of. I don't know, I just went and did shit the whole time so I could say I have Power Cells.
On that same token, the graphics may not be the stuff of legends like Onimusha or Devil May Cry were in 2001, but it did have its own style that works very well nevertheless. In fact, its more cartoony style aged a hell of a lot better than the gritty realistic pre-rendered camera angles present in those two games because it's still at least aesthetically presentable. Sure, the models look like they were constructed out of clay and grease and the environments aren't much more detailed, but detail (as well as individual level sizes) was a necessary sacrifice so that the game wouldn't lag like a fat guy on The Biggest Loser. The animation is not just fluid; it's also exaggerated as there tends to be quite a lot of animation usually implemented for the sake of animating, and yet, it still manages to look impressive. Most early PS2 games that strive more for realism like Final Fantasy X and Metal Gear Solid 2 have decent animation and are technically more impressive, but Jak And Daxter's boisterous animation style is more interesting to look at than games whose graphical styles have been topped the very next year.
The sound design is a bit of a mixed bag. On one end, the soundtrack is pretty mediocre. Outside of the song that plays during the title sequence which has been embedded into my memory banks since I first played it, there's nothing that really stands out. There isn't much in the way of ambiance either, it feels like it's only there. But that first song... it sounds like a poppy tribal drum beat, but you could dance to that shit. It's light hearted enough to give you the impression that it's a light hearted adventure, and Daxter's dance during that only adds to it. But yeah, the rest of the soundtrack is pretty mediocre. Thankfully, the voice acting makes up for it. Jak's, for instance... okay, the voice acting is actually pretty good when in line with the atmosphere. Everyone is loud and exaggerated to great effect, going well with their wacky go lucky personalities.
Jak And Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is a game that ranges from Kenji Eno levels of ambitious to restrained like an S&M model. At its worst, it's a playable game that simply goes through the motions set by games with better level designs. At its best, it's a game with a lot going for it, one you look forward to replaying at a later point due to some good levels and fantastic writing. It's a game that's one part awesome one part mediocre. Ironically, the best parts of this game is not the fact that it's one big level; it's during the levels which are far removed from the rest of the world that manage to keep one engaged. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't dig the idea of a 3D platformer that had a sandbox world and I'd be lying if I said I'd prefer it if Jak 2 and 3 didn't play like how they did. So the best way to put it is that the most that it needs is a more refined sandbox design and a better story to make the writing even better than fantastic.