Jak and Daxter Collection
Stuck between Naughty Dog’s early icon Crash Bandicoot and the large-scale spectacle of the Uncharted series, the Jak and Daxter games are transitional works for the developer in many ways. While still falling squarely in the action/platforming genre, the series was driven by a restless sense of innovation, evolving from the standard ‘90s collection-driven design to Jak 3’s apocalyptic open-world that suggested what Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome might have looked like if conceived by Pixar.
I played all three Jak games when they were released, but it was instructive to play all three again in quick succession. The first thing I noticed was how different in both tone and design Jak 2 and 3 are from the original, which seems to be cut from a different cloth. While pushing the boundaries of the genre in terms of scale, graphics (for its day), and technology, Jak and Daxter doesn’t stray that far from the template of ‘90s Rare games like Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64. You wander around talking to villagers, getting tasks ranging from simple fetch quests to longer-form platforming episodes, earning power cells and precursor orbs along the way. It doesn’t feel as innovative as I remember, but it’s still a tour de force of craftsmanship packed with engaging platforming levels, boss battles, and some (occasionally problematic) vehicle segments that deliver variety.
With Jak 2, Naughty Dog blew up its formula with an epic adventure that took obvious inspiration from Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto III. Now, the open city of Haven serves as the hub world, with Jak and Daxter riding hoverbikes from location to location to engage in platforming levels that take place just outside the city walls.
The series also went through a dramatic shift in tone in Jak 2. The previously voiceless main character was transformed into an angry young man, complete with a new soulpatch look that made him look like a refugee from a turn of the century metal band. Jak had been the subject of experiments that injected him with volatile Dark Eco, transforming him into a hulking, gray “Dark Jak.” The story and tone of Jak 2 is continued in Jak 3, making the original now feel more like a lighthearted prologue to the action series. Jak’s more serious persona seems a bit silly in retrospect; thankfully, the wisecracking Daxter is always around to lighten the mood with a well-placed comedic remark.
Jak 3 is basically a restatement and expansion of the strengths of Jak 2. Now banished to the wastelands outside Haven City, Jak eventually makes his way back to set things right, but not before experiencing a varied and grand adventure. Minor improvements to control and gameplay (like expanded weapons functions) abound, and the dune buggy vehicles you pilot in the deserts are much more satisfying than any of the hoverbikes in Haven.
It’s an attractive update of a trilogy that, in many ways, marked the end of the action/platform era. Nintendo carries on, but the genre is now a niche market. The Jak series (along with its spiritual sister series Ratchet & Clank) is also the last time that the platformer seemed to really be engaged in the larger conversation of game development. These games were intended to be blockbusters, to compete with the Grand Theft Autos of the world. While there’s been a platformer in recent years, most of those games are looking back to the simpler 8- and 16-bit eras.
Naughty Dog’s work in this franchise endures thanks to great characters, finely tuned gameplay, and a unceasing inventiveness. Though some aspects of the games are dated now, the Jak games stand up as epic adventures.
The three Naughty Dog PS2 games in the series still stand as a high-water mark of PS2 development.