Retrospective: Jak II: Renegade
Let me start off by admitting that I never had a Playstation 2 growing up, going from the Nintendo 64 straight to the Xbox. A few months back I decided to fill in this missing gap in my gaming education and picked up a cheap Playstation 2 console off eBay. I checked with some friends about what essential games I needed to play and the Jak and Daxter series went straight to the top of the list. I had one friend tell me that Jak II was one of his favourite games and another tell me that it was his favourite game “of all time”, so I was definitely looking forward to playing this. What I got when I put in the disc was…well, ‘mixed’ is the best way to put it.
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Platform: PlayStation 2
Release: (EU) October 17th, 2003, (JP) March 11th, 2004, (NA) October 14th, 2003
Jak II: Renegade is really two different games in one. On one hand Jak II is a fairly fun platformer and the other is a sub-par GTA (Grand Theft Auto) clone, hardly surprisingly as it was released back in 2003 during the height of the sand-box craze.
Jak II is a platformer
You go to different levels, you jump around on platforms, fight different enemies, and collect things that mainly exist to be collected. There isn’t anything here you haven’t seen in any other platformer but that’s ok. Not every game needs to reinvent the wheel. The platforming is generally challenging enough that you might die a few times on a level but never gets hard enough to be rage-quit inducing. The controls are…pretty good I guess? It’s a little difficult to tell because I am playing on a second-hand console so I’m going to give the game the benefit of the doubt and blame the occasional awkward movements on my possibly faulty controller. Sadly, you can only access these platforming areas by going through the games’ large city areas which brings me to the second part of what Jak II is all about.
Jak II is a Grand Theft Auto clone…
And not a particularly good one. Now I’ve heard about all the GTA clones that came out in the early 2000’s but so far I’d managed to avoid them all. Playing Jak II though, I can see why they were so hated. The problem with Jak II is that it has a big focus on driving but the driving is terrible. The game gives you a big city to drive around in (apparently at the time it was the largest city in a game thus far) but it just feels hollow and lifeless. It’s a series of roads with boxes on the side that are probably buildings of some sort. (Are they houses? Office buildings? Cock-fighting rings? Who knows.) They’re just large objects stuck around the place to make it look like a city without it ever feeling like a city.
The same thing applies to the population of this urban metropolis. Cars are constantly driving around for the sole purpose of giving you cars to steal. Ok, I tell a lie. There is a second purpose to the city’s population and that is to make driving as infuriating as it could possibly be. The cars in this game are everywhere and almost all of them handle like…well, like the horses in an Assassin’s Creed game. Imagine trying to ride one of those horses around a city that is absolutely jam-packed with other horses and the horses also explode if they are so much as grazed by a bumper.
Jak II is a game with a story…I guess
So the gameplay is somewhat inconsistent and leaning towards being aggravating. That’s ok. I’m fully prepared to play a game with iffy gameplay as long as the story makes up for it (*cough* Dragon Age *cough*). So how does the story of Jak II hold up?
Answer: not well.
The problem with the story is summed up by the first thing Jak says. See, in the previous game Jak was a silent protagonist like Gordon Freeman (Half-Life) or Link (The Legend of Zelda). He never said a word and his personality was conveyed solely on his actions. All the talking was handled by his wisecracking (as in increasingly annoying) partner, Daxter. But now Jak is a talker. So what will the first words spoken by this silent hero be? Why a threat to kill someone of course!
That’s right, Jak is dark and driven by revenge this time around. There’s a lot of ways you can do this kind of character but the way Naughty Dog has chosen to do it is “unlikeable asshole that is a complete jerk to a bunch of other unlikable assholes”. Everyone in this game is angry all the time for no real reason, with the exception of Daxter who continues to be the wisecracking partner. If you’re thinking to yourself, “How does this overly annoying partner character fit in with all these other dark and angry characters?” the answer is he doesn’t. The tone of this game is all over the place. Is it supposed to be dark and serious or is it supposed to be light-hearted and goofy? I feel like nobody could decide what type of game they wanted to make so they just went ‘screw it’ and made both at once.
I really wanted to like this game. I wanted to be able to tell friends that yes; it is just as good as they told me it was. I wanted to experience a classic pinnacle of gaming I had missed out on.
What I got was a game that felt like it is punishing me for trying to play it.
If you want to see what effect GTA had on the video game market in the early 2000s or you want to see an experiment in genre hybridization then this is worth a look. On the other hand, If you want to play a game that is fun and enjoyable I’d give this a miss.