Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy

I think it would be safe to say that most heavy-duty video gamers raised in the mid-80s are fairly familiar with the cartoon platformer. For those uninformed, it's that "series of bottomless pits" genre, the one Super Mario Brothers kick-started at the very outset of the 8-bit generation, with a huge wave of imposters not all that far behind. Given the limitations of the hardware and the potentially lightened burden on level design, (why deal with the multitude of potential repercussions when a player missteps, when the simple "unending fall of doom" rule can be applied and immediately understood almost universally?) the immediate emergence of imitators isn't really all that surprising. The 8-bit and 16-bit platforms were so geared toward 2-D, sprite-based animation and the specific genre of platforming, it's amazing any other genres saw the light of day over those years. However in recent times, as the average age of gamers has steadily risen and the hardware has grown stronger and stronger, the style has been noticeably downplayed and disregarded in favor of first person shooters, third person adventures, MMORPGs and their 3D brethren. While most of the formerly industry-leading titles survived the transition, (and others, like Sonic the Hedgehog, struggled with the leap from two dimensions to three) the constant influx of new heroes and different titles was almost completely choked in just a single generation. That's not to say the genre was entirely left to the old-timers, as new faces like Crach Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon were generally very successful of their own right at the outset of the PSone's life cycle, but much of the competition was missing and the new polygonal platformers more closely resembled action / adventure titles than their forefathers.

Which makes it interesting that the famed Crash developer, Naughty Dog, would take a gamble with a new title in this otherwise-fading genre. The studio had enjoyed success in the field before, giving Super Mario 64 a run for its money with the early games in the Crash franchise, but with Vivendi Universal taking control of that series and farming it out to another studio, Naughty Dog was left without a face and their final addition to the series, Crash Team Racing, had seemed to hint towards a branching out into other genres and flavors. Instead, the team returned to what had brought it to the dance in the first place with Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, their first effort for the PS2 and the first true addition to the genre on the new console.

With Jak and Daxter, Naughty Dog basically retreads over the successes of their past, stopping to make a few necessary tweaks that had been sorely lacking in previous efforts along the way. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, because like I'd mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, platforming had by this time been hammered down to a few absolutely key elements that are necessary for such a title to be successful. At a glance, the game presents nothing all that noteworthy; a gratingly bubbly cartoonish cast, a story pulled right out of a coloring book, bright and shiny graphics to match, the existence of an occasional power-up, and yes, a large cluster of bottomless pits. Make no mistake, if you cringe at the thought of spending a few days in front of a game that looks and speaks like something you'd expect to see on a Saturday morning cartoon, this is absolutely not the game for you. You'll find yourself embarrassed to be seen playing it, unlike the Mario series which is mysteriously immune to such sensations. If you share a house with more than just a pet or two, your roommate(s), spouse(s) or family member(s) will be making fun of you. If you're at a point, spiritually and emotionally, where you can deal with that... there's a somewhat enjoyable little game buried underneath it all.

The storyline is easy to establish, short on dialogue and heavy on gameplay, and that's just about the extent of the good things I can say about it. You know those kid's shows that you'll occasionally find yourself really getting into, no matter which audience they're supposed to be targeted toward? Whether it was Invader Zim, Pokemon, G.I. Joe or The Fairly OddParents, I'm sure everyone's stumbled across one at some point in their life. Yeah, well, whichever show it was that you found yourself strangely drawn towards, Jak and Daxter can't hang with it. The story is bare bones at best, establishing the good guys and the bad guys right off the bat, (the bad guys are the ones with tusks) introducing a conflict (the guys with tusks want to unleash chaos on the world) and a motivation, (Jak's buddy Daxter falls into a pit of mystery goo, transforming him into a furry critter) eventually unleashing you out onto the world to fight evil or some such nonsense. The characters themselves are just paper-thin and almost completely devoid of emotion or appeal. Jak, the main character, (naturally) is conspicuous in his silence throughout the tale, leaving the majority of the speaking parts to the green sage (an elderly wizard who grants you a miniature nugget of motivation at the outset of each level) and Daxter, (the aforementioned furry sidekick, equipped with enough cheesy one liners to make Rodney Dangerfield spin wildly in his grave) both of whom are way, way over the top in the "flamboyant personality" department. Once in a while, the sage's daughter will pop in to share a new bit of technology or something, and as you visit new towns you'll meet a new character or two, but for the most part it's Daxter and the sage bouncing off of one another and Jak standing around to make confused or frustrated faces. I was surprised at the lack of a population to the game's world, as the idea is supposedly that you're traveling from one side of the globe to the other and you'll only encounter maybe a dozen different individuals, start to finish. It feels like the entire race is about to be completely snuffed from the planet, regardless of the baddies' success or failure, the game's per-capita population is so sparse.

The story tells us that hundreds of years ago, a mysterious, ancient race of beings wandered the planet, built enormous temples and did eclectic, confusing things before disappearing without a trace. Their architecture and technology remain scattered around the globe, like a race of super-intelligent, supernatural Aztecs, and a lot of their influence is seen in the machinery and architecture of the modern world, not to mention the actions and beliefs of its inhabitants. Especially curious are the thousands of "precursor orbs" dispersed throughout the countryside and the hundreds of spouts of gaseous "eco matter" that appear randomly around the land. While the precursor orbs are treated as a sort of currency and respected as such, (think of the coins scattered around the skies of Super Mario Brothers) the eco spouts immediately affect the appearance and abilities of anyone (un)fortunate enough to inhale their fumes. Eco appears in several colors, which coordinate with the substance's affect on the individual; yellow eco, for instance, grants a man the ability to launch fireballs from his fists, while dark eco almost always leads to death or disfigurement. A run-in with dark eco is responsible for Daxter's transformation into the strange, furry, groundhog look-a-like, but always leads to pain and / or death should Jak bump into it. While the various characters' attitudes towards the precursors and the different colors of eco they left behind suggests a mild religious drama, it's never confronted and remains dangling in the background throughout the story, disappointingly. Instead, the tale focuses on the existence of various sages, each asked to play chaperone for every single spout of a particular shade of eco. There's a blue sage, a yellow sage, a red sage and a green sage, with a dark sage thrown in for good measure. When the dark sage unsurprisingly turns out to be the bad apple of the bunch, the others recruit Jak (with Daxter in tow) to join the fight and move on their enemy. Which, I suppose, segues us right into the gameplay.

If you've played any of the post-SNES three dimensional platformers that preceded it, you've probably got a good handle on how Jak and Daxter feels. You've got an overhead camera dangling just behind you at all times, a couple very basic attacks, and the vital ability to jump. As you progress through the game, you'll discover different variations upon Jak's abilities as they're necessitated, such as the ability to somersault, to crouch, to double-jump and to long jump. What's cool is that these abilities aren't something you need to unlock... they're available right from the get-go, so there's a process of experimental discovery that makes you feel directly involved in Jak's progression as a character. On the other hand, the existence of these abilities and instructions on their use are never truly explained, so if you haven't discovered the long jump by the time Jak needs to clear a large canyon by his lonesome, you're in for a long, painful series of trials and errors. Occasionally, Daxter (who clings to your shoulders throughout the game) will chime in with what's supposed to be a helpful hint, but even that only serves to state the obvious and doesn't help you out as far as the actual controls are concerned. If you're trying that canyon-spanning long jump, for example, and have failed miserably multiple times, he'll contribute to your efforts with a half-hearted "Hey, why don't you try a LONG JUMP on this one?" Which seems to demand the obvious gamer response of "No shit, Sherlock, you feel like telling me the actual button configuration so I can move on?"

Despite the occasional difficulty in explaining its own controls, the actual gameplay of Jak is largely a lot of fun. Obstacles are challenging without being frustrating, most of the puzzles are just difficult enough to whirl your gears without forcing you to seek out a walkthrough in a moment of fury, and the boss fights are wholly entertaining. It makes good use of the power-ups, staggering them early to get you used to their intentions and then introducing them at just the right times as they become more and more important later in the game. It does have a few small hiccups that will continually bother a refined gamer by failing to function as designed at critical moments. For example, Jak doesn't always latch onto the corner of a ledge, Prince of Persia-style, like he's supposed to. Nine times out of ten, he'll perform the brave feat without hesitation, but it seems like the most important jumps are usually where he has the most trouble, slamming into the edge of a platform and then awkwardly vibrating for a moment before falling to his death. Likewise, the extremely touchy nature of the double-jump system also provides for its share of headaches. Unlike past games which have utilized this bizarre play mechanic, (I remember playing Ghouls and Ghosts as a kid and immediately running outside to see if I could double jump, too) Jak can only hit a double jump if he's on the ascent of his initial leap. If his first jump has hit its peak or begun its decline, he'll refuse to perform a second, midair leap. While this may not sound like much, it basically cuts the potential length of his jumps in half and requires some reverse behavioral training in gamers, such as myself, who have come to expect that ability to act a certain way. I guess that's their way of emphasizing the long jump over the double jump as a means of clearing a large amount of real estate, but I can't understand why they'd limit players to one method, when the option to choose between two is much more interesting and involving.

Occasionally adding a new layer or two to the gameplay is the introduction of a limited array of vehicles and driving-based objectives, hinting at where the series was headed in the not-too-distant future. In this first title, you're restricted to a series of hovercrafts and a bizarre, awkward, chocobo-resembling bird creature. The hovercraft levels are good fun, and a nice change of pace, while the bird is only used to clear certain portions of otherwise platforming-only levels. Both of these vehicles were a little unrefined, with a turn radius that leaves a lot to be desired on the hovercraft and a whole array of control difficulties on the bird, but do a fairly good job of shaking off some of the monotony that would've otherwise begun to set in and helping Jak to stand out a bit from its peers.

Although I complained a bit earlier about the game's hesitancy to fully explain its control scheme, once you've experimented enough to actually discover all of the characters' possible actions, the full controller layout is really very basic and easy to grasp. The way some games map out their button setups, I wonder if they're expecting players to have an extra arm installed to make some certain actions possible (the Xbox release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas springs to mind.) Jak overcomes this potential flaw by keeping things extremely simple and never requiring the use of more than two or maybe three buttons at the same time, analog stick included. By limiting themselves to the R1 button, the four main control buttons (X,O,Triangle and Square) and the analogs, they ensure you never need to move a finger into an awkward position and allow you to really envelop yourself in the game. While the gameplay will sometimes betray that sensation by doing something you don't expect it to do, (see a couple paragraphs back) the nearly-perfect controls can't really be blamed for that. You could more than likely sit down and master the basic controls in less than a minute, given an open field to practice, which is exactly how I'd describe the first level. The primary button, X, is used for the genre's primary action, jumping (and, naturally, double jumping). The R1 button works alongside the X button and / or analog sticks to provide a variety of abilities, such as rolling, long jumping or squatting. Square and O are your basic attacks, which can be performed both on the ground and in the air. Entertainingly, each attack involves striking the enemy with the horrified body of Daxter, whether you're snapping him at them like a whip, twirling him around your body in a circle or driving him headfirst into the ground. His little encounter with dark eco seems to have made him immortal, as he doesn't seem to mind being used as a blunt object, and he's always on-camera to give you a piece of his mind should you fall in the heat of battle. The ability to repeatedly slam him into a wall with ferocious velocity makes it a bit easier to withstand some of the comments he feels inspired to share throughout the game.

Even the camera, often the bane of third person platformers such as this, is handled with precision and almost never trips over its own feet. It's manageable through the use of the right analog stick, should you run into the rare occasion where the automatic camera clips a wall and gets stuck, and generally does a really solid job of keeping up as you change direction, jump around and do the different things you've gotta do.

I think I was expecting a bit more out of the graphics, since this was an early title for the PS2 and that's usually when developers are frothing at the mouth over the new hardware and going out of their way to show off everything it can do. The visuals of Jak and Daxter just feel like a marginal improvement over the visuals of Naughty Dog's PSone titles, and certainly didn't age well in the almost five years since it was released. Part of that is due to the cartoony direction taken by the art, but you can't blame the lumpy renderings of the sage's face when speaking or the overly simplistic appearance of most of the game's enemies on artistic direction. Some things, such as the distant skylines in the forest and the radiating glow of eco matter in the wild, are very well executed, but on the large this is no showpiece for the PS2's visual capabilities. The system's inability to anti-alias was a handicap even this early in its life, as edges are almost always jagged and pixely, and you'll find yourself staring more often at the things the hardware's having trouble with than reveling in the things it does well. Bluntly, if you're looking for an exceptional early graphical display on the PS2, keep looking. You won't find what you seek here.

Voice acting aside, I can't say much nicer things about the audio. I suppose it's of a higher quality than the tunes found on the old PSone, albeit not by much, but the compositions themselves are so aggravatingly bouncy, joyful and happy that if you aren't, in actuality, a Care Bear, you'll want to rip your hair out by the roots. While I'm not sure a selection of heavy metal or R&B would suit the feel of the game much better, I was expecting something a little more contemporary and interesting, considering the marketing that announced the game's launch (remember the commercials with the title characters reclining, poolside, with a cluster of bikini-clad young ladies? Yeah, I don't think they were aiming those at the 7-10 year old market.) While a soundtrack in the vein of Pantera may have been completely out of place here, I was hoping for something with a little bit of edge to it. What was delivered is so weak and stereotypical of the genre, it went a long ways toward turning me off to the package as a whole. The voice acting is sound, for the most part, with a few performances standing out above the others. The dark sage's voice perfectly matches his demeanor and appearance, while the green sage really feels like an old man tired of the world that surrounds him, but determined to aid in its resuscitation, all the same. On the other side of the coin, the bad voice acting isn't exactly missing, either, and the dialog is so bad that even the competent actors have trouble making their lines come to life.

When stripped down to its very basics, Jak and Daxter is an entertaining play. While there isn't anything the actual gameplay does badly, nit-picky flaws aside, there's also nothing that it really excels at. It's a good next-gen translation of an already enjoyable system of mechanics, controls and direction. Basically, Jak reads the map drawn by its predecessors and follows it to the gold buried at the end of the path. If it weren't for the abysmal storytelling, the hot and cold voice acting and the sub par graphics and sound, this would probably be deserving of a score well above average, that imaginary map is so well-drawn. Unfortunately, I can't honestly say that those factors don't affect my opinion of the disc itself, and they drag my score down by quite a bit. If you can shut your brain off or go to make a sandwich during the speaking parts and accept the visuals for what they are, you'll really enjoy this one. For those of us looking for a complete package, well, we're somewhat disappointed.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 6.1

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