The original Jak & Daxter was a platformer, much like any other. It did not offend me, unlike many 3D platformers of the previous console era; it had a manageable camera and recognizable goals. If it seemed a bit random and unfocused, if its objectives were frequently the kind of thing you only found out about after the fact, then these were forgiveable things.
Just the same--and I may be unique in this regard--the original game felt a bit generic. When I think about its gameplay, which was by no stretch of the imagination bad, it doesn't have much of a sense of immediacy or personality to it, possibly owing to Jak's refusal to speak. I have to push myself to remember that, yes, what I'm remembering came from that game.
Jak II doesn't have that problem.
It has, instead, new problems, shiny and fresh from the packaging. The phrase "identity crisis" comes to mind; Jak II seems to be some ill-advised, marketing-driven attempt to blend the gameplay of what was a solid platformer with facets of a few more popular games. This Frankensteinian idea isn't an inherently bad idea. It's been used before, and well. Here, though... here, it's a whole different story.
Jak II is set two years after the original game, and two years after Samos, the Green Eco Sage, and Kiera, his daughter, got another abandoned bit of Precursor technology to work. This particular item was some kind of vehicle, set to work with a mechanical ring. Jak and Daxter came along for the ride, but soon wished they hadn't; the activation of the ring meant that first, some kind of Dark Eco demon appeared.
Cue sliding dimensional warpgate; cue the group getting separated. Two years later, Daxter finally finds and springs Jak from the laboratory prison of one Baron Praxis, the tyrannical ruler of Haven City. (Oddly, despite being strapped to a lab table for two years, Jak is still groomed enough to have his neat little goatee. I'm nitpicking, yes, but it amuses me.) Jak was the focus of Dark Eco experiments, which are meant to create some kind of new weapon that can be used to fight the Metal Heads, the monsters besieging the walls of Haven City. Instead, all Praxis has for his efforts are a bunch of dead elves, and Jak, who is now both mightily torqued off, and empowered via Dark Eco to transform into a faster, clawed version of himself: Dark Jak.
When Jak and Daxter get out of Praxis's fortress, Jak only has one goal: to make Praxis pay. Towards that end, they seek out the small Underground revolutionary movement in Haven City, led by the mysterious Shadow. Shadow's lieutenant, Torn, sends Jak on several missions to first prove his merit, then to strike against Praxis, before letting him meet Shadow... and then the plot thickens.
Jak II, when you begin the game, feels and plays almost exactly like the original. Jak is still very mobile, packing a powerful punch and a dizzying spin strike to dispatch his opponents, and equipped with a double- and superjump to reach distant ledges. He can still drop into a forward roll, which can end in a flip to take him long distances. Leap at a pole, and he'll catch on and spin around it; use the spin move in midair, and you'll gain a little extra hangtime on a jump. He's still animated in a weirdly fluid and bendy way, like the best Claymation figurine ever, which works well.
There is one strange thing here, and that's Jak's double jump. I've tried playing this with four different controllers, and his double jump still has really finicky timing on it. Sometimes, it seems to just fail for no apparent reason, and of course, it does so right when I'm above a bottomless pit. Maybe it's just me. I don't know.
Daxter? Still utterly worthless. He's got the same voice actor, who sounds like the result of an attempt to surgically make Gilbert Gottfried more annoying. Impossible? No! Not anymore, thanks to science! He's there for comic relief and to occasionally drop tips; aside from that, he leeches off your glory, much as a remora follows a shark. He irritates me on levels that mere words cannot describe.
Once you get out of the first level, Praxis's fortress, you'll wind up in Haven City, which forms the central hub of the game. It's a crowded, ramshackle metropolis, gridlocked with hovercar traffic and packed with pedestrians. Jak can jack a hovercar or cycle with the Triangle button, speeding up his trips from one location to another. While driving, you can also sideswipe other cars, driving them into buildings where they'll explode into pleasing fireballs.
Maim pedestrians or drive over them if you want, but you don't get anything out of it but their screams; worse luck, if you hit one of Praxis's guards, steal one of their cars, or assault a civilian while one of them is watching, you'll be under relentless attack until you get off the street somehow.
That comprises one of Jak II's earliest problems: Haven City. It's wonderfully imagined, like some kind of postapocalyptic Elfquest version of Hong Kong, but it's fundamentally pointless. It's there to boost playtime and let you wreak havoc on pedestrians. There aren't any hidden levels or bonuses within it, as far as I can tell, and it's annoyingly easy to get lost.
Stealing cars is fun, yeah, and if you get far enough into the game, you'll be able to activate sidequests involving the vehicles, including the ring races from the first game. The handling on the cars isn't great, though, especially if you're driving a hovercycle; they're responsive and fast, but turning is a hit-or-miss proposition. Even better, if one of the guards happens to be dumb enough to stand right behind or in front of a ring, you'll hit him, which means the race is now doubly complicated by hails of laser fire. The hovercraft in the first game weren't exactly race cars either, but at least they turned when you told them to.
Worse luck, Haven City is the road by which you reach the game's individual levels. Even if you take a hovercraft to speed up the travel time, you'll often spend more time in the city streets than you will in a given level; while many of the stages are intense, there're a number that only take about five minutes to complete. Spending ten minutes in the city to reach a five-minute stage does not seem like an adequate division of gameplay to me.
Those stages are intense, though. The actual platforming begins here, and it's where the game starts, blessedly, to get entertaining. If you've played Jak & Daxter, then things haven't changed all that much. You'll still be punching, jumping, sliding, and spinning your way through intricate multilevel stages. This game is a lot more focused than the last one was, with clearly outlined objectives, relatively linear paths, and no bonus objectives to speak of.
Precursor Orbs, the "currency" of the first game, have become rarer in the sequel. They're hidden all over the place, in alcoves and blind corners, and collecting them unlocks the game's cheats, such as the ability to toggle Jak's goatee on or off, or unlimited Dark Jak energy. If you can find most of the Orbs in the game, you'll unlock the much harder Hero Mode, where you begin with most of your equipment, but the enemies are tougher.
More importantly, both treasure boxes and defeated enemies drop particles of Dark Eco. If you absorb enough of them, press L2 to transform into the powerful Dark Jak. In this form, you can claw madly at your opponents, beating them both with your frenzied attacks and the crackling energy pouring off of Jak. Just don't activate Dark Jak mode on a narrow walkway; Dark Jak's mad rushes can easily throw you off, to your doom at the hands of automated sentries, or the strange electrified water that flows in Haven City.
Jak can eventually pick up a Morph-Gun, which can transform into a machine gun, laser cannon, air taser, or chaingun; a Jet-Board, which can be used at any time with the R2 button; and equip a Titan Suit, a massive powered exoskeleton that makes mincemeat out of Metal Heads.
Now, I am fully aware that there is nothing truly original under the sun, and that the word "innovation" is most often used, in game reviews, to indicate that the reviewer has completely blanked on exactly what the hell he wants to say.
That being said, the "Dark Jak" gimmick feels like a warmed-over remnant from Devil May Cry; Jak's gun and gadgets are straight out of Ratchet and Clank; and boosting hovercars in Haven City feels like it's only there to appeal to die-hard Grand Theft Auto players. None of these things are inherently bad, and their presence is not some kind of fun-seeking missile, homing in on and instantly destroying every reason there is to play the game.
They are, however, part of an ill-advised makeover for Jak and for the world he lives in. The original game was fun, and it was a good idea to give Jak more personality, and to give him a more interesting, visually distinctive game world to jump around in. The dystopian nature of Haven City doesn't feel like a great fit for him; neither does giving him an edgy soul patch, a big-ass shotgun, and an antiheroic quest for revenge.
When Jak II settles down into actual platforming, it's great. It's tricky, well-honed fun, with only the occasional misstep. (I'm a little irritated with Naughty Dog for the tank escape level, where you must traverse a series of platforms while dodging cannon fire from a tank in pursuit. I'm red-green color-blind; I couldn't see the laser sights on the fixed turrets well enough to actually dodge them. I had to have my assistant do it.) However, the rest of the game is plain annoying, with hovercraft that're unnecessarily hard to drive, really short levels, and a sidekick that I'd like to dropkick through a chain-link fence.
I can see where people could enjoy Jak II, and if any of the above appeals to you, I invite you to check it out for yourself. Its charms, however, such as they are, are mostly lost on me.