Of the various kinds of games out there, the car combat genre is, in some ways, one of the easiest to make. Why is this true? Well, the format is essentially a backdrop of various tracks for the competition to take place on, as well as a number of vehicles flying around at breakneck speed. You also need a handful of weapons to create some drama on the course, such as oil slicks, machine guns and land mines. Just to sweeten the action, you should have some unlockables to keep players coming back. But to make a car combat title really stand out, you should have some recognizable characters that gamers want to have tear up the competition. Over the past few Jak titles, Naughty Dog has slowly but surely introduced races and vehicular combat into their platforming titles, so it was merely a matter of time before they broke out and created a racer that stood on its own four wheels. The result is their latest extension of the Jak universe, Jak X: Combat Racing.
The primary thrust behind Jak X comes from its single player mode, which essentially explains why you’re competing in the first place. Taking place shortly after the events in the previous Jak titles, Jak, Daxter and his friends arrive in Kras City to attend the reading of Krew’s will. Along with Krew’s daughter Rayn, the assembled group toasts the fallen crime lord with a special wine that he’s saved for this purpose. Unfortunately for them, Krew had the bottle poisoned long before his death, exacting a small portion of manipulative revenge. In a prepared holographic statement, he tells the victims of the slow-acting toxin that they have to enter and win the Kras City Grand Championships if they want to get the antidote and save their lives.
The Championship is broken down into a four cup series of races, with each competition spaced out around four locations: Spargus, Kras City, Haven City and the Icelands. However, you’re not solely driving around in circles trying to come in first place; the season of Kras City competition is much more diverse than the standard circuit, or lap races. In fact, the single player campaign introduces all of various race types that you’ll drive through in the game. Apart from the circuit races, you’ll try to beat the clock with Time Trials and its slight variant, the Freeze Rally, where you try to pick up icons that literally freeze the clock and the screen.
Sometimes you be tasked with gathering power cells and delivering them into goals in Capture or charging them up and firing them at opponents with Turbo Dash. You’ll be tasked with eliminating respawning yellow drones in Death Race or driving your way through blue and green drones in Rush Hour. There’s the standard Deathmatch race to 10 kills, and its mild variation of Sport Hunt, which seeks the first ten kills of a certain creature. Finally there are the other two modes: Artifact, where you race around trying to collect 10 Pre-Cursor items and Assassin, where you try to eliminate as many targets as possible before your opponents do.
As you fly down the track, you’ll encounter one of four different kinds of Eco scattered along the road that will bestow different effects upon your buggy. Green Eco will repair any damage your machine will incur, while Blue Eco gives you a speed boost. This isn’t the only way to get turbo; you can powerslide around corners and catch air to retain your speed. The Yellow and Red Eco provide forward and rear weaponry, or offensive and defensive firearms, respectively. Obviously, in any car combat title, your arsenal will help determine the kind of action you’ll fend off at any moment. Jak X provides a mix of unpredictability and heavy destruction to this mix thanks to the eco distinctions. The yellow Eco includes such dangerous items like machine guns, heat seeking missiles and even nuclear blasts that destroy cars in a certain radius. On the other hand, the red eco gives you protective measures such as shields, oil slicks and mines. Successful destruction of your opponents, along with placing first, second or third adds to your point total, which you’ll be able to use to purchase additional parts for your ride or unlock new items and features in the Secrets shop.
In fact, you’ll probably find the Secrets shop to be your primary motivation to get perform well in races, collecting enough points to release the numerous features hidden away on this disc. I’ve always like the way that Naughty Dog approached extra content, giving gamers the choice of what things they want to access and which ones they don’t. This means that players that are completely dedicated to fully mastering the game can have one experience and casual gamers can have another but get exactly what they want. It’s also furthered with the interconnectivity feature they’re providing for their forthcoming PSP title, Daxter. I really hope that not only will Naughty Dog continue this approach with their future current and next-gen titles, but also that other companies follow their lead with this approach.
However, this being said, there’s a certain amount of sabotage made with this system, as the secrets are much more useful than some of the vehicle upgrades in the game. Sure, as you progress through the campaign mode you’ll unlock both other drivers and new machines for yourself. Obviously, the other drivers are for multiplayer or online matches, but the additional cars aren’t necessarily better than the one you have. In fact, after a point you’re not going to notice a definitive difference in performance. The numerous car body parts are merely cosmetic and have no affect on the machine’s aerodynamics, weight or other physical features of the drive. Once you realize this, you’ll wind up saving your points for the secrets and racing with second, or in some cases, first tier cars and still being successful against your opponents.
That leads me to the second objection, which is that the weapons can sometimes be so absurdly powerful that many races come down to blind luck instead of actual skill. It’s possible to be completely behind the entire pack thanks to abysmal driving on your part, and thanks to missiles, shields and the nuke find yourself clawing your way into first place. However, don’t expect to stay there, because you can easily be tripped up with homing bolts of lightning or other weapons. You can deflect some of these weapons by releasing your countermeasures as soon as you’re targeted, but for the most part, any gain you make can evaporate just as quickly. Regardless of how much boost you have or if you keep your finger on the turbo trigger, your lead really means nothing. This is particularly troublesome because of the blatant, and I do mean Blatant, rubberbanding of the AI in the game. Any time you find yourself blowing up or crashing, you’ll notice a couple of cars that will fly past you, regardless of the lead you once had. Combine that with a last second take out by the computer, and you’ll experience the agony of your lungs as you scream when you watch your car blow up right before the finish line.
Aside from this significant issue, you’ll also find that some of the races start to feel somewhat repetitive. I don’t necessarily mean the race types, because there’s enough of a variation between the different matches that it won’t get too stale. On the other hand, you’ll quickly feel as though you’ve been on this same track before, racing through the same environments over and over again, which quickly starts getting wearing. There is the ability to play the tracks backwards, and you’ll also go through longer courses that ties different areas together, which does provide some challenge, but after a point, even this becomes somewhat patterned. Fortunately, you’ll find that the multiplayer game, which includes most of the race types, will give you the lion’s share of play, and it’s extremely accessible and enjoyable.
Visually, Jak X is on par with the other titles in the Jak series. There are a number of cutscenes that are scattered throughout the game, often in-between races, and they manage to move the campaign plot along. While you don’t need to be accustomed to the events of the franchise to play this game, there are a number of jokes and nods to previous titles that you might miss. The various buggies feel like a part of the Jak universe as well, with plenty of smooth lines and angular shapes that fit the graphical style of the previous Jak games. The frame rate is extremely smooth regardless of the onscreen action, and when cars are destroyed, they collapse in heaps of metal and clouds of smoke preceded by large explosions. It’s visually engaging, and while it can be said that it takes some visual cues from Burnout due to its slow motion framing of accidents, it still keeps a certain amount of adrenaline flowing during the game. Similarly, the sound is just as good, with a musical score bolstered by Queens of the Stone Age and the exceptional voice acting from the series. This isn’t simply sheltered in the cutscenes where Daxter and Pecker will steal the show with one-liners; you’ll find a lot of chatty running commentary throughout every single race. Quite a bit of it comes from the (play-by-play?) announcer G.T. Blitz, while other dialogue is straight from your competition as they trash talk during the race.
Jak X is one of those titles that won't necessarily be the future of the Jak franchise, but it’s an entertaining diversion nonetheless. It manages to take one of the side missions from the series and extrapolate it into an engaging racer with plenty of character and diversity to appeal to most players. While the overpowered weaponry, somewhat repetitive track scheme and rubberband AI complicate gameplay, Jak X is still good enough for fans of the platforming duo to pick up and play with their friends off or online.