"The Evolution of the Platform Hero"
Years ago, platformers were synonymous with video games, and the industry was ruled by cartoon characters jumping from ledge to ledge. But as the technology improved and the audience grew older, the wacky animals faded away, and gamers instead flocked to more realistic archetypes like the hardened soldier and the opportunistic criminal. This paradigm shift started at the beginning of the millennium, and it was best demonstrated by Naughty Dog's Jak and Daxter trilogy. Thankfully, their character's instant transformation from elfin platform hero to elfin gunslinging vigilante was handled well, and it definitely deserves Sony's HD resurrection.
Jak and Daxter Collection includes remastered versions of the three PS2 games, all of which were regarded as some of the best games on that console. The first game, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, is the simplest, introducing the two characters in an orb-collecting adventure in the vein of Super Mario 64. Jak himself is just a mute player character, while the weasel-like Daxter tags along on Jak's shoulder and provides convenient exposition and obnoxious wisecracks. There's little to no story, but the world is a beautiful one, a lush island village set against the imposing ruins of an ancient civilization. While the gameplay sticks to the platform formula like fly paper, cycling through the archetypal lava / ice / industrial / etc. obstacle courses, the levels are well-designed and offer plenty of different paths to enjoy. The original Jak and Daxter shows its age at times, most notably with the inflexible and finicky camera, but it's still a fun and challenging adventure.
Jak 2, on the other hand, is where the series took a radical detour towards the grimness of more contemporary games. Within the first 10 minutes of the game, two years pass, in which Jak has been sent to a dystopian future and subjected to the evil empire's experiments. Jak now speaks in a dour, angsty voice, and he runs missions for the local resistance while working his way towards a confrontation with the evil Baron Praxis. The influence of Grand Theft Auto is clear, with Jak wielding firearms and stealing hover-cars to get around. However, while the merger of GTA and Mario sounds like a terrible idea in theory, Naughty Dog made it work wonders. The gunplay and vehicles add a lot of depth to Jak 2, complimenting the existing platform design to create an intense action adventure. The new setting proves much more interesting, as the different corridors of the Blade Runner-style futuristic slums and sewers offer more variety and nuance than the previous title. Even the story has improved, as the humor of the original title remains in a darker and more cutting form.
Jak 3 isn't nearly as radical a departure from 2 as that game was from the original, but it takes the formula even further. Instead of taking place in the city, Jak 3 is set in the surrounding wastelands, as Jak and Daxter have been wrongly exiled from Haven City. Over the course of the new adventure, Jak integrates with the local Road Warrior-style gangs, develops Light Eco powers to balance his darker side, and even develops a genuinely moving relationship with his new mentor in the outlands. Though the changes in Jak 3 just build on what was introduced in the previous game, they expand the adventure enough not to feel derivative and even improve upon some problems in 2 (such as the overly loose controls of the vehicles, which are remedied thanks to the improved steering of the off-road machines Jak finds).
The Jak and Daxter trilogy was some of the best gaming you could find for the PlayStation2, and it looks better than ever thanks to the HD rendering of this PS3 Jak and Daxter Collection. Unfortunately, it shows its age in many areas, such as the awkward camera controls and the often silly and simplistic storyline. This is especially true when you compare Jak and Daxter to Naughty Dog's later Uncharted series, which uses a similar mix of platforming, gunplay, and exploration but doesn't need the crutches of wacky cartoon characters and wisecracking sidekicks. Nevertheless, the charm of the Jak titles is hard to deny, and the HD collection provides a good deal of content for its cost. If nothing else, it's a valuable look at video game history in action, particularly the way the platform genre evolved and matured.
GameDynamo's Score for Jak and Daxter Collection (PS3)
Neil Kapit is a freelance writer, cartoonist, and "La Li Lu Le Lo" agent based in Los Angeles. His work can be seen on www.therubynation.com.
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