Jak 3

Naughty Dog is putting Jak and Daxter to bed soon, but you can bet your rarest precursor artefact that it's going to be a heck of a final furlong.

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Once again Jak moves in a new direction. Last time, the transition between Jak & Daxter and Jak II gave us a talking hero, a substantial technological boost, a Grand Theft Auto-inspired sprawling city environment, and a range of missions that were as often about shooting, grinding and racing as they were to do with the precision platforming that separated the first game from the herd. And it wrapped them up in an entertaining and imaginative narrative, spurred onward by amusing characters and pin-sharp dialogue.

It also kicked the crap out of us, often unfairly, always uncharitably, and the difficulty spikes were at times so pronounced that we had to walk away for fear of smashing something rather more expensive than our ten-a-penny Dual Shocks. In fact, the final boss encounter - finally overcome at around midnight one chilly winter's evening just before Christmas last year - almost earned this writer a sock in the jaw from a flatmate at the end of his tether. And it would have been deserved. We often have to apologise for a good game's faults; with Jak II, we had to apologise for what it did to us instead.

Fight club

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But then, having owned up to the game's unfortunate propensity towards stabbing us in the heart and vowed to address the situation, a lesser developer might have allowed that imbalance to pollute its yearlong development cycle for the third and final game in the series and turned out a samey-but-easier response. That was our main concern about Jak 3, particularly when we blitzed through everything the demo version had to offer at E3 earlier this year in just over an hour. But not so Naughty Dog. Instead the developer, veteran of numerous successful platform titles, has attempted to transfer all that was bright and absorbing about its platform prowess into a host of new vessels - most notably the Smuggler's Run-esque dune buggy missions that make up a large chunk of Jak 3 - and the result is a game that seems to pulse with the same magic despite abandoning much of what was celebrated about it in the first place.

The action's split between Spargus, the Wasteland city to which Jak finds himself expelled at the outset, and the tattered remains of Haven City, the environment from the second game, which reintroduces us to many familiar characters and locations and populates them with new missions. Whether reusing the environment works or not is a debate we'll save for the review itself, but there's no doubting the quality and variety of Jak and Daxter's escapades in this instalment. From rhythm-action to aerial combat, the game touches on pretty much every genre that lends itself to this kind of third-person setting, with particular emphasis on running-and-gunning and buggy-based missions, and whatever the activity it's always simple enough to pick up and play.

There are plenty of standout moments to look forward to. Like escorting a floating barge full of explosives through the remains of Haven City, aiming the gun sights in an almost Virtua Cop-esque parade of nasties attempting to mow down your party, and shooting down clusters of missiles as they inch closer to the exhaust ports. It's tense. It's also, in deference to the people who complained about the difficulty of Jak II, checkpointed in just the right places. Then there's the battle to the top of a temple in the desert, making use of Dark Jak's new invisibility power to swing unnoticed from rails that pulse with electricity when they see you, and prance across spike traps with visual sensors. Interwoven into almost everything is the gun combat from Jak II, now with a number of upgrades that dramatically alter the way your guns work - whilst cleverly preserving the more basic functions for when you don't need to take out an entire room - and this aspect of the game retains the same feel and ease of use.

Heading home

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Other missions deviate even further from the traditional run and jump antics of the first Jak & Daxter. One mission, which grants you a path into the heart of a volcano, involves hang-gliding through the sky, effectively hopping between accelerator hoops and gusts of hot air, while another sees Jak tearing up a factory in one direction and then ram-raiding his way back through the same areas using a stolen buggy.

However the Smuggler's Run-style gameplay is mainly confined to the expanse of desert outside Spargus. And "confined" is probably a poor choice of word; the environment you'll rip across in your buggies is enormous, full of undulating sand dunes, broken bridge hops across valleys and small settlements that have to be navigated successfully. All the while you're trying to dodge the attentions of fleets of other buggy-riders - thankfully in much more easily destructible variants - who are clamouring to smash you up with their lasers and spiky protrusions. Missions here range from races and fetch-quests to hopping over expanses of water to make it up the side of a mountain, but all are played out in a very entertaining manner thanks to some excellent physics work and handling unashamedly culled from the Rockstar game but essential all the same.

Linking all the various missions together is a tale that ties up virtually every thread left untouched by the last two games. You'll find out who's behind Jak's expulsion from Haven City, and what his real motives are. You'll find out who the precursors really were. You'll find out who Mar really is. You'll even find out why Daxter wound up as a furry fuzzball when he fell into that vat of dark eco all the way back at the start of the original game. And you'll laugh. The dialogue remains as witty as ever, and although there's definitely a hint of sentimentality about some of the exchanges - forgivable as Naughty Dog tries to lay its well known and much loved characters to rest - there are still some fantastic little tirades from the likes of Daxter and Pecker that really pay you back for your exertions in the preceding levels. One particular Daxter rant about being left out of a key mission is classic, and Pecker's introduction of the duo in Spargus as "Jak and his obnoxious talking animal" certainly tickled.

This is the end

Question marks still lurk over key issues - the reuse of Haven City, the relative lack of platform sections, what arguably amounts to under-using Dark and Light Jak's powers, and even the length of the game, which is substantially down on Jak II - but at this point, a month or so before the game comes out, it's hard to imagine ourselves turning Jak & Daxter fans away. All will be revealed in the very near future...

Jak 3 is due out exclusively on PS2 this November 26th.

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