Daxter goes solo

Ready At Dawn on striking out alone.

"Every single developer that's tried to work on a Naughty Dog franchise before has failed miserably."

That's according to Didier Malenfant, president of startup studio Ready At Dawn. Which begs the question: why on Earth did he choose a Naughty Dog franchise for his company's first project?

Well, there's his background, for starters. Malenfant was a Naughty Dog himself for four years, working on Jak and Daxter and its sequel before leaving to co-found RAD in September 2003. He was joined by two former Blizzard employees - Ru Weerasuriya, who's now the studio's art director, and technical director Andrea Pessino.

They've left sunny California to visit us in grizzly old London and show off their first game, which is simply titled Daxter. Yes, Jak's sidekick is striking out on his own in a new PSP game that Malenfant describes as "A pure platformer at heart."

"Daxter, to my mind, really has been the best character in the whole series, so that really just makes him shine and lets you do a game that's fun - and that's really the simplest way of putting it," Malenfant says.

"It's not ashamed to be a pure platformer; it's not trying to be an RPG platformer, or a shooter platformer. It's all about getting from point A to point B."

"A lot of what went into it was what we liked about platformers we've played over the years," Weerasuriya chimes in.

"It's an amalgalm of a lot of great ideas we saw all over the place, made into a pure platformer that's more old school than the new stuff that you find."

"It's also designed around Daxter himself - it's not just, you know, Jak and Daxter where you play Daxter instead of Jak," Pessino says.

"Everything is downscaled from the point of view of Daxter - he's smaller, so the scale and the look of the levels is different."

But just because everything in the game is designed on a smaller scale, doesn't mean Daxter can't match up to previous J&D titles in terms of content, according to Pessino.

"We had to fill the significantly humoungous shoes of the previous Jak and Daxter games, and we quickly realised that there was just no way the fans would go for a smaller game. This had to have the same great camera, the same no loading times, the same amazing graphics, otherwise - PSP or no PSP - they're not going to care."

No excuses

1

Daxter may be without his big-eared best friend, but he doesn't seem to unhappy about it.

The importance of making a handheld game that can match up to its console counterparts is clearly something that the RAD founders feel strongly about. As far as Malenfant is concerned, too many developers have been making excuses for producing substandard PSP games - and that's not on.

He also concedes that PSP owners are getting a bit fed up with the choice of games available for their handheld: "There's obviously not as many titles as people would want on the platform, but at the same time, up until now there hasn't been any title that really gives you the same kind of experience you could find on the PS2.

"Everything is compromised, and it bugs the hell out of me when you hear a lot of developers saying, 'Well, we can't do this that way because it's a handheld game,' or, 'We can't do this because it doesn't have a second analog stick.'

"Those are all excuses," Malenfant says, observing that the original PSone controller didn't have any analog sticks - "And there were great games on that."

Daxter, he explains, is designed not only to be a good game, but "to show, for the first time, this is a handheld that can give you the same experience as you'd find on a home console.

"For me that's terribly exciting, because I tend to play my PSP a lot more than any other console, simply because it's portable. I don't want to end up playing sub-par games just because I'm on a handheld, which up to [the arrival of the PSP] has been what we've had to do.

"If Daxter does end up becoming the game that opens the floodgates, I'd be really really proud, because it's such an awesome handheld. "

Getting defensive

2

Expect lots of lush vegetation as well as urban environments.

Course, he would say that. Wouldn't he? "We often get into discussions with people who say, 'You guys defend the PSP because you work on it,' and that's not true. We made the decision to work on it because we were excited by it," Malenfant says.

Which is also why RAD didn't want to develop a game for the Nintendo DS. "You cannot do full blown 3D on any other platform. It's compromised versions of what you could do on a home console, and on PSP that's not the case."

So just what can we expect from Daxter, then? Well, "This game is a lot closer in spirit to the first Jak and Daxter - it's more fun, it's not as dark as the follow-up Jak games," Malenfant says.

"We've had so much feedback from people who are excited about that. I think the true Jak and Daxter fans really liked the bright, colourful, more fun approach."

However, don't expect to spend all your time gambolling on the beach. There are plenty of pretty areas in Daxter, complete with waterfalls, flower-filled meadows and the like, but a large proportion of the game also takes place in Haven City and industrial locations such as the subway system or the local fish canning plant.

Swat team

3

It's the only language those little purple blobby things understand.

You won't see Daxter wielding any blaster guns, though. He starts off with a simple electric fly swatter, which can be used to bash bugs and pull off satisfying combo attacks. Later in the game, there's a spray gun which can be used to stun enemies and hover over gaps, and eventually you get a rather excellent flamethrower.

What with this being a pure platformer and all, there are also plenty of collectables to pick up. And if you're prepared to do some serious exploring, you'll come across some very cool bonus items - such as unique masks for Daxter. Without wishing to spoil the surprise, let's just say that if you're a fan of games in the Jak and Daxter vein, you're likely to see quite a few faces you recognise.

That's if you look in the right places, of course. "The masks are really hard to find," Pessino says.

"Getting a hundred per cent in this game is a feat. If you really want to get everything - all the orbs, all the gems, all the collectables - it's a humongous effort."

Then there are the mini-games, which you unlock by collecting the precursor eggs dotted around each level. "The idea for them came from the Crash Bandicoot games, where you used to have these mini-games that would take you away from the level and then you'd come back," Malenfant says.

In this case, mini-games take the form of Daxter's dreams - which tend to star him in the role of a pop culture icon. In one mini-game, for example, he's dressed as Gimli from Lord of the Rings, fighting it out at the battle of Helm's Deep. In another, he's Neo, taking on wave after wave of agents in a rain-soaked battle arena.

Sweet dreams

4

There's something familiar about this... Is he doing a Peter Jackson impression?

"The design behind the dream levels actually was a design for a separate game," Malenfant reveals.

"We were kicking around two ideas - Daxter taking place between Jak 1 and Jak 2, and another game where Daxter was seeing himself as tons of heroes throughout history. To me, that was such a good idea that we ended up incorporating it for the mini-games, just because it was really fun."

He's not wrong. The mini-games are simple in format, generally involving nothing more than bashing the right shape buttons in the right sequence. But - like all the best mini-games - they're highly addictive.

They also look very good indeed; as good as the main game in fact, which is saying something. From what we've seen so far, it looks like RAD have pulled it off in terms of producing a handheld game that's just as visually impressive as something you'd see on a console. There's just so much detail in the levels, and it's clear that a lot of effort has gone into everything from background objects and lighting effects to Daxter's fur, which looks almost as if it's been drawn hair by hair. Probably by someone who's now blind.

So what with the impressive graphics, varied gameplay, imaginative level design and vast amount of extras, it's difficult to think of a reason not to like Daxter. Well, there is one... Daxter himself. Sure, he has his fans, but there are also a lot of people who find our furry friend - with his endless wisecracks and whiny intonation - more than a bit annoying. Wasn't RAD concerned about that?

Character profile

5

Let's face it, quite a lot of people would like to do this to Daxter personally.

"I wan't worried, because if anything, you want characters that create strong feelings for people," Malenfant says.

"The worst thing you can do is have a character that no one cares about, good or bad - that's really what it comes down to. The funny thing is that a few people [who have played the game] came and said to us, 'I used to hate Daxter, he was the most annoying character ever, and in this game he's not annoying!'"

Now, Malenfant says, "He's not a sidekick - he's not answering back, he's just doing his own thing. I think it works really well; he's a big enough character to take centre stage and hold his own."

That's not the only positive feedback RAD has had - nor the best, as far as they're concerned.

"We've been looking at the forums where people are starting to get really and really excited about the game, and the greatest quote that I've seen there out there says: 'Daxter is Naughty Dog at its finest,'" Malenfant says.

The forum poster "Obviously didn't realise it's not being developed by Naughty Dog, and that's great, that's awesome!"

Pedigree chums

6

Recognise that hat? Here's a hint: he's got a whip, too...

Naughty Dog has had some involvement with the project, though. The studio's creative director, Dan Arey, wrote the scripts for the cutscenes, of which there are around 35 minutes. A full half an hour of these were done by two RAD guys all on their own ("Of course, they're dead now," quips Pessino), but four ND artists chipped in at the end of the development process to produce the final few minutes. "We're going to do a competition to see if people can tell which cutscenes are by us and which are by them," jokes Malenfant.

It helps that he's still great chums with the Naughty Dogs, which means "It was really easy for them to criticise or point things out - they're not afraid of saying, 'Well, this is great, but that sucks.'"

But at the same time, Weerasuriya says, the Naughty Dogs were careful to give RAD the freedom they needed to produce their own title. "They were very, very supportive of us making the game. I think they understood full well that to make this a good game, they needed to let us make the game. It was a question of communication."

So Ready At Dawn did have the backing of Naughty Dog right from the start, but the fact remains that they're a new development studio working on an ND franchise - which, as Malenfant pointed out earlier, means they're attempting to do something that many studios have tried and failed to do before. So why take the risk?

"If you think about that when you set off, of course you're going to go, 'Nah, it's crazy,' and it is crazy," Malenfant says.

"But in my mind, you have to shoot for it, you have to go all out."

With Daxter, Ready At Dawn certainly have taken a shot at it - and from what we've seen so far, it looks like they've hit the bullseye.

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