Version tested: PSP
Typical. You wait four years for a decent PSP platformer and two come along at once. First there was LittleBigPlanet, an almost perfect example of a great game made miniature. Now here comes Jak & Daxter: The Lost Frontier, another good-looking, highly playable platform game. And this one's got guns.
Like LBP PSP the game has not been designed by the series' creators. The Lost Frontier is the work of High Impact Games, previously responsible for the enjoyable Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters and the less impressive Secret Agent Clank.
Now the studio has turned its attentions to Naughty Dog's mascots (or so they were until Nathan Drake turned up, all lost Baldwin in a Gillette advert). The good news for veteran Jak fans is High Impact has done its history homework, taking elements and influences from the best instalments in the series - i.e. not Jak X.
Just like the old classics, The Lost Frontier has a silly plot, which may be some kind of metaphor for environmental destruction but is probably best just ignored. Put simply, supplies of Eco are running out and Jak and Keira must seek out some ancient Precursor machinery which could save the world.
Along the way they meet characters like Generic Wacky Old Inventor and Smarmy Romantic Rival (possibly not their real names). There are lots of nicely animated cut-scenes where characters spout endless wisecracks and have long conversations which could be summarised as, "Now we need to go there to get that thing."
So far, so familiar. The gameplay will be recognisable too, especially if you can remember all the way back first Jak game. The "& Daxter" bit of the title was dropped for the second and third instalments, which had a free-roaming setup and a darker, more brooding tone. High Impact has shoved it back in for The Lost Frontier and the change is reflected in more than just the name.
The emphasis here is on good old-fashioned platforming. Jak runs and jumps his way around linear environments, dealing with tricksy customers such as moving ledges and disappearing bridges. There's even a lava level. Many areas have a pretty, natural look more reminiscent of The Precursor Legacy than Jaks II and 3 (their stylistic inconsistency, not ours), though there are also plenty of industrial and mechanical elements. In fact this game looks and feels more Ratchet & Clanky than any of the previous Jak titles, perhaps because of High Impact's previous experience.
The R&C influence is also apparent in the way Jak's character develops and the weapons he has at his disposal. He's lost his Dark Jak ability but Keira has discovered different colours of Eco can give him special powers - which you discover in stages as the game progresses. Red Eco, for example, allows Jak to produce a red fireball which explodes into a giant sphere of energy when shot. Green Eco enables Jak to generate Kryptonite-style crystal pillars from the ground, Yellow boosts his ability to jump, Blue is used to temporarily slow down time... Without wishing to spoil them all, there's a good range of special powers to discover.
There are moments when it's obvious how you're supposed to use your powers - to create a crystal bridge across a pool of lava, for example. But as the game goes on you'll come across puzzles which require you to use two or more powers together, and which really make you think. You'll also find yourself coming up with combos which just make life easier, such as slowing down a boss with your blue Eco power before lobbing one of those red fireballs at him. In other words the Eco powers are useful, varied and well-integrated into the gameplay, and using them makes you feel clever.
Jak also has a new weapon called the Gunstaff, which as the name suggests is basically a gun on a stick. You can whack different upgrades on the end though, turning it into a machinegun, adding a laser scope and so on. The range of upgrades is small compared to what you'd find in an R&C game but there's a decent selection. The problem is there's no lock-on or auto-targeting system.
This seems like a massive oversight, particularly when considered in the context of the camera. As is the case in many PSP platformers, the camera in The Lost Frontier sometimes struggles to keep up with Jak or point in the direction of the action. While you're just wandering around this is quickly remedied by tapping the shoulder buttons to centre the camera behind Jak. But that's not always so easy to do when you're in an arena combat situation, coming under fire from all sides, or trying to shoot while simultaneously dodging attacks.
In these instances the camera often fails to act intelligently and the absence of a lock-on feature means you're left exposed, firing blindly at an area you can't see in the hope you might hit something by accident. This sort of thing doesn't happen all the time so it's not enough to completely ruin the combat experience, but it should really have been sorted out.
At least the planes you get to fly have proper targeting systems. As Jak's taken to hanging out with sky pirates lately, a good proportion of the game takes place in the air. There are epic dogfights to battle through and tricky missions to complete, such as shooting out all the turrets on a giant ship while under attack from waves of fighters. The planes handle well, barrel-rolling and turning 180s with ease, and there's a Crimson Skies feel to the whole thing. There are five planes to unlock in total and you can upgrade them by trading in scrap metal you've collected during missions, adding extra armour or new guns and so on.
As the game goes on the flying sections do start to become repetitive. "Epic" starts to feel more like plain old "long" as you take on yet another flurry of fighters following the same old flight path. Still, the upgrade system goes some way to keeping things interesting and despite the fact they sometimes feel protracted, the dogfights do make a change from all that running and jumping.
Perhaps the best thing about the flying sections is that sometimes they allow you to use Daxter as a living grappling hook, which involves flinging him at an enemy ship while he squeals in fear. If you're not a fan of Jak's wisecracking, finger-clicking, makes-you-want-to-pull-your-own-eardrums-out-with-a-crochet-hook-ing sidekick, this will appeal.
You might be less impressed by the levels where you get to play as Daxter himself, or rather his new alter ego. When dosed up with purple Eco he mutates into Dark Daxter - think The Hulk with spikes down his back and fur all over. Dark Daxter can fire balls of energy, throw things and smash stuff. Best of all he can whip himself up into a hairy tornado, then spin around bashing enemies and battering down doors.
But overall, the Dark Daxter sections don't add a great deal to the game. They feel shoehorned in and quickly become repetitive. Once the novelty of the tornado move wears off, you're left with some pretty unimaginative level design and the feeling that you've seen all this somewhere before. Several thousand times.
Luckily, the rest of the game is good enough to keep you playing so you can get back to running and jumping and shooting down planes. Putting the Dark Daxter levels to one side, The Lost Frontier is an excellent example of the genre. It's also a great addition to the Jak series, combining the classic platforming elements of the first game with the weapons-based combat of later instalments - and throwing in some fun new superpowers to boot. With a better camera and the addition of a targeting system, it would have been even better.
As it is, Jak & Daxter: The Lost Frontier is one of the best platformers available for PSP (the other ones being LittleBigPlanet and the three-year-old Daxter). It also stands as evidence that there's life in the old Naughty Dog series yet. Any chance of a Jak game for PS3 then?
8 / 10