You know a game's good when you find yourself so utterly ensconced in its charms that it almost seems like the outside world doesn't exist. Case in point, late December 2001: the Jak & Daxter incident. I apologise to the people involved (my family, my then girlfriend, her friends, some of my friends, Monty the dog) but all I can say in my defence is that it's Naughty Dog's fault. They went and made a game so damn near perfect (in its genre), that periphery activities such as socialising, conversing, eating, drinking, sleeping, and so on, were abandoned in favour of this piece of digital entertainment.
Of course, to everyone who came and went in those few days it looked like any number of other collectathon platformers, and I was regularly berated for ignoring them in favour of this 'kiddies platformer'. But damn their eyes. I was the one having all the fun while they sat and passively snoozed through execrable Christmas TV and played another game of Trivial Pursuit. It wasn't as if I had planned to be antisocial, but I really felt I had no other choice but to collect every single orb and egg until I eventually witnessed one of the worst endings in videogaming history.
This fur will go well with my silk suit...
Ah well, the fact that J&D was arguably the best platformer ever made more than made up for this anticlimax, and when the ambitious sequel arrived in the EG office there was a palpable hush as if the assembled instinctively knew this piece of code was going to rob us of hours of our lives over the coming weeks.
On the other hand, our initial experiences with the game, both at E3, and subsequently with the two-level demo muddied the waters for us a little. Was this an ill-judged exercise in genre fusion, or an inspirational boundary-breaking exercise that leaves the competition for dust? We were eager to find out either way.
Without giving too much of the story details away, the failure to close a rift gate lets all manner of evil back into Jak's world, and results in his capture and separation from his furry buddy Daxter. After two years of being subjected to the Dark Warrior programme, in which he has been injected with Dark Eco almost to the point of death, Jak finds himself rescued in the nick of time by his rodent mascot.
Enraged with his captors, Jak temporarily changes into 'Dark Jak', a super powerful version of himself (which you can invoke yourself later in the game once you're charged up) before returning to normal and vowing to kill Kraxis, the leader of all this evil. Escaping from the castle, it seems the entire walled Haven City has been turned into a fearful police state, with its citizens meekly wandering the streets under the constant supervision of stun gun-wielding officers. Worse still, the slum quarter has even been deprived of even its water supply. Enter Jak, Daxter and all manner of heroics.
Wandering the streets of Haven City, hover cars stream by overhead, all of which Jak can, um, jack at any point. Cruising the streets is undoubtedly the best way to get around, as the game area is massive - three times as large as the original game, reckons Sony. Some of the vehicles are sleek and light, allowing Jak to race around nimbly, while others - such as the police patrol vehicles - handle like a tank and are pretty tough to steer. One thing that is immediately obvious is that you need to be careful. Bash into any of the cops and they'll be all over you like a rash, setting off all manner of turrets in the process. Getting away is no picnic either, and you probably find yourself involved in all manner of scrapes early on.
Once you've got your bearings, you'll notice an overhead street map, GTA style, which features icons that inform you of places to visit. Typically you'll show up and be offered a job, which then involves hightailing it across the city, doubtlessly with the cops in tow, complaining about the smell, or chattering about suspicious activity.
Mission-wise, they either take place within the city, or at one of the fifteen locations based outside the city limits and typically follow the well worn platform template of 'find these three random objects', 'rescue Mrs funnyname', 'destroy the security system', or occasionally 'kick bad guy Mr X's arse'. And My God are they hard.
Anyone expecting an easy ride in the vein of the original will be in for a rude awakening. 14 hours in we're almost to the halfway point, and rarely have we had to work so hard to get there. Sometimes it's been our stupid fault for not noticing something utterly obvious, but in other cases its basically because it's bloody tough - sometimes in a good 'just one more go' way, but others in a plainly annoying way.
The underlying annoyance so far with Jak II is the way you're forced to drive across the city to access the missions. In GTA it's fun carjacking and cruising around Miami with Billie Jean blasting out of the stereo. But in Jak II it's horribly implemented to the extreme that it instantly feels dull, irritating, and unnecessary - and so far hasn't improved.
The main problem is in the street architecture, being both too narrow and featuring more twists than a 24 box set, and thus driving around them becomes a hateful, torturous experience. Most of the time whenever you need to get anywhere under pressure they're packed with kamikaze traffic which generally results in your vehicle exploding into a shower of sparks and twisted metal. This wouldn't necessarily be a huge problem if you could find a replacement quickly, but they're rarely there when you want them, meaning you often spend minutes trudging around haplessly before you find one to nab. In the heat of a time-based mission this is spectacularly annoying.
The long and winding roads
If you wish, you can opt to drive at street level and avoid the traffic masses (which we almost always find ourselves having to do), but the chances are you'll knock over a police officer in the process and have a fraught journey avoiding the long stun gun of the law and the idiotic, Sunday driving populace. If that wasn't annoying enough, the spaghetti nature of the city layout makes it a long, arduous journey trying to remember where everything is, meaning certain city-based missions require a tiring number of restarts before you finally crack them.
It's as if Naughty Dog realised it had this great data streaming technology and decided to make a vast play area for the sake of it. Most of the areas within Haven City that you come across are utterly redundant in gameplay terms, but drive through them again and again you must, increasing the gameplay time, but rarely the enjoyment.
Just as well, then, that the regular missions (based mostly outside of the city) are consistently excellent, varied and challenging without being annoying. Once you've cleared the inevitably pointlessly easy early levels, upgraded your arsenal, played around with Jak's dark side (essentially smart bombs to be used in the trickier sections) and duked it out with some evil baddies, Jak II comes into its own to the extent that you start to live with the problems of the city-based 'hub'.
The comedy value and charm of the original has been retained without overdoing the wackiness, making the regular pre and post mission cut-scenes something to look forward to rather than something to skip in disgust. It is a darker tale on the whole, but the upbeat theme still remains, we're happy to report.
Visually it's a delight for the most part, as you'd expect from Naughty Dog these days. Ostensibly much darker than the original, the environments are richly detailed, generally varied, well designed and full of character - although whether you'll prefer them over the cheery brightness of the original will be down to personal taste. In Haven City it looks almost like an entirely unrelated game, others look very similar to its cousin Ratchet & Clank, while some return to a more familiar theme. All round, the variety is pleasing to note, and save for the very rare glitch while the data streams parts of the city into view, this is one of the best-looking PS2 games ever. Technically it's an absolute marvel, with not one single example of a load screen after you've started the game, and shows up the competition.
On the flipside, the audio is probably the weakest area of the game, with some truly unremarkable ditties burbling away in the background. Sure, they change to reflect the drama and tension, but it's utterly forgettable all the same and makes you wish for something a little more solid.
Were it not for the questionable decision to use a badly designed city for a mission hub, we'd be raving about Jak II, probably expressing the same hysterical sentiments that we saw on a magazine front cover last week. But right now we're sitting here pondering how the rest of the game will pan out, and wondering quite how much praise we'll be showering on it come the review in a month's time.