Doesn't it make you sick when some smart Alec pipes up that a game is 'too easy' after you've sweated blood attempting to get even halfway through what you thought was an epic game? There was certainly a chorus of allegedly 1337 gamers after Jak & Daxter came out two years ago. Some grudgingly admitted it was the best platformer ever (and it was, unbelievers), but usually followed up with bile relating to its perceived lack of challenge. Gah. For us, it pitched the difficulty perfectly, and the fact that we went back after we 'finished' the game and collected all the orbs and eggs speaks volumes for the pleasure we gleaned from Naughty Dog's finest 15 hours.
As if stung into action that it can do a hardcore game, Jason Rubin and co. have created perhaps the most challenging platformer of them all. And that's challenging as in you-have-to-play-each-mission-15-times-before-you'll-beat-it challenging. Depending on a mixture of luck and skill it's no exaggeration to suggest that Jak II may well take you well over 30 hours to complete its 50 odd missions, and on the way will take you on an emotional rollercoaster ride which will one minute have you punching the air, and the next punching the wall as you experience some of the most intensely evil gaming challenges ever conceived.
Can't... stop... playing...
But as with all the best games, something drags you back for 'one more go', which will have you kissing your free time goodbye and testing yourself to the very limits. If there are small children, pets or crockery in the vicinity, best to move them to one side. You don't want to be held responsible for your actions.
One of the most impressive elements of the original was the way you could wander across a vast island and attempt multiple missions without ever seeing an intrusive loading screen. This impressive 'no load' technology has been carried forward into the sequel, but augmented with a vastly different mission structure that draws heavy inspiration from GTA3 and Vice City, offering the player the chance to take 'jobs' with various Underground types struggling against the oppressive rule of Baron Praxis and his army of minions.
Although the mission structure is far more linear than Rockstar's efforts, it still occasionally offers the player several choices, meaning you get the chance to divert your efforts elsewhere if one particularly tough mission is driving you mad. Sadly it doesn't happen enough, and many many times your entire progress will hang on defeating one bastard hard mission. Being stuck down a cul-de-sac is inevitable, but sometimes you'll be so frustrated, you may even down tools entirely - after all, no one enjoys a level so hard that they can't make any further progress.
Thick as thieves
What has been pinched wholesale from GTA is the premise of setting the game in a city, filled with overzealous stun baton-wielding cops, ready to zap you (and fellow Haven City citizens) at the slightest provocation. Meanwhile, hundreds of randomly generated citizens wander about their daily existence, seemingly for no apparent reason other than to make the game world feel alive.
The GTA comparisons extend to the ability to car jack any of the various hover vehicles that chug slowly across the sky lanes. Hitting Triangle underneath lets you leap aboard, and they vary dramatically in their size, weight, speed and armour - often a crucial aspect to consider during the many street-based missions. Finally, navigation is aided by another GTA favourite - the mini-map - which is placed in the bottom right corner of the screen and allows you to keep an eye on oncoming police patrols and an instant reference point for new jobs.
While the city is a varied, gorgeous rabbit warren of a place with tons to discover, the design is so tight, narrow and twisting that it makes for an utterly frustrating driving experience. At the default height, the city is so packed with slow moving traffic that crashes are almost a given, and any high speed driving almost always results in the police tailing you relentlessly. Getaways are possible, but by no means easy if you can shake these hateful law keepers off your tail. What tends to happen is you'll constantly be driving at ground level, mowing down everyone in your path and desperately trying to avoid too much damage - driving in the sky is often impractical, such is the congestion and chances of crashing. All round, the whole premise of driving around the city isn't fun like GTA. There are no stunts you can pull off, no chance of going on a high speed adventure for the sake of it, just a confusing maze packed to the rafters with gun-toting cops out to stop you from having any fun whatsoever.
Don't give up... the best is yet to come
Worse still, for the first third of the game you're without a hover board, meaning that should your vehicle blow up, you have an agonising trudge attempting to jack another vehicle - and that's more or less impossible when the cops are busy firing lead into you. Without question, until we got the hover board, we'd almost had enough of Jak II. The fun factor just didn't seem to be high enough on the list for the game.
But as things begin to open up, you start to truly appreciate the challenge, rather than resent it. After one of the most arbitrarily hard boss encounters in gaming history, we began to make headway. Getting all four of the guns and their various upgrades certainly helps, as does learning the layout of the city, but the thing you really start to appreciate is just how much variety Jak II holds.
With approaching 60 missions (yes, that'll be six-oh), there's an impressive amount of variety on offer, meaning the game rarely gets repetitive. To appease fans of the original there are plenty of traditional platforming antics, and unsurprisingly this forms the foundation of the game. Elsewhere Jak II sports immensely impressive Wipeout-style racing missions, mech-based destruction, on-rails shooting, a 'Whack a Metalhead' mini-game (like the Whack a Rat game in Sam & Max), Indiana Jones-style chase sequences, city-based 'ring' racing, protection missions, Tony Hawk-esque hover board missions, puzzle-based block-pushing missions, switch activating missions and a wealth of other minor diversions that constantly keep the game fresh, demanding and exciting. And you can even play as Daxter!
The basic controls, thankfully, remain identical to the original, with jump/double jump/spin jump/roll jump/punch and the good old head slam all in there. Gunplay is also high on the agenda, with four weapons assigned to the different D-pad directions, and R1 to fire, with a devastating helicopter blast move that allows Jak to jump, spin and fire, sending a hail of bullets all over the place. On the downside, there's no option to enter a first-person targeting mode, which is slightly annoying (especially as you can still go into a first person view elsewhere with R3), and makes some sections harder than they need to be.
Outside of the stupid, annoying and relentlessly respawning city cops, the army of Metalhead enemies generally provide an intense, enjoyable challenge that keeps you on your toes throughout. Even in the early stages you'll be tested thanks to their unerring accuracy, weight of numbers and a surprisingly switched on level of AI that has you desperately hopping about checking on the status of your health, ammo and sanity. Better still, once you've killed them, a glowing yellow chunk of metal spews forth, allowing Jak to eventually power up his dark side (L2) with progressively devastating moves.
Visually it's a massive achievement, once again. Not only is the city utterly vast on its own, the 15 or so locations outside the city walls are just as intricately crafted and every creature sports superb animation. Again, Naughty Dog's streaming technology almost completely eliminates loading pauses, with only the very occasional pause between new sections. The ambitiousness of the project does occasionally result in the odd glitch, but we trust most of these are the result of the unfinished nature of our 'September' review build.
Return to splendour
Happily, the frame rate never wavers, the detail levels have reached new heights for a PS2 game, and camera-related issues that blighted the original have almost been entirely eradicated, thank goodness. In Widescreen and Progressive Scan mode, we can't think of a game of its type that comes close to displaying the architectural splendour, sense of scale and fine detail - right down to little showers of dust and rubble in one broken-down area early on - that Jak II manages. We await technological bedfellow Ratchet & Clank 2 with keen interest.
And to top off the huge gameplay variety and staggering longevity of Jak II, the regular immensely impressive (and amusing) cut-scenes help lend the game a sense of purpose that helps spur you on to finishing each section. With around double the number of missions, the cut-scene count has increased accordingly, and among the game's many secrets is the ability to watch each of them at your leisure - a masterstroke given the increasingly sarcastic antics of Jak's unhinged partner Daxter.
Possibly Jak II's only technical weak link is its rather anonymous audio. The soundtrack burbles away in the background and changes pace as and when required, but overall seems decidedly average next to the grandeur elsewhere. Still, we should be thankful that it's not annoying at any stage unlike so many other games. Sometimes the straw that breaks the camel's back is a tinkering ditty, and however intensely frustrated we became with Jak II, it was never down to the audio. With the right set up, it's nice to hear a developer using Dolby Pro-Logic II surround to good effect, though. Truly, if you've got the toys, Naughty Dog caters to them all, and we salute them.
The hardest thing about reviewing Jak II is recalling how much pain it gave us. We've scanned a few other assessments of this game elsewhere, and rarely do they mention just how hard, how long, how annoying and how frustrating it can be. Shame on them. It's unlikely anyone will breeze through this game, no matter how much of a supposed ninja gamer they are, and you'll question your own sanity sometimes as you replay the same level over and over for three hours or more. Curse Naughty Dog for creating what is - at times - an almost unplayably hard game, but if you can dig deep into your well of persistence and climb this mountain of a game, you'll get a great view of the most involving, rewarding and momentous platform game ever created.