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Jak II: Renegade

Kristan plays with his little ginger friend.

As regular readers will no doubt wearily acknowledge, we liked Jak & Daxter a lot. So much so, it was probably solely responsible for reawakening our thirst for platforming antics, and ate up almost the entire Christmas period of 2001 as we scoured frantically for every egg and orb in the game.

Sure, you could argue it was a tad on the easy side, and some camera issues annoyed us at times, but we can't recall ever being so completely absorbed by a mere platform game before or since. The quality shone through in almost every aspect; the excellent script, the freeform, largely non-linear gameplay, the admirable no-load technology, the top class animation, all held together by an exquisitely designed world that demanded to be explored. As close to platform perfection as we've seen, and one of the top five PS2 games released - and all this from the makers of the kiddie favourite Crash Bandicoot? Who'd have guessed?

On the downside, its success provided a *cough* Haven for a dozen or more developers to sling out pale imitations that prove one or two things; a) the level of admiration for J&D was massive and b) ripping off other games ideas is rife. With that in mind, what could Naughty Dog do to reinvent the genre all over again?

Talent borrows, genius steals?

From what we've been allowed to see so far, it's plain to see that ND is just as guilty as its peers when it comes to 'borrowing' other people's ideas. Jak II has at least three distinctly different play elements that make it easy to guess at what Jason Rubin and co. have been playing over the past couple of years. Whether that's a good thing or not remains to be seen, but it's clear that the team is determined to distance itself from the generic sludge that has followed in its wake.

The demo disc dished out at E3, however, is something we wished we hadn't seen. The first of two levels is a hatefully designed travesty which features Jak surfing around a trap ridden hellhole on a Back To The Future inspired hoverboard, grinding rails, cruising up half pipes and pulling off stunts for no apparent reason, other than the designers thought it would be 'cool'. Sadly the end result is one of the least playable demo levels we've ever witnessed, and without exaggeration it took us about 100 attempts to complete.

The basic idea is to traverse about 20 traps to eventually get to a box, attached to a metal cord which crashes to the ground once you reach it. But getting there is one of the most exacting pieces of gameplay ever seen, requiring practise and repetition we've not seen since the days of Jet Set Willy. The problem isn’t the traps themselves, but the fact that every point along the way has an instant death bottomless pit, so mis-time or misdirect your jump/grind and Jak will plummet to his doom, much to your annoyance.

Are friends electric?

The second of the two levels is more your traditional J&D platforming antics, except you're tasked with protecting an NPC as he trudges around the level zapping Metalheads with a gun that requires charging up before he can deal the necessary death ray. Problem is, the enemies come at you and your buddy fairly relentlessly, and it doesn't take many hits before his energy is depleted. One intriguing facet of this level is Jak's ability to briefly transform himself into an electricity-spitting dark version of himself. This function wasn't fully explained or used in the demo level, but points to a wider range of capabilities than the original. We hear he's called Dark Jak.

At E3 itself, we were treated to a wider selection of levels, one of which provided an interesting diversion from the platforming norm. On this section, the GTA influence was more than apparent, with Jak able to carjack any of the passing hover cars, beat up passing pedestrians and run away from the law on the way to tackling various 'jobs'. These sub-missions appear on a mini-map (again, GTA-style), and you can take them on in the order of your choosing. One, again, involved Jak escorting a buddy to a set point on the map, while you blast away at a succession of re-spawning cops.

The driving elements seemed a little too tricky for our liking also; you can either fly high or low, but the narrow streets make it hard to avoid oncoming traffic and far too easy to blow up your vehicle. After a few hours in the company of one of the most eagerly anticipated games around, the overriding feeling is that Naughty Dog has gone too far the other way in tweaking the level of the challenge into the realms of annoyance.

On the positive side, the technical flair apparent in the original has been built upon, with noticeably improved visuals, excellent scripting and - in particular - impressive lip-synching during the superb cut scenes. With most of the levels chopped up in the E3 demo, it wasn't possible to see how well the 'no-load' tech has been implemented for the sequel, but ND claims it has pulled it off, with a much bigger play area than before.

How big?!

However, claims that the city in Jak II is 20 times the size of the village in the original seem unnecessarily large; while it's difficult to argue with the level of technical and visual prowess in Jak II, let's hope the design flair hasn't been sacrificed in the name of giving the gamer freedom - and dear god, let's hope Naughty Dog managed to sort out the camera problems eh?

Although we're by no means about to write the game off at this unfinished stage, it's fair to say we're slightly worried about the direction this game is going in, while being simultaneously hopeful that it'll turn out alright in the end. With the game on track for an autumn release, we won't have long to wait, so look out for more news soon.