Sometimes the games industry can be so cretinously predictable you wish some of them would just sod off to Switzerland and make watches or something. At least their unerring time-keeping abilities would be considered a good thing over there. In the land of videogaming, the crushing inevitability that the excellent Jak trilogy would be followed by a less-than-essential kart racing title was almost too depressing to bear. Surely not. Surely Naughty Dog - the beloved Naughty Dog of some of the finest platforming games of this generation - was above that kind of lowest common denominator nonsense? Surely it had better, more interesting, more innovative games to work on?
After the Crash Bandicoot franchise descended into a similar amorphous farce at the end of the last generation, we perhaps expected a smidgen more imagination from one of the finest developers on the face of the planet, but no; here we are playing a back-to-basics Mario Kart clone; a genre so done-to-death that the Grim Reaper himself got bored and moved onto World War II games.
So, forget any hope of quirks and originality; this is exactly the sort of franchise racing game everyone feared it would be. All the characters, all the crazy weapons, all the familiar locations we loved in that hallowed trilogy, all the shortcuts, the elastic cheating AI, the upgrades. All present and correct.
Do we need to tell you any more?
Because, despite itself, despite the hollow join-the-dots template the game's been shoehorned into, Jak X is somehow much greater than the sum of its parts. It should be rubbish, awful, derivative pap to the nth degree. "Bah humbug," we grumbled. "Come back to us when you've come up with a single original idea that hasn't been thrashed to within an inch of its life," we squawked. "Etcetera," we etcetera'd. But it's not rubbish. Far from it. Jak X is quite close to being bloody brilliant and we almost hate ourselves for admitting it.
Because of Naughty Dog's almost super-human mastery of the innards of the PS2, that's why. Powered by an engine that's among one of the best things to have ever emerged on Sony's oft-underused console, it rips along at a pace that would leave most Burnout fans quivering behind the sofa. It's one of the few PS2 racing games on PS2 that shows exactly why running at a solid 60 frames per second is always better than the 30 that many developers prefer to plump for. The sensation of rip-roaring speed in Jak X is immense, and probably half of the reason we enjoyed our extended sessions with it. Like any racing game worth its salt, it has to feel right, and for the most part Jak X instinctively feels right. It's moreish, and satisfying. Like a sugar rush in gaming form, full of little bite-sized snackette challenges that make it easy to just dip back into when the craving return. It's also insubstantial and probably not that good for you, but who cares? Your brains files a big fat report with the word FUN daubed across the front cover in glittery marker pen, so you go back for more.
Prizes means points
The structure's pretty familiar, but flexible, friendly and entertaining. Essentially, in the game's main 'Adventure' (i.e. career) mode there are four cups to conquer in turn, all of which should take even experienced racers five or slightly more hours to finish. Kicking off with the Class 1 races, you find yourself faced with a plethora of diverse racing challenges - with most of them inaccessible until you've gathered enough 'Prescursor orbs'. In layman's terms, that basically means 'medals', so for a bronze finish you gain one orb, silver two and (can you see where this is heading) three for a gold. With 60 orbs up for grabs in total across the 20 events packed in each cup, that's a fair amount of gaming - even for a game of this type.
If they were just mindless circuit races we'd probably have got bored within the first few hours, but one of the most charming aspects of Jak X is the consistent variety it throws at you. One minute you're engaged in typical two-lap circuit racing, the next duelling it out in a deathmatch arena, then a Smuggler's Run-style artefact chase, then an animal hunt, then, then, then. It goes on. Some of the best modes you'll face warrant a little further explanation, too, seeing as they're somewhat unique additions to the fray - and modes that go some way to our gradual appreciation of the game.
Take the Freeze Rallys, for example - a Time Attack with a distinct difference. The idea is to get around a two lap time trial within a time limit, picking up time freeze icons along the way. Elsewhere, the Death races are, again, on your own, but with a set number of 'kills' to pull off within a time limit. Drone racers spawn ahead of you, with scores multiplied depending on your lap number - meaning a triple kill count if you can make it to the third lap, and so on. Another mode has you driving headlong into traffic, with the idea to rack up as many crashes as possible within a time limit - not as easy as you might think while you're hurtling along at high speed around the wide, expansive tracks.
As ever with these MK variants, the tracks are absolutely littered with weapons - although in Jak X's case they come in two distinct flavours: offensive and defensive. Needless to say, the offensive weaponry comes in the usual rocket propelled and machine-gun variety and tends to be less powerful the better-placed you are at the time you pick them up. When you're struggling in 6th place, the power-ups tend to be rather more generous, which is a handy way of allowing you to make dramatic comebacks when all seems lost. On the other hand, there is always the tendency to feel exceptionally vulnerable when you're leading the pack, knowing full well that someone is going to grab an uber weapon that's unstoppable.
But, for much of the time you can repel enemy attacks by using the defensive weapons strategically, releasing them (with R1) just at the point a missile is about to blast you to kingdom come. You can also leave nasty mines behind you too, snaring unfortunates in your wake. On the whole, the weapons system feels really well balanced, finally addressing the perennial problem of being defenceless.
In tandem with the weapons system is the ability to upgrade four key areas of your craft. Typically you have a couple of ships to choose from at the start of each cup, and each is rated out of ten (blobs) in Top Speed, Acceleration, Boost and Armour. Predictably, neither choice is that great to start with, but as you complete each race you earn cash with which to spend on upgrading each stat, one at a time. As you go through, you'll also unlock a few more - usually superior - cars, but depending on whether you've heavily upgraded your existing ride or not, you can switch rides and stand a much better chance of winning each race. Rather pointlessly, you can also 'pimp up' your ride with some wholly cosmetic upgrades, such as rear fenders, hoods and wheels, as well as a paint job, but none actually make any difference to your ride's performance.
Fly me to the moon
Towards the end of each cup campaign you'll really begin to notice the improved performance, and be thankful that the first rocket thrown your way doesn't blow you up immediately. Sadly, being blown up is something you'll have to live with, as the game seems obsessed with sending you into a burning fireball at every conceivable opportunity.
If you're not being blasted off the track by the relentlessly aggressive opposition, you're hurtling headlong into the scenery - something that's way too easy to do thanks to the loose, floaty handling. The physics involved in Jak X make you feel, at times, like there's no real weight to your vehicle. Take bends at speed (or with boost), and you'll almost certainly smack into it. To help you along, there is the option to try and drift around, but Jak X is no Ridge Racer in this department. The general tactic is to shrug it off, dust yourself down, grab a powerful weapon, grab some more boost and blast your way to the front. Being killed over and over again just seems to be part and parcel of the Jak X mix - but even so, there's way too much of it for our liking, especially given that you can't skip the exploding death animations (no, really, you can't). With a slightly heavier handling model or by following a more Burnout-esque level of forgiveness to scenery damage it would have flowed a lot better. As it stands, being snagged side on into the scenery was one of our greatest bug-bears, and ruined its chances of being our favourite kart racer ever. Shame.
It really is a shame that such small things can spoil such a promising effort, because in all manner of important respects, Jak X is peerless. The technical side of the game is simply staggering, managing to throw a huge amount of detail around at blistering speed without the merest hint of slowdown - and all the while, doing so in full 16:9 progressive scan (even on the PAL version - thanks Naughty Dog). We're sure the glitzy art style and eye-melting pyrotechnics won't appeal to everyone, but if you're a fan of any of the previous Jak games, there's no doubting the excellence at work here.
The regular between-race cut scenes, in particular, are every bit as good as we've come to expect from the immensely talented team, and help shoehorn a tenuous premise into an otherwise ridiculously-straightforward game. For the record, Jak and Daxter have been invited to Kras City for the reading of Krew's (the nefarious blubber mountain in Jak 2) last will and testament. Somehow, Krew manages to cause havoc from beyond the grave, poisoning everyone present, and forcing them to race to glory to get the antidote. Sigh.
Despite this wafer-thin premise, the cut-scenes are as energetic as ever, giving you a sense of reward after a tough race - and it's important to stress that some of the races can be a real tough nut to crack. But despite the occasional niggle and mysterious difficulty spike, the game's strong enough to keep dragging you back for another bite, and deserves your attention on that basis.
And if you're one of the brave souls that ventures into the world of PS2 online gaming, then Jak X is practically tailor-made for that. Sporting all the modes housed within the Adventure mode, there's the opportunity to engage in six-player online play - well worth doing, if only to negate the AI's elastic tendencies and to show off your true skill. Complete with a handy quick connect mode (for those not fussy what mode to play in), you can dive into an online match quicker than most PS2 online games out there, while the pickier player can customise their choice of match and play the online gaming lottery of trying to find others also interested in the same match. Still, for those of you organised enough to find friends with a copy of the game, there's a huge amount of fun in prospect. More likely, though, is that you'll take advantage of the four-player split screen mode and play it the way most of us have done in the past - no bad thing by any means. (Another thing worth keeping in mind is that this will be compatible with the Daxter PSP game, out in the Spring of 2006 - although in what sense is unknown to us at the present time).
The one remaining issue is whether we'd buy it. Sat here with our freebie copy, we liked it a lot, and enjoyed almost every minute of the many face-wobbling hours we ploughed into it. Sure, it's repetitive; sure it's not doing anything massively new, but what it does provide is an exceptionally polished genre offering that fans of the series and kart games in general can get a lot out of. Jak X is certainly a good pick-up-and-play title that's perfect for a rental over a weekend, and at a budget price we wouldn't hesitate, but right now, at full price we'd probably pass - but don't take that as an instant dismissal. You might be pleasantly surprised how good it really is; we certainly were.