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Retrospective: Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy

The one that isn't Ratchet & Clank.

I decided it was time to settle the debate, once and for all. It's been the subject of human conflict for generations, with more blood spilled over this matter than the world's religions combined. Unrest in the Middle East, uprisings in South America, and territory disputes within the second Mars colony have all been inflamed by one topic. Which is better, Ratchet & Clank or Jak & Daxter?

It's Ratchet & Clank.

There, that was easy. But before a thousand improvised explosive devices are delivered by my postie, first class, I should probably point out that Jak & Daxter is utterly great.

Both games have a lot in common. In both you ostensibly play as one character who's giving a shoulder ride to another. In both your task is to run around large open levels, completing tasks in the order you see fit, while collecting everything that bobs just above the ground. And both are beautiful, lavishly designed and ingeniously constructed.

Boy oh boy, people couldn't take screenshots in 2001.

However, Jak & Daxter is a much less complex affair. In a very successful way.

The story is of four sages, one evil, magic goo, end of the world, collecting some stuff. You know how it goes; a novelisation wouldn't exactly be gripping. Right at the start, Jak and his sort-of-human buddy Daxter are pratting around near a pool of evil purple "eco", when Daxter falls in. When spat back out, he is some sort of cat/fox/weasel thing. (I just checked - I thought I was being facetious, but he's an "ottsel" - half weasel, half otter.) Because, well, something something.

But none of that matters a jot, because now you're tasked with travelling the many lands to collect as many Power Cells as you can. These are used to power machinery and transport to access further reaches, and act as the reward for completed tasks and exploring the farthest reaches.

There's all manner of "ecos" to find - these are strange bubbling emissions of various colours, each giving you special properties. Blue to speed up and power objects, red to hit harder, green to heal things... You're also gathering Precursor Orbs in their hundreds, exchanged for Cells, and more importantly, an incentive to run around collecting things. Which is very much the point.

I promise the game looks about a squillion times better than this.

And what there is to run around! The variety and detail in each of the connected lands is just stunning. So there's never a feeling that you're running down prescribed corridors, or making your way through the only available path. There's such a spread of options before you, a buffet of options, a menu of... gosh, I'm hungry.

Enter Rock Village, say, about midway through the game, and there's so much choice about what to tackle first. Perhaps search this area for Orbs, Cells and the other collectable, freeing Scout Flies. Or maybe you'd like to take a wander through the Boggy Swamp, exploring its sludgy wastes, and discovering the yellow eco, which allows you to fire fireballs. But better yet, head into the Lost Precursor City - a labyrinth of puzzles and platforming challenges.

In fact, well over halfway through the game I realised I hadn't visited one of the earlier stages, Misty Island, at all. It's amazing to be offered such freedom in an action platformer, so generously opening up around you without demanding you have completed every millimetre before the next closed door opens up.

Of course, when you look at the pedigree of the developer, it's not hard to realise why the game's so strong. Defining PSX platforming with Crash Bandicoot, Naughty Dog is now of course more famously adored for the Uncharted games. And it's a focused team. In the nineties it produced Crash games (after very early forays on the Megadrive and 3DO). From 2001 to 2005 it released Jak & Daxter games. Since then, it's been Uncharted.