If there is one shade in gaming that is more feared than brown, it’s got to be grey. Whenever a game that started out as a colourful odyssey comes back resembling a moody teen’s bedroom wall, suspicions are alerted. But that needn’t be the case as Jak II proved back in 2003. It managed to mix the tight-as-a-tiger gameplay of the original, with a sprawling open-world structure that truly captivated.
Above: This zoomed-out view of the city gives you some idea of the sense of scale in the game
Before we get into it though, a quick confession. I had never heard of the series when I was first bestowed my copy of Jak II as a Christmas present. After making the usual chit-chat with my family, I retreated to my bedroom to survey the grinning guy with a goatee, gun and otter - or Ottsel, correct terminology fans - on his shoulder.
The original had passed me by and I hadn’t played a Naughty Dog game since Crash Team Racing. I was perplexed right through the opening – which saw the dude from the box getting tortured - and up until I got a chance to take control of Jak. At that point, every shred of doubt I had about the game evaporated, as I got to navigate away from the bizarrely cartoonish torture room and into the grimy slums of Haven City.
Above: That's a damn fine sense of scale for a last-gen game
Jak II remains one of the most engrossing and playable experiences of the PS2 era. Looking back, the game is as huge as Krew, the game’s oversized weapon smuggler with upgradable weapons constantly being drip-fed, racing sections that were actually fun in their own right, more collectables than a Crash Bandicoot reunion party and surprisingly strong story that saw Naughty Dog start to hone the skills that have given us the fantastic Uncharted tales.
So, that story then. After being sucked into the future, Jak finds his home world to have gone from tropical paradise to industrial hell-scape. The city is under the iron fist of Baron Praxis, a name that can only exist in hell-scapes, who has the unenviable task of fighting two wars. One with a group of creatures known as Metal Heads who want to get into Haven City and the other with an underground resistance who aren’t a fan of the Baron. Considering that Jak was tortured by the Baron, it’s not a surprise he starts chumming around with the underground.
One of the things that, in hindsight, surprised me about the tale was that Naughty Dog was willing to see its mature new angle through. Jak seethed with anger regularly and vengeance was a concept he seemed to be pretty into. It was obvious Baron Praxis was a tyrant and when Kor – the old gentlemanly fellow who guides Jak in his quest – turns out to be (SPOILER ALERT… for an 8 year old game) a massive metal head, I was, I admit with a slight degree of shame, legitimately shocked.
I’m not going to argue my standards may have been lower back when I was 13, but Jak II has a story that stuck with me. Hell, the big twist ending is a concept that Naughty Dog has done well with in Uncharted. Some of the characters – okay, Daxter - may not have the same gravitas as Sully, but he still has a certain charm. Not only did Naughty Dog manage to mould a fairly bleak story onto a fairly cartoony game, it did it convincingly.