Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth? Ooh heaven is a place on Earth. No wait… we meant Haven. ‘Haven’ City is a place on Earth. And it ain’t a nice one at that. Plagued by crime, spontaneous werewolf outbreaks and citizens with complete disregard for hoverboarding etiquette, it’s an environment far removed from the chunky rainbow palette and fluffy cornered Misty Island seen in Jak and Daxter’s first outing. And yet, the squalid city remains among the finest technical achievements on PS2 – one that transformed a likeable and cheery platformer into a sullen cartoon sandbox, with more than a hint of Grand Theft Ottsel.
Amazingly, Naughty Dog’s bad-tempered sequel didn’t suck. On the contrary, by expanding its horizons and encompassing competent third-person blasting, loose-limbed platforming and often exhilarating vehicle chases, the elf-eared hero starred in one of the first games that aped the GTA 3 template with a non-derivative execution. Much of this is down to the superb world-building we now expect from the masterful Santa Monica outfit. Back in 2003, however, the sheer scope and detail packed into Jak 2’s new metropolis was a technological eye-opener on PS2.
Many of the game’s successes can also be laid at the furry feet of sharp-tongued character work. Yes, Daxter remains a weasely nuisance. Yet away from his sarky quips, not only does the previously mute Jak finally find his windpipe, the game discovers its own voice, too. Far removed from the cardboard cutout personalities of The Precursor Legacy, which itself felt like an archaic throwback to the ever-so-happy jumping marathons of the 32-bit era (we’re looking at you, Ape Escape), Renegade has real bite and personality. In many ways, the evolution from its predecessor marked the death of the kid-focused, hub-world platformer.
In the wrong hands, the whole experiment could so easily have been boldly obnoxious. Elf boy can talk now, can he? And what’s this? He really likes to whinge, beat up law enforcement and occasionally turn into a murderous lupine? Rad. With Naughty Dog at the helm, though, Jak 2 always remains likable, balancing knowing angst with outright absurdity. At this point we’ll direct you towards the French monkey/parrot thingy that doles out missions with all the indignation of a snooty butler who’s been turned into a talking spoon via an early ‘90s Disney flick.
Evolving from collectable-obsessed platformer to eclectic open-world was a huge gamble for the series, but one that paid off handsomely. Where the first game is eventually suffocated by its narrower view, Jak 2’s expertly breezy pacing sees the cartoon odd-couple tackle shotgun showdowns with the local mob, perform desperate base defences and even take part in a massive Colosseum-esque ruckus in the city’s stadium. You could call it a ‘Jak’ of all trades. Thank you, thank you. Try the braised fennel – it’s delicious.
It’s a shame the PS2 trilogy closer that followed veered a little too close to Mad Max territory. Jak 3 would ditch the vibrantly hectic Haven for dreary desert wastelands, with a misjudged focus on buggy combat. While further cementing the fact Naughty Dog is rarely happy resting on its laurels, it also means Jak 2 represents a fleetingly brave gamble the studio never tried to repeat.
Thankfully, that’s why PlayStation Jeebus bestowed the HD remake upon His disciples. Fire up the PS3/PS Vita collection now and Renegade remains the star act. Go on: remind yourself of that little slice of Haven.