Driving, skating, shooting, stealing vehicles, beating up members of authority with a myriad assortment of weapons and performing all of this with a wicked sense of humor. No, this is not Grand Theft Auto, this is Jak II: Renegade. In what was probably the most ambitious game of its time, Naughty Dog unleashed an open dystopian world that ticked so many boxes it’s difficult to pigeon hole what genre it actually was.
As a kid, whose parents wouldn’t buy them the aforementioned Grand Theft Auto games due to age restrictions, this filled a hole in my life. I could steal hover bikes, fly around an enormous city, get chased by the police and shoot the hell out of anything that moved. It wasn’t just about wanton chaos as the box art and title suggested; the story had depth and maturity that was a first for the developers of the Crash Bandicoot series. It was a story of anarchistic rebels against a tyrannical dictator, Baron Praxis (voiced by the legendary Clancy Brown), and Gestapo style police force known as the Krimzon Guard. But it was also a story of vengeance, the consequences of rage and a little dash of inter-dimensional time travel and of course, the Metal Heads make a welcome return. The story dealt with these dark themes with good humor and a level of maturity we hadn’t seen from Naughty Dog, but would see in their later games.
Making a huge shift from the linear play style of the series’ first title, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, Jak II: Renegade introduced our yellow haired protagonist and his orange Otsel sidekick into the dark open world environment of Haven City. This open world created an almost non-linear way of tackling the games many objectives, with missions being given by different members of the colourful list of characters as well as when new areas were unlocked. It allowed the player to choose when they wanted to complete a mission but did nothing to effect the story. Haven City was split into several different sections all with their own vastly different style and color. The scale of Haven City was breathtaking at the time. It was no San Andreas, but it felt alive. People wandered through markets, guards patrolled the waterfronts and traffic was in high supply. It was a shame that there was little encouragement to explore Haven City except for a search for Precursor orbs to buy in-game secrets, but a lot of these did very little and weren’t worth the extraordinary amount of effort some of them required to obtain.
Jak is no longer the mute that he was in the first game (Voiced by Mike Erwin), his gravelly pissed off voice was the perfect match to his new attitude. On the subject of voices, the script was pure gold. Daxter was genuinely hilarious, often riding the line of the fourth wall with his razor sharp wit. The dialogue can be a bit cliché at times, but that was part of the humor and charm; it took itself as seriously as it needed to.
Before we go any further I should mention that amongst all the alterations, the old platforming ways had not been abandoned by any means. Naughty Dog, at this point, were old hands at platforming and it was still very much at the forefront of what Jak was all about. Only this time instead of jumping and punching we were now jumping and punching, driving, skating and shooting. Speaking of shooting, combat in Jak II was fast-paced, dripping with style and simply boatloads of fun. Ammunition was never in short supply so how much fun you had was often directly proportional to how many shots you were firing. The weapons themselves weren’t reinventing the wheel, but they were fun to use if not very frustrating to aim with at times. The aiming system did a poor job of targeting the closest enemy and an even worse job of locking on to any switches or levers that required shooting. This would result in thrown controllers and frantic spinning and shooting wildly in all directions with crossed fingers and sweaty palms, praying that one of those shots would hit that damn switch.
Jak’s new dark mode, brought on by his years of Dark Eco torture at the hands of antagonist Baron Praxis, was also highly entertaining, there was something incredibly satisfying about watching in slow motion as you slammed a Dark Bomb into the middle of a huge patch of enemies and watch them all explode around you.
Jak II was a victim of its own grand ambitions. There was a hell of a lot to do in this game, there is no denying that, but some of it fell flat or felt half finished. The races were simply frustrating wastes of time that required you to do very little except try not to crash the vehicle, which controlled like a run away loaded shopping trolley. The Jetboard sections were often tedious and felt forced upon the narrative. On it’s own, the Jetboard was a very useful way of navigating areas rapidly, but it was impossible to control with any degree of accuracy required to complete the complicated tasks it often demanded of you. Naughty Dog tried to do too much of everything so suffered from any particular aspect of the game being truly great. As a whole package it was still a very entertaining journey but filled with far too many frustrating and sometimes downright boring sections of gameplay that was trying too hard to break away from the norm.
For a developer that would, 10 years later, go on to create such incredible titles like The Last of Us and Uncharted it is interesting to see their early foray into mature stories and darker themes of dystopian futures. Jak II and its even bigger sequel Jak III[Are they not the same games?] are testament to the developers tireless ability to constantly improve and push the boundaries of what is capable on any current system. Now, if you don’t mind, I have some dark eco plants to squash with my Jetboard.