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August 01, 2005

Review: Jak 3 (PS2) - Redemption!

VGP Score


9.0

Jak 3 is the epic conclusion to what we now refer to as the "Precursor Legacy Saga". Insinuating, that there be another saga, or even sagas in Jak and Daxter's future...or maybe just one of them. For all intents and purposes, it does a pretty good job at tying up loose ends, and explaining the origin of the precursors and the mysterious origin of Jak and his furry frere Daxter. I think it goes without saying that Jak II was a little underwhelming, considering the massive awesome that the original Jak and Daxter was. Without a doubt, for myself, Jak II was rather disappointing. It suffered from many glaring flaws, many of which were ignored by many reviewers in favour of stunning visuals, top notch voice acting and a story that literally shames the plotlines of every other platformer in existence. Surely good stuff to look at, but not good to overlook the bad just to exemplify the good. Jak II was by all definitions, a mindless, cruel, and at times, near-impossible game to play and complete. The difficulty was severely unbalanced, the cards were always stacked in the enemies favour, and occasionally, extremely wretched level and stage design made the controls awkward to use, and the experience overall a disappointment. One thing that kept me coming back however, was the story. No matter how many controllers I obliterated, no matter how many decibells my high pitched screeching was during choice moments of frustration, the plot-line kept me going. I always wanted to see what would happen next. One thing to notice though in a situation like this, if a games plot can keep you playing a poorly designed game, with no reason to keep playing gamplay wise, you know the developers hit the nail on the head with their storyline. So now you know just how the Jak II effect works, and let me preface the rest of this review, by telling you that a new balance has been made. The plot has been sacrificed in exchange for some major and minor gameplay tweaks. Both are advantageous and disappointing at the same time. Let me also make one statement before this review gets under way: I don't like being lied to.

Without a doubt, Jak 3 sports some of the best visuals on the Ps2. And yes, I mean ever. The amount of detail, and obtusity in the free-roaming environment is a great to see. Some would argue that a game like GTA San Andreas (or any of it's predecessors) surely hold the record for that...but what you need to recognize, is that those are all 90 degree buildings, roads and overall environmental structure. Jak 3 works on the same principle that the original Sly Cooper worked on. No 90 degree angles. Any and all obscurity is welcome, and the more obtuseness the better. If theres one thing I can give this game, it's that Naughty Dog knows how to work it's mojo when it comes to visuals. A mojo not to be outdone by their ability to weave together plot points from so many different sources that it's almost nauseating. Along the same thought however, the plot is not nearly as great as Jak II's. Where Jak 3 fails is in the voice acting, and the under-use of key characters and concepts. There is so much more room for fleshing out the plot of Jak 3, but just the basics are here. The key plot axis of Jak 3 is to find out who the Precursors really are, and why there must exist a balance of dark and light. This primary element of story telling leads Jak through many different missions, but never straying from the main plot point. It may be an on track game, but without any background, or any significant detail we couldn't get from Jak II, the plot is somewhat in the shadow of it's predecessor. Don't get me wrong, the plot is still great (save for one key plot loop hole that pretty much questions the entire proceedings of Jak II), in fact it's better than great. As I mentioned earlier, this game could shame even some of the most elaborate RPG's with it's deep and intriguing story, it just isn't as edge-of-seat-sitter as Jak II.

Moving on in what I'm thinking is the hardest game to review; this game does so many things right that you just don't want to bring up the negative aspects of the game. The promises of a more balanced difficulty, tightened controls, and longer and more varied mission selection are all broken within an hour of gameplay. The controls are still iffy. The primary controls for Jak are decent this time around, and the lizard leapers are an easy controlling mode of transportation, and air mobility has some of the tightest control for a "ship" simulator in a long time (sometimes too tight)...however, any and all forms of wheeled mobilization are in lamens terms: garbage. They don't work, and at times, you discover yourself fighting the controls, more than fighting the enemy. It's really that bad. Driving along flat wasteland, and suddently spinning out of control for no apparent reason, as well a terrain not designed to be traversed by the majority of the vehicles provided, and you've got yourself the worst driving simulation in existence. Your vehicle will flip, it will tumble and occasionally blow up, simply because the controls are horrid and the sheer physics of it all, is entirely against you. If Jak were a racing game (at times it seems like it, since 30% of the game is on Dune Buggy), I would say it's hands down the worst ever. However, this is a platformer, so some mediocrity in the driving can be tolerated, in small, and moderate doses, which is thankfully the case.

Secondarily, the promise of a more balanced difficulty, as well as longer and more varied missions. I'll start with the latter. This game is short. Significantly shorter than Jak II. Completing Jak II from 0 - 100% on your first trek through the game, should take approximately 15 - 20 hours, depending on your skill level. This game, I finished in under 9 hours on my first time through. Now, you may be thinking: "Well the game is supposed to be easier, so it's obviously going to take less time to finish". Wrong. The game is easier overall, in fact, at times it's just perfect. At others the game teeters on the edge of possible, and occasionally messes something up so much, that it becomes intolerable to keep playing. Case and point: The Daxter "Hacking" mission. Take pac-man, and remove any and all things good, innovative and useful, and you've got this mission in a nut-shell. You move Daxter's head along a Pac-Man-esque labyrinth attempting to collect "pellets", to hack into the KG computer network. Pac-Man, as basic and rudimentary as it is, allowed the player to utilize two directions of movement: Clock-wise and counter-clockwise. Not so in Jak 3. You are restricted to a clock-wise movement, and at the same time, hunt down "pellet creators", and evade an "evil" thingy (I don't know what it is), which will always pull a cheap kill on you, even without contact. It's extremely frustrating, and in fact, the epitome of poor game design. Adding insult to injury, it completely disrupts the flow and momentum this game attempts to muster prior to the mission. Words cannot do justice to the atrocity of the mission in question. Luckily, missions this poorly designed, and frustratingly difficult, only occur on rare occasions, but once again, breaking the promise of balanced difficulty. Like I said, I don't like being lied to.

On the other hand, there are moments in Jak 3, where the game comes together in perfect unison, and the gameplay tighter, and much more appealing than ever. At times, Jak 3 ends up being the game that Jak II should have been, and then some. Some of the core play mechanics and fundamental "RPG" elements are once again, a year too late, and an obvious scam on the Ratchet and Clank formula created with Going Commando, but this time, it's far less noticeable, since the weapons are not necessarily derived in the same fashion Jak II's were. The use of Dark Jak is far more practical, since you can now revert back to regular Jak form at any time, without depleating your entire stock-pile of Dark Eco. There are more health items (which are certainly needed this time around, since the enemies still get off a few cheap shots here and there), far more checkpoints (thank the heavens) since the last game featured next to none, and the new "secret" upgrade system, really helps the player if they're struggling with a certain part of the game. The addition of Light Jak is a welcome one. Light Jak comes with the ability to fly, shield himself, freeze time and heal himself. This leaves itself open for some cleaver platforming, and be clear that the cleaverness of the platforming involved with these abilities stretch only as far as the immediate stage following the bestowing of said abilities. Sad really, since Jak 3 has more potential for clever, and innovative platforming than any other game to date.

In terms of audio, Jak 3 is good. It definitely took a step down from the voice acting quality (in fact compeltey changing the voices of some characters *cough* Keira *cough*) of Jak II, but the score more than makes up for it. The lack-luster voice acting doesn't help the skin and bones plot, but the score and overall timbre of the musicality is so good I require a new word to describe it's fabulousness. Frabjulous. The music is frabjulous. (Forgive the personal desire to attempt to convey how great the aural offerings are this time around). Weapon effects, and secondary voicing and ambient sound effects are also top-notch, and very evokative for the mood this game tries to set.

All in all, you'll need a tootchpick to extract the left-over taste in your mouth since this game leaves the series open for more adventures, but be mindful that this story arc does finish in Jak 3, so those expecting a fourth game in this line of titles be warned, this is the last game. And that's really disappointing. You can see the potential for Jak 3 when you play through the game. At moments Jak 3 gets the platformer genre so perfect, and innovates so much, that it becomes something so fresh and so new, it's like picking up that intellivision number pad for the first time again. It's so unique in it's execution, but yet so distasteful, disgusting and derivative in some of it's other regards. With some of the best visual effects on the Ps2, the most unique plotline in platformer history, a game actually worth playing this time around, and an overall improvement over the disappointing and overrated Jak II (even by this reviewer), it's hard to believe there are such pedestrian elements as the over-used Dune Buggy scenario, and some absolutely atrocious missions, not to mention a game almost half as long as it's predecessors, Jak 3 pleases and displeases. It definitely pleases more than it displeases, in fact, more so by an imaginary factor of 10. There is so much over-shadowing the bad in this game, that some of it is forgivable, but the rest prevents Jak 3 from being perfect, and what it should have been.

I don't normally discuss how I come to my score, but indulge me as my score is generously high despite all the criticisms I've had through out this review. As I write this I'm still debating whether Jak 3 is an 8 or 9. How much fun did I really have? The driving is dreadful, but fortunately it doesn't comprise the majority of the game. The plot and voice-acting aren't as good as Jak II's, but that's only in comparison. Stand-alone, they're great in their own regards in Jak 3. The game still has it's peak moments of disequilibrium, but I say "moments", since thats all they are. As I reflect, out of the 9 total hours it took to complete Jak 3 (even with a plethora of side-quests completed), only about an hour of it was spent in frustration. As I digress, I want to point out that despite it's flaws preventing Jak 3 from being perfect, what is there convinces me that it IS okay to overlook some of the bad to exemplify the good, so long as the good is worth praising, and in this case, it is.

I may have been harder on Jak 3 since it's the final game in a trilogy story arc, and personally wanted to see one of my favourite games (the original Jak and Daxter) brought to a harmonious end, and in many ways it did, but I also think I'm being very lenient with Jak 3, so it balances. As far as the game goes, it IS a Ps2 AAA title (if not a AA 1/2, ha), but like many games, it isn't perfect, but is so close, you can taste it.

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