Naughty Dog’s breakthrough magnum opus is sloppily ported to Vita by Mass Media, but still provides a thrilling experience on the handheld thanks to a fantastic core game.
World-building & Story
Set after the events of the first game, Jak II begins with the titular hero and his best friend, the Ottsel Daxter; alongside mentor Samos, testing out Keira’s new ‘rift rider’ which she invented using a Precursor Ring she found in the Acheron’s Citadel. This inadvertently opens a portal into another dimension which the group get sucked into and separated, with Jak and Daxter awakening in the gritty Haven City, where Jak is immediately abducted and Daxter escapes – only to free him two years later after Jak has been subjected to dark eco experiments.
If that sounds worlds apart from the whimsical adventure of the first game, then you’d be correct – Jak II tells a much darker, more grown up story. Aside from the setting, the biggest change is Jak himself – pissed off from two years of being tortured, he’s no longer the calm mute from the first game, instead being much more angry and confrontational. It’s certainly an interesting direction to take the game’s mascot in but I feel it is one that pays off – he’s an actual character now, rather than being simply an avatar for players to experience the adventure through.
There’s a whole host of new cast members introduced to fit in with Jak’s new personality, most of which fill a morally grey area – such as Ashelin, the bad guy’s daughter. However there is a whole array on display here from the good (The Shadow); the bad (Baron Praxis); to the ugly (Krew). Each introduces new layers and dynamics to the plot, often taking it in unexpected directions and creating a dense tapestry of interwoven stories.
And what a story that’s told here. It’s certainly not one of gaming’s great plots, but thanks to some fun characters and the overall mystery of this new land you’ve come to, I certainly found myself engaged during my playthrough. Various different themes are explored throughout ranging from environmentalism to politics, but the most common is the fight against a tyrannical dictator by a small underground movement, hoping to restore the rightful heir to the throne; which shifts towards protecting the city from an outside invasion by the end.
As such, world-building has to be on point to ensure there’s a suitable backdrop for all these issues to play out on – thankfully Naughty Dog crafted a brilliant land that manages to be many different things in one, making it a perfect setting. Haven City is a dark, foreboding place full of slums; guard patrols and propaganda – worlds apart from the colourful lands of its predecessor – yet it also houses area of beauty both in and out such as mountain temples or glorious palaces. Better yet, all the historical mystery of the first game is still present – the Precursors and all their technology still exists and is still unexplained, meaning discovery still plays a key part in unravelling the world’s mysteries.
It’s worth noting that the series doesn’t lose its irreverent sense of humour in the transition to a darker story either. Daxter in particular remains a highlight, spouting joke after funny line – even in the background of cutscenes where serious conversations are taking place, he manages to keep things light hearted with some great slapstick comedy. Even characters with a relatively central part of the overarching plot like Onin have humorous moments with her exaggerated hand gestutes, interpreted terribly by her pet Pecker, meaning the game never loses its sharp humorous edge no matter what.
Presentation & Sound
Despite being a PS2 game, Jak II holds up as an incredibly impressive title on Vita thanks to some fantastic art direction and character design. The port clearly pushes the handheld a little too far, but it’s still a gorgeous game to look at.
Let’s start with the setting. Jak II shifts things away from the popping, vibrant colours of Sandover Village within the first few minutes, taking place instead in the dark and dreary Haven City. This setting is beautifully realised – full of grim slums; dark sewers and a down-trodden feeling, alongside flourishes of cyberpunk flair in the neon signs littering the landscape and futuristic cars zooming around. Although this feels impressive at first, it can be a little disjointed coming from the previous title – at least to begin with.
As you explore more of Haven City you unlock new zones and this is where the art design begins to open up – you’ll leave the slums and travel through the dock lands with their open expanse of water; through the palace area with its large gardens and big buildings and even ending up in an agricultural area with green spaces and crops being sprayed by water. All of it is beautifully realized thanks to the architecture and features used and it creates a varied, gorgeous landscape to explore which means that repeated travelling around the map never becomes tedious or tiresome.
You’ll also be given opportunity to explore outside the city walls and it’s here that you’ll find Jak II‘s most inventive areas. For example, a drill site full of dark eco hazards provides a gorgeous backdrop thanks to its brightly-lit extractors; while Mountain Temple remains the game’s highlight – a grassy, view-filled area reminiscent of Precursor Legacy thanks to its abundance of ancient technology littering the landscape. Each manages create a different mood based on their lighting; geometry and feel, making for a varied and enjoyable time.
While the environments remain impressive throughout, character designs don’t slack either – for starters, all the character models seem to have received a visual upgrade and are much more detailed now. Jak has had a more grown-up redesign, sporting goatee and longer hair, but his animations still contain the same over-the-top cartoony quality you’ll have come to expect from the series, particularly the way Daxter nearly flies off when he moves quickly. The new cast are drawn well to match with their character – Ashelin is more realistic and serious-looking, while Vin is goofy and exaggerated – they all move and animate as you’d come to expect, leading to a very polished overall experience.
Just a quick note on one of my sections of the game – one scene has Daxter running from a giant boulder (followed by a spider), and everything about it is simply gorgeous. From the creature’s fearsome design to Daxter’s hilarious running animations, everything about it just works to create a visual treat. And the title is littered with sections like this, meaning you’re always taking part in (and looking at) gorgeous scenes.
Sound is strong enough for Jak II – voice acting is on point, whether it be Jak’s gruff new voice or Keira’s raspy tones. Similarly, sound effects are perfect, whether it be the boom of the scatter gun or the whelp of the Metal Heads after they’re killed, everything works. The soundtrack, meanwhile, veers between brilliant and average – some of the city tunes are filler and overused, but then moments like Mountain Temple with its beautiful subdued tones are some of the best VGM I’ve ever heard. The most impressive thing about it is that things change dynamically based on the action happening on screen – tracks get tense when action is happening, and slower during travelling sections.
Gameplay & Content
Acting as a bridge between traditional 3D platformers and other genres, Jak II is an interesting beast that attracted some flak when it released and it doesn’t do everything perfectly – although it gets so much right that it’s impossible not to love.
For starters, Jak’s moveset is largely the same as Precusor Legacy – he can jump, roll, charge or spin, as well as combine these with each other to do things like reach further with a jump. Naughty Dog mix things up by adding significant new elements, however – the main one being guns, which significantly alter how you approach combat. You can now take out foes from afar with the blaster or fight hordes of enemies with the scatter gun, making choice of weapon a strategic decision, adding a nice layer of depth to the game’s encounters. You’ll also have access to Jak’s alter-ego Dark Jak, which improves his melee combat skills but otherwise seems like a rather superficial addition.
That’s not to say shooting has taken the place of platforming, although it does play a significant part in the game. You’ll still find plenty of areas that challenge you to time your jumps perfectly between moving platforms and these sections are arguably the game’s best – they provide a nice challenge yet are used infrequently enough to almost feel like a reward when you reach them. It helps that the usually take place outside the city where Jak II’s performance is best, but more on that later.
The game’s biggest change is the inclusion of an open-world hub in Haven City that you can traverse at your leisure at any point. This adds an open-ended feel to the adventure as you’ll often have 2-3 challenges you can take part in at any one time, plus a variety of side quests, meaning if you’re getting tired of one thing you can move on to something else. Sadly the side quests aren’t up to much – mostly simply finding an item based on a picture or racing through rings, but they provide a nice distraction.
You’re given a nice selections of ways to traverse your new environment, the main being the inclusion of hover cars (including the anti-grav zoomer from the first game). These can be hijacked at any time and are necessary for traversing around the rather large map, although some can be a little finicky to control with sloppy cornering, meaning more collisions than there should be. Around halfway through the game you’re also given a hoverboard which can be whipped out at any time, which is a great addition to nearly every area in the game – but frustratingly is activated from the rear touch pad, meaning you may trigger it when you don’t mean to.
A pacifist open world wouldn’t be much fun, so Jak II introduces its own version of a police force – the Krimzon Guard, who will clamp down on you Grand Theft Auto style if you do anything wrong. Although a necessary addition, I found myself being annoyed by them more often than not as they’ll often be lurking around every corner you turn, unavoidable, and then you’ll spend the rest of your journey trying to outrun them rather than taking in the game’s brilliantly designed locales.
Time spent outside open-world traversal is spent undertaking the title’s variety of missions and this is where the fun truly shines through – you’re given such a range of tasks that no two minutes are the same while playing. Most require you to make use of the game’s two core mechanics – jumping and shooting – but innovate on these ideas to create a different scenario each time. On one occasion you’ll be escorting bombers through a sewer, fighting off the hordes of enemies blocking off your progress; the next you’ll be leaping from pillar to platform in an ancient temple to find the treasure inside. Bosses are also thrown in to mix up the gameplay, usually relying on pattern recognition alongside shooting skills.
And yet there’s so much more beyond this too – you’ll be given a mech suit to pilot; WipEout-esque anti-gravity races to take part in; a skate park to hone your hoverboard skills in; a button-pressing mini-game to the background of an ancient soothsayer and even the aforementioned Crash Bandicoot-esque escape from an oncoming boulder scene. Variety really is key here and while some ideas don’t work particularly well (a turret shooting-gallery asking you to destroy Metal Head eggs is a particular low point), the majority of the time you’ll just be floored by the selection of stuff on offer here.
Unfortunately, this variety comes at a price – which is the difficulty. Jak II isn’t a particularly well balanced game, with spikes in challenge happening often which can lead to some frustrating repeating of challenges – the latter third of the game is particularly difficult. This is exacerbated by a terrible checkpoint system, often plonking you back at the start of an area you’ve just spent 10 minutes carefully moving through – which can be infuriating. It feels unfair, but thankfully doesn’t drag the whole experience down.
Something that does almost destroy the experience, however, is the performance. As you’ve likely read around the internet, Jak II is one of Vita’s worst port jobs – full of lag and slowdown, glitches and crashes. I had the audio glitch out on me requiring restarting the game as well as two hard crashes that needed me to reboot the Vita. Driving around Haven City feels like a constant 15 fps and never gets better – although once you leave the hub you’ll find things become much smoother. One thing I will say is that the game never becomes “unplayable” as I’ve seen some people proclaim – I completed it with no real issues other than the crashes, but it’s a very unstable experience.
And really, that’s what you have to weigh up – do you want a poor-quality, yet portable port of a brilliant game? There’s plenty of content here (at least 15 hours for the story and plenty more beyond that), but for some people the framerate and bugs will be too much. It was an easy choice for me as a Vita-junkie, and as long as you remember you’re gaming on a handheld you should have a great time playing one of the PS2’s best games which feels like it hasn’t aged at all in more than 10 years.
An imperfect port of an imperfect game, Jak II still remains a riot on Vita thanks to tight core gameplay mechanics; some fantastic mission variety and amazing scope. Naughty Dog did an amazing job re-inventing the IP with new mechanics from the first game and it’s a thrill to have a portable copy of this brilliant game; but performance issues disrupt the experience and will be a genuine concern for a lot of people. But as long as you’re willing to go in with an open mind and a tolerance for framerate drops, you’ll have a brilliant time playing Jak II again on the handheld.