November 22, 2007

Jak II (2003)

I'm going to give you some credit for once. I'm assuming that you're aware of how different Jak & Daxter was from the rest of the franchise; in gameplay but especially in tone. Let's just leave it at this picture:

I don't think I can leave it at that picture. I need to elaborate. I'm very sorry, but I like talking so much. Here's how Jak & Daxter differs from the rest of the series. That game was a decent, inoffensive, light-fantasy, sub-Zelda 3D platformer which exhibited a cloyingly 1995-hip sensibility. That's a recognised genre by the way. Jak & Daxter's the only game that qualifies, though, maybe it's too specific.

Jak II... frankly, let's forget about the rest of the series. It's the third paragraph already and it's the first time I've mentioned the subject of this post. Jak II is a frustrating, testosterone-laden, plot-heavy apocalyptic-future GTA-clone/platformer/action game. Interestingly, Daxter, the absolute worst character in Jak & Daxter becomes the one character in Jak II who's tolerable. (Back to awful for Jak 3, though!)

I'm actually not as indignant about this attitude adjustment as I was when the exact same thing happened with Prince of Persia a year later. Because this was absurd.

How do you even begin to construct a continuity between these two games? Naughty Dog manages it with the most audacious cop-out I have ever seen. The end of Jak 1 has Jak, Daxter and their elfin fantasy pals activating an ancient stargate device and they stare into it in wonder. That's it. Jak II begins at exactly that point -- Jak and Daxter fall into the stargate and out onto the streets of a dark broken city under a military junta. Jak is captured, tortured by the game's villain, Praxis, and experimented upon for two years until he turns into this guy:

Daxter helps him escape and Jak breaks and free and shrieks "RRARRRGH I'M GOING TO KILL PRAXIS". Did I mention that Jak never talked in the first game? I guess he never had anything as interesting to say as "RRARRRGH I'M GOING TO KILL PRAXIS". Imagine if Half-Life 3 began this way:

"Gordon, I'm so glad you're alive!"

Jak II is utterly insane in a very special way. What I've just described occurs in the first two minutes of the game. Then they break out the guns. In Jak & Daxter you killed monsters by jumping on their heads. Naughty Dog wastes absolutely no time in destroying the coherence of this series. How did they think they'd get away with it? Obviously, they did. But the disconnect here is staggering.

After thoroughly repudiating the first game what's left is some epic trilogy garbage that's very "dark and edgy" with every connotation those quotation marks imply. There's a lot of nonsense about time travel, resistance fighters, oracles, adolescent sex appeal and this total moron:

Jak is comically off-putting in this game. Selfish, moronic and hyper-aggressive, this fantasy hero is a carjacking thug on a quest for blood. The whole story is presented so earnestly and then Jak walks in and sneers about how tough he is. He's a high school bully hiding his cracking voice. I don't know this idiot is able to navigate the complex-if-super-generic plot of the game. I don't know how this idiot is able to dress himself.

Jak, like everyone else in the game save Daxter, is so incredibly serious about this tale of prophecy and rebellion that it's embarrassing when it's not hilarious. It's a bad story. It's bad dialogue. They're bad characters.

But I'm not complaining. The whole monstrosity is so indescribably stupid that I actually sort of love it. I connected with these dumb characters more than those in any middle-of-the-road narrative-driven game. I didn't like them. I didn't care what happened to them. But they -- the whole thing, really -- were so magnificently stupid and angry and juvenile that I was engaged. I never got past bemusement with this game. Maybe if I had then I'd be ready to dismiss it. But I never stopped marveling at it, and it never stopped entertaining me (however indirectly.) Jak II evoked legitimate enthusiasm in me. I would much rather watch this terrible character do stupid things than I would an average character do acceptable things.

To this day I'm not sure if I like this game. I don't believe I do. But I can't hate it.

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