By now, you do know Jak.
Three years ago, Sony introduced us to Jak & Daxter, a not-so-simple action platformer that would raise the bar with its huge environments and great sense of freedom. The sequel, Jak II, stormed shelves last year and took the franchise to another level by way of a darker approach and a much more mature protagonist.
Now, the series comes to an apparent end with the release of Jak 3. Naughty Dog hasn't pulled any punches when it comes to producing another blockbuster title, but will their prodigious talent for game development translate into another solid performance by our pointy-eared friend and his hyper, furry sidekick?
Why yes, it will.
When last we saw Jak and his pal-turned-Ottsel, Daxter, they had just finished saving Haven City from the tyrannical Baron Praxis and stopped the Metal Head creatures from turning the town into a smoldering pile of rubble. That's all just a faint memory now, as Jak 3 start off with Jak's exile into the Wasteland. It turns out a leftover from Praxis' administration named Count Veger somehow convinced the ruling council that Jak was the cause of all of the city's problems. One thing led to another and voila, instant exile. But before you can spin the wheel and say "Gulag,' our hero is rescued from the desert by Damas, the king of a Wasteland city vaguely reminiscent of Bartertown from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. There aren't any pigs and I have yet to find Tina Turner, but the city offers plenty of challenges as well as a vehicle port with lots of rough-looking rides. It is here where our hero begins his final journey.
Despite its new plot, Jak 3 showcases all of the features introduced by its predecessors, including a huge, free-roaming world with no load times and a full day/night cycle. Naughty Dog's particular take on the platformer genre is more action-driven than most. Jak still has the ability to punch, spin and pound enemies to a pulp, bust out a wide array of weaponry or use his Dark Eco powers to transform into the extremely powerful Dark Jak. Mercifully, there isn't an excessive amount of jumping from perilous ledge to perilous ledge, but rest assured that this traditional aspect of platformers still makes an appearance.
Similar in format to games like Grand Theft Auto, Jak 3 has you picking up missions from the locals and heading out to complete objectives. Perform well and the story begins to unfold; fail and it's do-over time. Despite the free-roaming environment, missions are, for the most part, set in a linear order, so you'll usually be pointed toward a specific point. Whether you choose to go straight to that point, explore the area or participate in a bonus challenge (more on that later) is up to you.
The biggest new addition to the game is the vast wasteland area. Jak bounces back and forth between Haven City and wasteland city known as Spargus by crossing the outlying desert. To make the trip, you'll need to unlock a selection of vehicles, each equipped with various weapons and special abilities, or riding on the back of a creature that looks like a dragonized version of a chocobo called a leaper lizard. The resulting world is far bigger than in previous games, and those were pretty darn big to begin with.
Morph Gun technology has been improved as well, giving Jak a wider selection of weapon choices. Each of the four base models (shotgun, blaster, chain-gun and missile launcher) has an additional two modifications for a total of twelve different weapons. That might not sound wildly impressive by pure shooter standards, but when combined with the classic melee attacks, you'll never be lacking ways to dispose of the bad guys.
This is especially true when you toss in the new Light Jak powers, which balance out the Dark Jak powers introduced in Jak II. Light Jak abilities include the power to regenerate health, slow down time, erect a handy shield and take to the skies for limited flight. Unfortunately, with the exception of regeneration, the Light Jak powers turn out to be pretty useless unless required to get last a specific part of the landscape. The new Dark Jak powers - Dark Bomb, Dark Blast, Dark Strike and Shadow Invisibility " are also not that useful. Besides, with the variety of destructive power provided by the Morph Gun and melee, there isn't much need to call on the Dark Side.
Jak 3 really goes out of its way to serve up varied gameplay experiences. None of them are particularly ground-breaking, but they do lead to a game that doesn't get stale very quickly. Throughout the game you'll race desert vehicles, fly a glider, speed through a tunnel on a runaway car, control a robot, man a turret gun and break computer security using an ancient Pac-Man technique. All that and more, in fact. The eclectic gameplay styles enhance the experience and keep the game moving along nicely.
As I mentioned earlier, there are bonus mission kiosks located throughout Spargus, Haven City and the Wastelands that players can visit at their leisure. Just drop the required number of Metal Head gems down and prepare to take on a quick challenge. Complete this task and you'll pick up precursor orbs which can be used to unlock Morph gun upgrades, vehicle upgrades and various extras like Big Head mode, art galleries and cut-scene commentary. It's just too bad that the majority of these missions are of the "find this orb" variety. They tend to get old quickly and break up the momentum of the core plot. You're better off skipping most of these until the end, since you'll pick up enough orbs for critical upgrades as you follow the main story.
And this, after all, is the game's crown jewel. Previous games in the series have set the stage for a harrowing tale of against-all-odds-heroism, and the story in Jak 3 expounds on that well, including plenty of twists and a huge, unexpected surprise that fans will definitely be able to appreciate. And no, it's not just another portal-opening sequence like in the end of the original. It all comes together nicely and naturally leaves an opening for more'just in case.
Unfortunately, Jak 3 has a strange tendency to hold your hand, which is probably a response to general complaints about the last game's difficulty. Hints pop up occasionally, cluing you in to the next thing to do. For example, you're wandering along and pass by a wall you need to knock down to progress. Instead of letting you figure this out for yourself, a prompt comes up as you approach the wall to "press R1 while in Dark Jak form to perform a Dark Strike." It gets a little annoying and insults your gamer intelligence " especially since it's pretty obvious what needs to be done. It's a good thing that this doesn't happen too often, since it definitely detracts from the experience.
The audio and visual elements of the game remain top notch. The environments strike a middle ground between the bright colors of the first game and the muted, industrial look of the second. Considering the sheer enormity of the world, the lack of load times and generally smooth framerate and flow attests to smart programming. The character models are mostly unchanged, which is to say they are still very good. The voice actors continue to do a great job as well; Max Casella's Daxter delivers sweet comic relief.
Jak 3 puts on a good show and will no doubt please fans of the series. Though it sticks very closely to the franchise's formula and has a few flaws, the excellent story, great presentation and varied gameplay make this 'final' episode a good one.