All revved up and nowhere to go.
Naughty Dog has rarely been generic. On the PSOne, Crash Bandicoot was jaunty and refreshing; Jak and Daxter brought the same qualities to the PS2, resulting in two successful sequels. But looking back, we really should have seen the kart coming. Naughty Dog took Crash to the track at the first opportunity; could we really have expected action star Jak to avoid the driver's seat forever?
So here's Jak X: Combat Racing, the fourth Jak release and the third game in which vehicles play a primary role. Make that the primary role; though Jak X uses cutscenes to tell a story with all the humor and intrigue we've come to expect from the series, all the platforming and third-person action elements have been stripped out. It's like someone left Jak 3 parked on the wrong street, and this was all that was left the next morning.
Luckily, the resultant hoopty still has enough gas to cross the finish line, proving that a healthy love for guns and cars can often overcome generally bad ideas. But it's another thing to fall back on your old mini-games, which is what Naughty Dog is really doing, and when it's all said and done, the only thing here that makes Jak X any better than the racing levels in the last game is its multiplayer.
We join Jak and Daxter shortly after the events of Jak 3. Together with a few other mercs, the duo is coerced (via secret poison) to compete in a combat racing tournament. The single-player game follows the story through twenty-four tracks, several arenas and many different races, most of which must be unlocked.
Variants include standard Circuit races, Turbo Dash (the fastest race, with points for earned extra boost), a Deathmatch race, free-roaming Arenas and Freeze Rally, in which players pick up tokens to stop the game clock in order to cross the line within a short time limit. Some of the race types feel newer than others, depending upon each player's experience with kart racers. But fans of the series will find little difference from the races in Jak 3; dedicating the game to racing hasn't made the cars better or more exciting, nor the engine more speedy.
Perhaps as a distraction, all races feature weapons, some of which are powerful enough to blow away great racing performance in a single shot. Leaving all opponents in the dust only to be taken out with a cheap shot is incredibly frustrating.
The antidote for that cheap shot is a clutch of defensive weapons, which are liberally sprinkled about each track. Not only can they take down unsuspecting enemies who might be catching up, they can often be deployed as a decoy to distract incoming fire. There may or may no be enough warning to accomplish this, however, and since only one can be carried at a time, players will rarely be able to stop a volley of unexpected shots.
Powerful weapons are made more so by the light weight of the game's vehicles. Cars get spun around like a Senate committee finding. In general, Jak X doesn't maneuver like an advanced racer. Spinning out is just a part of the game; sometimes it can be called powersliding, while at other times it happens when you're trying to escape another racer, taking a corner, or just rolling up the window.
Winning races results in medals and points, which unlock a bevy of extra stuff. There are new cars, parts for each auto, helmets and gear and eventually movies and 'bloopers'. Old Jak and Ratchet: Deadlocked saves bring on new racers as well. But with so many of the game's twenty-four tracks looking alike and little variation in the shoot and drive mechanic, the question is whether or not players will be determined enough to ferret out all the unlockables.
Jak X gets better when you stick more humans in the driver's seat(s). In offline split screen or online multiplayer (for up to six), the game performs well, and the unpredictable human element saves the otherwise generic gameplay. At that point, the decision between Jak X and the legion of competing racers comes down to a preference for the series' particular visual appeal.
Naughty Dog has generally taken care of that angle, at least. These races are smooth and largely free of the framerate and aliasing issues that plague many PS2 racers. In progressive scan mode, it's downright pretty. But more variation in the vehicles and a less drab palette would have pushed it up into Ratchet territory. At least we can enjoy the few free-ranging (and very hilly) arenas and the longer, twisting tracks.
After three games packed with at least twenty hours of consistently engaging platforming, action and driving, it's difficult to see Jak X as anything but an odd diversion. Even taken within the context of combat racers (as the title requests) there's little to make it stand out. Longtime fans may well get a kick out of the proceedings, if only for Daxter's banter, but racing enthusiasts are advised to proceed with caution.