I’m sticking to my guns.
I have to say I have watched with awe over the past week at the number of review sites that have hurriedly released reviews on The Jak & Daxter Trilogy, having clearly not played the games through and being quick to mark the port down due to it’s non-HD visuals and slightly choppy framerate. Having played through the games myself I have to admit I find some of these scores a little baffling. Many of the reviews I have read cry out against Jak because it doesn’t run at 60fps like it’s Playstation 3 brother and that the visuals are “too muddy”. Let me lay this to bed once and for all. The Playstation Vita, try as it might doesn’t and never will have the horsepower of a Playstation 3 under it’s hood. Moreover the Playstation 2 was a notoriously difficult and complicated machine to develop for (let alone emulate). Many are forgetting that here we have one of the best, if not the best platform trilogy of the PS2 era all in just over 3GB of space (or on card if you bought a retail copy). Not only is it a slice of history, it’s a truly joyful thing that the advances in modern technology allow us to not only replay the series on the go, but also to gain three platinum trophies for under twenty quid. For the benefit of our readers I am going to dedicate the first section to the story and the second to the port and how well it has been handled before drawing conclusion, so if you have experienced the games before now you’re not trundling over information you already know.
After the worldwide of success of the PSOne, aided by exclusives such as Final Fantasy, Spyro the Dragon and of course Naughty Dog’s own Crash Bandicoot franchise, the Playstation 2 launched in November 2000 amidst delays due to the adoption of the DVD format, the console also had a wealth of competition from the XBox, Gamecube and Dreamcast. Luckily first party exclusives helped to save the day and with the generational leap Naughty Dog sold the Crash Bandicoot IP and developed the now well known Jak & Daxter series. The first title shows it’s age and influence the most and yet today it’s still as fun to play as it was in 2001. The story is actually pretty thin but it doesn’t really matter; Jak is a mute in the first title and his friend Daxter falls into a vat of dark eco (a dangerous, tar-like substance) and in doing so he transforms into the ottsel (half otter, half weasel) the series is known for. In seeking help from the Green Sage Samos it soon becomes clear that the only way to turn Daxter back is to reach the Dark Sage Gol (who is conveniently miles away). Gol can only be reached by collecting Precursor Orbs and Power Cells. To pass each world Samos’ daughter has a Zoomer but it can only be powered with Power Cells and so the quest takes place. Many of the residents of each area of the game have Power Cells but most either need paying with Precursor Orbs or have a specific requirement such as pushing a giant egg off a cliff or beating a lap time in the zoomer course. The first game alone will set the average player back 10-15 hours if everything is collected and all 101 Power Cells the game has to offer are rounded up. The game has two endings, the latter of which can only be achieved by 100% completion as there is a Precursor Door that needs (you guessed it) 101 Power Cells to activate. The first Jak game broke new grounds in video gaming as it was the first title ever to have a connected world from start to finish. The only loading screen you ever see is the initial one when you boot the game up and this still impresses even today. It gives a sense of immediacy and a completeness to the world which really helps bring things to life. Each area within the game has a central village where a sages hut lies and several paths branch out to each area within the world. While these are generic areas in design (Swamp, Snowy Mountain, Volcanic Crater etc.) each area is massive with so much to see and do it can easily take upwards of an hour to finish a level. Naughty Dog has always been a master of level design and here it really shows; the environments are varied with precarious jumps, moving platforms and poles as well as a wide variety of area specific enemies which makes every moment a complete joy to play. Combat is melee only in the first Jak game and it’s a much more grass-roots platformer than the two sequels. It’s a pure experience that controls brilliantly and is begging to be explored.
Two years later and Jak has grown up immensely. Never a studio that slouches in execution Naughty Dog cleverly realised that traditional platformers were rapidly losing popularity to the gritty, grey realism that PS2 titles often featured. Following on directly from the first title story-wise, Jak II starts with the opening of the Precursor Door from the previous game into which you are pulled to a completely different world. Jak is immediately arrested and subsequently tortured with dark eco for two years before he is found by Daxter (who managed to slip away and avoid being arrested). It turns out that the dystopian world of Haven City is run by an evil dictator Baron Praxis and the aim of Jak II is to overthrow Praxis and restore harmony to the world. Baron Praxis is in league with the Metal Heads who are a race of beasts that like killing anything they can. The majority of Jak II is spent completing missions for the rebel movement that works against Praxis and has a much darker, grittier tone. Haven City is a huge and bustling environment which is littered with people and hover-vehicles and really feels alive. Security forces are also heavily prevalent and will attack you should you do anything naughty. With this huge departure from the first title, platforming still plays a role but four weapons are introduced as well as much more variety in terms of action, races and even a hoverboard skate park. It’s worth noting that whilst the second title makes lots of changes it’s not perfect and it can be a chore travelling great distances from mission to mission. Luckily a minimap is introduced which helps avoid confusion but the pacing sometimes is still a little off. It’s also much harder than the first title and can be a little frustrating but occasions where you feel cheated in death are rare. Precursor Orbs appear in Jak II but are simply used for unlocking secrets and are fairly rare and harder to find. It’s a longer game than the first and you can expect to play for around 20-25 hours if you’re not using a guide when trying to find every Precursor Orb.
Continuing the story Jak III takes off from where the second title finished. Banished from Haven City at the end of Jak II, Jak III takes place in the Wasteland desert and has you completing tasks for Damas the king of the desert with the aim of being allowed back into Haven City. The metal heads in the second game were not destroyed and in order to save Haven City you have to win Damas over and help the Freedom League regain control over the city. I’m not going to reveal any more on the story as there are twists and turns which make it the strongest in the series but suffice to say the climax towards the end really is enthralling and Naughty Dog’s story telling abilities are shown off here. Further powers are introduced in the third game as Light Jak becomes available and can provide you with defensive capabilities. There is once again a heavy emphasis on driving and combat in Jak III with further weapons introduced and many driving missions. Being set in the desert Jak III is a little bit more colourful in the environments, and some of those featured in Jak II are once again featured here. As the majority of the game takes place outside of the city there is less running miles from point to point which makes the pacing feel far better than the second offering. The variety makes the game such a joy to play that Jak III is probably the best game in the series and again it will probably take 20 hours to unlock everything (precursor orbs appear again as collectables).
How the Vita Versions Play
So how is the port handled? Well I have to admit, initial impressions were not that great. Perhaps it’s due to the wide open spaces and lots of foliage but the framerate of the first title is actually worse than in Jak II which is odd considering the graphical advancements the sequel made. I’d guesstimate that the framerate tops out at 30 occasionally but more frequently is found hovering at about 25fps. It’s certainly not a smooth experience and the framerate does sometimes dip to around 20 but it’s certainly not game destroying like many have reported. If you played GTA3 on the PS2 you will have a good idea of how the framerate flows; it never hurt GTA3 and it doesn’t really hurt here either. While it’s immediately noticeable and does take a little bit of adjusting to it doesn’t impact gameplay at all, save for a couple of moments where loads of enemies appear at once (which are very infrequent). The controls cross over to the Vita extremely well and the analog sticks provide easily enough precision to manage the most precarious of jumps. The camera can be a little bit annoying but that’s more of a complaint of the original rather than the port. As there are no guns in the first title the lack of second shoulder buttons isn’t an issue here, with the back touch pad only being pressed to check your stats. Everything else is mapped to the buttons and there are even a couple of places where you can use the touch screen if you wish. It’s a requirement for a couple of the trophies and luckily is handled well despite feeling a little tacked on and unnecessary. The shooting eco in the swamp section is particularly frustrating as using the touch screen to fire whilst aiming with the analog stick is a little fiddly but as it isn’t overdone it’s fairly easy to accept. The game does suffer from what I’m guessing is a slightly reduced resolution as there are some fairly extreme jaggies (especially on the character models) but the skill which Naughty Dog has in character animation and personality helps charm you into not minding. The animation and lip synching is still top notch even by todays standards and whilst the character models are much less detailed than in the sequels, the colourful and cartoony art style means the game looks quite nice even now. No, it’s not HD but the environments are so well designed and characterful that it’s still a nice game to look at.
As I’ve said before the framerate in Jak II is better which is rather baffling given the fact that there is often lots of NPC’s on screen (not to mention the hovercraft and higher environmental detail). There have been reports that the graphics look muddy but I have to be honest and say I haven’t seen anything like this. The character detail is ramped up considerably and jaggies are less noticeable in Jak II so my guess is it’s running at native res. Control is again fantastic with no problems with precision at all. Four corners of the back touch pad are used in place of the extra shoulder buttons and for the most part it works. The area that you have to press to activate dark Jak, jump on your hoverboard and so forth are placed towards the middle so your fingers touching the edges of the touch pad don’t activate them. This works well for me as I have fairly small hands but people with bigger hands may not fare quite as well. Because the back touch pad is sensitive there were also several occasions where I’d put the Vita down on my lap and accidentally activate dark Jak which was a bit annoying. Otherwise though things run mostly smoothly. The game can slow down fairly considerably during heavy sections such as those in the city when you are being shot at by security troops but again I never actually found it disrupted gameplay.
Jak III is something of an oddity…it seems to have the benefits of Jak II with the drawbacks of the first. Again, detail is fine and as ever character models are clear as well as environmental detail, but the game suffers from slowdown similarly to the first Jak title. It is a bit frustrating as with a little more polish The Jak & Daxter Trilogy could have been a shining example of a port on a platform where it feels such a perfect fit. The framerate issues that are prevalent and well documented really don’t hurt the game that much in my opinion as there’s nothing game breaking and half the time you will be having so much fun it’s easy to ignore. There’s nothing as punishingly bad as the framerate in Ratchet QForce / FFA however it’s a shame that things aren’t smoother. I personally really hate a bad framerate but due to the subject matter and the nature of the gameplay for the most part it really isn’t that noticeable and at £19.99 I really wouldn’t consider it a reason to skip these classics. If you really, really can’t stand the framerate drops there may be a patch released at a later date but as it is this is still incredible value for money and is as fun and engaging as it is rewarding. It’s a shame I have to mark the trilogy down as without the issues I mentioned this could have been a 9.5 or even a 10 but as it is it’s solid enough set of ports that disappoints a little and rarely astounds. The variety, attention to detail, humour, story and wealth of content here are more than enough reason to pick up the trilogy and I hope the negative press so far received doesn’t damage sales too much as I for one am hoping we’ll be able to play The Sly Collection and Ratchet & Clank Trilogy before the end of the year. If you’re on the fence and bought the PS3 version on the Playstaton Store then the Vita version is actually free as the cross-buy initiative is in play here (though buying the boxed versions doesn’t include cross-buy and neither versions support cross-save/crossplay for some reason). The PS3 version is obviously the better package but the Vita version is nowhere near as shabby as people are making it out to be and is definitely worth a look. You won’t find more content for such a great price and reliving this classic trilogy is truly a joy.