The Jak and Daxter Trilogy Review
Reviewed on Sony PS Vita
There are many classic franchises that gamers look back on fondly, and as ever younger gamers supplant ever grumpier old farts (like me), new franchises enter that wonderful world of nostalgia. The Jak and Daxter series is one of these; debuting in 2001 with the impressively titled Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, Naughty Dog’s first game for the PlayStation 2. An impressive platformer, Jak and Daxter was followed by the less-platformy-but-more-shooty-with-racing sequels Jak II: Renegade in 2003 and Jak 3 in 2004 (Naughty Dog had given up by then on expositional names evidently). All three were released as an HD collection for the PS3 last year and it seems almost natural that Sony would push for one of their exclusive franchises to hit the Vita – although it seems as though it wasn’t an easy port.
As soon as you boot up The Precursor Legacy the Vita’s issues are evident. The first couple of areas, Geyser Rock and the start of Sandover Village especially, demonstrate significant framerate drops to the point where you’ll consider whether it is worth continuing with the game. After these areas the framerate, while still lower than the PS3 release, does seem to stabilise at least. However, these issues are exacerbated by any camera movement you may make with the right analogue stick, as every time you go to swing the camera around the game creaks to a juddering stutter. It’s not quite the port disaster that Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault was but having to train yourself to play a game and only move the camera when absolutely necessary is hardly the most ideal of situations.
If you stick with the game then the platforming has aged well, with each area offering various levels of challenge as you make your way around jumping over and onto stuff, finding collectables and so forth. The double jump mechanic can seem quite temperamental at first, but once you nail the short input window for registering the second jump (and try not to do anything silly like move the camera while jumping...) you’ll be leaping around like a pro. It’s sad to say though that there are some unfortunate incidents later in the game where some of the harder platforming sequences are made even more difficult by the appearance of a bug at the spinny pole jumps; there seems to be a slight chance whenever you jump on these that instead of spinning around giving you obvious visual cues on when to jump that Jak will instead get stuck in his grabbing animation and seem to hang there limply. This leaves you to just hit the jump button at random and hope that Jak leaps in the right direction – if not, back to the start of that whole section for you!
Jak II is chalk to The Precursor Legacy’s cheese, both in terms of gameplay and port quality. The game has always been considered to be somewhat of a marmite offering, with platforming abandoned as the main game focus with gunplay, racing and hoverboard missions given equal footing. Also new is the sandbox setting of Haven City, and as many other commentators have pointed out over the years the success of GTA III was a clear influence here. The problem is though that Haven City just isn’t a fun sandbox to play around in, instead offering only an annoying setting to drag yourself through every time a mission requires it. The game is also crushingly hard at times, with the lack of decent (or indeed any) checkpoints in the majority of the missions causing far too much unnecessary pain along with many many restarts. Even so, there is something about the game that drags you in – mission completions are met with relief rather than euphoria and you’ll grimace at any mission that requires you to get into a vehicle, but in all likelihood you will keep booting the game up just to progress that little bit farther.
In terms of port quality Jak II blows the first one out of the water here with a much better framerate and a usable camera (albeit one that you can’t swing up and down). If you make it to the end of the game there are some annoying framerate issues in Haven City during a particularly busy event, and the last few missions seem to have a disposition to bugging out and cutting out your sound, or breaking the options menu and leaving you unable to save or load, or (and this was my favourite) even dumping you in the hoverboard arena when you fail a particular mission. More annoying than these localised problems however are the rear touchpad controls implemented for some of the shoulder and L2/R2 commands. These seem fairly unresponsive with smaller than expected activation areas, and yet they can still trigger themselves when you don’t need them at the slightest brush. The commands assigned there aren’t minor ones either – functionality includes the Dark Jak transformation (evilish combat mode), hoverboard on/off and driving zone transition. The last one there makes city driving even more incredibly painful, and the amount of times you’ll crash into something while spamming the rear touchpad trying desperately to get your hover car to move up or down will shock you.
The last game in the Jak and Daxter Trilogy is, of course, Jak 3 – and has anyone else noticed how Naughty Dog grew progressively lazier in naming invention as they developed these? While Jak 3 keeps the open world stylings of II Naughty Dog evidently listened to their fans; the difficulty feels toned down and there are even Shock! Horror! some checkpoints during most of the missions. Additional features (such as desert sandcars! Which you can drive while being continually shot at by ever-respawning marauders! Yey!) have been squeezed into the game, but the most welcome addition surely is the fact that Daxter himself becomes controllable at relevant points in the story. Jak 3 is really the first game that this loveable little ottsel comes into his own, and he manages to steal most of the cutscenes he appears in too. Quality-wise Jak 3 is the best looking of the lot on the Vita’s screen, and the rear touchpad seems to be more responsive than it was in II – although the ‘hold touchpad and hit a button’ implementation of Jak’s light powers feels more difficult than it should. There are a few minor bugs throughout the game, such as black screening when you expect to hit a mini cutscene, but these do seem to only crop up if you have had the game running for a long time with the Vita in standby mode.
Moving away from the games themselves, it’s a disappointment that there is a lack of cross save ability between this Vita release and the earlier PS3 collection. Maybe we have just become accustomed to being spoiled by these Sony initiatives, but this feels like a real omission, especially as a digital Vita purchase counts as cross buy and will net you the PS3 version as well. You can’t allow yourself to get too upset about these things, but due to the sheer volume of cross save games that the Vita seems to be getting you can’t help but glance at your TV churlishly when you gain control of the living room and want to move your Jak action onto the big screen.
One of the most fantastic elements of the ongoing slew of HD remakes is the ability to travel back through time and revisit old favourites, an element made all the more impressive when you can play those favourites on a handheld. In these modern days of self-entitlement and unrealistic expectations we sometimes need to give ourselves a good slap and then go back and show our younger selves this voodoo magic of playing major console releases on a device that fits in your (big) pocket. Even so, if we dared to do that with the Vita’s Jak and Daxter Collection we would most likely laugh at ourselves and the janky juddering of the first game matched with the touchpad finger gymnastics of the second and third. The sad truth is that while the trilogy is more than playable on the Vita this collection is not the definitive version, and if you have the choice and the inclination you would be far better off playing these on the PS3.