PlayStation 2 proved a haven for fans of platformers: Sony published no fewer than three outstanding platforming trilogies in Ratchet & Clank, Sly Cooper and Jak & Daxter. But while Insomniac’s already honoured Ratchet & Clank with a second PS3 trilogy of its own and Sly Cooper’s on the verge of a comeback courtesy of Sanzaru Games, Jak & Daxter’s had to make do with a couple of PSP spin-offs and a fleeting appearance in the flawed motion-controlled party title PlayStation Move Heroes.
The Jak & Daxter Collection, then, is an opportunity for the Dumbo-eared duo to shine, and while it doesn’t come with the promise of a HD reboot (yet), it does bundle three of PS2’s most loved titles on a single Blu-ray disc.
Developer Naughty Dog really made its name with the Uncharted series, but the studio has always been pretty dependable when it comes to quality releases. All three titles in the series prompted positive commercial and critical praise upon release, causing a generation of gamers to fall in love with witty dialogue and tightly designed platforming sandboxes.
The HD collection bundles the original outing with its two sequels – though there is no room for the series’ Combat Racing spin-off or either of the PSP releases. The exceptions make for a more consistent package, though obviously we’d have preferred to see all six titles make the cut. Still, few could argue with the value proposition that this collection ultimately provides. The compilation packs at least 40 hours of top-notch gameplay, and while there are certain elements of the series that haven’t aged particularly well, it still holds up as a memorable snapshot of PlayStation history.
Surprisingly, it’s the original title that fares the best of the trio. Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy amazed gamers and critics back in 2001 with its seamless hub of platforming districts and villages, and it remains impressive today. At its core, The Precursor Legacy is heavily inspired by likes of Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, with multiple collectibles dictating your progression through the plot.
Unlike the titles of the time though, The Precursor Legacy eschewed hub worlds and separate stages, keeping the action confined to one enormous world. As you explore the open world, you’ll happen upon districts designed around the staples of all great platformers; there’s an underwater level, a beach, a snow-capped mountain and more. It seems derivative by today’s standards, but the execution is so strong that any fleeting glimpses of creative bankruptcy are easy to overlook, the game packed with its own individuality.
The origins of Nathan Drake’s charming mannerisms shine through in every inch of Jak & Daxter’s presentation. The animation throughout the entire trilogy is outstanding, with the creative confidence growing with each new release. Personality oozes from each character’s face, with the tiniest of details lending humour and meaning to the most basic of exchanges. The writing is top notch throughout too, with exchanges between Daxter and the rest of the game’s cast prompting some of the most comical moments in games.
The series maintains its sense of humour throughout its maturation into Jak II: Renegade. The change in direction was divisive at the time, and it still proves a little jarring today — gone is the cute and colourful world of The Precursor Legacy, with a dark Blade Runner inspired sci-fi environment put in its place.
Naughty Dog tries hard to make the change in direction believable, but it all comes across as a bit cynical. Jak II launched about 12 months after Grand Theft Auto III conquered the world, and the influences of Rockstar’s crime epic shine through in everything the title does. As with its predecessor, the seamless nature of the game’s enormous open world is impressive, but navigation – on hover cars no less – feels imprecise by modern standards, and the game flow suffers as a result.
The change in tone also brings about some tweaks to the gameplay. While the core platforming remains, the now gruff Jak also gets a weapon early on in the campaign, allowing the character to take out foes with a swift shot to the face. Sadly the mechanics have not aged well at all, leaving you at the mercy of auto-aim rather than a manual targeting mechanic.
These faults play into Renegade’s biggest problem, which is that it is heinously difficult. The game was challenging upon its original release, but it is impenetrable by today’s standards: checkpoints are virtually non-existent, forcing you to replay lengthy missions multiple times if you succumb to the brutal AI or time limits. Furthermore, the game is packed with variety, but not all of it is good — racing, hoverboards, shooting galleries and escort missions all flesh out the campaign, but none of it is as fun as the core platforming which takes a back seat for much of the adventure.
Fortunately 2004’s Jak III manages to strike a slightly better balance. While Naughty Dog actually extends Renegade’s unnecessary variety, everything feels much more polished. Having explored everything from Tony Hawk to Grand Theft Auto in Renegade, Jak III’s biggest new addition pays homage to Twisted Metal. Various car combat stages see you taking to the game’s new desert environment and shooting out rogue racers, as well as taking on mammoth dinosaur creatures that put Shadow of the Colossus to shame. Naughty Dog’s ambition is so great that it even manages to combine car combat with platforming, with some stages putting you in control of a buggy that can jump and challenging you to hop across islands while taking out foes. The developer’s creativity is intoxicating but it lacks boundaries, and there are moments where the series feels unfocused as a result.
That said, when the series is content with being a platformer, it’s amongst the very best in its class. Jak is a refreshingly capable protagonist, with his move-set significantly bolstered by the conclusion of the third game in the trilogy. Hoverboards and special powers (such as the ability to slow down time) give the platforming plenty of variety, and do an impressive job of forcing you to experiment with all of the mechanics in order to reach the conclusion of the trilogy.
Visually, Mass Media’s done a stellar job of upgrading the PlayStation 2 originals for PS3. The lustre of HD remasters is starting to wear thin now that we’ve been privy to so many, but all three titles still look impressive. Jak III shines especially, and looks a generation apart from The Precursor Legacy, with the developer's technical understanding of the PS2 hardware resulting in some notable upgrades – particularly to the animation of the game’s lead protagonists.
Still, it’s a shame that the package doesn’t bundle any extras. A simple making of documentary or a couple of themes and avatars would have gone a long way to adding goodwill to the product, but there’s very little in the way of added value outside of the core games themselves.
If you’re keen to explore the origins of the Uncharted franchise, or you just want to revisit some of PS2’s most popular games, then the Jak & Daxter Collection is a worthy purchase. However, it’s worth noting that not every element of this classic series has aged gracefully, with Jak II’s impenetrable difficulty and unfocused design making it difficult to revisit from a modern perspective. Platforming fans would probably be better served by the more streamlined Sly Cooper Collection, but if you’ve already revisited Sucker Punch’s classic trilogy, and you’ve played Ratchet & Clank’s most recent outings, then this collection is your best option for classic platforming on PS3.