When we last checked in with Jak and Daxter, it appeared the heroic duo had finally earned some quality downtime. The mystery of the precursor legacy, and Jak's role in it, had been sorted, and all seemed well. Of course, "happily ever after" doesn't really play well for fans looking for another adventure with the two heroes. Fortunately for players, and not so much so for Jak and Daxter, developer Naughty Dog scared up some trouble to drop them into. We got our first look at the upcoming game, dubbed Jak X: Combat Racing, which, as you'd guess from the title, finds the pair starring in a car combat game. Although the territory isn't unheard of for Naughty Dog--the developer made a kart racing game (starring Crash Bandicoot) for the original PlayStation back in the day--Jak X looks as though it's going to be a little harder to pigeonhole as a kart racer. Our time with a work-in-progress version of the game intrigued us, as Naughty Dog is managing to blend many of the aspects the franchise is known for with a solid racing model, resulting in a hybrid game that's looking sharp.
The story smartly draws on Jak lore for its setup and takes place roughly a year or so after Jak 3. Our two heroes are summoned to Kras City for the reading of the dearly departed Krew's will. It seems the villain that Jak dispatched in Jak II named the young hero in his last will and testament, presumably before Jak killed him. Upon arriving to the rough-and-tumble town, the pair reconnects with a plethora of familiar faces from their adventures (such as Keira). Apparently, many others have also been called for the reading. While there, Jak, in a sure-to-be-awkward moment, meets Krew's daughter, Rayn. A few unpleasant surprises in the story later, Jak and company find themselves racing for Team Krew.
From a structural standpoint, it looks as though Jak X won't be that different from the basic blueprint laid out by the previous entries in the series. The story that will detail the above events, in addition to Jak's escapades as a racer, will play out in nicely done cinematics (much like those found in Jak 3) that will pop up between action segments. These "action segments" are races. The races break down into several different types, such as circuit, death, deathmatch, and best time. You'll find 20 different tracks available, some based on areas we've seen in previous games and others that offer all-new glimpses at parts of Jak's world we've never seen. Each track will have different variations to spice things up as you go through the roughly 100 different events in the adventure mode.
Besides finding out more of the game's story, progressing through the game will help you unlock more content to use in the single- and multiplayer offerings. You'll wind up accessing the expected array of unlockable content, such as tracks, cars, characters, and the like. One unique side note to mention is Jak X's compatibility with an upcoming PSP game that focuses on Daxter. While the Naughty Dog reps on hand couldn't reveal too much, they did mention that the current plan is to have Jak X and the Daxter PSP game link up in some way (presumably through the PlayStation 2's USB port) and interact somehow, possibly unlocking more content in one game or in both.
In addition to the single-player adventure mode, Jak X comes packing a solid multiplayer mode that will let you play with friends both on- and offline. Offline you'll be able to compete with friends in split-screen races. You'll also be able to play split-screen with a friend when online, or you'll be able to play by yourself against up to five other players in six-player races (with smack talking via the PS2 headset). One of the many nice touches to the online mode is that you'll be able to customize your wheels to ensure your car is unique to you. Although the game offers more than 12 different types of vehicles to choose from, you'll be able to modify any of them to your liking. This extends beyond a solid amount of physical customization and extends to the engine, weapons, turbo, steering, and chassis. The only catch is that customization will hinge on both how much money you have to spend and what elements you've unlocked by racing. The online mode also feature two race types to keep things fair. Limited races require players to choose from the core set of cars, while unlimited races let you import your customized set of wheels.
Hit the Road, Jak
So how does Jak X handle? Well, if you're thinking Naughty Dog just dumped the racing mechanics seen in Jak 3 into the game, you'd be half right. Obviously, the fun driving model from the last game has been drawn on for Jak X. However, the team has gone back and done some tinkering to give it a bit more depth. If you played Jak 3, you'll notice physics are more prominent in Jak X, forcing you to be more careful in your racing. The game has also incorporated a power-up system based around the eco system in the series, which adds strategy to the mix. Over the course of a race, you'll come across five types of colored eco that yield good stuff for you when you race over it. Green eco restores your car's "health." Blue eco fills your turbo meter, enabling you to get some impressive speed boosts during a race, which are often key to victory. Yellow eco arms your car with a randomly selected forward-firing weapon, while red eco coughs up a rear-firing weapon. While you can pick up both as you race, you'll only be able to hold one weapon in the forward slot and one weapon in the rear slot.
The last eco type, dark, actually lets you power up your weapon, resulting in much-more-powerful shots. The weapons in the work-in-progress version we played offered a good sampling of the types of armament the game is going for. You can expect to see rockets, explosives, oils slicks, and a number of other standard weapons on offer. There's a bit of depth to the arms, and a countermeasure system will give you a chance to ward off incoming attacks. In addition, Naughty Dog is throwing in some surprises in your arsenal that will play off of aspects of the previous games.
We were able to try several levels in single-player and online multiplayer to see how the gameplay is coming along, and we're pleased to report that, for the most part, development is headed in a positive direction. The game handles well, and the weapon color coding keeps racing and fighting nicely accessible. The physics and camera were a little twitchy in places, but Naughty Dog reps were quick to point out that the game is very much a work in progress at this point. The different track and race types we tried showed off a good amount of variety in the experience, which should ensure that Jak X will keep you engaged as you go through the meaty single-player offering. This also holds true for the multiplayer, as the different race types and the opportunity to show off your pimping ride should keep you coming back regularly to school folks online.
The graphics are an evolution of the racing segments seen in Jak 3. The core graphics engine has been tweaked to pump out vast environments, which are chock-full of detail, at a speedy frame rate. The actual design of the levels reigns in some of the more ambitious aspects of the driving areas in Jak 3 to give them a more racetrack-like structure. Although it doesn't appear that you'll be able to roam anywhere you like (much like you could in Jak 3), the tracks still have a nice wide-open feeling to them. In addition, the various tracks will be spruced up by the use of a pretty extensive spread of special effects and lighting thrown in to glam things up and keep Jak X looking as flashy as its predecessors.
Jak X's audio doesn't offer many new surprises at this point. Which is to say that it looks as though the game is going to stick closely to the high standards set by the previous iterations. The voice acting is well done and features the crew from the previous entries in the series. The music we've heard is a good complement to the racing action, as are the sound effects.
As we mentioned earlier, racing games aren't anything new for the Naughty Dog posse. In addition to Crash Team Racing, the last two Jak games have had their fair share of racing sequences, culminating in the nicely done sequences in Jak 3, which should ensure Jak X will feature a well-done racing model. The presence of a strong story in the adventure mode should play to Naughty Dog's narrative strengths, while the racing mechanics refine the elements that have been evolving with the series. The online multiplayer component appears to be hitting all the right notes--in terms of features and functionality--so far, which is good to see. Jak X is currently slated to ship this fall for the PlayStation 2, so look for more on the game next month at E3 and in the months leading up to its release.