Sony's first attempt at an original platformer on the PlayStation 2 was Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, a Mario-influenced fantasy built around the adventures of the two titular heroes. Though the two subsequent games in the series were more action-influenced, they were certainly created in the same vein, weaving the familiar characters and story into new adventures. Although Jak X: Combat Racing is the fourth installment in the Jak and Daxter franchise, it, as the name implies, leaves its platforming roots completely in the dust and favors a number of different modes that centralize around...well, combat and racing. Though a turn from all of the series' games to date, Jak X still manages to infuse the same style of exposition and tale telling into between-race cinematics and in-game banter. Naughty Dog does a good job of tying all the pieces together, especially across two completely different genres; however, a few elements of gameplay aren't as strong as they were in the platform iterations. Jak X is a fun combat-racing game; the story will appeal to fans of the franchise, and there are a lot of cool secrets and unlockables. But there are some functional drawbacks--especially noticeable in the later levels--that prevent this game from being truly excellent.
Despite the complete genre change, the story in Jak X picks up shortly after the previous game in the series. This time, Jak and Daxter have been summoned to Kras City for the reading of Krew's will. You might remember Krew as the thug lord who doled out a number of missions in Jak II, and who had to be defeated toward the end of the game. As is evidenced by the opening premise, you will spend a lot of time dealing with story that picks up from the three previous games in the franchise. You won't need to have played any of the games to be able to appreciate what's going on, but you will probably miss a ton of innuendo and self-references if you haven't. Gathering to hear the will's reading are a number of familiar faces, including Sig and Ashelin, as well as new ones, such as Krew's daughter, Rayn. At the will reading, everyone toasts and drinks a vintage wine that is, unsurprisingly, poisoned at Krew's request. The hologram of Krew that serves as the will then lays down the challenge. If one of the people present can win the upcoming Kras City Grand Championship race in his name, they'll all be presented with the antidote, and he will have fulfilled his dying wish. Of course, what doesn't quite make sense is that you will all be racing against each other and hurting each other, instead of working together to ensure that at least one of the team wins. Other than this small detail, the story is consistent and surprisingly deep for a racing game. After many of the races and all of the major ones, you'll be treated to a cinematic, whether it's a group meeting to discuss the race events, a challenge from one of the competitive teams, or an interview with the championship's annoying TV representative, G.T. Blitz.
Though the story plays a fundamental role both in making the game cohesive in and of itself and in tying the rest of the games together, the crux of the gameplay is in the races. The main single-player mode is the adventure mode, which allows you to compete in four different cups, consisting of 20 different competitions each. Limited races are available at the start, but as you win medals and earn one, two, or three points, respectively, for bronze, silver, and gold finishes, additional tracks and challenges unlock. Aside from earning medals, you also accumulate points based on the different accomplishments of your race, such as the number of enemies taken down or the length of your longest drift, which can be used to purchase car upgrades, new vehicles, and a number of different goodies from the secret shop.
In a standard race, you'll come across the threat of other racers and various obstacles within the environment. Most of the environmental challenges are simply the twists and turns of the track, although a few levels have more immediate threats, such as giant rolling snowballs or lava. There are four types of eco that can be collected from the track. Green and blue eco are used to replenish your car's health and to give you turbo boosts, respectively. Red eco is responsible for the weapons that you shoot out of the back of the car, and yellow for the forward projectiles. Weapons that you drop behind you include oil slicks, mines, stationary turrets, and attack drones. One of the best tactical maneuvers is to drop your rear weapon once you've been targeted; if timed correctly, generally it will deflect all incoming attacks. Forward projectiles include homing missiles, grenades, and the all-encompassing and destroying supernova.
Since you can hold on to the boosts and both of the weapons to fire at your own discretion, there is a fair amount of strategy to employ during any given race. In the earlier levels, the races feel a bit like a lesser version of Burnout, and as you cause crashes, the camera will cut away to a slow-motion view of the crash. You can get away without braking and simply power-slide around corners, turboing out of the power slide to ensure that you're coming away with the most speed. However--and this is what's most noticeable in the races--the competitors are all always extremely close by. No matter how well you've played the race, it's pretty much a guarantee that at your first crash or flip-over, you'll be passed by at least three or four racers. This is sure to keep you on your toes, and once you're familiar with the game, you'll typically be able to gain that lead back again soon. But this shows that many races depend on the timing of your last crash. So if you run a perfect race, but take a dive right before the finish line, chances are that you're not going to win. As the levels get more difficult, this just becomes worse, and in the final cup, you'll feel like some of those wins had more to do with chance than with the skill you've earned by racing through the three previous cups.
Though the game is extremely smooth, the automatic respawn of the car always flashes to a pitch black screen for a moment, which is so jarring, it looks like it's a bug of some sort. To further agitate the situation, cars that are deemed better by the game aren't, necessarily. Winning the first two cups will let you unlock level-two and three cars, which have better statistics regarding the engine, gearbox, armor, and turbo capacity. They'll also have more empty slots, which you can fill by purchasing additional points in these categories. But having a more fully upgraded vehicle does not make it necessarily better, and you'll find that not only are the higher level cars more rickety, they aren't noticeably much faster than the lower classes. Once you figure this out, you'll probably race all the final cup races with a level-two car, wondering why you bothered to purchase all the upgrades and additional vehicles in the first place.
Of course, one of the best things about Jak X's adventure mode is that not all of the races are, in fact, races. The variety and uniqueness of the game's different challenges are one of its greatest strengths. There are more than 10 different modes in total, and most of them can be played in either the single-player or multiplayer events. Throughout the story, you'll come across many instances of Turbo Dash, a challenge that tasks you to collect and use up more turbo pickups than your opponents within a time limit. In Death Race, there are no competitive racers on the track, but merely a bunch of yellow dummy cars, and your objective is to take down as many as possible by either running into them or shooting them with your weapons. Most of the races that require you to tally scores like this give you a bonus, depending on what lap of the track you're on. As you complete laps, the lap counter acts like a multiplier; on the third lap, one kill counts for three. This encourages you to keep moving forward, quickly, and it works extremely well in the context of the game. There are also a few different challenges that must be performed on the circular arena levels, including capture, a capture-the-flag mode, and sport hunt, a race to kill more game than any of your competitors.
There are 24 different tracks and seven arenas, with the potential to unlock mirrored races through the secret shop. Despite the variety, many of the straight races feel familiar, and since almost all of them are available during all four cups, you don't get the sense that you're progressing forward to new levels--merely different areas in the same environment. That being said, the tracks are very well designed, and some of them are extremely long, which makes the races interesting, even if they are often familiar.
Though vehicle customization isn't necessary, you will unlock a fair number of accessories over the course of the single-player game, and it's fun to see how drastically your vehicle changes as you put new parts on. The racers are all essentially different-shaped buggies--some sleeker and closer to the ground, while others are bulkier and more fierce looking. The parts unlock automatically as you win races, and you can go into the garage to switch around the side panels, trunk, hood, rear panels, and wheels on your car. Unlike in tuning the car's performance, these accessories are merely for appearance, which means, among other things, that they damage and fall off your car as you crash on the track. The car's main color and stripe color can also be adjusted using a full color wheel. As you get more points from racing, you'll find helmets and accessories (like pink fuzzy dice) in the secret shop, which you can add to your car as well, giving you the opportunity to create a unique-looking vehicle. Overall, the game looks stellar. The cinematics are filled with the same rich, animated expressions that classically adorn Jak and Daxter's faces, and the races have a fair amount of detail. Aside from the aforementioned pieces falling off the car as you race, you'll be treated to particle effects of all sorts, including the lava that sends flames up your wheels, and the way in which the game's numerous weapons affect the vehicles. And even when the action gets hectic, the game still maintains a smooth frame rate.
The music and sound effects are equally well done. The many different racers make comments as they inflict damage or get hit by other competitors, and on occasion it's too much, but for the most part, there's a nice balance of the roaring sounds of the vehicles, the pops and whizzes of the weapons, and the character voice-overs. Actor Max Casella still does the voice of Daxter, and he pulls off Daxter's silly lines with ease and humor. Aside from some generic rock music that plays during the races and menu screens, there are two tracks from Queens of the Stone Age in the game's intro movie.
Once you've acquired 100-percent completion in the adventure mode by winning a gold medal on every race, a new difficulty called hero mode unlocks. You can then play through the game again, under this new challenge, but unless you're a Jak completist, there's little reason to go through it all again. The better alternative is to continue racing on tracks you've already beaten, acquiring further points so that you can raid the secret shop. There are many different things to get in the secret shop, from additional cars and characters to movies that show bloopers, the making of, and one involving a particularly hot beverage, Jak-and-Daxter-style. You'll also be able to unlock additional racers if you have saves of Jak 1-3, Ratchet Deadlocked, or an attached PSP with the upcoming game Daxter in it.
The single-player is fairly long if you're going for the gold, but it has the tendency to get repetitive if you're in for extended sessions of gameplay. The way to get a little variety is to hop into the offline two-player split-screen multiplayer or the online up-to-six-player multiplayer. Not all of the races can be done by split-screen, but for an added bonus, you can take two players online with the same PS2 and play together if the race type allows. The multiplayer is merely an extension of the single-player modes, letting you play each of them against any number of CPU or human opponents. The action is nice and smooth, and you can communicate with other players via headsett, or text chat when in the game lobbies. The online also tracks your overall stats and lets you have buddy lists and clans of your own design. Depending on the setting chosen by the host, you can either all use the same-level cars or bring one of your customized cars into the arena. The online really adds a lot to the overall package, giving it some replay value long after you've completed the solo races.
Jak X: Combat Racing does a good job of moving an existing franchise into an entirely new genre. Though there are some problems with the single-player artificial intelligence in the later levels, there is an overwhelming amount of value from the multiplayer modes and unlockable options. Fans of the series will be treated to a continuation of the story, including memorable sound bites like Daxter's "Dude that was sooo last adventure (in stores now)!" Chances are that you'll get more out of the combat modes than the racing ones, but there is enough variety to keep you appeased for quite some time. Though it may have once seemed like an unlikely pairing to move such a strong platforming duo into the racing genre, for the most part, it has turned out to be a memorable compilation.