First Look: Jak 3

Naughty Dog and Sony show off Jak and Daxter's latest adventure on the PlayStation 2.

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Hot on the heels of last year's impressive follow-up to the original Jak and Daxter, developer Naughty Dog is currently working on the third installment in the series. Simply titled Jak 3, the game will be the final chapter in the Jak and Daxter trilogy. While that may sound ominously final to fans of the series, don't sweat it. Jak 3 is just wrapping up the current story arc, which Naughty Dog always envisioned as a trilogy that started in the original game. Just because Jak 3 wraps up story elements from the first two games, it hardly means this will be the last we'll see of our unlikely pair of heroes. We had the chance to visit the Naughty Dog offices in sunny Southern California recently to hear what the seasoned developer has up its sleeve for the pointy-eared hero and his smart- talking companion.

Jak and Daxter are coming back to the PS2 to close out their trilogy.
Jak and Daxter are coming back to the PS2 to close out their trilogy.

So when we last saw our heroes everything seemed right in their world. Evil had been vanquished, the future and the past both appeared to be safe, and everyone involved learned valuable life lessons. While this would lead you to believe that Jak 3 opens up in a happy Disney-esque era of utopian prosperity, that's not quite what happens. The game opens up with an unpleasant banishment that will leave you wondering what the heck happened. Fortunately, a perfectly timed flashback brings you up to speed on current events. It appears that Metal Kor's defeat at the end of Jak II didn't magically solve every problem in the city. Unfortunately, the ensuing rush amongst the three major factions in the city to fill the power vacuum resulted in chaos that caused a plethora of problems. This has meant that the forces struggling to maintain order are a little testy--which leads us to our boy Jak, along with Daxter and Pecker, the monkey bird--being banished to the arid wastelands far from the city. While the opening cinema seems destined to end badly for our troupe as they wander through the wasteland and drop like flies from the heat, they are rescued by the other outcasts who have made a home for themselves in the rough desert. When the game starts you'll be proving Jak's worthiness to the chief by going through a series of trials.

Jak 3 starts with Jak II's gameplay and builds out from there.
Jak 3 starts with Jak II's gameplay and builds out from there.

We got a sense for how the gameplay in Jak 3 is shaping up, thanks to a surprisingly varied selection of levels to play. The team's enthusiasm for the project led them to make a whopping nine levels, playable in order, to let us get a feel for what to expect from the game. Generally speaking, Jak 3 does a lot of what Jak II did in terms of gameplay, in that it takes the bulk of its predecessor's mechanics and builds out. You'll start the game with all of Jak's core moves that will be enhanced as you progress. Jak will now have four different gun types that will have three levels of power. In addition to the original rifle from Jak II, you'll find a ricochet shot in a rifle that unleashes a burst of destruction in a 360-degree area around you. The ammo consumed by your weapons will vary according to the power level you choose to select as you fire. Jack's eco powers have been upgraded and his dark powers beefed up. Also, the inclusion of light eco powers offers an interesting change of pace as well as a striking physical change. When using his light powers Jak is transformed into an ethereal angel-like form complete with functional wings that let him glide for short stretches. He'll also be able to heal himself while in light eco form. The catch to these powerful new abilities is that, unlike the dark eco powers, Jak can't use them whenever he wants; instead, you'll find specific places in the game where you can power up your light eco abilities for one-time uses. You can also expect to see Jak's hoverboard, titan suit, and the addition of a hang glider and, more significantly, a number of vehicles you can drive that give the game a decidedly different feel.

Speaking a bit more specifically on Jak 3's gameplay, the nine playable levels show off old, new, and refined mechanics that handle pretty well. The first level demo is what you'll have to go through to prove yourself. The level is an obstacle course that performs double duty as a refresher on Jak's abilities. Once you've cleared that you'll end up battling against some grunts to show off your fighting prowess and bring you up to speed on combat and weapon usage. The next demo is set in the wasteland city where you are sent on a hunt for lizards (you have to find six of the spry critters). Thankfully, you're provided with a mount: Imagine a hairless tauntaun with some velociraptor thrown in, who is fast and eager for some snacks. The hunt sends you running through the desert city. The next demo offers a distinct Mad Max-style change of pace that puts you behind the wheel of a dune buggy-like vehicle in a timed sequence, sending you off to collect artifacts. The fast-paced segment shows off the impressive scale of the desert and the user-friendly vehicle mechanics. Car controls are basic, and you'll just have to worry about accelerating and braking (there is a hand brake thrown into the mix for some precision turning). You'll also have mounted guns on the car to deal with the packs of unfriendly marauders on the dunes.

The next two demos are set in a mine. You will find yourself making your way down into the bowels of a large complex. The segment shows off an interesting use for local animals in your travels: You'll power some bridges that let you access new areas by stunning ratlike creatures and placing their stunned bodies into a hamster wheel-style device. When they come to they'll run in the wheel and extend the bridge. The other part of the demo level is a very cool escort mission that has you trying to keep up with a moving train car loaded with explosives and shooting switches to shift tracks to give the train a clear path to its target. The next demo puts you in control of a spiderlike robot on a mission to take out a barricade in the city. Obviously, local forces aren't big on that happening, so you'll face some stiff opposition. Fortunately, your robot packs some nice firepower that helps make the demo a pleasing blast-a-thon. The next-to- last demo sends you on a trip through sewers; this is pretty challenging thanks to all kinds of collapsible walkways that require you to time your moves carefully or face a long and fatal drop. The final demo level is set in a forest where you can demolish the local wild life and man a turret.

Jak 3 will feature a new rendering engine designed specifically to handle the game's large desert environments.
Jak 3 will feature a new rendering engine designed specifically to handle the game's large desert environments.

The collection of levels gives a taste of the variety the team is aiming to give players in the game. While a lot of this may sound similar to what Jak II offered, the team is doing more than just offering more of the same. The gameplay in Jak 3 is being tweaked to address player concerns with Jak II's gameplay. In addition, the team is aiming to have Jak 3 continue to evolve Jak as a character and expand his colorful, albeit troubled world.

The graphics in the game are quite impressive and pack a considerable punch, despite the fact that the game doesn't boast quite the visual impact of its predecessor; although, Jak II was a massive improvement over the original game. The visuals certainly meet and exceed those seen in Jak II; however, Jak 3's visual impact relies on an impressive array of subtle and not-so-subtle additions to the graphics package. On the subtle side of things, the game is offering cleaner texture and some cool little details, such as tweaked lighting and particle effects, as well as cloth and rag-doll physics. A less subtle addition to the visuals is a new rendering engine created specifically to pump out the massive desert environment. The extra bit of work to create the environment has resulted in a dynamic desert that is more than just a pile of sand. Speaking of environments, Jak III will feature a mix of original settings as well as some familiar ones. However, don't expect to see much recycling going on in the game. While you'll see some locales from Jak II, they've all undergone some changes, thanks to the passage of time in the game.

The game's cutscenes are again done in real time and have a pleasing cinematic flair to them. As far as style goes, Jak 3 is an interesting beast as it retains a lot of Jak II's dark look and feel, but it manages to work in some lighter touches and some striking visual elements. For example, Jak's look has changed some--he's no longer as dark and broody as before, and the look and effects for his light eco power are very cool. The game still runs smoothly, even in its early state, which bodes well for its final incarnation.

Jak's dark eco powers are now joined by light ico powers, which have some pretty cool effects.
Jak's dark eco powers are now joined by light ico powers, which have some pretty cool effects.

The audio in the game is still quite a ways off from being final, but what we have heard so far stays pretty close to the approach taken in Jak II. You'll hear a liberal amount of voice and incidental music in the cutscenes as well as during gameplay. Daxter is still as chatty as ever, and there's also a good helping of ambient chatter.

From what we've seen so far, Jak 3 is shaping up to be an inspired closer to this chapter of Jak and Daxter's adventures. The unique story, improved graphics and gameplay, and polished presentation seem to be coming along very well. Based on what we played and saw, Jak 3 should be more than ready to carry on the franchise's legacy when it ships later this year. For more on the game, check out our exclusive video interview with some of the members of Naughty Dog crafting the game.

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