Jak and Daxter Preview
The creator of Crash Bandicoot has struck out on its own to develop a free-roaming 3D platformer for the PlayStation 2. Read our hands-on report on the latest version of the game.
After the Crash Bandicoot series came under fire for a lack of innovation, Naughty Dog, the creator of the franchise, decided it was time to move on. Keeping its next project shrouded in secrecy, the development house waited until E3 2001 to unveiled the game in full. Called Jak and Daxter, Naughty Dog's secret game turned out to be an extension of what the company created with the Crash franchise. But instead of creating a 3D platformer on rails similar to the Crash games, Naughty Dog decided to allow its new character free movement, thus firmly planting it in the age of modern 3D games.
The characters in Jak and Daxter would be right at home in a Disney cartoon. They don't look overly Japanese, but their big eyes and exaggerated features make sure that they will appeal to more than just North Americans. Like most games in its genre, Jak and Daxter has a relatively simplistic plot. At the game's outset, Daxter falls into a pool of liquid and is transformed into a ferret. Jak, a blonde-haired ruffian with a pair of goggles perched on his head, places Daxter on his shoulder and sets out to find the local sage, who holds the power to transform Daxter back into his human form.
The Japanese demo that was handed out at the Tokyo Game Show includes just one playable level, and it happens to be the very first level in the game, Sentinel Beach. The level is set on an island, complete with rock alcoves, burning torches, a huge carnivorous fish, and plenty of wooden suspension bridges. The objectives in the level are scattered throughout the terrain, but figuring out what needs to be done isn't overly difficult. As in most 3D platformers, there is a plethora of objects to be collected. The primary object that needs to be collected in Jak and Daxter is called the eco orb. Like stars in Super Mario 64 or jiggies in Banjo-Kazooie, eco orbs are awarded to the player for completing primary objectives. In Sentinel Beach, there are eight eco orbs to collect. One eco orb is awarded for surviving a battle royal with well over 20 enemies, another is awarded for reaching the top of log chute, and several more are garnered by piloting a hover bike on the island's surrounding water. Health-replenishing yellow orbs are awarded for destroying crates and enemies. Jak's health meter is made up of three sections, and if an enemy strikes Jak, he will lose one of the three sections. Each section can then be replenished by collecting 50 yellow orbs. This can make the game a bit difficult at times, as it only takes a few solid hits to send Jak to his doom. Other important items to collect are electricity orbs. Once Jak collects one, he is able to run faster and jump higher for a limited amount of time. While powered-up, Jak can also stand on context-sensitive pads and trigger special events that will change the structure of the level in some way or give him enhanced abilities. After you complete each level, you are rewarded with power cells. The power cells are then used to start vehicles that will take Jak and Daxter to the next playable level. Numerous minigames pop up occasionally, such as a simplistic fishing game that plays similarly to Kaboom! and several portions of the game where you must fire a cannon with precision.
Jak and Daxter may seem like a carbon copy of Banjo-Kazooie, but it's actually a bit simpler to play. Where you could learn more than 30 different moves in Rare's popular 3D platforming series, controlling Jak is relatively easy. Jak will perform a double jump if you press the jump button again once he's in the air, a spiraling uppercut if you hold the R1 button and then press the square button, and a high jump if you hold the R1 button and then press the X button. He can also perform the prerequisite butt-stomp that is found in most 3D platforming games. One of the few facets of Jak and Daxter's gameplay that alerts the player to the game's Naughty Dog heritage is the inclusion of Crash Bandicoot's patented spin attack. It's the most effective attack at your disposal, and if you collect a fire orb, you can increase both the range and effectiveness of the attack. Most moves beyond this basic list are awarded later in the game or are context-sensitive. If you go into the water, Jak will begin to swim. If you jump for a horizontal pole, Jak will grab onto it and swing around it.
In Sentinel Beach, there are several points where you must perform a butt-stomp on a seesaw-type apparatus with a rock on one end. After you perform the butt-stomp on the seesaw, the rock on the other end will fly into the air. When the rock falls back down, Jak is propelled into the sky by the lever's action. Jak also gains the ability to fire projectiles after he has collected the proper orb later in the game. Sadly, you cannot control Daxter at any point in the game. The small rodent is included in the game primarily for comic relief, but hopefully Naughty Dog will look into controlling the ferret in the sequel that is almost sure to come.
Without a doubt, Jak and Daxter is one of the PlayStation 2's most visually impressive games. Naughty Dog constructed its own graphics engine for the game, and its power shows. The most impressive aspect of the visuals is the drawing distance. You can literally see for miles, and any object that can be seen can be ventured to if you've collected enough power cells. Effects such as heat blurring are quite convincing, as are the transparencies and particle effects used for steam or fog. In contrast to many PlayStation 2 games, the colorful worlds in Jak and Daxter are wrapped in high-resolution textures that could be the best the console has yet to offer. They give the game a nice clean look that is almost completely free of blurriness.
The art design for the game is also strong, though it's a little too familiar. Most of the comedic characters and organic settings appear to be influenced by mythology, Disney, or the age of Caesar. The oddly shaped buildings are predominantly made of stone, and the sandal-covered feet of many of the characters are bound in cloth. Perhaps the most impressive of all Jak and Daxter's graphical features is its animation. In true Disney style, not one frame of animation has been omitted, and it goes a long way toward making the characters in the game believable. Daxter, in particular, is exquisitely animated and really comes to life during the game's numerous real-time cinemas, where the game's comedic elements shine through. Apparently, Naughty Dog is simultaneously developing Jak and Daxter for both North America and Japan. Even in the Japanese version of the game, the mouths of characters are animated with precision to mock the streaming dialogue. Another impressive feat accomplished in Jak and Daxter is the fact that the game loads on the fly. When entering a new area, the game will pause for a brief moment as the next section of the game loads. It's pulled off quite well and should be a standard that all future PS2 games attempt to match. Small touches such as surprisingly frequent head tracking, impressive real-time reflections, and shadows that chase all the characters around the screen place the bow on an already impressive graphical package.
Fans of 3D platformers have been waiting for quite a while for a game like Jak and Daxter for the PlayStation 2. Naughty Dog has demonstrated that it has the ability to compete with the world's best developers in the 3D platforming genre with a game that already looks and plays quite well. If you've been yearning for a deep PlayStation 2 game that won't be completed in a weekend, keep a close eye on Jak and Daxter as its mid-December release date draws near. Look for more impressions of the game when we receive a complete build.
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