Jak is back for the third and purportedly final time in Jak 3, the conclusion to Naughty Dog's best-selling platforming franchise. Last year's Jak II turned the series right on its ear, replacing the original Jak & Daxter's verdant hills and lighthearted whimsy with a dystopian future cityscape and gameplay sensibilities reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto. The final entry in the Jak trilogy makes no such ambitious changes. This game simply builds on Jak II's winning formula by adding more weapons and abilities, varied kinds of action, and an interesting and well-told story; in short, all the stuff that made its predecessor a great game. Jak 3 offers something for any fan of action games, and despite some extreme similarities to Jak II, it's a fitting end to the series.
The last time we saw Jak and Daxter, they were fresh from a valiant turn that saw them liberating the futuristic Haven City from the tyrannical Baron Praxis and defeating Kor, the vile leader of those loathsome metalheads, in the process. Considering the heroes' welcome the pair received at the end of Jak II, you might be surprised to see that Jak and Daxter have been banished to the harsh wastelands outside of Haven City by the very citizenry they saved from certain doom. What a bunch of ungrateful snots. Apparently, a multitude of equally despicable factions moved to fill the power vacuum left in Praxis' wake. Haven City has become a battleground contested by such players as an endless army of war robots, led by Jak's old nemesis Errol (who has himself undergone a considerable cyborg retrofit); the newly regrouped metalheads, who have expanded into the city proper; and Count Veger, ostensibly a friend of the people who plans to achieve absolute peace, even if he has to destroy the entire world to get it.
Jak and Daxter are made scapegoats for this sad state of affairs, and they are summarily left to die in the desert. Luckily, they're picked up by a group of hardened but benevolent outlanders led by the wise warrior Damas, who take the pair in and allow them to stage a comeback from their own desert town. Over the course of the game, you'll run into and work with (or against) just about every character you saw in the past game--such as Samos, Keira, Ashelin, and even Pecker--and you'll make plenty of new friends and enemies, too. Before the game is over, the fate of the whole world will hang in the balance, with an impending extraterrestrial threat summoning the might of the very precursors themselves. Your journey will take you from the protective walls of Damas' wasteland stronghold back to the war-torn Haven City, out into the barren desert and even into the center of the planet. Jak 3's story does a great job of keeping the game moving along at a snappy pace. Also, the story maintains the trademark humor of the series with frequent, well-animated cutscenes and one hilarious plot twist toward the end that fans of the entire series will definitely appreciate.
Like the previous game, Jak 3 uses a sandbox-style hub system that has you operating inside a teeming city environment, accepting missions from various important characters in a mostly linear fashion to access new action levels and to drive the plot forward. Jak II took place entirely inside Haven City, but in this game, you'll move frequently between the outland citadel and Haven, first at certain story junctures and later at will. The new city is sparsely decorated, as you'd expect a beleaguered desert town to be, with nimble lizards as the preferred method of transportation and a few hardy citizens milling around their modest dwellings. Meanwhile, Haven City is being torn apart by the ongoing conflict; everywhere you go, the city's guard is clashing with the metalheads or the robot army (and sometimes both), giving you a good feeling that things truly aren't going that well for the poor people of the city. As is expected with games that use this sort of hub system these days, a small minimap marked with various icons makes it easy to figure out how to get to the next waiting character and receive your next mission to keep things moving along.
The missions themselves are where the real action comes into play, and anyone who played Jak II will feel instantly at home here. In fact, the action is essentially identical to that in the previous game. Jak still has the same assortment of basic moves, such as the spin, the dash punch, the double jump, and the ever-present butt-stomp. You've still got the same four categories of guns--shotgun, rifle, Gatling gun, and the heavy-duty peacemaker--although this time around, each gun has two upgrades that radically alter their functions. One of the rifle upgrades produces a spinning disc that sprays bullets rapidly in every direction, for instance, while the Gatling gun can be altered to spit out a potent arc of electricity. Between the standard melee attacks and the whopping 12 different guns, there are plenty of ways for you to deal with your endless stream of enemies.
That's not nearly the end of the things you can do in Jak 3's platforming levels, though. You can still transform into dark Jak, which grants you increased melee combat capabilities and a number of potent attack powers that you can pull out when the going gets especially rough. This time around, Jak will meet up with some powerful monks who grant him the ability to become light Jak, a form that specializes in defensive abilities such as slowing down time, regenerating health, utilizing a protective shield, and even using an ethereal pair of wings to achieve limited flight ability. Finally, the trusty hoverboard returns from Jak II, allowing you to zip around from place to place quickly (it also comes in quite handy in a couple of levels). At times it's actually a little tough to keep up with all of your abilities, but they're introduced evenly throughout the game and most of them can be used interchangeably, so you can pick your favorite weapons or other attack moves and switch things up whenever you want. You won't spend all of your time in regular platforming scenarios in Jak 3; not even close, in fact.
Most significantly, the game adds dune buggy driving to the already impressive stable of gameplay types from Jak II. You'll have access to a number of speedy ground vehicles, each with its own weapons and properties that you'll use to traverse the desert wastes and fight off the bandits that live there. Many of the missions require you to drive one of the dune buggies to accomplish a particular goal, so it's fortunate that the driving has a really loose, arcadelike feel that's easy to pick up after just a few minutes. You can work up some speed, fly over dunes, and powerslide around while evading enemies or racing against time. The driving missions add a good bit of variety and fun to Jak 3.
So do all of the missions that feature alternative gameplay types, for that matter. In the previous game, you spent a lot of time racing, target shooting, hoverboarding, and so on, and this game is even more intent on offering every possible kind of action you could imagine. In addition to the driving missions, for instance, you'll be in the hot seat of a rail shooter several times; you'll take control of an enemy robot walker and lay waste to the invading hordes; and you'll take to a hang glider and attempt to fly, Pilotwings-style, to the lip of a volcano. A couple of times, the game becomes a tube shooter that's similar to the classic arcade game Tempest, and one bizarre mission even has you controlling a digital Daxter in a riff on Pac-Man. Amazingly, none of these gameplay types feel contrived; they're all designed and play out well, and they help to give the game a wide range of things for you to do. If you're looking for nothing but honest-to-goodness platforming, this may not be your game; but if you appreciate all kinds of different action, Jak 3 delivers.
Like its predecessor, Jak 3 is quite a hard game, but not in a particularly cheap or unfair way. Finishing a mission on the first try is rare, as obstacles and enemies are often thrown at you faster than you can reasonably react. But once you've got the pattern or layout of a mission down, you'll typically be able to master it after a few tries. So while you may frequently take a break from the game after a muttered curse or thrown controller, you'll just as frequently come right back for one more go at whatever level you were having problems with. The feeling that results from finally beating one of the game's particularly tough missions is one of genuine satisfaction.
There are only a couple of negative things that can be said about Jak 3. For one, in terms of presentation and overall gameflow, it's remarkably similar to Jak II. If you played that game, you'll notice a number of recycled animations and sound effects here, and much of Haven City and some of the action levels are taken right out of the previous game as well (albeit with significant updates). Even the ominous little sound that plays when you fail a mission is identical. This overt similarity isn't truly damning since all these things were fine in the last game, and any "Jak 2.5" jokes aside, anyone who has enjoyed the Jak series up till now will find more of what they love in this game.
It's also not an extremely long game, though if you want to really see everything, you can tack a good number of extra hours onto the roughly 12- to 14-hour storyline. Outside of the regular missions, you can choose to play a few minor side missions, such as easter-egg hunts or timed battles, which reward you with precursor orbs that can once again be used to unlock a huge number of secrets and cheats. You can augment your weapons, unlock new dune buggies, access a level and cutscene select, view production art and character models from this and past games, and even listen to animator commentary, DVD-style, over every cutscene. There's not a whole lot of impetus to play through the single-player game again once you've finished it (especially if you've unlocked the level select). It would have been nice if there were a little more to do in the cities while you're just killing time, but the game does give you a lot of gameplay all the same.
As series veterans have come to expect, Jak 3 is a game with exceptional production values and some of the nicest visuals on the PlayStation 2. Naughty Dog continues to work its custom engine and the PS2's hardware for all they're worth, and though the visuals aren't much different from those in Jak II, they're still head and shoulders above most everything else on the platform. There are a ton of varied, organic environments on offer here, ranging from a monks' temple up in the mountains to the precursor-built catacombs beneath Haven City. Like in Jak II, there's a little bit of vertical tearing at times, which is presumably in place to keep the frame rate up, but it's not bad enough to detract from the otherwise excellent graphics. As impressive as the action scenes are, the cutscenes are of special note--Naughty Dog's animators have outdone themselves once again with the expressive, cartoonlike animations that drive the story's many amusing scenarios.
The game's voice work is just as essential in bringing the cinematic scenes to life, with professional-quality performances provided by a number of well-known voice actors. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in the game, thanks in equal part to the exaggerated animations and the humorous voice acting. The general sound design is also of high quality, though much of it is identical to the sound effects found in the previous game. Unfortunately, the music isn't particularly memorable, though none of it is bad, either.
It's a little bittersweet for diehard fans of a game series to see that series end, especially in an industry that so adores a perpetual string of sequels. But if Jak and Daxter really have to ride off into the sunset, this last game does an excellent job of serving up the sort of varied and rewarding action this series has become known for, along with its trademark humor and a storyline that wraps up nicely (and openly, in case Naughty Dog ever changes its mind) at the end. This game is a no-brainer if you're a serious Jak fan, and if you're just looking for a ton of entertaining action on the PS2, it fits your bill, as well.