GerbilMechs 069 : Business as Usual

11Nov03 (Monthenor): Finally, the day has ended! If you recall (which you probably don't), we've been dealing with one day's worth of action since GM027. 11 months! Now it's time for tomorrow, which may last us through next November. Get ready.

My most recent GameFly conquest was Jak II. After Jak I fell over in a short 17 hours, I was expecting big things out of the sequel. After all, Penny Arcade was greatly enamored of the new game, and they are the best of modern man.

So I did my usual pre-play research on the game: I went to GameFAQs and read the two lowest-scored reviews. Not only do the low scorers pick out every single flaw in the game and enlarge it sevenfold, but they very rarely have plot spoilers. I guess they're so disgusted with the game that they want to stop talking about it as soon as possible. So I knew all about the GTA-inspired mission structure and the apparently insane difficulty.

And I agree with half of those complaints. Jak II does steal pay homage to the GTA series with the city map and mission-contact structure. You can steal hovercars and later use a jetboard to cruise around a pedestrian-rich town and wreak havoc upon the ubiquitous police force. However, where GTA had several, sometimes mutually-exclusive threads to follow, Jak II is still as linear as every platform game before it. It tries to disguise this by giving you up to three (wow!) missions to choose from at once, but the story is still too tightly integrated with the levels to give you complete freedom.

The difficulty did seem to step up from the last Jak. I rarely died in the last game, usually against the infrequent boss characters. Here my jumping errors and deaths were much more common. Actually, common doesn't begin to describe it. Your health has 8 bars, but it might as well have 4 because everything hurts/heals you for two at a time. Jumping puzzles are much harder, and as the low reviews mentioned you usually get sent back quite a ways from a slight misstep. When checkpoints are really needed, they're there, but they're almost never right where you want them. But the way these reviewers harped on it, I thought it was a game-breaking level of frustration.

Not so. True, some specific jumps can get mean after three or four trips from the last checkpoint, but they are always eminently doable with the moves you start out with. In some setpieces you can get swarmed with enemies, but by saving up a Dark Jak Bomb or skimping on vulcan ammo there's a quick way out of trouble. The difficulty is higher, but still not what I would call high.

As a comparison, I beat Jak I in 17 hours of play. Jak II said I finished with 15 hours of play, but I'm not sure if it counted all the time spent on trips that ended in death. I'm inclined to believe it did. So that means that even though the individual levels are harder, added together they have less difficulty than the first game.

In another slight misstep from the last game, the developers Naughty Dog have broken up their seamless experience in favor of larger levels. Jak I flowed completely seamlessly from one area to the next. I often found new levels just stumbling around randomly. I'd climb through a crack in a mountain or walk through an arch and bam! Suddenly the title of the level would come up, and I'd be in a fresh board with fresh challenges. Jak II attempts to do something similar, but because each separate piece is much larger and more detailed the levels are mostly broken up with very gaudy "airlock" doors. Every time you want to enter/exit a board, you must enter a small airlock area and wait for some slow gear-laden doors to open before you. I understand that this enables more detailed levels, but I don't think the term "seamless" applies, nor should people claim an unqualified lack of loading screens. Jak II simply makes the loading screens short and interactive. While the levels are much more detailed architecturally, a lot of it is made up of dead non-gameplay space. There is tons of stuff in the backgrounds that cannot be jumped or climbed upon. Gameplay-wise, if they want to build large levels like this they need to take a cue from the Tony Hawk guys and make everything "trickable".

Jak II still gets a thumbs-up. 15 hours is about perfect for a rental of this genre, and it even has (slight spoiler) a closed temporal loop! Woohoo! Just be prepared to play small sections of the game repeatedly until you attain perfection.

11Nov03 (Monthenor): ESPN2 - "When you try to win a game that's not winnable, you run the risk of losing that game."

Dear Jebus.