Sean takes a look at the core games from a series that captivated a generation
The Jak and Daxter trilogy on the PlayStation 2 was one of the formative staples of my childhood. With no shame whatsoever I fondly recall picking Dark Jak from Jak 2 as my choice for the obligatory “pretend you’re this character” game on the school playground, diving around and spinning with my arms outstretched. Of course I’ve grown up a bit since then and no longer pretend I’m Dark Jak (in public), but if there’s one thing that certainly hasn’t changed since those days it’s my love for the series. Well, I guess that’s mostly nostalgia speaking, considering it’s actually been a few years since I’ve played them. Does the trilogy still hold up? Is there validity to the ‘I wish Naughty Dog would revisit the franchise’ comments? Does Daxter ever get those pants he so desperately desires? Well, let’s find out.
JAK AND DAXTER: THE PRECURSOR LEGACY
Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was released in 2001 on the PS2. Naughty Dog had already proven their worth as crafters of colourful platformers with plenty of heart with the successful Crash Bandicoot series, so it came as no surprise that the first Jak game was great. The seemingly seamless open world with wonderful characters and a decent level of challenge captured the imagination of players all over the world, and even 20 years later The Precursor Legacy remains a solid platformer that’s still a joy to play. The controls are responsive, and jumping and rolling about the levels is as intuitive as ever.
The game is a collectathon, which means you’ll be picking up plenty of floating orbs and completing level-specific objectives to earn power cells, which are the game’s main collectible. None of these are too difficult, but sometimes it can be grating when you miss a single orb along the way somewhere and then have to spend a good while trying to find it.
Granted the graphics and character models are a bit dated, but that’s to be expected considering its release date. In fact, I’d argue that the more primitive character models work in the game’s favour as it grants the experience a certain charm that would not be possible if The Precursor Legacy had pursued a more realistic style.
Jak is a mute which means he has to convey his thoughts and feelings via expressions and actions, a decision I’m not entirely sure paid off since he’s not very interesting here. His design is great, though. The duo is mostly carried by Daxter, his accidentally-transformed-into-an-Ottsel partner whose irreverent personality and frequent humorous comments really endeared me to the character. I’ve seen many comments deriding Daxter for being annoying in the series, but I love him!
The first half of the game is by far the strongest, with a nice variety in level design and objective lists. You’ll visit a serene beach that just oozes a warm summer vibe, then delve into a forest of threatening flora. You’ll dive deep underwater to a lost Precursor city and then fight a giant lava monster. None of the levels overstay their welcome and the game’s brisk pace keeps things moving along without dragging.
The second half of the game is significantly less enjoyable, though. The third hub area—‘Volcanic Crater’— is a chore to navigate, requiring Jak to stand on slow-moving mine carts. The objectives in the hub areas mostly boil down to ‘get me a certain amount of orbs and I will give you a power cell’, which starts to get tedious. Even the levels grow a bit less fun with ‘Spider Cave’, in particular, being significantly more irritating to traverse and complete all the objectives. I’m not saying this part of the game is bad, but there’s a noticeable drop in quality during the transition to the latter half.
As far as the story goes, it’s not super compelling and mostly just serves to accommodate the land-hopping gameplay. The main motivation behind the adventure is to find a sage that can restore Daxter to his human (elf?) form, but not much beyond that. The lore behind the ancient Precursors and the technology they left behind is certainly interesting though, and it would be greatly expanded upon in the sequels.
Jak 2 was released in 2003, in the wake of the genre-defining Grand Theft Auto 3. Looking to significantly shake up the formula and capture some of that open-world magic, Naughty Dog shifted the franchise from a cheerful, cartoony platformer to a grim, more edgy cartoony platformer… with guns! Seen as something of a controversial twist that divided the fanbase into camps of ‘it’s way cooler now’ and ‘they ruined the series, I prefer the way it used to be.’ Personally, I veer more towards the former but I can’t exactly blame people for not taking too kindly to the direction the franchise went. Regardless of the response, Jak 2 still exists regardless, and now sits comfortably as my favorite of the trilogy. Perhaps it was because I was eight years old at the time of release and didn’t quite have the critical thinking part of my brain shaped yet, but I had no problems whatsoever with the drastic shift.
Jak 2 still retains the same controls as The Precursor Legacy. You can run, jump, punch, spin, and roll but now with the addition of being able to shoot guns and drive hovercars around. The Precursor Legacy already featured vehicular sections with the Zoomer, but the sequel expanded them to be a major component of the game.
Gone is the interconnected series of areas with colourful and charming backdrops, replaced with the sprawling dystopian Haven City that acts as the centerpiece to a bunch of offshoot areas that you return to once or twice. The driving can be hit or miss, with navigation through Haven City being a challenge in and of itself, with the number of obstacles to weave through. They control just fine though, it just requires finesse to traverse the world without bumping into something every three seconds. You’ll be backtracking through the city a lot, with repeated visits to certain levels which probably accounts for most of the time spent in-game. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot to do in the city itself apart from some side missions to earn precursor orb rewards, which comes as a bit of a disappointment to those who enjoyed exploring in The Precursor Legacy. The levels are pretty fun though, with some nice variety. Since the game has more of a grey, harsher industrial look to it than the first game you can expect to see a lot of similar styles in the mines, factories, and ruins you visit.
In the first game, Jak could only punch and spin enemies with the occasional yellow eco blast thrown in. In 2, he is armed with the morph gun: a pretty self-explanatory weapon that can be configured with four different mods via the d-pad that changes the way it works. There’s a shotgun, a blaster rifle, a rapidly firing machine gun, and an energy ball; with each configuration suiting a different situation. The game doesn’t let you manually aim the gun, so engaging in ranged combat involves having to position Jak and let the auto-aim take care of the rest. It works most of the time, but can occasionally be fiddly and awkward especially when flying enemies are involved.
Aside from the controversial shift, Jak 2 is infamous for another thing: difficulty. Most discussions involving the series tend to involve the difficulty of the second game in one way or another, and it’s easy to see why. Jak 2’s levels have a drastically reduced amount of checkpoints in comparison to its predecessor, with some missions having absolutely none at all. Couple this with Jak’s relatively skimpy amount of health and missions that would otherwise be straightforward are turned into sometimes grueling slogs that punish mistakes and set you right back to the start. I do feel that the overwhelming difficulty has been exaggerated, though. I mean, I do not recall struggling all that much when I played it as a child, and even on my most recent playthrough, I didn’t spend more than three attempts on any mission.
The lack of checkpoints can cause some missions to drag out and lead to frustration, but not a single part of this game was as frustrating as certain sections of Jak 3, which we’ll get to soon. Another major crippling flaw is the fact that morph gun ammo does not refresh upon a game over and retry, which can lead to even more annoyance when you find yourself in a particularly challenging mission with barely any ammo. These questionable design choices lead to Jak 2 being almost needlessly difficult in places.
A new feature that ultimately falls short is ‘Dark Jak’, a transformation that came as a result of Jak being tortured and experimented on with copious amounts of dark eco. By collecting dark eco drops and filling a gauge on the HUD, Jak can transform into an evil-looking version of himself that has increased strength and mobility when attacking but lacks the ability to use firearms. It certainly looks cool and is fun to use, but it suffers from taking too long to charge up, and just generally being inferior to the firearm-toting vanilla Jak. Additional powers can be unlocked for Dark Jak such as an AOE attack and invulnerability, but these are extremely situational and cannot be reliably used since the form takes so long to charge up.
There’s more going on with the story this time around, and Jak actually speaks now! He’s in a very bad mood thanks to the circumstances that he finds himself in and is quick to let everyone know it. He and Daxter share equal amounts of sass and snark now, and it’s wonderful to see. Their friendship is one of the strongest aspects of the series’ narrative, and though they bicker occasionally, they’ll always have each other’s backs and rush straight into the action to kick some ass. There’s a lot more intrigue surrounding the plot and the characters that inhabit it, with various factions vying for power and providing insight into the world they inhabit. Standouts include Krew, a morbidly obese crime lord, Baron Praxis, a power-hungry despot who is willing to win the war at all costs, and Sig, a hardened mercenary decked out in skeleton armor. Badass.
Despite its occasionally frustrating parts, Jak 2 solidified itself as my favorite of the trilogy thanks to its characters, fun missions, and gameplay that’s still tight and responsive. The aforementioned flaws such as lack of ammo and checkpoints (amongst other things) keep this game from being flawless, and I couldn’t begrudge anyone for finding it a bit too much. Whenever I found myself being challenged I just had to steel my nerves and push through, which was always rewarding when I succeeded.
Released in 2004, just a year after Jak 2, Jak 3 is the final game in the main trilogy not counting spinoffs. It’s a bigger, badder entry with more gameplay and mission variety than its predecessors, but as I came to realise while playing through it, those aren’t all necessarily good things. I’ll get straight to the point here, I don’t think Jak 3 is as good as either of the two games that came before it. It’s still a high-quality game that acts as an explosive finale for the beloved series but along the way, there were so many oddities and annoyances that by the end, I was left feeling extremely mixed on Jak 3.
I’ll get the positives out of the way first. Jak 3 continues the series tradition of having overall great gameplay with intuitive controls that never feel unresponsive or wonky (on foot, anyway). Jak’s design here is great, and the friendship he has with Daxter is once again on full, wonderful display. This time around sees Jak and a bulk of the environments with a fresh lick of Mad Max-inspired paint, and it works very well. The environments are more varied and interesting to look at than those of the second game, and the new additions to the morph gun are a lot of fun to play around with.
The game is split between two main areas: the city of Spargus with its large wasteland, and the returning Haven City which has now become a warzone. Spargus itself marks an interesting shift from the grey industrial dystopia of Haven, with its more grizzled aesthetic and population of hardened gun-toting civilians. Following the events of Jak 2, Haven City has fallen to a constant state of battle, with the Freedom League (the Krimzon Guard turned good), Metal Heads, and KG Death Bots battling it out in the streets. I love environmental continuity in video games, and returning to the familiar streets I’d already spent hours in now in such a state of ruination was a great experience.
Jak still has access to Dark Jak, but it’s not too far into the game when he unlocks a new power in the form of Light Jak. This new transformation is mainly focused on utilizing its abilities for traversal, such as slowing down time or covering large distances with the help of angel-like wings. Both forms are equally visually striking, and I can’t fault the design at all. I especially love the smug pose Jak assumes when in Light mode, with his arms behind his back like that.
Unfortunately, despite getting a lot of things right, Jak 3 suffers from a handful of issues that only expands as the game goes on. A significant portion of Jak 3’s missions take place in the large desert wasteland outside Spargus City, and if you thought the driving in Jak 2 was poor then you’re in for a rude awakening. Rather than flying hover cars and zoomers, the desert is traversed in dune buggies of different sizes and weapon capabilities. You’ll be collecting artifacts, clearing out Metal Head nests, and battling marauders during your time here, which sounds like an exciting excursion but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
The cars don’t control very well at all, the environment is littered with uneven terrain and enemies that can send your vehicle careening at the slightest touch. It makes desert missions incredibly frustrating to complete, especially when they’re timed. The final boss fight in particular was an exercise in tedium and managing mounting irritation levels, and by the end, I was left feeling not satisfaction or joy, but just gratitude that the ordeal was over.
The story has some interesting twists and likable characters, but the antagonists fall a bit flat. First, there’s Count Veger, who is introduced as a high-ranking member of the Haven City Council and the one who banished Jak to the wasteland. We’re meant to hate him for what he’s done and as he shows up throughout the game it’s clear he has an agenda that he pursues which we’re meant to oppose, but the fact that we’ve never heard of him until now really makes it difficult to buy his presence as the antagonist. If he’d been established in the previous game then maybe it would have made his actions more impactful, but that certainly didn’t help villain number 2, the returning Erol.
In Jak 2 Erol was presented as a hotheaded commander of the Krimzon Guard and something of a rival to Jak, with them both vying for Keira. In Jak 3 he’s just sort of an evil cyborg who has managed to ally himself with Metal Heads and the new Dark Maker foes, whilst retaining command over the KG Death Bots. He’s not a particularly interesting antagonist either, and anything that might have made him more fleshed out such as his rivalry from 2 is gone, replaced with a megalomaniacal power-hungry cyborg who wants to destroy the world.
Finally, there are the Dark Makers, who are described as being the corrupted form of ancient Precursors that travel the stars and destroy planets. They’re little more than hired goons who work with Erol and don’t exactly make much of an impact.
Dark Jak is once again not very useful, but now you’re able to quickly shift in and out of it without needing a full gauge of dark eco. It gets some new abilities in the form of invisibility and a dark blast, but these are extremely situational, limited to a handful of environmental obstacles in the game and never really used for combat. It’s a similar situation with Light Jak, unfortunately. The new powers are cool to see and add some fun platforming sections, but it’s never really useful outside of the dedicated parts of the game which require them. The most useful power is Light Jak’s healing ability, but that rolls over into my next issue.
The game is far too easy. In what I can only imagine was a response to the backlash surrounding Jak 2’s difficulty, Naughty Dog did a bit of course overcorrection in Jak 3. Jak’s health bar is much bigger and expands throughout the adventure, and with the ability to heal thrown into the mix you’re far less likely to die. There are plenty of checkpoints now which is a welcome change, but I think that the developers went a bit overboard with adjusting the difficulty to the point it gets a bit dull to play. The new weapon upgrades are great which I previously stated, but they’re almost too good and there’s not really any reason to use anything other than the Beam Reflexor which causes shots to bounce off walls and clear rooms with ease. Combat encounters get a bit trickier later on with the addition of shielded enemies, but that satisfying challenge of succeeding in a nail-biting combat gauntlet in Jak 2 is long gone. I can’t blame Naughty Dog for wanting to adjust the difficulty since the last game but I feel they went just a bit overboard here.
So Are They Still Worth Playing?
The Jak and Daxter trilogy is still accessible to anybody who owns the last three generations of Playstation consoles. The HD collection on PS3 has the best visuals and most consistent performance, but the port of the PS2 versions released on the PS4 and PS5 is more easily available. These ports suffer issues both in visuals and performance, but I personally did not find them blatant enough to ruin my overall experience.
The trilogy is well worth revisiting today, as they are still three solid platformers with plenty of heart and gameplay that has aged remarkably (mostly). The Precursor Legacy is a simple and fun platformer that oozes charm and harkens back to the simpler days of collectathons. Jak 2 is an edgier, more mature action game that’s challenging and sometimes a bit unfair, but the story and mission variety keep it feeling fresh and fun if you’re able to tolerate the design choices that keep you on edge. Jak 3 is more of the same sort of gameplay as Jak 2 but drastically toned down in terms of difficulty, and an expansion on the features introduced before. If you can put up with the awful desert missions and some of the other lackluster additions then it’s still a great game to play, just not as good as the two before it. Compared to the action-adventure platformers of today with their elaborate environmental traversal sections and indulgent setpieces the Jak series may feel a bit more basic, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had if you get the urge to revisit the trilogy.
Sean Hollyman is an avid fan of action figures, videogames and sometimes other things too. When he's not labourously trying to earn platinum trophies for games that he otherwise probably wouldn't care about, Sean can often be found taking photos of his Transformers in embarrassing situations.
Favorite Food: Roast Dinner
Least Favorite Food: ANYTHING with mayonnaise in it