Jak II Might Be The Definitive Sequel
In both the good and the bad, Jak II was everything a sequel should've been and a callback to what they used to be.
Late to the Game is a bi-weekly column dedicated to exploring games of the relative and extreme past, deem if there’s something problematic or worth celebration within them and serves as a damn fine excuse to finish exploring the depths of my backlog.
Jak II reminds me a lot of how sequels used to be. Logic dictates that a successful sequel should refine what has come before while simultaneously growing in scope. This could be literally or mechanically. In Jak II’s case, it was both. Jak II is a mammoth compared to Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. It features an entire open world with challenges, NPCs, vehicles, quests and sidequests, fleshed out characters, etc. It towers over everything that the first game set out to establish by adopting tried and true formulas while shirking what didn’t work. It makes for an inconsistent game in a series that at least plays much better than its predecessor. It reeks of ambition and the drive to be something, a feeling I don’t see replicated much nowadays.
One of the biggest changes made in the transition was that Jak himself finally becomes a character albeit a wildly different one that doesn’t feel true to himself . The innocent boy of the first game is essentially killed off to pave the way for a revolutionary figure who’s kind of just an asshole with a selfish goal. It’s a characterization that fails to land on so many levels, it’s borderline offensive. The first words that character says after a whole game of trying to save the world were “I’m going to kill Praxis.” The rest of Haven City lives under so oppressive a rule, there are turrets that pop out of the ground just to gun you down and cops lockdown whole districts on a whim. Whole portions of town seemingly go without water, but Jak got magic powers so he deserves to be pissed, I guess. It’s one of the silly concessions you have to make for the game’s tone to not be off-putting as hell but is in and of itself incredibly off-putting.
Another concession was the mechanics driving the game. Jak and Daxter were never known to be the most precise series of platformers. Much as the first tried to be a really good one, it falters due to the fact that Jak’s weight paired with the precise nature of certain action like double jumps meant that he just couldn’t travel far or high enough without some help. Jak II does the smart thing in making these actions more responsive but oddly enough moves almost entirely away from anything resembling intricate platforming. The opening hours of the game certainly paint a picture of a game dominated by guns and vehicles and shows a fascination with replicating the success of some other huge game that came out a few years before. It lacks an original identity but adopts one to become something. It’s not a move I’ve always held in high esteem but it’s a move that made for a better game.
What stands before you when you play Jak II is an entirely different game that just happens to feature the same characters you’ve known and I can’t help but love every second of it despite it feeling wrong.
The conclusion I’ve come to is that a sequel should feel like an evolutionary step. If changes came in increments, games or any property that can be built on would feel predatory. The same games would keep coming out, with the assumption being that the audience would eat it up until the next installment. It’d feel like a capitalist plot or like there wasn’t design and thought put into the art. It’d feel lifeless. Somewhere along the line to where we are, the industry did become kind of lifeless. Much like Jak II, a formula was happened upon that guaranteed success and was replicated endlessly. It’s why Call of Duty games grew so popular and stagnated so quickly: there’s too little change. Everything about those games nowadays feels genetically engineered and built into the DNA of each title. If one came along at this point promising to be radically different, we’d not only laugh at the thought, but the developers would find immense difficulty in shaking off the constraints of success to seek ingenuity.
There’s an argument to be made for the familiar sequels, of course. With the burgeoning independent side of the industry comes more risk of failure or, more accurately, more diminishing chances of success. When something works, the smart move is to double down on it especially when you’re small, vulnerable and exist in a field that’s noticeably unsustainable. That’s just business sense. That almost seems like an answer for those who can’t afford to experiment though, which is odd because those are the ones who so frequently do. Drinkbox Studios made a hit with Guacamelee! nearly 5 years ago and followed it up with a niche first-person dungeon crawler that found comparatively modest success. Only now are they finally getting around to a proper sequel to their original success. Meanwhile, Activision has rounded up three development studios to develop the same game for the last decade without skipping a beat. As the people at the top of the food chain, it should be on AAA developers like Naughty Dog to push for something different and see if that finds success in order to pave the way for others. Except AAA developers don’t do that anymore and the responsibility to innovate falls on those who shouldn’t. What does this mean? Well, it means it may all be a capitalist plot after all.
I can’t help but look at Far Cry 5 as the latest example of this. Here’s a game promising to be wholly different and showing that it’s exactly the same thing. Given the subject matter it purports to address, a change felt necessary to handle it with the deft hand required. Instead, it has thus far decided to stick to the same tone and squander an opportunity to be something more. I don’t think the game will be bad and it’ll sell gangbusters but it’ll also just be the same as the last 3 entries at least and that bores the crap out of me. You changing the setting and reskinning characters tells me nothing of your ambition and everything about your penchant for paintjobs. When the game director talks about wanting the game to feel like you’re “under pressure,” I can’t help but wonder how he intends to convey that in any way other than that and feel that he should look to Jak II for example. That game took it’s new tone so seriously it erected an entirely new, incredibly hostile environment filled with NPCs ready to shoot you full of holes just to prove the point that it was entirely different. It’s not the best environment in the world but the effort is on display.
I don’t want to give the impression that Jak II is the holy grail of video games and sequels. It’s got warts for sure and they’re hideous. Not only is it tonally inconsistent, but parts of it are legitimately bad. Driving becomes your primary method of travel and next to nothing was done about the floaty physics to make that any less of a chore. Racing gets thrown into the mix and so it becomes even more of a hassle and more integral. Without an aim feature or lock-on you can toggle, you can wind up shooting at a whole bunch of nothing before a shot lands on an opponent. Most offensive and egregious of all is the bland setting compared to the sunny, natural disposition of the original game. While all of this is central to the game, some of it can come off as half-baked. What sells it however is the commitment: Jak II is exactly the different game Naughty Dog wanted it to be and it brings to mind the bolder industry gaming used to be. Jak II may be one of the best and worst sequels ever, but in a world dominated by regurgitation of lookalikes and the ideology of “same shit, different day”, it at least feels like one.