I just finished Jak 3, for the PS2. I didn’t play either of the first two games in the series, despite their getting generally quite good reviews: the first one was a platformer, whose only apparent distinguishing feature (as far as I could tell from reviews) was that the main characters had more “attitude” than, say, Mario. Which I have nothing against, but I was (and am) pretty burned out on platformers, and I’m looking for game design advances that go beyond simply updating a genre to appeal to 14-year-olds instead of 8-year-olds.

The reviews for the second episode didn’t make much of an impression on me, either. But by the third one its gameplay style had apparently changed pretty seriously; its gameplay was much more GTA-style than platformer. At the time this game came out, I hadn’t played any of the GTA games, and felt uncultured because of that; Jak 3 seemed like a way to get exposed to the genre while still being allowed to play the game with Miranda watching.

And Jak 3 was a lot of fun! It’s one mission after another, constantly switching between genres, so you never get bored. The segmentation between missions is very subdued, so you’re constantly in the middle of action. (Impressively little in the way of load times, too.) And the action is very well balanced indeed: I frequently found myself dying, but my reaction to dying was almost never to get frustrated or to reach for an online guide, but to try that segment over and over again until I got it right. Which is pretty rare for me these days: I’ve lost my patience with games that have gameplay that I find gratuitously difficult, but gameplay where I feel like I’m getting better and am about to get past the trouble at hand is quite another matter.

So: you have my blessing to go out and buy the game; the fact that I’ve only written one paragraph about its virtues and am about to start kvetching about it doesn’t mean that it’s not quite good, it just means that its (relatively slight) flaws trigger more thoughts than its positive features do.

The cities in it are rather too linear for my tastes. In GTA, the cities have a big mesh of interconnecting roads, just like cities in the real world do. In Jak‘s cities, though, there’s basically only one path from any place to any other place. The game does use this design to its advantage – the more urban city (it’s not a good sign that I can’t remember the names of the cities, is it?) is segmented into parts that you open up after certain missions, for example, allowing the scope of your travels to gradually expand. And it keeps you busy enough with missions that you don’t have the linearness of the cities rubbed in your face. Nonetheless, it is a flaw: we’ve gotten trained to expect and enjoy wide-open maps.

As I said above, the game keeps you moving from mission to mission, but sometimes you’d like to spend time just exploring. And there is something for you to do at times like that: there are these kiosks all over the maps (for no apparent reason) that give you mini-challenges. If you complete them, you can upgrade your abilities a bit; it’s quite possible to do just fine in the game without completing them, but it’s a nice bonus if you do.

The flip side is that it’s a good thing that it’s quite possible to do well without completing the kiosks, because some of them (in particular, the ones that I happened to try first) are really tedious. They show you a spot on the map, and give you a 15-second timer to get there. Which might be fun if locations on maps had a bit more interesting visual differentiation between locations; as it is, though, all I knew was that I had to travel in a random direction for 15 seconds, and while the maps are linear, they aren’t quite linear enough to narrow the search space enough to make those challenges anything but tedious. Fortunately, not all the kiosk challenges were like that: some of them were fun platforming or racing challenges. But I got off on a bad foot with those challenges, and it took me a while before I gave them a second chance.

You have lots and lots of moves in the game: 12 different guns, a couple of different hand-to-hand attacks, 4 dark powers, 4 light powers. I can imagine a game that used that variety in order to give you a set of interesting tradeoffs at all times (though it would be hard to do); unfortunately, many of the moves I either almost never used or used only in one place (right after I acquired it) where it was essential. I would have prefered fewer choices, with more situations where you’d use each move, and where a higher percentage of your moves would be interestingly applicable in any situation.

Some of the gameplay elements were a bit much. I’m trained to accept wandering monsters as a staple of video games, but even so, having a desert that is chock full of cars which are swarming to attack you yet so weak that you can defeat dozens of them without breaking a sweat was a bit much. If the monsters had been a bit less realistic, I wouldn’t have minded (and, indeed, I didn’t mind the non-car wandering monsters elsewhere in the game that die in a similar profusion), but something about those desert cars just bugged me.

Decent plot; certainly not as intricate as, say, GTA: San Andreas, or a good RPG, but not bad for a series with platformer roots.

I’m not sure what I think about all of the race-like segments where you have to go from one ring to the next in a fixed number of seconds. It’s not a bad gameplay idea, but I wouldn’t have minded some more traditional races as well.

A good length: I’m quite happy to have played through the whole game, but I’m also happy that it didn’t drag the game out by overusing gameplay elements.

Anyways: good game, I’m glad I played it, and Miranda enjoyed watching me play it.

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