Long before Naughty Dog became synonymous with The Last of Us franchise, the studio had an impressive and diverse portfolio of games. From Crash Bandicoot on the PlayStation 1 to an isometric RPG for the Genesis with a naughty intro, Naughty Dog had a range of games that showcased their creative abilities.
Jak 2 Was ‘GTA With Flying Cars,’ And Man Was It Tough
One of their most beloved trilogies was the Jak trilogy, which spanned three games on the PlayStation 2 between 2001 and 2004. What set this trilogy apart from others was that the characters aged with each game, and the tone of the game changed with them. The most significant tonal shift was between the first game, Jak and Daxter, and its sequel, Jak 2.
The original game was a vibrant 3D platformer, much like Rare’s work on the N64, with hopping around tropical islands and caves. However, the sequel took on a grittier tone, set in a dystopian world where you’re trudging through slums, factories, and islands ravaged by heavy industrialisation. You now had a gun, and you could explore an open-world city where you could do side-missions, get in trouble with the police, and steal any hovercraft you found floating about the city.
Jak was now a wanted criminal, and the game had a futurepunk twist on GTA. This aggressive change in direction between games 1 and 2 probably comes down to the GTA Fever of the time. By the time Jak 2 rolled around in 2003, both GTA 3 and Vice City had taken the PS2 by storm. These games proved that the PS2 could handle vast free-roaming city environments and also that crime does pay for a developer plucky enough to gameify it.
In hindsight, the original Jak has actually aged better than Jak 2 because 3D platformers haven’t evolved in quite the same way that open-world games have. The game’s difficulty was relentless, from driving a craft over to a garage on the other side of town within a certain time limit to completing levels in a single run.
The game was maddening, yet also kind of compelling. Love it or hate it; there’s no denying that Jak 2 was ballsy. It was as ballsy as if, say, Rockstar had decided to make GTA: Vice City a 3D platformer.
Way before Naughty Dog became ‘The Studio of Perpetual Last of Us Re-releases,’ it actually had a pretty diverse portfolio. There was Crash Bandicoot on PS1, there was a derpy digitised fighting game called Way of the Warrior in 1994, and even an isometric RPG for the Genesis with a very naughty intro.
A little more recently however, there was the well loved ‘Jak’ trilogy, spanning three PS2 games between 2001 and 2004. What was interesting about this trilogy is that instead of immortalising its protagonists—the pointy-eared human Jak, and his ‘ottsel’ (that’s weasel + otter) friend Daxter—the characters actually aged with each game, and the tone of the game changed with them.
The most drastic tonal leap in the Jak trilogy, however, was between the first game, Jak and Daxter, and its sequel Jak 2. Where the original game was a vibrant 3D platformer very much in the lineage of Rare’s work on the N64—your Banjo-Kazooie’s and your Conkers—the sequel took on a grittier tone, set in a grimy dystopian world where instead of hopping around tropical islands and caves glimmering with blue crystals, you’re trudging through slums, factories, and islands ravaged by heavy industrialisation.
Oh, and you now had a gun, and between all the levels you could explore an open-world city where you could do side-missions, get in trouble with the police, and steal any hovercraft (sorry, ‘zoomer’) you found floating about the city.
And Jak was now a wanted criminal, because it’s 2003, and that was suddenly a cool thing to be in a game.
Off the back of that description, you’ve probably made the leap by now (if the title didn’t give it away) that this basically sounds like a kind of futurepunky twist on GTA. That connection is almost certainly not a coincidence, and all you need to do is look at the timeline to see that the aggressive change in direction between games 1 and 2 probably comes down to the GTA Fever of the time. By the time Jak 2 rolled around in 2003, both GTA 3 and Vice City had taken the PS2 by storm. These games proved that the PS2 could handle vast free-roaming city environments, and also that crime does pay for a developer plucky enough to gameify it. Of course, you wouldn’t find Naughty Dog mentioning GTA in their ‘Making Of’ mini-documentary included on a PS2 demo disc at the time, but we all knew what was up.
Jak 2 was a fascinating, if at times jarring, tonal shift between a game and its sequel. In fact, the only comparable shift like this that I can recall was between the cartoony Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and its moody, brooding sequel, Warrior Within.
In hindsight, I think the original Jak has actually aged better than Jak 2, because 3D platformers haven’t evolved in quite the same way that open-world games have, and today the illusory nature of Jak 2’s city—the fact that it’s really just a labyrinth of corridors, with not much in the way of interaction within it—feels more palpable. Also, those hovercraft were a nightmare to control.
That brings me onto the game’s difficulty, which was relentless. One of the earliest missions in the game (which you don’t have to do this early, but also have no reason not to do this early) tasks you with driving a craft over to a garage on the other side of town within a certain time limit—because boy did those early free-roaming games love arbitrary time limits! Unless you did this without a single wrong turn or bump, it was nigh-on impossible to complete; in fact, I still don’t know if that mission was possible to complete at that point in the game. What the game doesn’t tell you is that if you go off and do some other missions first, those will actually unlock a section in the middle of the city that makes that garage race way more manageable.
To this day, I’ve no idea why that garage race (a race against no one but the clock, to be clear) was even available at that point in the game when it only becomes realistically completable later on. I can only chalk it down to general inexperience with this new-fangled open-worldish stuff that developers were only starting to dabble in at the time. Maybe leaving undoable missions around the world was in some macabre way seen as part of the freedom. Who knows what was going through 2003 Jason Rubin’s mind.
The difficulty extended to the levels themselves however. Accessed through teleports and passageways off of the main city, you’d dive into more traditional 3D platforming levels, which had some rather, shall-we-say, ‘variable’ approaches to checkpoints. While some missions had checkpoints, others would force you to complete them in a single runand upon death would chuck you back to the start of the level; you know that nice thing modern 3D platformers do when you fall of an edge and they respawn you just before that point with a bit of your health missing? Nah, forget it. In Jak 2, if you fall, you fail.
The game never really lets up—from that garage run, to a mission where you’re fleeing from a tank, and another one where enemies are pretty much raining down on you from dropships, Jak 2’s difficulty was often as oppressive as its bleak environment; the cheery innocence of the first game kept up only through the excellent writing and banter from the leading pair. It was maddening, yet also kind of compelling.
But love it or hate it (for me, it was an aggressive mix of the two), there’s no denying that Jak 2 was ballsy. About as ballsy as if, say, Rockstar had decided to make GTA: Vice City a 3D platformer.
NEXT: 5 Best Video Game Series That Never Left The PlayStation 2